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Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: Five days in October-November; starting on the thirteenth day of the waning half of the Hindu month of Kartika
Where Celebrated: Nepal
Symbols and Customs: Brothers and Sisters, Cow, Crow, Dog, Gambling, Oil Lamps, Ox, Tika
Related Holidays: Dewali


The festival Tihar is part of the religious tradition of Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

Tihar is a five-day festival observed in Nepal that roughly corresponds to what is known as the Festival of Lights or DEWALI in India and elsewhere. But the celebration in Nepal is unique. It focuses not just on Laxmi (known as Lakshmi in India), the Hindu goddess of wealth and wife of Lord Vishnu, but on the CROW , the DOG , the COW , and the OX -all domestic animals that have deep symbolic value to the Nepalese. It also emphasizes family bonds, particularly those between BROTH ERS AND SISTERS .

According to Hindu belief, King Bali showed his devotion to Lord Vishnu by offering him everything he owned. In return, Vishnu said that, for a five-day period each year, Bali could rule over all three worlds-heaven, earth, and the underworld. During these five days, therefore, Yama, who is the king of the underworld and god of death, has to leave his kingdom and stay with his sister, Yamuna.

The first day of the five-day festival is dedicated to honoring CROWS -birds normally regarded as sacred in Nepal. Hindus put out food for them in the morning on small trays or plates made of leaves, or they offer the first serving of their own breakfast to the crows. Then they bathe in a nearby river and light an OIL LAMP . The second day is devoted to DOGS , who have garlands of flowers looped around their necks and a TIKA placed on their foreheads. Special meals are prepared, not only for family pets but for stray dogs, who can often be seen running around town wearing flower necklaces.

The festival's third day is the most important and the one that most closely resembles the celebration of DEWALI because it is dedicated to honoring Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. She is usually depicted as standing on or holding a lotus flower, and her image is often placed on doors and lintels so that she will bring good luck to all who enter. It is believed that at midnight on the third day of Tihar, Laxmi rides around the world on the owl that serves as her mode of transportation, stopping only at those houses where she is being worshipped properly. In anticipation of her midnight visit, Nepalese families scrub the entranceways to their houses and mark the area outside the door with red mud so that Laxmi cannot possibly miss seeing it. Sometimes they will also mark a path from the front door to the family's money box, where emergency funds are kept, in the hope that the goddess of wealth will increase the family's resources. The third day of Tihar is also dedicated to COWS , the national animal of Nepal and a sacred animal to all Hindus. It is common to see cows wearing marigold garlands around their necks and TIKAS on their foreheads. But the most beautiful spectacle on this third day is the thousands of tiny OIL LAMPS that burn in every door and window.

While the fourth day of Tihar is dedicated to worshipping the OX in much the same way that the other animals were worshipped-with garlands, TIKAS , and special meals-what makes this day different is the custom known as Maha Puja, which means "self worship." Since this is also New Year's Day according to the calendar used by Nepal's Newar community, worshipping oneself amounts to wishing oneself good health and happiness for the coming year. It is believed that performing this puja or worship of the self honors the spirit that dwells in each person's body.

The fifth and final day of the festival, known as Bhai Tika, is the day on which sisters honor their brothers-or, if they have no brothers, they are permitted to substitute a cousin or other close relative. Sisters pray to Yama, god of the underworld, so that he will grant their brothers a long life, and they perform certain rituals to protect their brothers from being claimed by Yama and carried off to his underground kingdom. In return, brothers often give their sisters gifts of cash and promise to protect their honor. The festival ends with a huge feast in celebration of family bonds.


Brothers and Sisters

Sisters pay homage to their brothers during Tihar because Yama, the god of the underworld, leaves his kingdom to visit his sister Yamuna during the five-day period of the festival. Just as Yamuna worships Yama with special rituals throughout his stay, Nepalese women and girls honor their brothers by breaking a walnut, by drawing a ring of mustard oil around them, and by putting garlands of flowers around their necks and a multicolored TIKA on their foreheads.


The cow or gai is the Hindus' most sacred animal. Cows also symbolize wealth, which is why the cow is honored on the same day that Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, is worshipped.


In Hindu mythology the crow is the messenger of death. By honoring crows on the second day of Tihar, Nepalese Hindus hope to earn the crows' favor and thus salvation for themselves and their offspring.


