Monalisa Maharjan
Researcher, UNESCO Chair for Intangible Cultural Heritage and Traditional know-how.

Nepal is a diverse country with 103 ethnic communities and 93 spoken languages and dialects. Besides the languages, each ethnic community has their own lifestyle, food habits, traditions, rituals, and festivals. The country, which covers roughly 147,000 square kilometers, has varied climate, terrain, and biodiversity. These factors also contribute to the diversity of food, culture, and lifestyle.

New Year is one example of a festival for which each community has their own celebration. This is despite Nepal as a nation following the historical Bikram Sambat calendar, which currently is in the year 2077 and celebrates its New Year around the month of April. All the formal events of the country and offices follow Bikram Sambat. The Newah community, indigenous to Kathmandu Valley, also have their own New Year and way to celebrate the day. This New Year falls in the month of October according to the Gregorian calendar, and is celebrated on the fourth day of a five-day festival known as Tihar, which is a festival observed by both the Hindu and Buddhist communities of Nepal. But on the fourth day of the Tihar festival, the Newah communities celebrate Nepal Sambat New Year, a day they also refer to as Mha Puja.

Nepal Sambat was established as a new era on 20 October AD 879, making it currently the year NS 1141 in the Nepal Sambat calendar. The legends refer to a merchant named Sankhardar Sakwha who found a sack full of gold sand. He used that gold to pay off the debts of all people.

On the morning of the New Year, people in most of the cities, towns, and villages in Kathmandu Valley, and those outside the valley that have Newah communities, perform processions. The streets, courtyards, and squares of the ancient settlements are filled with traditional music, beating drums, flutes, and impromptu dances. Large gatherings of
people, with considerable participation of youth, are seen in colorful, traditional dress. Amid a vibrant atmosphere of music and dances, the air is filled with people chanting “Nhū dãyā Bhintunā”—Greetings of the New Year!

Within the Newah community there are different castes and each has its own traditional musical instrument, which is their identity. Each caste has its own social organization based on the locality and function known as a Guthi. These Guthis are responsible for teaching the traditional music to the younger generations as well as taking care of temples, rituals, and festivals. The Guthis participate in the processions with the musical instruments associated with their group, carrying banners wishing a happy New Year and displaying the name of the Guthi. For example, the farming community brings their big drum known as a dhime along with dhunya (long poles with banners and yak’s hair attached), while Tamrakar (coppersmiths) and Shakya (goldsmiths) bring their Dha baja drums, which are smaller than dhime and are played with sticks. Some Guthis bring dafa (double-headed drums) that are played only in certain months while some play basuri (flutes). Guthis play the same musical instruments during these processions that are played in other rituals and ceremonies.

Even though the Vintuna procession has become an integral part of the Newah New Year, the celebration as a New Year event was started in NS 1075 by Chosa Pasa on the 100 years anniversary of the Newah poet Siddhidas Mahaju. Later the organization Nepal Basha Manka Khala took responsibility for the New Year celebration, with the first procession taking place in NS 1100. At that time there was single-party rule in Nepal under the direct control of the king, and people were protesting for full democracy. This cultural event was also used as a medium of expression of protest against the
undemocratic rule. People did not have freedom of expression, neither did they have freedom of language. Today, the New Year celebration is still seen as a medium to unite and promote awareness of the Newah language.

After more than forty years of the continuation of the procession, every city and town in Kathmandu Valley began to organize their own events. In Kathmandu, Nepal Sambat Nhuda Rastriya Shamaro Samiti is the current organizer.
A week before the New Year celebration, the organizing committee invites Guthi members for a ritual to worship “Nasha Dhyo”. The participants are fed some snacks and small offerings, and it is also considered an invitation to Guthis to participate in the New Year procession. Besides the traditional Guthis, many young people form groups with their musical instruments and participate in the procession.

Prior to the event, the streets and squares are cleaned and decorated. Along the sides of the streets and raised platforms, people from different institutes and groups showcase their skills in mandala making. The morning procession starts around 8 a.m. and continues until midday. In the evening, families celebrate Mha Puja in an offering where the eldest family member (especially the female members) blesses each of their relatives with a mandala. This signifies that they are worshipping the soul of the person. Families celebrate together and share traditional feasts. In this way, the welcoming of the New Year continues from morning to evening for the Newah people, with a combination of public and private events.