Dasain (Dashain) or Mohani is the largest, longest and most important festival in Nepal (Gellner 148; Levy 523; Bista 12). Throughout South Asia, the Dasain festival is also known as the Durga Puja or Navaratras and is a distinctly Hindu festival. In Nepal, Dasain festivals are ritually pluralistic, mostly filled with Hindu traditions while incorporating Buddhism and maintaining indigenous ancestor worship, animism, local myths, beliefs and practices that are prominent within different regions of Nepal (Fisher 112; Campbell 232). The heterogeneity of different beliefs and practices that take place during Dasain exemplifies the diversity of Hindu traditions throughout Nepal (Fisher 110). In the Kathmandu Valley, Newars celebrate Dasain as a religious holiday centred around animal sacrifice and the worship of mandalic goddesses; festivities are filled with indigenous ancestor worship mixed with Hindu practices (Levy 525). In other areas of Nepal, Dasain can be seen predominantly as a national holiday, scattered with religious customs from Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. Others tie Dasain festivals more to agricultural celebrations, with festivities converging upon the end of the monsoon season and the completion of harvesting rice crops, and some groups choose to follow secular customs of socializing and feasting, rejecting anything religious in nature (Levy 523; Savada 82; Allen 320; Fisher 112).
Dasain festivals in Nepal take place at the end of the monsoon season and at the end of the harvesting of rice, around the September new moon and the October full moon, depending on the region. Dasain festivities last anywhere from ten to fifteen days and are celebrated by all caste groups (jats) (Teilhet 81; Chamberlain 2001: ii & 4; Savada 12; Fisher 112). Dasain festival activities and rituals symbolize the importance of agriculture, fertility, family, and the power of royalty and lineage (Gellner 148; Bista 27). Preparations for Dasain begin several weeks before festivities start; houses are cleaned, walls whitewashed and even re-plastered (Iltis 122; Fisher 124; Chamberlain 2001: 4). In Bhaktapur, where the Nava Durga (Nine Durgas) celebration of masks is performed during Dasain, masks are prepared months in advance and preparation requires commissioning priests who recite mantras and perform ritual worship (puja), so that materials can be found and masks can be fabricated (Teihet 85-91). For those celebrating Dasain as a spiritual/religious festival, among Hindus this is a very auspicious time celebrating the victory of the Great Goddess Durga over the buffalo demon (Chamberlain 2002: 28; Savada 60). In keeping with the Hindu traditions of Dasain, each day of the festival is named after one of the Nine Durgas; the myth of Durga’s defeat against the buffalo demon is told through stories, songs, and dramatizations each day throughout the festival (Teilhet 81; Chamberlain 2001: 5).
The paramount version of this story is found in the Devi Mahatmya; it is believed that demons once terrorized the world and Durga was born through the union of male deities such as Siva, Visnu, and Brahma who were unsuccessful at stopping the demons. Consolidation of these male deities’ energies, led to the conception of Durga. Through her multiple manifestations, Durga defeated the demons, including the great buffalo demon (Mahishasura) (Chamberlain 2001: 5). Dasain festivities and the telling of the myth celebrate Durga as the ultimate source, the mother of the universe who liberated the people, and it is believed that listening to the recitation of the myth will free one from mental, physical and emotional suffering (Chamberlain 2001: 4-6). Each day of the festival is named after, and dedicated to, one of the nine Durgas. Each manifestation is a representation of Durga; they are: Brahmani, Mahesvari, Kumari, Vaisnavi, Varahi, Indrani, Mahakali, Mahalaksmi and Tripurasundari (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 155). Each of the nine goddesses also represents one of nine plant forms; the plant that embodies the goddess that is worshiped that day is used in many rituals to appeal for her protection (Chamberlain 2002: 29). The Nine Durgas are also connected to each of the nine planets in the solar system; worship of these goddesses helps to protect the people of Nepal from negative cosmic influences (Chamberlain 2002: 29). All nine days of the Dasain festival are also divided into three sets: day one through three are devoted to Durga’s creativity, the next three to Laksmi, representing Durga’s beauty and abundance, and the last three days are devoted to Kali, representing death and transformation (Chamberlain 2002: 29).
