Why can’t Nepal get festivals right?

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ November 16th, 2016. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
Kathmandu Kumari chariot during the Indra Jatra Festival in Nepal

Indra Jatra Festival in Nepal is one of many very disorganised but highly enjoyable and fascinating celebrations in Nepal every year.

Confusion about Nepali festival dates, names, religions and disorganization

In most countries with a high number of tourists and where tourism is a primary source of national income, festivals are a huge beneficial attraction.

Nepal is known for having more festivals and public holidays than most other countries in the world. Moreover, the festivals are lively, set in amazing looking historic locations and they are good natured.

Sadhu's come out to visit Pashupati during Shivaratri in Kathmandu

Sadhu’s come out to visit Pashupati during Shivaratri in Kathmandu – but when exactly is it?

Why then is it nearly impossible to get an exact date of an event?

Why does one single Nepali festival have so many different names?

Why do some Nepali people completely dismiss certain festivals?

All of the above have annoyed me for over a decade. Here are my answers. And yes, if Nepal’s tourism industry and promotion is to work, things need to change.

Why do Nepali festival dates keep changing?

In 2016 Holi, an amazing annual festival of color that welcomes in the spring, was held on the 24th of March. In 2017 it will be on 13th of March. In 2018 it will be on 2nd of March.

Color and water being thrown at the Holi festival in Nepal

The Holi Festival in Nepal is a lot of colorful fun

Holi is one of the most lively, colorful and fun festivals anywhere in the world. But the dates keep changing so a tourist really can’t plan a holiday around it easily (though it helps to check out my regularly updated list of festivals in Nepal. It’s basically a lunar festival so it’s based on the moons position which changes.

To be more precise it’s on Purnima (Full Moon day) based on the Bikram Sambat Hindu Calendar month of Falgun which in the western Gregorian calendar falls between the end of February and the middle of March. That alone is a lot to swallow when most tourists just want to know “what date is it on?”.

Let’s make it more complicated

Add to this the fact that Nepal’s festivals are mainly made up of Hindu, Buddhist and Newari traditions. Each of which have their own calendars. Moreover, each of these traditions have their own particular ways to celebrate. For example in the southern Terai region Holi is usually celebrated one day after the rest of the country. But unless you specifically ask this, no one is likely to tell you.

This is just one national festival of the near dozen or more celebrated in Nepal every year. Let alone the smaller ethnic festivals.

Why do Nepali festivals have different names?

Technically they shouldn’t have different names. But they often do. Adding to this, one festival often gets swallowed up by another larger festival that has a more dominant religious following.

Main road in Thimi

Thimi’s is small town with a big festival every year in Nepal

The Balkumari Jatra is celebrated by everyone annually in Thimi. However its origins are both with the Balkumari cult and the Newari people along with some non-orthodox Buddhists. It falls around Bisket Jatra which is Nepali New Year or as it’s also called Navavarsha.

Given the above, when you ask what the name of the festival is you’ll get replies of “Bisket Jatra” “Navavarsha” or “Balkumari Jatra”. This will also depend on where you are at the time as your location will also have a lot to do with the answer due to geo-ethnic traditions.

Again, this is just one of many festivals that people will have different names for. What’s more, some people of various ethnic backgrounds will be quite adamant that the festival is known by only one name. While someone else will be defiant that it is called by another other.

This stubborn “I am right” mentality is not uniquely Nepali, but it is is incredibly prolific nationwide. I’m expecting a lecturing backlash as I type.

Why are Nepali festivals so disorganized?

Perhaps this is one of my biggest gripes. The lack of promotion and organization behind many of these festivals fails the nation as a while. I’ve attended Indra Jatra on many occasions. It is one of Kathmandu’s largest annual festivals. It’s held in the same spot every year so you’d think there would be a list of activities for the day along with a time table. Unfortunately that is not the case.

I’ve asked everyone from the top on down for a calendar of events, schedule of events, a time table and even just an official response to say if it is going ahead? On one occasion I was given a Sanskrit calendar that for some reason no one could translate into something useful.

