Preferred Citation: Levy, Robert I. Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

Chapter Thirteen The Events of the Lunar Year

Swanti and the Lunar New Year [77, 78, 79, 1, 2]

It is the lunar New Year's Day[1] that begins the fundamental year—the sequence of lunar months, the basic calendar within which the solar events are variously located from year to year. As P. V. Kane writes, the lunar New Year "in ancient times . . . began in different months in different countries [in South Asia] and for different purposes" (1968-1977, vol. V, p. 569). At present the lunar year begins in India, for the most part, in Caitra (March/April) or Kartika (October/November). The Indo-Nepalese year begins in Caitra. The Newar lunar year begins in Kartika, a time which, in its contrast to the Indo-Nepalese New Year, is considered in Bhaktapur to be a distinctively Newar practice, and with an event, Mha Puja [1], which is considered to be a uniquely Newar event. The New Year's Day falls on the fourth day of a five-day set of events called "Swanti."

Although "Swanti" refers to the five-day sequence, it is said to be derived from swanhi , "three days," that is, the last three days of the sequence—the day before the new year, the New Year's Day and the


succeeding day.[2] Alternative scholarly names, such as Pa(n)carata, referring to the entire five days, are much less used. The festival is related to and derived from the South Asian Laksmi festival, Divali or Dipavali (the "Festival of lights"), a festival that is also associated with the lunar New Year in some other parts of South Asia such as Gujarat, where the lunar New Year is "inseparable from and part of the Diva1i celebrations" (Gnanambal 1967, 6).

The five days of Swanti are characterized by a unity of themes and significant forms. They emphasize in both form and in theme the existence and importance of relations within the household. The core reference is to the feminine—sisterly, wifely, maternal—centrality in the emotional and physical life and the economic management of the household. The supportive role of women is related to the benign goddess Laksmi, and placed in opposition to a destruction represented by the personification of death as Yama and his messengers. The Newars begin their month, and thus their new lunar year, with the bright, waxing lunar fortnight. Therefore, Swanti's first three days are at the end of the dark fortnight, ending in the dark, new moon, and the New Year's Day events of Mha Puja come at the first day of the waxing lunar fortnight of Kachalathwa.

During the weeks preceding and following Swanti there are activities in most households which set some of the context for the Swanti ceremonies. Oil lamps are placed on the ka:si , the open porch on an upper floor, which is also the principal site of the worship on the first two days of the Swanti sequence. In some households the pikha lakhu , the deified stone marking the boundary of the house, has also been worshiped during the preceding weeks as it will be in the course of the Swanti ceremonies. Family members go to the ka:si to worship swarga , "heaven." Children are expected to take important parts in this worship. In some houses during this period the individual rooms of the house are worshiped and offerings are made. Oil lamps are placed, often by children, on the pikha lakhu , in the various rooms of the house, and on the ka:si . Children, house, household, and the boundaries of the household with an encircling world are emphasized. The world encircling the household—in contrast, as we will see later, to the Devi cycle's world encircling the city—is a moral world.

These preliminary activities are echoed in the events of Swanti itself. The first two days of the sequence, which are the last two days of the lunar year, are respectively, Kwa (sometimes alternatively spelled Ko ) Puja [77] and Khica Puja [78], namely, "Crow Puja" and "Dog Puja."


Both of these creatures are understood here as "messengers" or agents of Yama, the ruler of the realm of death, as they are similarly conceived in the course of rituals following death. On the day of Crow Puja an offering is made on the ka:si . Flowers, oil-lamp wicks, incense, uncooked unhusked rice, ceremonial threads, and bits of cooked vegetarian food are placed within a mandala[*] that is drawn on the floor of the ka:si . Crows frequently come to carry off some of the food. There are no worship activities outside of the house. Kwa Puja, like all the events of Swanti, is related to the city in parallel fashion; similar units, households, are doing very much the same things everywhere throughout the city at about the same time.

On this first day of Swanti gambling begins, traditionally by casting cowrie shells and now also with card games.[3] During this period the whole city gambles. Men gamble among groups of friends[4] and fellow phuki members, and men, women, and children gamble in the household. In religious interpretation the gambling of this period is a sort of puja directed to Laksmi, the goddess of household wealth. If a gambler loses money it is an offering to Laksmi, which she will later return. If the gambler wins it is a kind of prasada , an offering to the deity that has been received and returned, a sharing in the deity's substance that affirms a dependent relationship—and a consequent protective responsibility for the now parental deity. This theme is repeated in the offering of money to Laksmi during household worship on the third day of Swanti. The festive gambling is also said to be distracting and pleasing to the messengers of Yama Raja, so that they forbear to carry off any victims, a theme that will surface again during a later day of Swanti. Gambling as a reversal of household economic order is also an "anti-structural" element of a kind that we find in several other annual events.

