Swasthani Brata is a month-long fasting ritual where the followers recite mythological stories or Skanda Puran or Swasthani Brata Katha. The ritual starts from the Poush Shukla Purnima full moon day of Poush (Dec/Jan) and ends on Magh Shukla Purnima, the full moon day of Magh (Jan/Feb) , that’s why it is called “पुषशुक्लपुर्णिमादेखिमाघशुक्लपुर्णिमा” “Poush Shukla Purnima dekhi Magh Shukla Purnima”
Origin of Swasthani Brata Katha
Swasthani Barta Katha is a religious text found in almost every household of Nepal. It is regarded as a prime example of how the Hindu religion flourished and how the religious scriptures developed through time in Nepal. Swasthani was first written in the Newar language as early as 693 Nepal Sambat (1573 AD) by Jayanta Dev and then translated into the Nepali Language. (Newars are the native of Kathmandu Valley and their official calendar is Nepal Sambat). Also, some say that the original Newar version is different than that of Swasthani written in the Nepali language.
This book of Swasthani Brata Katha has 31 chapters that tell the story of the life of various gods and goddesses mainly focusing on goddess Swasthani and Shiva. Swasthani is known for miraculously granting wishes made in a solemn state by the pure. The sacred book derived from Skanda Puran originated in the Ancient civilizations of Nepal and believed that the Brahmins were the first to have read this. This tradition of reciting Swasthani Brata Katha is not limited anymore just to the Newars and Brahmins (the upper caste of Hindus). There are devotees from all over the country and all the Hindu castes.
Hindu Nepalese worship Shree Swasthani Mata (Goddess Swasthani), the goddess who grants wishes to the pure. For a month period, people pray to the goddess and participate in mass bathing outdoors. The tradition is especially important to women who observe fastings for family welfare or a good husband. Males participate too but in fewer numbers.
During Swasthani Katha, Hindu married women observe brata or fasting for the wellbeing of their husbands and unmarried women observe Brata in order to get a good husband. Women wear red-colored clothes and bangles during the period because for Hindus the color red is auspicious. The Swasthani Brata is observed without break for the whole month by many Hindus either at home or at Swasthani temple at Sankhu, the ancient Newari town in the northeast corner of Kathmandu Valley.
The reading of the Swasthani Brata Katha is carried out every day by worshiping the book with offerings like Abir/Sindoor (red vermillion powder), Kesari (Saffron), Jau (Wheat), Til (Sesame), Fulpati (flowers), Dhup Batti (incense), and Diyo (oil wick lamps). Some also cook naivedya, the special food offerings for the Goddess. They ritual of reading is either in the early mornings or the evenings, before meals. According to the Swasthani stories, the offering includes 108 holy threads, 108 Selrotis (Rice flour bread), 108 fruits (cut into bite pieces or full-size fruit), flowers, sandalwood, clothes, money, and sindoor to Goddess Swasthani. According to the ‘Manishail Mahabadan’, for His fasting ritual, Lord Vishnu needed special ritual items and for that, he first went to the Pashupatinath temple to collect ekmukhi rudraksha (stone fruit). He then traveled to Pharping located in Southern Kathmandu to collect golden lotus flowers, then to Panauti of Kavre district to collect 108 types of flowers, and as a final trip to Changunarayan temple on the outskirts of Bhaktapur district to collect rice grains from the Satyayug. Vishnu made all the trips on foot and the Swasthani pilgrims today make the same trip during the a-month-long fast.
Satyayug was the age of truth, the first of four "world of ages" when humanity was governed by god for 1,728,000 years.
The text of Swasthani Brata Katha has changed considerably between the 16th and 21st centuries. The first 200 years of the texts were about characters like Goma, Chandrawati, Navaraj, and Swasthani. After that, three major additions were made. The first is in the story of Shiva and Parvati; the second is the narrative of Vishnu including Madhu-Kaitabha and the creation of the universe; the third is the stories about Vrinda, Kamadev, and others. Two-thirds of the stories today have become of Shiva whereas only the latter part of the story is about the principal Goddess.
According to Vishnu Puran, both Lord Vishnu and Goddess Bajrayogini have 12 names for 12 months of the year. Their names for the 10th Nepali month (i.e. Magh) are Madhav Narayan and Swasthani respectively. This is also the reason why their forms are worshipped together this month. Due to the lack of iconography or visual depiction of the goddess outside modern times, there is confusion and people consider Madhav Narayan idol as Swasthani. Many take the Madhav Narayan Jatra and Swasthani Brata as the same.
Swasthani Brata at Sali Nadi, Sankhu
Swasthani celebrants gather at the river Sali Nadi in Sankhu and reside at the ashram there throughout the festival. Sankhu is also known as Shankharapur because the town structure resembles Sankha, the conch shell. According to the Swasthani Brata Katha, Goddess Parvati bathed at the Sali Nadi river and performed strict rituals seeking boons of getting married to Lord Shiva during Magh at the suggestion and guidance of Vishnu. There is the Sali Nadi temple dedicated to Swasthani and this yearly fair is held is known as Sali Nadi Mela. Therefore, it is customary to fast in the Shali Nadi area with the idol of Vishnu in the form of “Madhav Narayan” as a witness.
While women residents at Sali Nadi perform rituals like bathing, fasting, and reading Swasthani Brath Katha, the male residents participate as Saptarishi’ or seven sages, as per the tradition. This is a month of celibacy for the celebrants and they follow a strict diet of one meal (saltless and spiceless) a day and rituals to stay pure. They eat rice, milk, molasses, ghee, red radish (daikon), oranges, and apples, which are usually offerings from the pilgrims visiting Sali Nadi. They also avoid basics like sleeping on warm beds, roofs over their heads, and wearing shoes. Their every day routine for a month is to get up at 04:00 hours, take a bath to offer worship to Swasthani and Vishnu, and read the religious text.
They either spend their day singing devotional songs or tracing the path of Lord Vishnu mentioned in Manishail Mahabadan.
On the concluding day of Swasthani Brata, all devotees make the last ritual to Goddess Swasthani, they wrap the Swasthai Brata Katha book in a red cloth and carefully shelved it in a shrine room at home for the next 11 months.
This religious book is never opened or even taken out of the shelf otherwise.