Tihar: The festival that celebrates the bonds between siblings

Tihar, the colorful festival in Nepal, is a heartfelt celebration of siblings' unbreakable bonds. Among its radiant lights and joyous customs, Bhai Tika, a day devoted to siblings, lies at its core.

This article takes you on a journey through the emotional essence of Tihar, uncovering the cherished traditions that honor the enduring connections between brothers and sisters.

From the vibrant festivities to the deep-rooted cultural values, explore how Tihar beautifully captures the love and unity shared within families, making it a truly heartwarming celebration of kinship and togetherness.

Tihar generally falls in the Nepali month of Kartik (October/November) and comes after a few weeks of Dashain. Dashain was mostly about the fight for good and against evil, but Tihar is about celebrating human bonds and pleasing Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.

Click here to know when Tihar starts this year.

How it all started?

One legend says that once upon a time, a girl called the Yamuna had a very ill brother. One day while Yamuna was worshiping for the health of her brother, Yama, the lord of death, visited her house to take the soul of Yamuna's brother. But before Yama could take her brother's soul, Yamuna asked Yama to take part in the puja (worship). 

Yama was quite impressed with Yamuna's worship and told her she could ask for a boon from him. In return, Yamuna asked for a healthy-long life for her brother, and this saved her brother from imminent death. And Tihar is marked to celebrate this brother-sister relationship. Actually, Yamapanchak is another name for Tihar. Yama means God Yama (god of death), and Panchak means five days. 

There is a slightly different version of this story. In this story, a Kirati King called Bali Hang fell mortally ill, and his sister Jamuna took care of him. When God of Death, Yamaraj, came to take the soul of King Bali, his sister asked Yamaraj to wait until she finished worshipping her brother. 

Yamaraj agreed, but while worshipping her brother, Jamuna set some conditions. The conditions were until the tika on Bali's head faded away, until the Makhamali (Gomphrena globosa) garland flower wilted, the water smeared on her brother's body dried, or the barrier she made with oil around her brother evaporated, Yamaraj cannot take her brother. 

So, each year Yamaraj would send his messengers to inspect the Makhmali flowers, but the flowers would not wilt. Hence Yamaraj granted Bali a long healthy life. For this reason, sisters worship their brothers during Tihar.

Another story tells that Yama and Yamuna were brother and sister. Yama, as the god of death, was always busy, and Yamuna could not meet her brother. So, Yamuna used a crow, a dog, and a cow to send a message to Yama, stating that she wanted to meet him. Still, Yama could not meet her sister. 

So on the fifth day, Yamuna went to the Yama herself and met her brother. She then put a five-color tika on Yama's forehead. So, from this day onwards, Tihar has been celebrated. 

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How is it celebrated?

As the second biggest Nepali festival, the Nepal government generally provides a three-day-long national holiday. This festival is unique because it includes praying animals such as crows, dogs, cows, and oxen. 

Here are the five days of Tihar and how we celebrate them. However, these five days may overlap or extend based on Bikram Sambat Calendar. 


Day 1

Kaag (Crow) Tihar marks the first day of Tihar. Hindus regard crows as messengers of the death god, Yama. So, Hindus pray to crows in hopes of appeasing them and warding off death for the coming year. Praying crows includes offering crows grains and seeds. 


Day 2

The second-day Kukur (Dog) Tihar is the day of the dogs, known for their loyalty to their masters. People who own dogs will worship them, and those who do not worship stray dogs. The worship includes putting a garland around the dog's neck and treating them with delicacies. Hindus believe that the god of death, Yama, has two dogs that guard the gates of hell. 

The story of dogs also shows up in other Hindu scriptures. Kala Bhairava, an avatar of Lord Shiva, has a dog as his vehicle. Mahabharat tells us the story of Yudhishthira, one of the Panch Pandava, who refuses to enter heaven without the dog that followed him on his way to heaven.


Day 3

On the third day of Tihar, Gai (Cow) Tihar and Lakshmi Puja, people celebrate cows. In Hinduism, cows are considered holy as vahana (vehicle) of Laxmi.

As Nepal has been an agricultural society for centuries, cows have become indispensable animals. Cow milk is used to make cheese, ghee, paneer, and other dairy products. Even cow urine is considered to be holy and full of health benefits. The dung is used as fertilizer and even burnt after baking in the sun.

So, during Gai Tihar, Hindus put a garland around the neck of cows and tika on their head and body. They then feed them with delicacies, often sel and roti.