People gather around the Bhairab statue in Kathmandu Durbar Square for a puja (blessing)

People gather around the Bhairab statue in Kathmandu Durbar Square for a puja (blessing)

Why? Well, most festivals are not arranged on a national basis. They are arranged either by the local municipality and the religious body who celebrates it in that particular location.

Nepal, at the best of times, is not a well organized place and the result is often that the information is rarely sent to any National body like the tourism board.

One could of course argue that the tourism board should send someone down to knock on a door or two weeks if not months beforehand to get the information and then promote it but …

Perhaps this irks me more than anything else.

Then again with national festivals like Holi having a national body presiding over them it’s resulted in the festival losing its “fun factor”. Every year Holi has new restrictions which are slowly making it less fun. Eg. no throwing of water, no plastic bags allowed and so the list goes on. While everything can be justified, the very things that have made the festival so fun are slowly being taken away.

On the day disorganization

I’ve left out one of the most important factors in the disorganization section. Don’t ever expect to show up at a Nepali festival and expect to have officials handing out brochures, maps or pamphlets or even verbal information. It simply doesn’t happen. Even at the largest festivals.

You’ll be lucky to even see an official at a festival!

What can you do? I’ve but together as much personal and local information on events in Nepal throughout the year along with some guides. For more information the best thing I can suggest is that you read through my list of festivals in Nepal and in my guidebook to Nepal.

Why do some Nepali festivals cost you money?

It all started with the Shivaratri festival in Pashupatinath. The annual festival to Shiva introduced a shocking 1,000 rupee fee to both locals and tourists to visit the Pashupatinath temple itself on the day. The catch for tourists? Well, you have to be Nepali or Hindu to be allowed to visit the temple. Otherwise you just pay 1,000 to enter the Pashupatinath complex. An expensive charge on a public holiday where you won’t get to see much other than crowds.

http://gallery.thelongestwayhome.com/img/s12/v173/p683373975-2.jpg

Patan Durbar Square entrance fee

The same can be said of Kathmandu Durbar square on the main events held there annually. Namely Holi and Indra Jatra. Every year the ticket kiosks open up in the morning charging tourists who may or may not know there is a festival there that day. In terms of sightseeing it’s best not to visit on the day of a festival due to the crowds etc.

Both are public holidays and National festivals so why are tourists being charged entrance fees to places they really won’t be able to see that day?

The real kicker here is that as the crowds arrive the ticket stalls lose control and quickly close up for the rest of the day.

It just takes me that this practice is greedy, mean, unjust and nasty to charge tourists entrance fees on a public holiday. Especially when there is a festival on.

Why are some festivals dismissed as not being important?

My subtle hint above about the “I am right” mentality plays a part here along with the different religious / ethnic background in Nepal. Although Nepal is one of the most open and accepting countries in terms of a person’s religion or beliefs it doesn’t mean an ethnic festival will be noted or even mentioned by others.

Take Chhath or Chhath Puja as an example. Chhath is an ancient annual Hindu vedic festival to Surya the sun god. The people that celebrate Chhath largely do so in southern Nepals Terai region. However the Rani Pokhari temple in central Kathmandu is also used.

Chhath festival in Kathmandu

Chhath festival in Kathmandu is celebrated annually though you’ll be hard pressed to know unless you were walking by

I literally stumbled across Chhath being celebrated in Kathmandu and was blown away by it. If you’ve been to Varanasi in India in the evening it is quite similar in terms of ambiance. There’s lots of chanting along with bright lights around a sacred pond with a temple in the middle.

It really was a great event to attend. However when I asked friends about it I was told “Chhath, oh we don’t celebrate that in Kathmandu …”. Yet just down the road there was famous temple and pond lit up in bright colors and surrounded by thousands of people chanting.

It’s a Hindu festival and my friend was Hindu but it was a Vedic celebration which he does not follow so it was dismissed instantly. Moreover Chhath is largely celebrated by the Madheshi people in the terai region who are thought by some to be more Indian than Nepali via the open border so again the festival gets ignored by many.

