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Religions of Nepal

Traditional painted masks, Nepal
Bodhnath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal Colourful dyes used during Holi festival, Nepal
Above: Traditional painted masks, Nepal
  • Traditional painted masks, Nepal
  • Bodhnath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal
  • Colourful dyes used during Holi festival, Nepal

Some religions and customs may seem strange, complicated and at times unfathomable but to local people they are important, so travellers should always be respectful.

About 90% of Nepal's population is Hindu (which is the official state religion); with the rest mostly made up of Tibetan Buddhists.

Throughout the ages, there has always been a great deal of amalgamation of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Hindus have long worshipped at Buddhist temples and Buddhists at Hindu temples. The reason for this is that Hinduism and Buddhism have both evolved as dharmic religions. Because of this, the differences between Hindus and Buddhists are very subtle and academic in nature. For example, Hindus and Buddhists have never engaged in any religious conflicts for past millennia and many Hindus believe Buddha to be the 9th incarnation of the Hindu deity, Vishnu.

The Temple is a Hindu's place of worship and you may not always be allowed to visit if you are a non-Hindu. If you are allowed in, be respectful, take your shoes off before entering, don't take photos unless you have been given permission, and leave a few rupees in the donation box. Don't touch offerings or shrines, nor people when they're on their way to shrines or are in the process of worshipping. The front of the shrine is usually marked by a pedestal supporting the deity's carrier, and/or a lotus carved stone embedded in the ground: these define the territory of the shrine, where it's particularly important to be reverent.

Similar sensitivity is due at Buddhist temples and monasteries. Walk around Buddhist stupas and monuments clockwise – that is, keep the monument on your right – you can spin the prayer wheels if you wish. There is normally no problem to enter inside Buddhist temples but take off your shoes and don't take photos.

Main Important Religious Sites

Pashupatinath

This is the location of Nepal's holiest Hindu pilgrimage site. It is an interesting mix of temples, cremation ghats, ritual bathers and sadhus. As befits such an important site, modesty is required here and visitors should ensure their legs and arms are covered and that respect is given to the grieving families at the cremation pyres. Photography should not be considered here but a visit to the site can only increase the traveller's understanding of Hindu religious practices.

Lumbini

The site of Buddha's birth into this world, Lumbini does not feature heavily on most people's itineraries. Located almost on the Indian border, these days it is mostly international groups of people (particularly Japanese NGO's) that look after and maintain the site. Even at the time of the most important Buddhist festival (Buddha Jayanti) the site does not receive extreme numbers of visitors with most people, including monks preferring to celebrate in the cooler and more temperate hills.

Boudhanath

Located on the ancient Kathmandu – Tibet trade route, the great stupa at Boudhanath is one of the world's largest stupas and generally acknowledged as being the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet. The best times to visit the site are early morning or late evening, with the majority of tourists arriving through the day. At these quieter times, one can hear the resonance of monks chanting while observing pilgrims performing kora.

Swayambhu

Located on a hill looking over Kathmandu, this impressive stupa is a must-see site for most tourists spending any amount of time in Kathmandu. It is a great place to get your bearings and offers incredible views over the entire Kathmandu Valley. Over-run with tourists and monkeys, the temple complex is believed to date from the 5th Century and is perhaps Nepal's most profound expression of Buddhist symbolism. Some believe that an act of worship here is worth 13 billion times more merit than anywhere else. Easy to get to, if not so easy to climb, Swayambhu is worth a few hours of anyone's time.

Buddhist retreats

Increasingly popular, many people now want to get more involved and understand more about Tibetan Buddhism and to do so enrol in one or more Buddhist meditation courses. There are many options available, with varying degrees of credibility but one of the most popular places to take part in this is at Kopan Monastery, located on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Most courses at Kopan last a minimum of one week but it's easy to arrange shorter classes with someone like the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) in Kathmandu

Festivals

There are many Buddhist and Hindu festivals in Nepal throughout the year. The main ones are:

Dashain

Hindu in origin, Dashain is Nepal's longest and greatest festival and is embraced by members of all religious and ethnic groups. It lasts for fifteen days, from the new moon to the full moon of Asoj. Normally falling just after the summer rice harvest is in (Sep/Oct), the festival is a time for families to gather at home, children to be indulged and animals to be sacrificed. The tenth day of the festival is the liveliest with Kathmandu's Kumari (Living Goddess) bestowing Tika at her house in Durbar Square, while various processions and masked-dance troupes take to the streets.

Losar

Losar is the celebration of the Tibetan New Year and usually occurs sometime in February or March. It is preceded by three days of drinking, dancing and feasting. A time for families to be together, Losar is the highlight of the calendar in Buddhist highland areas, as well as in Tibetan settlements near Kathmandu and Pokhara.

Holi

Holi is one of the most popular and exciting festivals in the Hindu calendar and signifies the beginning of Spring. On the first day, bonfires are lit at night to signify burning Holika. The second day is when all the fun begins as people spend the day throwing coloured powder and water at each other. A truly memorable experience, but always wear old and faded clothes!

Buddha Jayanti

The anniversary of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death is celebrated on the full moon day of Baisaakh (April/May) at all Buddhist temples, but most visibly at Swayambhu in Kathmandu, where the freshly repainted Stupa is decorated with thousands of lights and ritual dances are performed. Processions can also be seen at the Boudha stupa and in Patan.

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