What Makes the Yomari Punhi Festival in Nepal Special?
Nepal is a multi-ethnic society with various festivals unique to each community. Among the many ethnicities in Nepal, Newars are one of them. Roughly 4.6% of Nepal's population of 30 million are Newars. The word "Newar" sounds similar to "Nepal" and records indicate that the term "Newar," referring to the people of Nepal first appeared in an inscription dated 1654.
Even though Newar is an ethnic group, around 87% of Newars are Hindus, and 10% are Buddhists. However, they celebrate common festivals, including the Yomari Punhi, meaning the full moon of Yomari.
Newars observe Yomari Punhi for the bountiful rice harvest and pray to several deities - Ganesh (the god of luck), Kuber (the god of wealth), Kumar (the god of war), and Annapurna (the goddess of harvest). The chief deity worshipped is Annapurna. You will be surprised to learn that Newars make the deities from the dough itself.
The Yomari Punhi Festival, also known as Yomari Purnima, holds its roots in Newar culture, an indigenous community of the Kathmandu Valley. This festival celebrating bountiful rice harvest, falls in the Nepali month of Mangsir (November-December) and is celebrated on the full moon day, called Punhi/Purnima.
Yomari, a type of dumpling, is the central element of the festival, and it is a unique and traditional Newari delicacy. Though there are several shapes of yomari, the most common among them is the fish shape.
Origins and History
There are several stories on the origin of Yomari. Most of these stories agree that Yomari was first born in Panauti. Legends state that one couple in Panauti made Yomiuri and distributed it to the neighbors who loved it. Hence the name - Yomari, "Yo” meaning love or favorite, and ‘Mari” meaning bread.
The story goes on to say that Kuber, the god of wealth, was in Panauti disguised as a beggar, and Kuber also received Yomiuri. Kuber, being impressed by the couple's generosity, blessed them with wealth.
He also told the couple that he would bless anyone who prepares Yomiuri in the shape of the gods and goddesses on the full moon day with wealth. From then on, the Yomari Punhi festival started. Even today, the Newars congregate in huge numbers to celebrate this festival at the Dhaneshwor Mahadev temple in Panauti.
The historians argue that the Newars learned how to make Yomari from Tibetans, and the Tibetans, in turn, learned this skill from Koreans.
Another theory states that Yomari is a dish based on the Indian sweet - Modaka. The modakas, like Yomaris, are rice flour dumplings filled with jaggery and coconut instead of brown cane sugar (chaku/Molasses). Modaka is commonly prepared during the Hindu festival of Ganesha (the god of luck) Chaturthi and Ganesha is supposed to be like modakas. Hence, the name Yomari means the favorite bread of Ganesha.
Interestingly, the Nepali Himalayas used to separate two races - the Mongols north of the Himalayas and the Aryans south of the Himalayas. Nepal, as a crossroad between two races, became home to both Aryans and Mongols and ethnic Newars are a mix of Mongols and Aryans. Hence, it is difficult to ascertain whether Yomari is a product of Indian influence or Tibetan or may be of both.
Festivities and Rituals
The preparation for the Yomari Punhi starts days before the actual celebration. Families come together to Yomari. This culinary activity also acts as a bonding experience that strengthens familial ties and community spirit.
There is a tradition of building two types of yomari. Yomari, filled with chaku and sesame seeds, symbolizes male sexual organs, and the Yomaris, filled with black lentils, symbolize female sexual organs. Hence, in a way, Yomari is also a symbol of love and romance.
On the day of Yomari Punhi, the Newars wear their traditional dresses. The males don black dotted Daura Suruwal, and the females the distinct Haku Patasi. Some of them sing to the tune of the Dhime Baja while others dance. It is a great spectacle to watch the whole procession.
On the day of Yomari Punhi, the Newars visit each other's homes asking for Yomari, and this practice, known as “Yomrai Fanegu”, is associated with love and affection.
As people visit each others’ homes, they also get a chance to sneak peek at their desired partners. It used to be a big day in the past because, in those times, displaying love and affection was forbidden.
On the day of the festival, people visit temples, particularly the Annapurna Temple, to make offerings of Yomari to the goddess Annapurna, the deity of food and nourishment. The Newars also perform masked dances at Hari Siddhi and Thecho in Kathmandu Valley.
Puja and Cultural Performances
Devotees participate in traditional pujas (religious rituals) conducted by priests. The air comes alive with the melodious tunes of traditional Newari music and dance, adding a vibrant and cultural dimension to the festivities. These performances are not only a source of entertainment but also a way to preserve and showcase the rich cultural heritage of the Newar community.
Modern Adaptations and Innovations
While the Yomari Punhi Festival is deeply rooted in tradition, it has also seen modern adaptations and innovations. Contemporary variations of Yomari with different fillings and presentations have emerged, catering to diverse tastes. This blend of tradition and innovation ensures that the festival remains relevant to changing times.
The “Yomari Punhi” lies in winter, and yomari is supposed to keep the body warm. Newars consider yomaris auspicious and even use them to form a garland while celebrating even-numbered birthdays of Newari children below twelve. The number of yomaris signifies the age of the child.
So, what makes the Yomari Punhi Festival in Nepal special? It reflects Nepal's rich cultural heritage, religious diversity, and the spirit of communal harmony.
The rituals, festivities, and delicious yomari make this festival special. The Yomari Punhi also serves as a testament to how different races interact and how this interaction influences the lifestyles of the descendants.
As such, we are not aware of any other festival named after food. It reflects the importance Newars place on their cuisine, and, perhaps for this reason, Newari cuisine is very diverse and flavor-rich.
As Nepal continues to evolve, the Yomari Punhi Festival stands as a timeless symbol, connecting the past with the present and promising a sweet and prosperous future for all who partake in its joyous celebrations.
The Kathmandu has been a historically Newar valley. Newars ruled this valley before Prithivi Narayan Shah conquered it in 1768 AD. Hence, there are many Newari historical sites in Kathmandu. If you want to appreciate the contribution of the Newars in making Kathmandu what it is, we invite you for a Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Sites Tour.