Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country with a small but significant Buddhist minority. Sandwiched between India to the south, west, and east, and China and Tibet to the north, Nepali culture contains elements of its neighboring countries' customs, as well as that are uniquely Nepali. These can all be seen in Nepal's colorful religious-based festivals, which take place throughout the year.
Foreign travelers are usually welcome to join in the festivities, as Nepali people tend to be very open about sharing their culture and beliefs with outsiders. Some festivals happen out in the open and are very public, while others take place more within family homes and communities. Some festivals take place at or around temples that aren't open to non-Hindus.
Here are a few of the most interesting and lively festivals in Nepal that you can witness throughout the year, including Hindu and Buddhist festivals observed by Nepal's many ethnic groups. Most follow a lunar calendar system, or Nepal's Bikram Sambat calendar, so the dates according to the Gregorian calendar shift every year.
Dashain is the most important festival of the year to Hindu Nepalis. It's known as Navaratri in India, but it's celebrated quite differently in Nepal, and is of greater importance.
Dashain celebrates good prevailing over evil and is also a harvest festival. People return to their home villages to celebrate with their families. Animal sacrifices are made at temples or at homes, especially goats and buffalos, which are eaten afterward. Elders place tikka (blessings) of red vermillion paste mixed with grains of rice, and stuck with fresh green rice shoots, on younger family members' foreheads. Children play on swings constructed from bamboo poles.
Dashain is held over 10 to 15 days between late September and late October. The first three days are the most important. Kathmandu is usually a ghost town during the first few days of Dashain, so either plan to be out of Kathmandu when traveling during Dashain, or be prepared to take it easy for a few days in the capital.
Tihar follows Dashain by a couple of weeks (usually held in late October or early-mid November). It's called Diwali or Deepawali in India, and Deepawali by Terai Nepalis living on the southern plains bordering India.
Tihar lasts for three days, and on each day a different deity is worshipped. Women decorate their doorsteps or thresholds outside their businesses with colorful rangoli patterns, lit up with small candle-lit lamps, intended to welcome the goddess Lakshmi (bringer of wealth) over the hearth. One day, Kukur Tihar, is dedicated to the special bond between humans and dogs, and people bless their dogs with red tikka marks on their foreheads.
If you've been in India during Diwali, you'll notice a quieter atmosphere here; fireworks and firecrackers are a less central component of the festival in Nepal.
Indra Jatra (Yenya)
The Kathmandu Valley is composed of three main ancient kingdoms: Kathmandu, Patan (Lalitpur), and Bhaktapur. The Newars are the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, and central parts of these three old kingdoms are still strongholds of Newar culture. The Newar population includes Hindus and Buddhists, and many of their traditions combine elements of both religions.
Indra Jatra (Yenya in Newari) is the most important Newar festival in Kathmandu proper. Masked dances are held in the streets and squares around Basantapur Durbar Square, and a chariot is pulled through the streets containing the kumari, the "living goddess" of Kathmandu.
Intra Jatra is usually held in late August or early September. The festivities can get very crowded, and the weather is usually hot and wet at that time.
Bisket Jatra coincides with the Nepali new year in April. Each of the Kathmandu Valley's three ancient kingdoms has their own chariot festival, and this is Bhaktapur's. Two large chariots housing statues of gods clash with each other. Other palanquins bearing gods and goddesses are paraded around the city. It can get very crowded and you should stay out of the way of the clashing chariots. An ideal way to experience this festival is to stay in a guesthouse in central Bhaktapur, where you might see the action from your window.
Patan's Rato Machhendranath festival is this ancient kingdom's chariot festival, and is Nepal's longest-running, lasting over a month. Throughout April and May, a tall chariot is constructed on Patan's Pulchowk Road. On the first day of the festival, crowds gather to see the Rato Machhendranath god idol placed inside the chariot. It's then pulled through the streets by teams of men, and rests at a different destination every day until it reaches Bungamati village, outside Patan, where the god idol lives for the rest of the year. The kumari of Patan also joins the chariot on one day.
Rato Machhendranath honors the god credited with ending a long drought in the Kathmandu Valley, centuries ago. Almost like clockwork, the first day of the festival is accompanied by the first pre-monsoon rains in May.
