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Sakela Festival of the Kirat Rai Community

Jaya Kumar Rai
Vice president, Nepalese Association of Connecticut
General Secretary, United Kirat Rai Organization of America

It goes without saying that Nepal is a garden of cultural richness. We must be proud that we come from a place that is regarded as the land of festivals, biodiversity, and a host of different cultures.

Nepal is a home to more than 125 ethnic groups, each with a distinct set of customs and festivals. The Kirat Rai community is one of the many indigenous ethnic groups in Nepal. Inhabitants of this community live mostly in the hilly regions of eastern Nepal and follow its own distinct culture, with rituals and philosophy based on Mundhum, the ancient holy scripture of the Kirat people. In particular, the Sakela is the most important festival of the Kirat Rai community.

Sakela is the biggest celebration in the Rai community and is a practice that unites all of the groups within the Rai community. It involves celebrating nature and ancestors, and represents the historical identity and civilization of this community. It is celebrated with fanfare twice a year, with the names Sakela Ubhauli and Sakela Udhauli. The Sakela Ubhauli celebration occurs on the full moon day of Baishakh (April) and is observed for 10 days. Similarly, the Sakela Udhauli celebration takes place in the month of Mangsir, December.

The importance of this celebration dates back to the beginning of the Kirat community. Our ancestors always looked to nature for guidance, encouragement, and inspiration. In the days when the modern-day calendar did not yet exist, they used nature and the movements of the animals and birds to guide their daily life. For example, they observed that the birds flew towards the north or towards the places of higher altitude in order to escape the hot weather. When they observed fish swimming upward and migrating to cooler places, they knew summer was going to begin. Similarly, when they saw birds flying down towards the warm places, they knew that the cooler season would begin. The very first nomadic Kirat communities followed this animal behavior and pattern and would travel with the birds and animals during the two migration seasons.

Later, as the Kirat community shifted from being a nomadic society to an agricultural one, they continued to incorporate nature into their lives. They began doing the Sakela Ubhauli and Sakela Udhauli celebration in order to bless their crops. Before planting seeds, they worshipped bhumi, the land deity for better crops and favorable weather. This became Sakela Ubhauli, meaning upward. At the time of harvest, they also had a celebration to give thanks for their crops and to remember their ancestors. This became Sakela Udhauli, meaning downward. In both Sakela Ubhauli and Udhauli, there is a nachhung or dewa, a Kirati priest who performs and facilitates the worshipping ceremony.

Nakchho or Nachhung, Kirati priest, in their ritual attire

The main attraction of this festival is the ritual dance called Sakela dance performed by large groups of Kirats wearing their traditional attire. Children and adults, men and women of all ages dance together in a large circle with the beating of dhol and jhyamta (traditional drums and cymbals). The dance is led by a leader called silimangpa if it is a male and silimagma if it is a female who performs different dance moves called silis. All silis are divided into different categories: one is associated with agricultural work involved in planting and harvesting (such as scattering seeds, planting the paddy, digging, cutting the ripe crops, collecting, storing, etc.); another imitates animals and birds; another is related to the daily life of humans and leisure activities (i.e. combing hair, threading a garland, playing the binayo (a traditional Nepali instrument) walking to the market, etc.); another is related to hunting and war activities.

A circle of dancers performing a Sakela dance during the bhume puja
(annual ritual for the deities of the soil or land)

Today, the Sakela festival is observed around the globe by Kiratis as well as non-Kiratis. During this festival, all the Kirat Rais get together to celebrate life, be grateful to mother nature, the creator and protector. Sakela is not only a performance and ritual, but a depiction of civilization and history as well as a celebration of life itself.

References:
किरात खम्बु जातीको साकेला , संस्कृति र सभ्यता – देव किरात राई
Dancing who we are- Marion Wettstein https://bit.ly/37wiTRW
Influence of political changes in the Rituals of Kirat Community- Parbat Kumar Rai
The biggest festival of Kirats – Durga Maya Rai https://bit.ly/37zSmTT
The impacts of Modernisation on the traditional Sakewa Sili Festival in the Kirat Rai Community of Nepal: A case Study – Dik Bahadur Rai
साकेला सिलीको अर्थ खोज्दै किराती – गणेश राई
उँभौली पर्वको समाजशास्त्र- डा. तारामणि राई

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