Nepal's Festival culture
Reflecting Nepal's cultural melting pot, most of the big events in the festival calendar are celebrated by both Hindus and Buddhists, who share many of the same deities, but regard them as incarnations of different divine entities. So Machhendranath, a Nepali incarnation of the Hindu god of rain, is also Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion in Tantric Buddhism, who is manifested on earth as the Dalai Lama.
Nepal's biggest festivals are marked by frenetic street processions, where ancient, revered idols are hauled through the backstreets in towering raths (chariots), which are assembled from timbers that spend the rest of the year stacked quietly at the back of temple courtyards. Ritual bathing, anointing with coloured powder and animal sacrifices – a legacy of the Shakti cult, which celebrates female cosmic power – also play a key part in the celebrations.
Alongside the religious devotion, expect plenty of delicious festival food, a cacophony of pounding drums and honking horns and an abundance of public singing and dancing. Visitors will of course be invited, nay expected, to join in the celebrations…
A Nepali festival calendar
It's definitely worth timing your trip to Nepal to coincide with one of the country's frenetic festivals, but with such an action-packed festival calendar, how do you choose? Try our pick of the red-letter days in Nepal...
The Tibetan Buddhist New Year is an excuse for vividly colourful masked dances at Buddhist monasteries across the country, accompanied by the offering of sacred pills and the lighting of untold butter lamps.
Maha Shivaratri (February-March)
Shiva's wedding day is big news for followers of the trident-wielding lord of destruction, including thousands of Nepali sadhus (Hindu ascetics). Lingams (phallic symbols) are anointed and hordes of pilgrims bathe in the Bagmati river at Pashupatinath.
The festival of colours is celebrated with wild abandon across Nepal, as locals let fly with water bombs and tonnes of coloured powder to mark the victory of Vishnu over the demon siblings Holika and Hiranyakashipu. Wear old clothes and expect a dousing!
Seto Machhendranath Jatra (March-April)
Hindus and Buddhists come together in Kathmandu for the annual outing of Seto Machhendranath, Hindu god of rain, and Buddhist lord of compassion. The idol from the Jan Bahal temple is paraded through the streets in a 50-foot high chariot while the streets erupt with music and merrymaking.
Bisket Jatra (April)
Marking Nepali New Year, Bisket Jatra is welcomed with gusto in Bhaktapur with a chariot parade for Bhairab, the fearsome aspect of Lord Shiva. Shiva is a god of fertility, and the symbolism is laid on thick in Khalna Tole, where a huge wooden lingam is erected, literally, in a stone yoni, representing the female genitals.
Rato Machhendranath Jatra (April-May)
In late spring, Patan gets in on the chariot action to honour Machhendranath, lord of rain and compassion. The red-faced idol from the temple at Kumaripati is paraded in a 65-foot-high chariot to the village of Bungamati, where the deity resides for six months before being paraded back to Patan.
Buddha Jayanti (April-May)
As the birthplace of Buddhism, Nepal is the ideal spot for Buddha's birthday party. Buddhists from across the globe gather at Lumbini, where Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was born on earth to guide humanity towards enlightenment, and similar crowds gather at the great stupas at Bodhnath and Swayambhunath in Kathmandu.
Indra Jatra (September)
Celebrating the end of the harvest, Indra Jatra sees a huge wooden lingam erected outside Kathmandu's Hanuman Dhoka, while a giant mask of Seto Bhairab is unveiled in Durbar Square. As the festival builds to its chaotic crescendo, masked dancers fill the streets, the living goddess Kumari is paraded through the city and gallons of rice beer are served to the faithful through the mouth of Seto Bhairab.
The victory of the goddess Durga over the forces of evil is the excuse for some thoroughly tantric blood-letting as thousands of pigeons, goats and buffaloes make their final journey on sacrificial altars in a crimson celebration of female cosmic power. On a gentler note, the sky fills with coloured kites and children swing on towering bamboo swings.
Tihar & Deepawali (October-November)
Animals have an easier time of things during Tihar, when crows, dogs and cows are treated like kings for a day. On the fourth day, pyros blast the night sky with fireworks and millions of butterlamps are lit in doorways and windows to welcome Laxmi, goddess of wealth.
Mani Rimdu (October-November)
Nepal's biggest Sherpa festival draws vast crowds to the Buddhist monasteries of Solukhumbu, when courtyards become impromptu stages for sacred dances by monks wearing rainbow-coloured robes and masks of fearsome protector deities. Head to Chiwong, below Lukla, or Tengboche, on the trek to Everest Base Camp, to join in the spectacle.
Planning festival travel
The first thing you need to know about festivals in Nepal is that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and tribal people all have their own calendars, all linked to the lunar cycle, but not, unfortunately, to each other. This means that dates for festivals move every year relative to the Gregorian calendar. Because of this, it's essential to verify the dates for festivals before you travel, preferably with a trusted local.
Nepal also follows its own system for counting years – the first Nepali month is Baishakh in April and the last is Chaitra in March, so each year in Nepal crosses over two years in the Gregorian calendar. To make things more complicated, Nepali years are counted from 56 BCE, rather than the Gregorian year zero, following the Bikram Samwat calendar. As a quick crib, the year running from spring 2014 to spring 2015 is 2071 in Nepal.
The good news is that nature lends a hand. Many of the big celebrations are linked to the night of the full moon, which has special signifiance in the lunar calendar. It's also worth clocking the dates for ekadashi – the 11th day of the waxing moon and the 11th day of the waning moon – which is marked by special events at temples and shrines even outside of festival time.
As anywhere, the usual festival rules apply – book accommodation well ahead of time, and expect massive crushes of people on all forms of public transport. A rented motorcycle can help you get to the festival locations on time, while avoiding the tinned-sardine experience of festival bus travel.
Joe Bindloss is Lonely Planet's South Asia Destination Editor. You can follow him on Twitter @joe_planet.