The Nepali ego factor

I’m leaving this to last as I’m quite sure there is more than one scholarly Nepali reading this getting their feathers in a fluff. They could be a Hindu complaining that Gai Jatra is separate to Indra Jatra or a Tibetan ignoring Brisket Jatra for Losar or a Newari wanting to remind everyone where Nepal began.

In all cases you’ll get a long overdrawn explanation as to “why they are right”. So convincing are they in their arguments and facts that you’d nearly start to question historical books. Unfortunately the latter are often subject to interpretation and thusly open to argument.

A man feeding a cow during Gai Jatra

A man feeding a cow during Gai Jatra which is in the middle of Tihar celebrations in Nepal

Similarly many Newar festivals are not celebrated by Hindus or Buddhists and largely ignored. The same is also true in reverse. Now mix in the different calendars everyone follows, the different religious elements, local or national government bodies who can’t or don’t communicate with each other,  a general lack of planning  and you could be forgiven for spending the day not knowing there was a major festival happening just up the street from your hotel.

In the end what you get is a disheveled collection of festivals in Nepal that are constantly ebbing and flowing in terms of dates, importance and relevance. Who loses out? Well, in terms of planning you holiday to Nepal the tourist does as we tourists really have a hard time taking all this in.

The festival solution for tourists in Nepal

Tourists in general find it hard to plan a trip to Nepal without knowing the exact date a festival celebration will be on. We’d also like to know what the timetable is for the day. We would like to know where the various venues are. We’d like to know the costs involved. We’d even like to know about the little festivals some people dismiss as they are often quite good and unique to Nepal.

Instead, we often “run into” a festival in Nepal as we are walking along a road. This is rarely such a good thing. Ask the angry German man whom I saw shouting after some kids who wanted to charge him a few rupees to let him pass a piece of string blocking a street – a tradition during Holi.

Or the lady losing her mind trying to find out when Losar (Tibetan New Year) was and where to see the celebrations.

Can we plan a trip to Nepal based on visiting during a festival like this? Not really.

My solution is have patience and treat festivals in Nepal with an “icing on the cake” mentality. If you happen to be in Nepal at the time of a festival – great! Go for it!

Girls with painted faces in Nepal

Celebrate in Nepal like the locals!

Secondly, as I write the most up-to-date guidebooks to Nepal I keep my list of festivals in Nepal page updated nearly every month. It gives you dates and locations of festivals and events throughout the year.

Finally all my guidebooks to Nepal list out events throughout the year in Nepal. This not only includes a calendar of them all but also individual events and their history are mentioned in geo specific areas.

So until things get more organized in Nepal, the best on the ground information on the disorganized but incredible festivals worth attending in Nepal can be found right here.


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16 Great responses to Why can’t Nepal get festivals right?

  1. Tiffany says:

    It’s strange right? They have so many but none are organised! It doesn’t really make sense why they think like this

  2. Kevin says:

    They could so with some European influence or something. I just read that China has plans to commercialize Everest on their sine. If that happens I’m not sure Nepal will still be a destination?

    • The China/Everest resort thing is indeed true. However China and Tibet are both not easy destinations to get into compared to Nepal. China requires Visas in advance, Tibet permits and tours to this facility which hasn’t even been built yet. Nepal on the other hand offers easy visas, easy permits and traditional trekking options.

  3. Alison says:

    I’d love to read about a calendar of events for Nepal. It really shouldn’t be that hard. But reading through this makes me realise that they just don’t communicate well there it seems. Is that the main issue?

  4. Tim says:

    Some of the disorganisation is what I like about Nepal. If everything was organised then maybe it wouldn’t be so much fun?

  5. Andy says:

    I just looked up timeable for Shiveratri? It doesn’t exist. How to plan?

  6. Maeve says:

    Is there anyplace you can get a list of festivals in Nepal?

  7. Markus says:

    I love Holi. Even when I was there not one notice. Not even on the tourism website. I got all my information from you.

  8. Anna's World says:

    Nice insight. Makes me wonder how India manages or is it the same?

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