Nepal Sambat is a calendar system that originated in ancient Nepal (Kathmandu Valley) and is widely used primarily by the Newar community only. The first day of Nepal Sambat is celebrated as a national festival by the Newars, which generally falls in October/November. The celebration typically includes various Newar cultural events such as processions, rallies, feasts, and traditional music and dance performances.
According to historical records, Nepal Sambat was started in 879 AD by a wealthy merchant named Shankhadhar Sakhwa.
Legend of Shankhadhar Sakhwa
Shankhadhar Sakhwa, also known as Shankhadhar Sā, was a wealthy businessman and philanthropist who lived in the Kathmandu Valley in the 9th century. He is credited with starting the Nepal Sambat calendar, which is still used by the Newar community in Nepal to this day.
According to legend, Shankhadhar Sakhwa was inspired to start the Nepal Sambat calendar after he was imprisoned for his inability to repay a debt to a moneylender. While in prison, he realized that the lunar calendar then in use in Nepal did not take into account the economic cycles of farmers and merchants, and decided to create a new calendar that would better serve the needs of the people. He is said to have used his own wealth to repay his debt and distribute food and clothing to the poor upon his release.
The story dates long back to 879 AD. During the reign of the Malla dynasty, an astrologer in Bhaktapur discovered a propitious moment when sand could be transformed into gold. It was revealed that if sand was collected from specific locations at that precise moment, it would turn into gold. At that time, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan were under the rule of one king, but later they were divided among three princes.
King Ananda Malla ruled over Bhaktapur during this period. Acting on the astrologer’s advice, the king sent his workers to collect sand at the designated places—Bishnumati, Lakhu Tirtha, and the junction of Bhatikhu—at the exact auspicious time.
Sankhadhar Sakhwa, a clever merchant from Kathmandu noticed the workers on their way back to Bhaktapur Palace. He became curious as to why they traveled so far to collect sand when it was readily available nearby. Sensing that there might be something special about the sand, he convinced the workers to sell the sand to him and redirected them to his own house instead of King Ananda Malla’s palace.
The workers returned to the same place to collect another batch of sand, but by then, the auspicious moment had passed. Consequently, the sand they collected did not turn into gold. It remained in its original form. When the furious King Ananda Malla saw this, he burned the book containing the astrologer’s description of the auspicious moment.
Meanwhile, the merchant in Kathmandu witnessed the sand turning into gold at his house. His dwelling was filled with gold. With the permission of King Jaya Deva Malla, he used the gold to pay off the existing debts of individuals in the kingdom. This event marked the introduction of a new era in Nepal, which is now widely known as Nepal Sambat. It is worth noting that Sankhadhar Sakhwa himself placed his stone image at the southern door of the Pashupatinath Temple.
Shankhadhar Sakhwa is revered by the Newar community as a symbol of philanthropy and social justice and is commemorated every year on the first day of Nepal Sambat.
How is Nepal Sambat celebrated in Kathmandu?
In Nepal, every festival, occasion, and procession (except for Biska Jatra) is celebrated based on the Nepali Sambat calendar. Nepali Sambat begins on the day of Kachalathwa Pratipada (Mha Puja/Govardhan Puja) and the last day of the year is the day of Laxmi Puja.
In Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, there is a grand procession known as the “Nepal Sambat Sandhaya Parade” which involves a large number of Newars dressed in traditional attire and carrying flags, banners, and playing musical instruments.
The procession moves through the streets of Kathmandu, with people dancing and singing their indigenous songs. Moreover, during the Nepal Sambat celebration, people also visit the Annapurna temple in Kathmandu and perform puja (worship) to the goddess Annapurna, who is considered to be the deity of food and grain.
The celebrations include various cultural and religious rituals, such as the lighting of oil lamps, worshipping gods and goddesses, and the offering of special foods.
How is Nepal Sambat Celebrated by Newars?
The celebration of Nepal Sambat reflects the cultural identity and traditions of the Newars. It is a time for families to come together and participate in an array of cultural activities such as worshipping local deities, feasting, dancing, and singing. The celebration also involves the cleaning and decorating of homes and public spaces, as well as the lighting of lamps and candles.
The Newars don their traditional attire. Men wear a long-sleeved shirt called a “Bhoto,” which is made of silk or cotton and has intricate embroidery and designs. They pair the Bhoto with a “Suruwal,” which is a loose-fitting pant that tapers at the ankle, and a “Topi,” which is a black skull cap made of cotton or velvet and decorated with gold thread. Women wear Haku Patasi, a black sari with red borders secured on the waist by a white sash called ‘Patuka’. The term “Haku” refers to the color black, while “Patasi” signifies a sari in the Newar language. The blouse is usually a double-breasted called “Chaubandhi Cholo”. Elederlies also wear a shawl called “Gā” wrapped around the upper part of the body.
The traditional attire worn during Nepal Sambat Day is an integral part of the celebration, as it reflects the rich cultural heritage of the Newar community in Nepal.
The Transition from Nepal Sambat to Bikram Sambat in Nepal
The transition from using the Nepal Sambat calendar to the Bikram Sambat calendar in Nepal was primarily a result of political changes and royal decrees. Here is a brief overview of the transition:
Adoption of Bikram Sambat: The Bikram Sambat calendar, also known as the Vikram Samvat, is an ancient Hindu calendar that predates the Nepal Sambat. It was already in use in parts of India and was widely known and recognized in Nepal too.
King Rana Bahadur Shah: In the late 18th century, during the reign of King Rana Bahadur Shah, Nepal faced political instability and external threats. Seeking alliances with neighboring powers, King Rana Bahadur Shah signed the Sugauli Treaty with the British East India Company in 1816. As part of the treaty, Nepal had to cede territories and pay a hefty war indemnity.
Introduction of Bikram Sambat: To strengthen diplomatic ties with the British and facilitate administrative coordination, King Rana Bahadur Shah decided to align Nepal’s calendar with the Bikram Sambat calendar that was in use in India. In 1903, Bikram Sambat was officially adopted as the national calendar of Nepal.
Royal Decree: A royal decree was issued to implement the transition from Nepal Sambat to Bikram Sambat. This change was mainly driven by political considerations rather than cultural or religious factors.
Cultural Continuity: Despite the adoption of the Bikram Sambat calendar, the Newar community, who were the main users of the Nepal Sambat, continued to celebrate their traditional festivals and observe important cultural events based on the Nepal Sambat calendar.
It’s important to note that while the Bikram Sambat calendar is widely used in Nepal for official purposes and everyday life, the Nepal Sambat calendar continues to hold cultural and historical importance, particularly within the Newar community. The Newars celebrate their New Year’s Day according to the Nepali Sambat calendar in places such as Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Banepa, Dhulikhel, Barhabise, and other locations.