Buddha Jayanti commemorates Buddha's birthday, and is celebrated by both Hindus and Buddhists. Celebrations are held in shrines and temples throughout the country, but an especially meaningful place to experience the festival is at Boudhanath Stupa in outer Kathmandu. Boudha is the center of Kathmandu's Tibetan population, and the stupa is the holiest Tibetan Buddhist site outside of Tibet itself. Buddha Jayanti is observed in May.
Chhath is the most important festival for Hindu Terai Nepalis from the plains bordering India, whose culture is a combination of North Indian and hill Nepali elements. Observers fast and make offerings to the sun on riverbanks or in tanks at Kathmandu. It follows Tihar, so is usually held in early to mid-November. The best place to experience this festival is on the Terai, including the towns around Chitwan.
Gai Jatra (meaning cow festival) is mainly a Newari festival held in the Kathmandu Valley. Every family who has lost a member in the previous year is supposed to lead a cow (or a child dressed as a cow) around the city. It celebrates the acceptance of death as a natural part of life. The Newar parts of the city (central Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur) are the best places to experience it. It's held in August or early September.
Holi is often mistakenly called the Indian festival of color, when in fact it's a Hindu festival, so it's celebrated with vigor in Nepal, too. It marks the end of winter and the coming of spring. People throw colorful powders at friends and passers-by, but in Nepal water is an essential component, too: water bombs, water guns, and buckets of water. If you want to stay dry and color-free on Holi, stay inside your hotel! It's usually held in March.
Lord Krishna is one of the most important figures in Hinduism, as the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu (for context, Hindus believe the Buddha was the ninth and most recent incarnation of Vishnu). This festival commemorates Krishna's birthday, and children dress up as Krishna, with a flute, or his female consorts.
Patan's Krishna Mandir is a focal point of Krishna Janmasthami celebrations in the Kathmandu Valley. Non-Hindus aren't allowed inside the temple itself, but it's quite small, so visitors can easily take it all in from the outside.
Lhosar is the lunar new year. It's celebrated by both Tibetans and ethnic groups with Tibetan roots, such as Gurung, Sherpa, and Tamang people. If you're in the cities of Nepal at the time, head to a Buddhist temple or shrine to witness the festivities. In Kathmandu, groups of young people don their ethnic dress and celebrate at Ratna Park in the central city. As with other Buddhist festivals, Boudhanath Stupa and Swayambhunath Stupa are especially good places to experience this festival, which is held in late January or early February.
If you're trekking to Everest Base Camp in October or November, build the Sherpa festival of Mani Rimdu into your itinerary. It's held at the large monastery at Tengboche, in the shadow of Mt. Ama Dablam (22,349 feet), where climbers traditionally stop to seek the blessings of the head lama (a spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism) before tackling the mountain. Monks dressed in masks and colorful costumes dance out scenes representing the destruction of evil.
Maha Shivaratri, in late February or early March, honors Hindu Lord Shiva, who was fond of fragrant marijuana, which grows wild in Nepal. Devotees gather at Shiva temples around Nepal, the largest and most famous of which is Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. This temple can get very crowded on Shivaratri, with thousands of sadhus (Hindu holy men) traveling there from across Nepal and India. Marijuana consumption is widespread on this day.
Teej is celebrated by Hindu Nepali women, who gather, fast, sing, and dance for the good health and prosperity of their husbands, or to pray for a good husband if unmarried. Recent Nepali feminist critiques of the festival have attempted to recast it as a celebration of womanhood, shedding the patriarchal overtones. Women dress in their wedding saris or other red, orange, or pink clothes and gather at temples in crowds.
Foreign women are encouraged to join in: wear something red and head to a temple prepared to dance and be taught some new moves. Older women tend to be the most energetic and least inhibited of the dancers. Teej is usually held in September.
Not to be confused with Teej, Tiji is a monastic festival held in Lo Manthang, the walled capital of remote Upper Mustang. The three-day festival is held in May or June, an ideal time to trek to this dry, high-altitude region of Nepal. Like many other festivals, it marks the triumph of good over evil, particularly the destruction of a demon who threatened the region with drought and disease. Monks dress in elaborate costumes and masks and perform religious legends.