Saka Dawa: A Spiritual Mela in Katmandu!

Our dear friend Dechen Tsering reports from Katmandu, Nepal on a unique, fascinating celebration of the 15th Day of Saka Dawa. Thanks, Dechen!

Saka Dawa
Chenresig, the Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche

Guest post by Dechen Tsering

Saka Dawa for Tibetan Buddhists is among the most sacred months, celebrating the birth, honoring the enlightenment and commemorating the parinirvana of the Buddha! The 15th day of Saka Dawa is most sacred with all virtuous deeds allegedly multiplying 100 million times! It is THE day to accumulate positive merits in one’s life through prayers, prostrations, and positive actions. (Everyday should be that holy really).

In Nepal, the ‘Himalayan’ Buddhists celebrate this occasion as Buddha Jayanti during that month but every few years this holy day coincides with the 15th day of Saka Dawa. This year was such a day and I happened to be in Katmandu to experience this holy day after decades. I felt deeply blessed!


Offerings to and from the Spiritual Pilgrims

The ritual for the 15th day (full moon) has the feel of a Spiritual Mela! Buddhist pilgrims of all ages, sects, shades, shapes and sizes begin ceremonial circumambulations of the holiest Buddhist sites starting on the eve. My cousins and I chose to circumambulate the holy hill atop which stands the majestic Swoyambhu Stupa overlooking the Kathmandu valley. Not being too ambitious, we woke up at 2am to begin our circumambulations at 3pm. 

Armed with my headlight and our rosary beads dangling religiously from our left hand, we merged into the crowd of pilgrims in the semi-dark path at the foot of the holy hill. Dim streetlights and decorative lights over giant statues and temples lit the dark path. Hundreds of butter lamps glittered in the dark like dancing dakinis welcoming the birth of Baby Buddha!

It wasn’t long before my cousins and I lost each other in the crowd that had already gathered there. Colorful tents lined with jars of free drinking water and juices were already set up with many pilgrims taking shelter or taking a much-needed snooze. It had been raining few hours earlier, which added to the challenge of the pilgrims who were performing full body prostrations around the Swoyambhu hill – millions of truly hard-earned positive merits!

The rest of us walked past them feeling both admiration and a whiff of guilt that passed as fast as we whisked past these hard-working pilgrims – some drenched in mud from the aftermath of the rain. Their ‘moral support’ friend walking slowly along side them holding refreshments and other paraphernalia for the 5-9 hour spiritual exercise! Hats off to them!

A 2 a.m. start on the kora Sakadawa
A 2 a.m. start on the kora Sakadawa

There was no dearth of fuel or fodder for the all-night pilgrims on this spiritual quest! Every few yards, there was large open tents setup by various “clubs” offering free food – puris, spicy aloo-chaana, etc. for the footloose pilgrims. A Tibetan group was even offering Tingmo (steamed dough), shogo khatsa (spicy potatoes) and “hot [vegetarian] momos!” – that stopped me in my track long enough to take a few pictures.

As dawn broke and more pilgrims joined the spiritual journey around Swoyambhu, murmurs of excited chatting among the less serious and holy chants from the more serious filled the air around the Swoyambhu hill. Meanwhile, eager club volunteers tirelessly announced free drinks and food to fuel the pilgrims.  Many of these “clubs” had young Nepali and Tibetan men and women volunteers offering anything from black coffee, juice, deysi, etc. to even a buffet meal all through the night!! A group of Nepali volunteer “dudes” offered some ‘cool’ poses for the camera proud to be volunteers.

Meanwhile, numerous tea shops along the pilgrimage path opened late at night to customers offering everything from freshly fried sheyl-rotismarphas, and platters of irresistible puris and spicy aloo chanas served with steaming chai.  With food and drinks galore, some Nepali youth were clearly there for a good all night party more than for the actual pilgrimage.

On the other end of the spectrum, the elderly pilgrims determined to complete at least one, if not more, rounds of the stupa with helping hands struck me. For instance, on my final round, I walked along two elderly Tibetan Molas (grandmas). The first was in her late 80s with an assistant and the second one, a feisty independent 90-year old petite Mola with a delightfully joyful smile! I left her company with a smiling heart.

Offering free food to the pilgrims
Offering free food to the pilgrims

Final Koras on the Morning of the 15th Day of Saka Dawa

Chenresig, the Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche
Chenresig, the Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche

As we completed our fourth round, I finally reunited with my cousins. Just then, clouds parted to let the soft glow of dawn smile down on this meritorious mob snaking our way around the holy hill. We were grateful that the weather had cooperated so well – perhaps taking pity on the full-body prostration pilgrims. One of the biggest acts of giving on this day is that of money to the thousands of beggars that gather especially on this day. Some travel in busloads from India with five-six children, who are also encouraged by their parents to beg. I am told that some make a year’s worth on this one day!

Families of Nepali and Indian beggars camp out days in advance along the circumambulation route in anticipation of the big day of giving! Some of us oblige by offering alms (money) with compassion but in reality, taming one’s tendencies toward anger is perhaps the biggest challenge in this charitable exercise. Some beggars, mostly the children, confuse benevolent pilgrims by moving up the line in the hopes of getting a second dip at the money offerings!

My personal practice is that I give only to adult beggars and not the children. I have never felt comfortable with beggar parents encouraging their children to beg even as infants. Of particularly interest in this line of ‘beggars’ are the long rows of Indian Sadhus (hermits) and the monks who usually tend to get more money from pilgrims. Strikingly, there are very few Tibetan beggars in general, something for Tibetans to be proud of as a community.

By the end of the fifth round around the Swoyambhu hill, our feet began to complain and at the end of the 6th round, they rebelled like strong-willed adolescents. As if to proclaim a collective protest, my iPhone that functions as my camera suddenly went into an unannounced “retreat” mode and shut down completely at the very end of the 6th round! 

The blazing morning sun made it hard to go another round so we proclaimed ‘mission accomplished’ and chanted a final prayer at the foot of the three giant statues of the compassionate Chenresi, Lord Buddha, and Guru Rinpoche before leaving the sacred site. Lightened by a big bag of coins and currencies, and glowing in the hallo of a spiritually blessed ritual with thousands of other pilgrims, I felt blissfully tired. 

Interestingly, there appeared to be many more pilgrims of Himalayan ethnicity, people from various mountain tribes along the border between Nepal and Tibet, than Tibetans in the crowd, particularly before dawn broke. [I was told that there generally is a decline in the number of Tibetans in Nepal due to many families migrating to the West].

All night and morning, a cacophony of sounds, smells and spiritual songs filled the atmosphere.  For a good six hours, we soaked in this holy mixture as if it were a concoction for a healthy soul! I’ve never experienced the famous Kumbha Mela in India, but being present at this year’s Saka Dawa Tsepa ChoeNga in Kathmandu, is the Spiritual Mela I will remember for years to come!

Updated on February 18, 2020. First published on June 3, 2013.

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