The Tihar Festival, also known as Deepawali and Yamapanchak, is a cherished five-day Hindu celebration that holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Nepal and certain Indian states, such as Sikkim and West Bengal. Particularly, the towns of Darjeeling and Kalimpong are vibrant centers of this festival, drawing in a large number of ethnic Indian Gorkha people. Tihar is often compared to the Indian festival of Diwali, the Festival of Lights, but it boasts its own unique charm and cultural significance.
The Tihar festival starts with Kaag Tihar, the first day of this vibrant celebration. During this day, crows and ravens take center stage as they are considered the messengers of Yama, the god of death in Hinduism. The rituals and customs associated with Kaag Tihar are not only fascinating but also deeply rooted in the culture of Nepal.
On Kaag Tihar, devotees honor these feathered creatures by offering grains, seeds, and sweets. These offerings are typically placed on rooftops or scattered on the streets, creating a delightful spectacle. The cawing of crows and ravens, which is often associated with sadness and grief in Hinduism, is believed to signify messages from Yama himself. By feeding these birds, people seek to appease them, symbolizing their hope to ward off death and grief in the upcoming year.
The second day of the Tihar festival is dedicated to honoring our loyal and beloved canine friends, and it is aptly named Kukur (dog) Tihar. This special day is a heartwarming celebration of the unique bond between humans and dogs, a connection that holds deep cultural and mythological significance.
On Kukur Tihar, all dogs, whether cherished pets or strays, receive special treatment. They are offered delectable treats and, more importantly, they are worshipped. A "tika" is lovingly applied to their foreheads, and they are adorned with garlands of vibrant marigolds, symbolizing respect and reverence for these faithful companions.
The celebration of Kukur Tihar has transcended cultural boundaries and gained recognition worldwide. In a remarkable instance, a Mexican animal rights group embraced this tradition and celebrated it in Mexico City in 2016, showcasing the universal appeal of honoring our loyal four-legged friends.
The third day of the Tihar festival holds a special place in the hearts of Nepali Hindus, as it involves paying homage to two important aspects of their culture: cows and the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. This day, known as Gai (cow) Tihar, is marked by a profound sense of gratitude and a welcoming of prosperity.
In Hinduism, the cow is revered as an especially sacred animal. It is even considered the vahana, or vehicle, of the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. Cows are cherished for their gentle nature and the abundance they provide. They offer milk, cheese, ghee, urine, and dung. While the first three are consumed, cow urine is believed to have beneficial health effects, and cow dung is used as both fuel and fertilizer.
On the morning of Gai Tihar, Nepali Hindus express their thankfulness to the cows by offering them treats and adorning them with tikas and garlands. This tradition serves as a reminder of the essential role that cows play in their daily lives and the prosperity they bring.
In the evening, a special puja is dedicated to Lakshmi, accompanied by heartfelt wishes for wealth, prosperity, and good health. The entire day is infused with a sense of anticipation and joy.
The fourth day of the Tihar festival is a day of dual celebrations, each with unique cultural significance. Known as Goru puja, this day is dedicated to the worship and celebration of the ox, often considered an analogue to the sacred cow in Hinduism, especially in an agricultural country like Nepal. The day is marked by rituals and offerings that express gratitude for the tireless efforts of the oxen in the fields.
For Vaishnav Hindus, the fourth day of Tihar holds a special significance as they observe Govardhan Puja. This puja is dedicated to the veneration of the holy Govardhan mountain. In a symbolic ritual, a pile of cow dung is taken as a representation of this revered mountain and worshipped. This tradition underlines the profound connection between nature and spirituality, emphasizing the sanctity of the environment.
The fourth day of Tihar also coincides with the first day of the Nepal Sambat calendar, marking the celebratory Mha Puja for the Newar community. Mha Puja is a unique and deeply personal tradition that focuses on self-worship. This remarkable ceremony involves individuals acknowledging and paying homage to their own selves and the divine within. It's a moment of self-reflection and spiritual introspection, promoting a deep sense of self-awareness and growth.
The fifth and final day of Tihar is a joyous occasion known as Bhai Tika, and it holds a special place in the hearts of siblings across Nepal. On this day, brothers and sisters come together to celebrate their unique and enduring bond through a series of heartfelt rituals.
A legendary tale adds depth and meaning to the rituals of Bhai Tika. It is said that when the goddess Yamuna's brother fell gravely ill, Yama, the god of death, came to take his soul. Yamuna implored Yama to delay his departure until she could complete her final puja for her brother. As the ceremony unfolded, Yama himself became a part of it. Yamuna made a solemn request to Yama to wait until the tika on her brother's forehead had faded, the oil she had sprinkled on him had dried, and the garlands of Makhamali Ful Ko Mala (Gomphrena globosa) she had placed around his neck had withered. This poignant tale underscores the power of love and devotion between siblings.
As part of the celebration, the brothers are treated to a variety of cooked delicacies, including sel roti, fruits, and packaged food. In return, sisters receive tokens of appreciation, which can range from cash to clothing and other thoughtful gifts.
Nepali households burst into color and creativity during Tihar by adorning the floors of their living rooms or courtyards with intricate patterns made from materials like colored rice, dry flour, colored sand, or even delicate flower petals. This art form is known as Rangoli and serves as a sacred welcome to the gods and goddesses, with a special focus on welcoming Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
In recent years, the Nepal government has imposed a ban on the use of firecrackers during Tihar, citing a rise in injuries caused by these explosive devices. While fireworks have been a longstanding tradition during this festival, the ban aims to ensure the safety of the celebrants and reduce the environmental impact. This change has prompted communities to find alternative ways to celebrate the festival without compromising on the joy and excitement.
As the sun sets, young girls take to the neighborhoods, engaging in a joyful tradition called "bhailo." They sing and dance, spreading happiness and good cheer. In return for their lively entertainment, they receive small amounts of money and food, symbolizing the community's appreciation for their festive spirit. Fireworks often light up the night sky, adding to the celebratory atmosphere.
For those seeking a more playful side of the festival, Tihar offers various games and pastimes. Gambling, in the form of card games, kauda (a game using cowrie shells), and langur burja, is a popular way to pass the time during the festival. It adds an element of excitement and competition to the celebrations.
Tihar is one of the most significant festivals in Nepal, second only to Dashain. It is allocated a three-day-long national holiday, allowing people to fully immerse themselves in the festivities. This extended holiday is a testament to the importance of Tihar in Nepali culture.
What sets Tihar apart from many other festivals is its reverence for the gods and animals that share our world. Crows, cows, and dogs, which have long coexisted with humans, are honored during Tihar. This unique aspect of the festival showcases the deep connection between the Nepali people and the animal kingdom.
Tihar, the Festival of Lights, is not just a series of rituals but a celebration of life, love, and culture. It brings people closer, strengthens bonds, and reminds us of the importance of kindness and gratitude. As the lights shine brightly during Tihar, they symbolize the hope and positivity that this festival spreads. So, if you ever have the chance to experience Tihar in Nepal, don't miss it.