A Nepali New Year is Celebrated

Members of the Newah indigenous group from Nepal, also known as the Newars, celebrated the Mha Puja festival Oct. 24 in Long Island City. (Photos by Bimina Ranjit for Voices of NY)

About 300 Nepali men, women and children who are members of the Newah indigenous community gathered on Oct. 25 in Long Island City to celebrate the Mha Puja festival.

The Newars, as they are known, originated in the Kathmandu Valley and are both Hindu and Buddhist, although the majority are Hindu.

They boast a unique culture, however, with traditions and rituals such as Mha Puja and Sambat, the Newari New Year. Although Nepal is a small country, it has 102 different ethnic groups and 123 different languages.

Mha Puja involves the purification and worship of the self in order to achieve physical well-being, prosperity and a better understanding of both oneself and others. It is undertaken on the occasion of the Newari New Year.

“This was my first Mha Puja in New York, after being away from family for eight years,” said Saroj Maharjan, a former student of Baruch College CUNY. “I never had this chance to celebrate this integral part of my culture because it was impossible to hold it on my own. It’s so nice to be a part of this big family and celebrate our New Year together.”

Mha Puja is distinct from Hindu or Buddhist worship in that the usual worship of gods and goddesses does not occur. Newar culture believes that Mha Puja secures the relationship between people and their natural surroundings, and there is no similar Hindu festival.

This was the fourth annual Mha Puja celebration sponsored by New York Newa Guthi, a group formed seven years ago to promote and preserve Newari culture and traditions in the U.S. The word guthi means community in the Newa language.

“Our motive is to promote our language and culture, which is close to extinction. If we don’t preserve it now, the next generation will have no idea what their true identity is,” said Dharmendra Gopali, the co-chair of New York Newa Guthi.

Indeed, a number of children attended the Mha Puja, many of them appearing perplexed by the grandeur of festivities, but their parents attended to them and taught them the ways of following their culture.

In Nepal, Sambat was first celebrated Oct. 20, 879 A.D. during the reign of Thakuri King Raghavadev. Popular legend has it that a trader named Shankhadhar Sakhwa was told by the priest to bring sand from a place called Lakhu Tirtha, at the junction of Bhatikhu and Vishnumati Rivers in Kathmandu, and it would be transformed to gold the next day. He followed the instruction, and with that gold he paid off the debt of all the people in Kathmandu Valley. People started celebrating the occasion as their new year to commemorate their happiness.

The rituals of the Mha Puja celebration involve the composition on the floor of the Mandala, which symbolizes the human body. Various elements, including holy water, mustard oil and different colored powders, grains, fruits and flowers are arrayed in artistic and geometric shapes to create the mandalas.

“It will never be the same like doing this ritual with your immediate family, since at your home you will have your own pace and own style,” said Robin Bajracharya, vice president of New York Newa Guthi. “Over here it’s a little fast-paced and hurried, since we are doing this for 300 people at once, but the message is to keep it alive and teach the new generation.”

Fried eggs, fried fish, lentil cakes and alcohol are offered to mark the end of the ritual, which can last anywhere from 15-60 minutes depending on each family’s style of worshipping. The group of older women plays the role of facilitators for each member. In addition to worshipping oneself, household items such as brooms, water pots, utensils and machines are also worshipped, because Newars believe that even non-living things have souls and need to be respected for what they provide for us.

“There are a lot more fascinating rituals and festivities in our culture, we need to practice more of them,” said Bajracharya. “We are planning to open a school for children so that they can learn Newari language and culture. Even in the U.S., to know your true identity is very important to be content in life.”

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