The Swasthani Purnima comes to an end today at Sankhu, 16 km from Kathmandu. After a month of fasting, worship and bathing in the frigid River Salidi, women will return to their homes with the hopes their wishes will soon be granted by the Goddess Swasthani.
Swasthani is the Hindu Devi, thought to grant the wishes of devotees and gods who show her a pure soul and dedicated worship. The Swasthani Purnima is the month long tribute to the Goddess through fasting, meditation and ritual bathing. It begins on the full moon of the Nepali month of Magh and ends on the full moon of the Nepali month of Phagun. The festival is split into two parts; one publicly showcasing female solidarity through group worship and the other encouraging family togetherness and literacy.
The public portion of the festival is at the Sali Nadi, near the Swasthani temple at Sankhu. Approaching the village in the early morning fog is an eerie experience. Hundreds of people slowly shuffle along the dirt road towards the river, dressed in red and carrying flowers and fruits. Women’s singing creeps through the fog, weaving its way between the worshipers. They seem hypnotized by it, as if it is the Goddess herself drawing them forward.
The temple floor is a sea of red bodies. Women huddle closely around small fires for warmth. Smiling, chatting and singing almost jubilantly, it is hard to believe the women have been fasting and mediating in the temple courtyard for a month. The camaraderie is obvious; strengthen by the hardship of eating only one meal a day and sitting and sleeping outside on a cement floor for 31 days during winter. It is thought those who spend a month performing the puja will be rewarded greatly for their dedication.
Outside the temple, the riverbank is the site where Goddess Parvati bathed during her month of meditations. At sunrise, and again after nine, when the local bus from Kathmandu arrives, the riverbank is full of bodies. Numbers are declining and most people come to float offerings in the waters or sprinkle water on themselves and their children.
The second part of the festival is more home orientated. Families gather in the evening for a meal and to read together from the sacred Brata Katha text. The Guru or oldest male member of the family will read the stories of Goddess Swasthani and how she rewards the hard work and dedication of both gods and worshipers. The Brata Katha contains 31 life lessons, split into a different chapter for each night of the festival. The stories describe her as a Deity above others as she has the powers to grant even the wishes of other Gods.
There are three main stories of Swasthani. The first is the popular love story of Sati Devi and Lord Shiva, which is the inspiration for the worship, fasting and bathing at Sankhu. Sati Devi, the daughter of a powerful King, was married to Lord Shiva. Her parents greatly disapproved of their common lifestyle and when they organized a great puja did not invite the couple. Sati Devi was so shamed by the insult to her husband that she went to the puja and threw herself on the fire.
When she was reborn as Pravati, Lord Shiva was too distraught with grief to recognize her. Pravati prayed to the Goddess Swasthani, during a month long mediation and fast. Goddess Swasthani rewarded Pravati’s dedication with a blessing and the promise that Shiva would again be her husband. Lord Shiva came to the river and tested Pravati. He was able to recognize Pravati as the reincarnation of Sati Devi and join her again in marriage. The second and third stories reinforce the message of being rewarded by Goddess Swasthani if one shows dedication and worship.
Tourists visiting Sankhu need to be aware only Hindus are allowed inside the temple but worship can be viewed easily from above the temple wall. Photographs of the worship are acceptable but do not take photographs of the women bathing. Nepal has a culture of modesty and it is insensitive to impose on the women’s privacy.
If you can afford a taxi or private car it is preferable to the bus. Local buses will take close to two hours to make the 16km trip and will be packed well beyond safe capacity, even by Nepal’s standards. If you enjoy the local bus, it can be caught from Ratna Park.