Khica Puja, "Dog Puja," on the second day of Swanti, is observed like the Crow Puja, except that the mandala[*] and offering are placed in front of the ground or cheli level of the house, and usually eaten by stray dogs.

On the following day, the last, the new-moon day of the waning fortnight of Kaulaga, the old lunar year ends with Laksmi Puja [79].[5] Dipavali elsewhere in South Asia is (as indicated in its name), a festival of lights. Oil lamps and wicks have been important offerings on the earlier days. On this day in Bhaktapur householders place oil lamps at each window (at least two to each side of the window) two at the main door of the house, two lamps at the door of every room, two lamps on


the ka:si , and one at the pikha lakhu . In addition, lamps are put at the door to the dukhu :, the storeroom for valuable items, which will be the site for the household puja that is performed on this day, during which offerings of light will be made to Laksmi.

The puja on Laksmi Puja, Day is a kind of apasa(n) cwanegu , a relatively simple non-Brahman-assisted household puja (app. 4). Among the offerings made to Laksmi there is a prominent offering of money. This is related to the idea of gambling as an offering. The worship of Laksmi in the dukhu : is associated with the hope of wealth and good fortune for the household in the coming year.

On the day of Laksmi Puja some members of the household will first go, as they do preceding all important household puja s, to the local neighborhood Ganesa[*] temple, to ensure effectiveness for the later worship. Upper-status families send a portion of the offerings of the household puja to their Aga(n) God, and, for those who have Taleju as an auxiliary lineage deity, to Taleju.[6] Aside from these minimal procedures, which are followed in all important household ceremonies, there is not—on this nor the other days of Swanti—any activities outside the boundaries of the household. There may be a special household dinner on this evening; it does not include the women who have married out of the household. They will return for a feast on the fifth day of the Swanti sequence.

Laksmi Puja is the first of the three main days of Swanti. On these three days the area between the pikha lakhu and the main doorway to the house is purified with cow dung. This represents a pathway for benevolent and protective deities to enter the house.

The fourth day of the five-day sequence, and the middle day of the focal final three days, is the lunar New Year's Day itself, the first day of the waxing fortnight Kachalathwa. This is Mha Puja [1], the one unit in the Swanti sequence that the Newars consider to be specific and special to themselves, not shared with other Nepalis. The term "Mha " (Kathmandu Newari, mha ), means "body," here representing the physical "seat" of each of the individuals living in the household. Essentially Mha Puja is the worshiping of each member of the household by the naki(n) , the senior active woman of the household.[7] In preparation for this ceremony, a mandala[*] is first drawn on a purified surface of the floor for each of the attending members of the household, as well as for any temporarily absent members who will be worshiped in absentia . Some households make mandalas[*] for pets living in the house, such as turtles and pet dogs. The mandalas[*] represent the human or animal body. Five


piles of unhusked rice are placed on each mandala[*] . They represent the five mahabhuta , "great (or major) elements." This refers to the Hindu conception of "the gross elements, earth, water, fire, air, ether; of which the body is supposed to be composed and into which it is dissolved" (Macdonnell 1974, 208). A covering of leaves is placed over these piles, and various offerings are placed on it, such as beaten rice, water, ceremonial threads, flowers, incense, and lamp wicks.[8] The naki(n) worships each member of the household, first males, then females, in order of descending age, in the same way in which the benign deities are worshiped. She repeats the same sequence for each household member. She begins by putting some swaga(n) (a mixture of husked rice, curds, and pigment; see app. 4) on his or her forehead, and then presents offerings of threads, flowers, garlands, sweets, and fruits. Next the naki(n) pours the contents of a rice measuring pot, in which have been placed husked rice, popped rice, flowers, and pieces of fruit, spilling it in three successive portions over the person's head. Next the naki(n) offers the meat and fish containing mixture, samhae . This is striking as a small sacrificial gesture to the body as deity, which is at this phase treated (albeit in a minimal fashion) as a dangerous deity. The mandala[*] , which had been drawn in colored rice powder, is swept up, sometimes before, sometimes after the samhae is given, depending on the family custom. After the puja there is a feast for members of the household. The Mha Puja is interpreted as helping to ensure long life and good fortune for the household members.