Within the Kathmandu Valley, Hindu practices and traditions of Dasain are permeated with indigenous beliefs. The Newar Dasain festivals are a complex sequence of events centred around dangerous goddesses (Levy 523). The entire ten day festival is a dramatization of the story of Devi (Durga), with astrological significance, temple worship and a procession to different pithas of the Nine Mandalic Goddesses around the city (Levy 531 & 155). On the first day of Dasain, barley sprouts are planted, and Brahmani is worshiped. A procession takes place as individuals leave their homes to visit the pitha of the goddess Brahmani; within homes and temples puja is performed offering grains, rice and flowers (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 525). Barley is planted in clay pots; in other areas, it is planted on the floors of special rooms (Nala) set aside for Dasain where special puja takes place (Levy 527). Astrological attention is given in the timing of the planting of the barley, which is planted at the most auspicious time. In the Taleju temples of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, planting the barley is governed by the Royal Astrologer (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 527). Barley symbolizes the importance of the peoples’ connection to agriculture and is representative of the goddess Durga’s generative properties. The first day of planting is called the Ghata-sthapana (installation of the sacred vessel); on the following days of Laksmi, which represents abundance, the barley leaves will become visible and on the tenth day, the day of victory, tika (red mark on forehead) paste is made from the barley leaves (Puri 7; Bista 94). Days two through six are similar to the first day, with processions going to a new worship site where a new mandalic goddess is worshiped. Following morning worship rituals, Bhagavati (Durga) is worshipped in homes and then everyone goes about their daily activities (Levy 531). During the last four days of the Dasain festival, festivities and rituals escalate; day seven sees special temple preparations being made at the Taleju temple for the festivities that will take place on day eight. The first goat is sacrificed on day seven by a chief Brahmin and there is a procession honouring an image that represents the importance of lineage and royalty (Levy 533). The eighth day is the beginning of devotion of Kali; representations of the battle are performed, and what is known as the “bloody night of sacrifice” takes place; many goats, chickens and buffalo are sacrificed, and later feasted on during the celebration of the transformation on the tenth day (Levy 534; Bista 60).
At the Taleju temple, one hundred and eight buffalo are sacrificed in honour of the Goddess Durga and her victory over Mahisasura; sacrificing the buffalo also epitomizes two days of great battles that were fought. The story of these battles is recounted on this day from the Devi Mahatmya (Levy 534; Chamberlain 2002: 29-30). Goats, buffalo and other animals must be sacrificed with a single blow to the top of the neck; the blood of these animals is then splattered on different icons representing the Great Goddess, around the floors of the temple and on special ritual clothing (Levy 337; Gellner 341-42). With participation in reenactments of Durga’s battles and the worship of the nine manifestations of Durga, individuals become, hypothetically, the deity themselves (Levy 563). Sacrifices continue into day nine, the day centered around the worship of Tripurasundari, who is full creator deity, symbolizing the culmination of the Nine Durgas. In the evening of day nine, people make offerings of flowers and will view the masks of the Nine Durgas, which illustrates their reappearance after a long sleep (Levy 539). Day nine is also dedicated to the worship of Kumari (maiden goddess); a young girl representing the Kumari makes a public appearance and she receives offerings from the people, is worshiped by the people, and they receive prasada (gift) from her (Levy 542). In Bhaktapur, the Kumari is worshiped, by worshipping all young girls of premenstrual age at the “living Kumari”; making it possible for there to be more than one Kamari in each home. These young girls of premenstrual age are worshiped are not worshiped as themselves but are seen as “vehicles [that] bring the Goddess Kumari to the homes of the people” (Levy 540).
Day ten is a very auspicious day, on this day large feasts, drinking, and gambling festivities, that have been going on since the beginning of Dasain, escalate in nature (Bista 117). On this day, families travel and meet in the homes of senior family members, married women return to their paternal homes and the younger generations are given tika and blessed by senior members (Manadhar 7). Tiak, a red past which is placed on the forehead and blesses individual with abundance, is given by a senior male to his family, and is seen as a way to help build respect for senior generations from younger generations (Mandhar 7; Gaenszle 361). The giving of tika is also seen as a celebration of royal power and hierarchy within the lineages of the people of Nepal. The King is given tika by the priests and the King will give tika to his people as well (Gellner 147). Tika is just one representation of how Dasain legitimizes hierarchical power; power is also shown by Durga shrines being placed in all police stations (Gellner 147). Dasain celebrations are just one attempt through ritual and practice to form national unity based on lineage and power; this has recently lead to groups within Nepal who do not identify as Hindu to oppose the Dasain festival.