The third day is also the day of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. To welcome Laxmi, the whole house and yards are cleaned, and Diyas (oil lamps made of clay pots) are set up around the home, windows, and doors in a pursuit to entice Laxmi. 

These days fancy electric decorative lights are set up in urban homes. In the evening, Hindus perform special Laxmi pooja (worship) for wealth and prosperity.

On this day, in the evening, young girls form groups and go around the houses in the neighborhood singing Bhailo (a type of song sung during Tihar). In return, house owners present them with small amounts of money and sweets. However, these days providing sweets is getting rarer. People also engage in creating fireworks during the night. However, recently Nepal government has restricted this practice. 


Day 4

The fourth day of Tihar is ox day, where oxen enjoy special treats and worship. Until recently, in Nepal, oxen were used as manual labor for agricultural purposes. However, presently the use of oxen has been very much restricted. 

In the evening, it is the turn of young men to visit homes around their neighborhood singing Deusi. The house owners present them with sweets and small amounts of money called Dakshina. However, these days, most people present those playing Deusi cash only.

The fourth day of Tihar often coincides with the first day of the Nepal Sambat calendar and is celebrated as Mha Puja. Ethnic Newars believe that Mha Puja purifies their soul. 

This day is also celebrated as Govardhan Puja, where a special pile of dung is worshiped as a form of Govardhan mountain. 

There is a story about the origins of Govardhan Puja. According to this mythology, as mentioned in Bhagavata Purana, cow herders living close to Govardhan Hill used to worship Indra, the god of rain and storm. However, Krishna advised against praying to other gods, except Purna Parmatma (Lord). 

So, the cow herders, on the advice of Krishna, stopped praying to Indra, which angered Indra, and in anger, Indra directed heavy rain in Govardhan Hill areas. To save villagers from this incessant rain and storm, Lord Krishna is said to have lifted Govardhan Hill and protected the villagers. Therefore, the day Krishna saved the villagers under Govardhan hill is celebrated as Govardhan Puja. 


Day 5

Bhai Tika is the last and most important day of Tihar. On this day, brothers and sisters worship each other, strengthening their bonds. The puja or worship is done in a special way.

The puja starts with sisters marking a barrier around where the brothers are seated using oil dipped in lemongrass. Offerings such as sweets and fruits are placed before the brothers. The barrier is created to stop death and other evil spirits from crossing this line. 

The sisters then apply oil to their brothers' hair and put a tika, consisting of seven colors, on their forehead. The sisters also put a garland made of Makhmali (Gomphrena globosa) flower around their brothers' necks and present them with sweets and confectionaries. These days during Tihar, you will find special boxes full of sweets and nuts in shops, and the sisters present these boxes to the brothers. 

The brothers also put the tika on their sisters' foreheads and present them with cash and other gifts such as new clothes.

Those siblings who do not have brothers or sisters visit Ranipokhari Temple in Kathmandu, and they put or receive tika there. Hindus believe that no one's forehead should be without tika on this day. Ranipokhari Temple is open to the public only on Bhai Tika.

The story behind the Deusi/Vailo tradition

Interestingly, there is a story behind the Deusi Bhailo tradition followed during Tihar. 

Once upon a time, a powerful demon King named Bali was performing a ritual that could give him ultimate power. Lord Vishnu saw this possibility and approached Bali, fully knowing the generosity of Bali. 

While the Bali's ritual was proceeding, Vishnu disguised himself as a Baman (a short person) and asked Bali to give him three steps. Bali agreed. Then, Vishnu enlarged himself. He covered all the space with his two steps and demanded that Bali allow him to place his third step on Bali's head. Bali could not refuse. Then Vishnu placed his third step on Bali's head and sent him to a dungeon. 

During Tihar, Hindus believe that Bali returns to Earth from the dungeon for five days of Tihar. To mark Bali's return to Earth during Tihar, the tradition of "deusire" started. 

Hence, etymologically, in "deusire", "deu" means “give” and "sire" means “head”. So deusire can be translated as "give me your head."

If you want to enjoy trekking during Tihar, you will not only be trekking during the best trek season but also be enjoying the festivities that Tihar brings. For a trek to Nepal during Tihar, call/Viber/WhatsApp us at +977-9840055491 or email [email protected].

Paul Gurung

Paul has an extensive experience in the tourism industry. Through his blogs, he shares his deep knowledge about the stunning trek regions in Nepal, inspiring trekkers worldwide to explore these regions and enrich their lives. In addition to geography, his writings delve into the human side of the trek regions, including culture, traditions, religions, and etiquette, offering a comprehensive and enriching perspective on the Himalayan trekking and expedition experience.