The final day of the Swanti sequence is Kija Puja [2], literally "younger brother puja ." Once again the sequence follows a general Nepalese and South Asian pattern. It is on this day in Swanti that the women who have been married out of the patrilineal household return to their natal homes. The puja is, as in many places, related to a tale about a sister who was able to protect her younger brother from death. She asked death's messenger if he would delay taking her brother until she had finished worshiping him, and until the flowers and fruits that she would present as offerings to her brother had wilted, faded, and spoiled. The messenger accepted her pious request. Through her prolonged puja , and through the presentation of special kinds of flowers and fruits that did not wilt, fade, or spoil, the sister was able to prevent Yama from taking her brother's life. Although the story and the name of the puja specify a sister's relation to a younger brother, and emphasizes her protective, "maternal" behavior, all the sisters in or related to a household worship both their elder and younger brothers.[9] During the


Kija Puja all men in the household are worshiped by their sisters, if necessary by classificatory "sisters" from the mother's brother's (paju ) family. A mandala[*] is made in front of each man, and on it are placed a number of foods and flowers that resist decay and fading. These are presented to the men by the women present, who worship them in the apasa(n) cwanegu fashion (app. 4). After the puja , brothers give sisters presents of saris and money. There is a movement of married women throughout the city, as they try to return to their natal home during this day. Sometimes, for example, for those women whose husbands live in the Terai, long journeys are necessary. For the majority of women, however, their natal homes are elsewhere in Bhaktapur, and the older women will try to return again from their natal homes to their husbands' homes at some time during the day to intercept and see their own visiting daughters. The day, and thus Swanti as a whole, ends with a feast at each house, with the returned married-out daughters participating.

The old lunar year comes to an end, and the new lunar year and its festival cycle begins with a set of calendrically specified events that center about Bhaktapur's smallest corporate unit, the household. In contrast to the extended patrilineal phuki unit with its dangerous lineage deity worshiped by Tantric and sacrificial rites, the household worship of Swanti, reflecting the focus of almost all household pujas on benign deities, becomes focused on the benign deity Laksmi, the ideal figure of the good housekeeper, and the deified members of the household, who are worshiped as benign deities—with the minor, but interesting exception of a minimal meat offering to the bodies of the household individuals. The unit emphasized throughout is the household and its members. The space is the house. The boundaries of the house and its component units are repeatedly marked during the course of Swanti. Exterior pujas are minimal—worship at the neighborhood Ganesa[*] shrine, necessary before all major household worship, and a gesture to the Aga(n) Deity in upper-status households.

The realm that is emphasized is the moral realm, the ordinary civic world of social relations. The rewards in this world and the ideal conditions for its activities are physical well-being, wealth, and security. The ultimate opposition that is emphasized to this world is here not the outside world of the demonic forces and dangerous deities beyond the borders who are the symbols of the outside in many other events (above


all, those of the Devi cycle), but death as personified by Yama and his messengers and agents. Yama, the king of the realm of death, is a moral agent. Souls of the dead go first to his realm, where the reckoning is made as to whether they will proceed to heaven, a rebirth, or hell. The emphasis in relation to death here is on the movement of soul, not as it is in the dangers of the Devi cycle on the destruction of the body—quite a different kind of problem and threat. There are other symbols of destruction in Bhaktapur's festivals—they have to do with impersonal forces external to the human moral realm. However, Yama as death is an important part of that realm. He can be resisted by affection and solidarity; he and his agents have human characteristics—they can be fooled, and distracted by gambling. When he does prevail in time, the dead individual must leave the household but continues in his identity in a way that has been determined by his moral and dharmic activities. The temporary overcoming of Yama is through the emotional solidarity of the household, and this solidarity is represented by sororal emotional support and by the exchange of gifts. This is in contrast to the ideas, symbols, and emotions relating to the solidarity of the phuki group, guthis , and larger corporate units where impersonal power in relation to dangerous deities is most central to their representation and protection.

Swanti also illustrates a symbolic movement. There is a flowing into the household of the protective power of the benign deity, and a return of the women the household had generated and who had left it. While the elementary unit of solidarity is the household there is the secondary solidarity of a parallelism of similar units. All households in Bhaktapur are going through the same sequences, and while most of this sequence is known to be Hindu, and more saliently Nepalese, one segment, Mha Puja, the day of the new year, is thought to be uniquely Newar, an event that, typically of Newar specialties, has Tantric and Yogic references added to the interpersonal emphases of Swanti, albeit in very attenuated form.

The Swanti sequence is of major importance in Bhaktapur as a "focal" household festival.

Chapter Thirteen The Events of the Lunar Year

Preferred Citation: Levy, Robert I. Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.