Along with the major Hindu traditions of Dasain, there are many secular traditions as well. Dasain, for many, is a time for families to be re-united; it is a celebration of the end of a very difficult harvest season and a holiday filled with rest and relaxation (Savada 117; Allen 317 & 405). People purchase and wear their best clothing throughout the festival, but in most regions the last few days of Dasain sees an increase in festivities that include larger feasts, gambling, kite flying, fairs, making flower garlands, putting up swings and the cooking of special foods (Levy 525; Fisher 112; Allen 317). Everyone tries to go home for Dasain, shops close and business stops for the duration of the festival; people travel to visit with relatives and pay respects to ancestors. Gifts are also exchanged with family members (Chamberlain 4). In Western Nepal, the Thakali perform rituals that include features from Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. However, Dasain celebrations tend to be less about religious practices and more of a national holiday. The Thakali clean in preparation for the festival just as other jats do, but the focus is on family and feasting (Fisher 112 & 124). For the Thulung there is an intense agricultural presence to the Dasain festivities; it is a celebration of a long harvest coming to an end (Allen 317). Feasting, cleaning homes, making garland flowers, preparing special meals, drinking, gambling and family are the most important practices, while adhering to the general constructs of Hindu practices (Gaenszle 362). Some groups in Nepal, like the Yakha, have four main days of public ritual that include slaying of model animals that are made of fruits and vegetables with straw, the straw representing the swords used in battle. Animal sacrifice still takes place, and to protect the home, a small boy from each household places his hands and feet in the blood of a sacrificed animal. He is, then, carried to his home and his hand and foot prints are placed in blood on the entrance to the home as protection (Russell 342). Throughout Nepal, it is easy to see inter-group similarities and differences within the practices, rituals and festivities of Dasain (Russell 331). For those who take part in the festival, it is the prime festival of the year. Whether Dasain symbolizes harvest, fertility, power, national unity, or religiosity, it remains one of the largest and longest celebrated festivals of Nepal.
References and Further Recommended Readings
Allen, N. J. (1997) “Hinduization The Experience of the Thulung Rai.” In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 303-323. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.
Bista, Dor Bahadur (1972) People of Nepal. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar.
Campbell, Ben (1997) “The Heavy Loads of Tamang Identity.” In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 205-235. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.
Chamberlain, Laura K (2002) “Durga and the Dashain harvest festival from the Indus to Kathmandu Valleys.” ReVision 25, no. 1.
Chamberlain, Laura K (2001) “Embodying the Goddess Durga: A Pilgrimage to the Mother Goddess of Paradox.” Master’s thesis, California Institute of Integral Studies.
Fisher, William (2001) Fluid Boundaries: Forming and Transforming Identity in Nepal. New York: Columbia.
Gaenszle, Martin (1997) “Changing Concepts of Ethnic Identity Among the Mewahang Rai.” In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 351-378. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.
Gellner, David N (1999) “Religion, politics, and ritual. Remarks on Geertz and Bloch.” Social Anthropology, 7(02), 135-153.
Iltis, Linda L (1980) “An Ethnohistorical Study of Bandipur.” Contributions to Nepalese Studies, 8(1), 81-145.
Levy, Robert (1990) Mesocosm. Berkeley: University of California.
Manandhar, Tina (n.d.) “Digu Puja: A Ritual to Revitalize Family Among the Newars.” Tribhuvan University.
Puri, K (2014) “Being a Hindu in a multicultural context of Stavanger, Norway.” Master’s thesis, The School of Mission and Theology.
Russell, Andrew (1997) “Identity Management and Cultural Change: The Yakha of East Nepal.” In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 325-350. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic Publishers.
Savada, Andrea M (1993) Nepal and Bhutan: Country Studies. Washington, D.C: Government Publishing.
Teilhet, Jehanne H. (1978) “The Tradition of the Nava Durga in Bhaktapur, Nepal.” Journal of Himalayan Studies 6, 81-98.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
The Devi Mahatmya
Nava Durga (Nine Durgas)
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Erin Davis (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.