Phalgun Festivals (1)
Kathmandu Valley, Nepal
Losar Late January or early February Shivaratri The fourteenth day of the “dark fortnight” (the full moon) of the month of Phalgun Holi Begins a fortnight after Shivaratri, culminating on the day of Phalgun’s full moon
Losar 3 days Shivaratri 1 day
Holi 8 days
Kathmandu is blessed with not just one but two religions that seriously like to party. As spring drives away the winter chill from the Kathmandu Valley, the Nepalese start turning up the spiritual heat as well. Buddhists kick off the season with the Tibetan New Year festival, Losar, celebrated most spectacularly in the Tibetan settlements around the sacred dome, or stupa, at Boudha. Hindus come back with Shivaratri, roughly a fortnight later: this is the call for the god’s fervent followers to head for Pashupatinath, site of one of Hinduism’s holiest temples, where tens of thousands of pilgrims and holy men flood in from India to bathe, fast, pray – and get stoned out of their minds. Then, during Holi, or Phalgun Purnima, Kathmandu’s youth take to the streets in gangs, throwing water bombs and bright-red powder at anyone in their way in a ritual laden with springtime sexual symbolism.
Losar began as a farmers’ spring festival, later taking on Buddhist ritual concepts based around the lunar calendar. Resolutions are made, lamas bless the people, and the “devils” of the old year are chased out with fireworks, bright colours and a good spring clean. As Pashupati, the Lord of the Animals, Shiva embraces darker, pre-Hindu elemental forces – from the days before the Brahmins came along and wrecked everything with awkward rules about drinking, smoking and roaming the universe as a pan-dimensional phallus. Shivaratri is celebrated as the night on which the god first assumed material form in the shape of a giant lingam (phallus). In order to save the universe from destruction, Shiva swallowed the poison of the mythical primeval ocean, but was instantly struck down by an appalling fever. The Ganges poured out all her waters as an antidote, but it was only the coolness of the moon, settling among his dreadlocks, that could slake his fever. Consumed with joy, he danced the Tandav, his cosmic dance, and midnight on the moonless night of Shivaratri – calculated using the Brahmanical lunar calendar – is now seen as the perfect moment for the ecstatic mind to see through the illusion of the world and achieve unity with god. A racier story fits Shiva’s nature as god of reproduction and allround sexual champion. One night, on the new moon of Phalgun, Shiva was making out with his consort Durga. The other gods came to visit but, being drunk, Shiva ignored them and the couple carried on making love. When they suddenly sobered up they were struck with shame and died on the spot, locked into one of their more advanced positions. Taking new life as the immortal lingam, Shiva decreed that humans should worship him every year on that night.
The usual legend around Holi is that it commemorates the destruction of the demoness Holika by her nephew, Prince Prahlad, who tricked her into stepping into the raging fire prepared for his own murder. That explains the bonfires, but Holi is basically a springtime fertility festival, which is probably why Nepali boys get to spray water and blood-red powder (the colour of rejoicing) all over the girls. Traditionally, they’re supposed to serenade them with obscene songs as well, but this custom has been stamped out by modern moralists.