The festivals of Nepal are known for their exhilarating, colorful, and thrilling experiences. Each year, numerous festivities take place according to time and seasons. It is exciting to see how unique yet similar each festival is. These festivals, also popularly known as ‘Jatra’ are often celebrated with elaborate feasts, music, and enthusiastic observers. However, festivals have a deeper meaning than its feasts and celebrations.
These festivities have cemented the strong and vital bonds between individual members in a community as well as a nation.
Most of these festivals can be traced back to a thousand years and they still carry a huge significance till today. Although the origin story behind these festivals may have several interpretations, making its actual origin hazy, people still strictly follow the rituals as it was passed down from generation.
One of the most interesting features of the Jatras of Nepal is how some of these festivals are celebrated with twice the enthusiasm every 12 years. Known as the “barha barsey mela”, in each 12-year interval, the jatras are celebrated for longer periods, with more excitement and more devotees gathering together. Last year, 3 such jatras took place. We take a closer look at 5 similar Barha Barsey Melas of Nepal.
Makar Mela of Panauti
One of the most popular 12-year festivals which occurred this year was Panauti’s Makar Mela, which occurred in January. Panauti is an ancient city which is situated 32 kilometers southeast of Kathmandu. The Makar Mela is named after the Nepali month on which the festival occurs, i.e Magh. It is celebrated for the entire month during which devotees visit Triveni Ghat, a confluence of three rivers: Punyamati, Lilamati, and Rudrawati. According to legend, it is believed that Indra, the king of the heavens once suffered from an incurable disease.
In order to request help from Lord Shiva, he meditated at the banks of the Triveni for 12 years. Shiva then poured nectar into the Rudrawati river and told Indra to take a dip in the river to get cured. Today, people believe that taking a dip in the river during this festival washes away their sins and offers salvation. This year, the festival saw 5 million visitors. Along with the Triveni Ghat, people also visit the Indreshwar Mahadev temple located nearby to offer water from the river to the statue of Gorakhnath to fulfill one’s wishes.
Barha Barsey Mela of Harisiddhi
The Harisiddhi Mela is one of the most unique Barha barsey mela for a couple of reasons: firstly, Harisiddhi, an ancient village in Lalitpur is known as the region where the mask dances of Kathmandu valley originated. It is said that no traditional dances compare to the vocals, instrumental music, and performance as that of the one performed in Harisiddhi. Secondly, a unique type of dance is also performed here where the performers wear head accessories made only of flowers. It is known in Newari as the “Swa Tapuli Pyakha”.
This festival is believed to be observed in order to revive the tantric powers. The Harisiddhi Mela used to be performed continuously for three months, annually in the past, beginning from the Yomari Punhi in mid-December till the Holi festival in mid-March. However, the length of the festivities degraded the dance’s value and people lost interest in the lengthy procession. Hence, the festival was shortened to two days of the year, one during Yomari Punhi and the next during Holi. And every 12 years, the festival would be observed for a longer period of time. This year, the festival was observed for 4 days from 1-4 April.
This year was also the 12-year interval for the Nardevi Jatra. The festival was observed in March. The procession was celebrated in tribute to the Goddess of the Nardevi temple, Shwetkali Ajima or Nyeta Bhulu Ajima. The temple is located in close proximity to Basantapur and Thamel in Kathmandu. This 12-year jatra is observed by performing traditional and tantric dances by masked devotees.
The procession moves from Devighar to Asan, moving from Jaisidewal and finally ending up at Nardevi. At Nardevi, a dance performance depicting the goddess is also performed in the dabli (raised open space functioning as a stage used for tantric dances) located in front of the temple of the goddess. This festival is observed to pray for the security and protection of the people by the Goddess Nardevi.
Barha Barsey Jatra of Machchhendranath
Popularly known as the longest jatra of Nepal, the Machchhendranath Jatra extends for a longer period every 12 years. The last Barha Barsey Mela was celebrated in 2015. During this great jatra, the chariot of Machchhendranath is pulled from his hometown Bungamati instead of the jatra’s usual starting point at Pulchowk.
The pulling of the chariot begins from Bungamati and is pulled towards Bhaisepati, Nakkhu, Bhanimandal, Jhamsikhel and to Pulchowk, and from there, it continues towards the usual route of Pulchowk through to Patan. During this 12-year festival, the chariot is pulled across the Nakhu river without music or loud noises. This is done in the belief that the god’s demon-mother is hiding among the trees, but falls asleep waiting for her son’s procession to pass by. The chariot is thus pulled silently in order to not wake up the mother who is determined to take her son back.
Barha Barsey Mela of Godawari
Another major Barha Barsey Mela which occurred in 2015 was the Godawari Mela. This festival is celebrated in Godawari, Lalitpur, a place which is known for its rich greenery and biodiversity. The Godawari Mela is observed by visiting the Siddheswar Temple and the Godawari kunda, a spring pond. The festival is said to date back a thousand years during the time of the Lichchhavi period. According to legend, one of the seven holy saints of Hinduism, Gautam Rishi was grazing his cattle when one of them fell off a cliff. As cows are considered to be holy, the saint had sinned, so he prayed to Lord Shiva for redemption.
Shiva appeared and asked the Saint to call on Ganga, the goddess of water with meditation. When Ganga appeared, she poured water into the Godawari pond to relieve the cow’s death and wash away the sins. It is said that the day when the water flowed into Godawari was the day Jupiter was aligned in conjunction with the Sun, this occurs every 12 years.
And this is the day when the festival is celebrated. The Siddheswar temple is believed to have been built by Rishi Gautam in tribute to Lord Shiva and Ganga. Devotees visit the temple and take dips in the water believing that it will wash away their sins.