Mha Puja, The Worship of Self

Tihar Festival

Special Mandap used for self worship during Mha Puja. Image: flickr/Ritesh Man Tamrakar

While Dashain and Tihar are rejoiced in by all Hindus, Mha Puja is an event that only Newars celebrate. It is today celebrated all over the world, thanks to globalization, or rather, lots and lots of emigration to foreign lands by hordes of optimistic Nepalis, among whom are invariably, quite a few from the Newar community. Mha Puja (this year 24th October 2014) also marks the beginning of the Newari New Year. Legend has it that, 1134 years ago, a trader and a philanthropist, Sankadhar Sakhwa, declared his countrymen to be debt-free by paying off all their debts himself. The Newars decided to mark a new beginning by commemorating a new era. Thus was born the Nepal Sambat (Nepal Era) of which, NS 1134 will come to an end this year, a day after Bhai Tika, the fourth day of Tihar, the second biggest festival of Nepal.

Here, it might be interesting to say something more about the legend of Sankadhar Sakwa. It was during the reign of King Raghav Dev of Bhaktapur in AD 879 that his royal astrologers foretold about there being gold at an auspicious date and time among the sands at the confluence of the Bhacha Khusi and Bishnumati rivers in Kathmandu. Accordingly, the king sent his porters to bring back basketfuls of sand at the appointed hour. The porters, while carrying the heavily laden baskets back to the king, decided to take a breather at a pati (resting place) in Maru Tole. Sankhadhar Sakhwa, a trader, was on his way home, and nearing the pati, he decided to take a few minutes rest himself. On asking the porters about the reason for their carrying so much sand, they told him that they were doing it as per the king’s orders. This made the shrewd Sakhwa think, “There must be something important about the sand.” He convinced the porters to empty their heavy loads at his home, and later, he found a handful of gold in it. This gold, he used to pay off all the debts of his countrymen.

Every year, Newar communities all over the country celebrate this day as their own New Year by taking out processions with cries of Nha Daya Bhintuna (Welcome, New Year). In the evening, families congregate in their bhuigals (dining rooms) to partake in a most enjoyable function called Mha Puja. Family members sit cross legged in front of colorful mandaps that are venerated by lighting itta battis (long cotton wicks) and doing ‘puja’ on them as is done with deities. Sagun, consisting of eggs, meat, fish, bad‘, curd, and aila (homemade alcohol), must be taken before the wicks go out. This is followed by as elaborate a feast as can be expected of such renowned connoisseurs of food as the Newars.

After the feast, women folk sweep away the mandaps. It is said that wiping the throat with swept-away remains increases one’s memory. It also used to be said that if one were to cross over while the wick is burning, then one would certainly go abroad. Which, in earlier days, was maybe not a good thing, but today? Oh, only if it was true! That’s what youngsters will surely be praying this Mha Puja.

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