As in American society, the dog plays the role of both household pet and companion as well as guardian of the house in Nepal. Bhairava, the Hindu god of destruction, is often depicted with a dog at his side or riding a dog like a horse. There is also a legendary dog who guards the gate to Yama's underworld kingdom. Dogs are therefore animals to be respected if not feared, and honoring them during Tihar is one way of avoiding the torments of hell.


Gambling and games of chance have a long tradition as part of the celebration of DEWALI (see GAMES OF CHANCE ). Although gambling is illegal in Nepal, such rules are suspended during the observation of Tihar, when games involving cards and dice are common. Unfortunately, in recent years Nepalese young people have become so fond of drinking and gambling during the holiday that they largely ignore its religious roots and significance as a time for families to get together. Gambling in many cases leads to disputes over money which, when fueled by alcohol, can result in violence. The older generation in Nepal has lamented this shift in the festival's focus, which is so contrary to its original purpose.

Oil Lamps

The oil lamps that sparkle everywhere during Tihar usually have cotton wicks and burn mustard oil. They are a symbolic means of welcoming Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, into the house, where it is hoped that she will improve the family's fortunes. The lamps also recall the return of Rama, hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, to his home town of Ayodhya after his many years of exile. The entire city was lit with oil lamps to welcome him back.


The ox is the animal that helps the Nepalese plow their fields and perform other difficult tasks, for which it is highly esteemed. Like the cows and dogs who are honored earlier in the festival, oxen are draped with flower garlands and served special meals on the fourth day of Tihar. Some people also perform what is known as Gobardhan puja-the worship of Gobardhan Hill, which resembles the hump on an ox's back-by making a small hill of cow dung and covering it with grass before performing puja on it. It is believed that Lord Krishna created the Gobardhan Hill to save people and their cows from a terrible flood.


Also known as the bindhi or kumkum, the tika is a small red or maroon dot worn on the forehead between the eyebrows, in an area where energy is believed to accumulate in the human body. The red color is said to symbolize the blood sacrifices that were at one time offered to the Hindu gods and also to represent love. It is a symbol of good fortune; women whose husbands have died do not wear the tika, nor do those who have experienced a death in the family. Men used to wear the tika as a sign of spiritual achievement, but today they wear it primarily during religious ceremonies.

Traditionally, the tika is made from powdered spices and flowers that have been turned into a paste. But nowadays most tikas are of the "stick-on" variety. They come in many different shapes, colors, and sizes, and they are more of a fashion statement than an indicator of the wearer's status or spirituality.


Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Stutley, Margaret, and James Stutley. A Dictionary of Hinduism. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977.


Nepal Home Page www.nepalhomepage.com/society/festivals/tihar.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


October-November; waning half of Hindu month of Kartika
Tihar is a five-day Hindu festival in Nepal that honors different animals on successive days. The third day of the festival, Lakshmi Puja, dedicated to the goddess of wealth, is known throughout India as Dewali.
On the first day of the festival, offerings of rice are made to crows, thought to be sent by Yama, the god of death, as his "messengers of death." The second day honors dogs, since in the afterworld dogs will guide departed souls across the river of the dead. Dogs are fed special food and adorned with flowers. Cows are honored on the morning of the third day; they, too, receive garlands and often their horns are painted gold and silver.
The third day is the most important day of the festival, when Lakshmi will come to visit every home that is suitably lit for her. Consequently, as evening falls, tiny candles and butter lamps flicker in homes throughout the country.
The fourth day is a day for honoring oxen and bullocks, and it also marks the start of the new year for the Newari people of the Kathmandu Valley. On the fifth day, known as Bhai Tika, brothers and sisters meet and place tikas (dots of red sandalwood paste, considered emblems of good luck) on each other's foreheads. The brothers give their sisters gifts, and the sisters give sweets and delicacies to their brothers and pray to Yama for their brothers' long life. This custom celebrates the legendary occasion when a girl pleaded so eloquently with Yama to spare her young brother from an early death that he relented and the boy lived.
Nepal Tourism Board, Tourist Service Center
Bhrikuti Mandap
P.O. Box 11018
Kathmandu, Nepal
977-1-4256909; fax: 977-1-4256910
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 622
HolSymbols-2009, p. 959
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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