Monalisa Maharjan
Researcher, Centro Interdisciplinar de História, Culturas e Sociedades da Universidade de Évora & UNESCO Chair for Intangible Cultural Heritage and Traditional Know-How. Palácio do Vimioso

Newar culture has different lifecycle rituals, performed at different stages of life from birth to death. These rituals are complex and embedded in the socio-cultural environment. With every lifecycle ritual, a person gains certain rights, responsibilities, and maturity within the society.

The bahra ceremony is for girls of between 5 and 13 years old, before they have their first menstruation. This ceremony is a transition from childhood to adulthood. Boys also have different ritual for this phase. Girls who have undergone the ihi ceremony (done between 2 and 5 years old) follow the bahra ritual. Girls are kept in a room without seeing sunlight and men for twelve days. For this, an auspicious date and time is calculated by the priest according to her jata (horoscope chart). People prefer to keep bhara mostly with other siblings or cousins (in even numbers) so that the girl is not alone, and to share the workload. If the girls is an only child and does not have any cousins, then she is kept alone.

Entering the bahra starts with a simple ritual of offering saga, which contains a boiled egg, dried fried fish, fruits, vermilion, curd, and flowers. She is kept in the room for twelve days with things to play with and friends and relatives come to visit. For four or six days (depending upon the family), the girl is fed food without salt. On the fourth day in the morning, after the girl takes a bath, a ritual called kwo chika sakyou is done, during which an offering of rice powder with herbs and oil is given to the girl. Kwo is applied to the face as a beauty product (like a scrub). The family prepares feast but without meat. On this day, barha khaya— small figurine resembling a doll is made out of cotton—is also kept in room to protect the girl. Khaya, a mystical creature—half spirit, half deity, which could be black or white—is offered to kwo chika first and then to the girl. After this day, during the bhara days, whatever the food or drink is offered to the girl, khaya is offered first and all purity is maintained.

At the Ganesh Temple holding jwala nhaika and shinha-mhu, two important objects for bahra © Ambika Shakya

Relatives visit the girl in bahra after the fourth day with fruits, roasted corn, wheat, beans, nuts, and other delicious foods. This visitation process by relatives is known as chusiya musiya naka wonegu, meaning to go to feed roasted wheat and beans. All the relatives who visit the girl are fed meals like a feast.

In the morning of the twelfth day, which is known as bahra pikayegu, the girl is taken out of confinement. The whole house is cleaned and purified. The family also goes purification process by bathing and by cutting nails and putting ala, a red pigment, on their toes. The nail cutting process can only be done by people who cut nails traditionally. The girl also takes bath in the early morning, going through the nail-cutting process, and applying ala. The girl is dressed in a beautiful dress and covered up for the ritual so that she does not see sun. This ritual is done by the female head of the family known as thakuli nakki. Some family also have a tradition to invite a priest and perform more elaborate rituals.

The girl offers rice, vermilion powder, and flowers to sun, and then she is shown the sun and later her father. This why the ritual is also known as surya darshan, which means worshiping the sun. She is presented jwala nhaika and shinha-mhu, which are traditional objects representing a mirror and another container with vermilion powder. The girl is taken to the worship temple of Ganesh and the clan deity. Then thakuli nakki perform the sincho chaye gu ritual, which is to offer red vermilion power on the girl’s head in the temple. The red vermilion is a symbol of married women, and this ritual is also known as a marriage of girl with the sun god. In this way the women in Newar society never face discrimination as in other societies since even if her mortal husband is dead the immortal husband is always there. Also a divorce and remarriage is not strict in Newar society in comparison to other societies in Nepal.

The next ritual is pathi lui gu, which is to present a palm full of rice or paddy twelve times to the girl; clothes and money are also given. The relatives, especially a maternal uncle, will do this ceremony.

The family invites relatives and friends for an elaborate feast in the night. Khya is also a bid of farewell by immersing the figurine in the river water.

The bahra ceremony nowadays is shortened to three or five days in Vihara with female monks performing the last day ritual and feast, due to the complicated rituals and busy lifestyles.