Dates: fifteen days ending on the full moon in late September/early October. 13-26 October 2015, 01-15 October 2016.
Level of participation: 2 - steel yourself for mass sacrifices and a procession of swords.
Nepal’s biggest annual festival takes place during the Himalayan kingdom’s post-monsoon period, when the sky is clearest, the air is cleanest and the rice is ready for harvesting. Against this breezy background, followers of the goddess Durga carry out the year’s largest-scale animal sacrifices, to satiate the bloodthirsty Hindu deity. Also celebrated in eastern India, where it is known as Durga Puja, the festival celebrates Durga’s victory over the forces of evil, personified by the buffalo demon Mahisasura.
The fortnight begins calmly enough. Residents plant barley seeds in carefully furrowed soil; getting the seeds to sprout a few centimetres during Dasain ensures a good harvest. On Fulpati (‘Sacred Flowers’), the first really important day, a jar of flowers is carried from Gorkha to the Tundikhel parade ground in Kathmandu, where it is presented to the king. The flowers, which symbolise Taleju, the goddess of the royal family, are transported on a palanquin to Hanuman Dhoka (the old Royal Palace) and inspected again by the monarch and his entourage.
The next day, Maha Astami (‘Great Eighth Day’), ends with Kala Ratri (‘Black Night’), when the sacrifices and offerings to Durga begin. The hundreds of goats contentedly grazing in Kathmandu’s Tundikhel parkland are living on borrowed time. At midnight, in a temple courtyard near Durbar Sq, eight buffaloes and 108 goats are beheaded, each with a single stroke of the sword or knife. More sacrifices take place the following day (Navami) at Kot Sq, also the scene of a massacre of noblemen in 1846. Visitors can witness the bloodshed, but you’ll need to arrive early to secure a place. Blood is sprinkled on car wheels to ensure a safe year on the road. At the airport, each Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation aircraft has a goat sacrificed to it. At dinner, almost everybody in the country will find that goat is on the menu.
Thankfully, the bloodletting is now over and the 10th day, Vijaya Dashami, is a family occasion. Cards and greetings are exchanged and parents place a tika on their children’s foreheads. In the evening, processions and masked dances take place throughout the Kathmandu Valley to herald the end of Dasain. For the Kharga Jatra (sword procession), priests dress up as Hindu gods and carry wooden swords, symbolising the weapon Durga slew Mahisasura with.
Like India’s Dussehra festival, the day also celebrates Lord Rama’s victory over the 10-headed demon-king Ravana. The barley sprouts that were planted on the first day are picked and worn as small bouquets in the hair. Kartika Purnima, the full-moon day marking the end of the festival, is celebrated with gambling in many households. Even the children get involved, putting down a few rupees on games of chance. The festival is also marked by the Asta Matrika dance in Patan, where dancers whirl in vividly-coloured costumes and masks representing eight incarnations of the Hindu goddess Durga.