Preserving Indigenous Knowledge: A Study of the Sithi Nakha Festival of the Newar Community

DAMAYANTI NEPAL*

Introduction to the Festival

Sithi Nakha festival exhibits a religious and eco-friendly celebration in the Newar community.[1] During the festival, the Newar community honour Lord Kumar (Sithi Dyo) on his birthday.[2] According to Mr. Tejeshwor Babu Gongah, a cultural anthropologist, “Sithi Nakha” is derived from two words: Sithi (derived from the Sanskrit word “shashthi”), meaning “sixth”, and Nakha (a Newari word), meaning “festival”.[3] Sithi Nakha is, thus, a festival of the Newars, celebrated on the sixth day of the waxing moon, in the month of Jestha of the Nepal Sambat calendar.[4] The festival is also known as “Kumar Shasthi”.[5]

The festival reminds the community of their family deity as they make offerings to their ancestral gods (kul devtas). At the same time, the Newar community participates in cleaning wells, spouts, pati and pauwa, and their periphery to invite good luck for the upcoming monsoon.[6] They believe that rulers of water sources, Nagas (a kind of snake like serpent) will leave the water sources[7] in search of places with abundant water.[8] The Newars strongly believe that the absence of Naga Devata makes it apt to clean water sources around the surrounding.[9] The festival represents religious, environmental, pedagogical, and socio-anthropological significances.[10] Eight-petal design (pikha lakhu)[11] which represents Lord Kumar is carved on a stone and is dwelled at the main entrance of the Newar community’s houses in Bhaktapur. It is regarded to be a place for Kumar.[12] (It has also been said to represent Goddess Prthivi.)[13] 

Human societies across all communities have developed rich sets of skills, values and experiences relating to the environment they live in. The mentioned knowledge systems are today often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge, or indigenous, or local knowledge.[14]  (Further explained below). Aforementioned forms of knowledge have since long assisted humans by offering numerous interactions with nature, via sanitizing the environment, saving environment, and allocate the economic use of resources through religious practices[15], and also aid farmers in planning and preparing for the forthcoming agricultural season.[16] Activities performed in the Sithi Nakha festival have sustainable and protective effect on environmental components like water, plants and animals. While in the Taleju Mandir, they make offerings to Lord Kumar by making a pikha lakhu,[17] thus signifying religious and environmental importance of the festival. Prior to 1950, water taps in Kathmandu valley were maintained by such festivals.[18] Since the festival ensures cleanliness of water and water-tap-architectures, the festival holds practical significance as well.[19] Festivals like Sithi Nakha which protects the tangible aspect of architectures, also preserves the intangible aspects like aesthetic beauty of a place.[20] Further it is indicated that there are two functions of the festival; latent and manifest functions. Latent function is to provide solidarity to patrilineal group and offer re-union its members. The manifest function is to get blessing from Kumar and Dewali pujas among endogamous group.[21]

Pikha Lakhu

According to Mr. Gongah, “pikha” means “outside” and “lakhu” means “the rivers nearby”.[22] “Lakhu” also means “path” or “road”.[23] Pikha lakhu is a Mandap that has been skillfully drawn, having eight petal figures dwelling at the entrance of the doors, outside of each Newari house. The Newar community believe that the Mandap is a symbolic icon to represent Kumar.[24] Furthermore, it is a reminder of the birthday of Lord Kumar.

Realizing from above context, Sithi Nakha is one of the main festivals celebrated in the Newar community. It has its own distinctive features: the time of celebration, ritual phenomenon, socio-cultural and environmental significances, and so on.

[The author requested a pandit, Mr. Prakash Raj Upadhaya, for clarity regarding the structure of the Mandap. On her request, he drew the art of the Mandap which is shown in Figure-1]

Mandap as shown in Figure-1 consists of:

  • Swastika (wisdom);
  • Asta patra / Padma puspa (particularly lotus petals);
  • Swadasha patra (more petals);
  • Samundra (ocean);
  • Diyo– (fire)
Figure-1: Mandap (Pikha lakhu)

The figure indicates that Mandap has integrated form of substantial fact of life values. Through worship of Kumar on the Mandap, religious and social facts are correlated with Sithi Nakha festival, representing own kind of indigenousness. It is symbolic art which relates the sacred physical things to spiritual belief through ritual act.[25] Sacred physical things refer to objects like materials and Mandap, whereas spiritual belief includes harmonious relationships among members, belief toward God, mutual relationships, etc.

Festivals as Social Facts

Festivals can be celebration of the sacred, the dead, ancestors, and of seasonal changes. They have existed among all societies across time, and are thus, social facts.[26] For Emile Durkheim, there are two kinds of mental representation in an individual: individual and collective representations. Collective representations can be seen during the creation of festivals, wherein fusion of individual representations through “collective effervescence” takes place. Such collective representation has larger coercive or constraining power than individual representations. This explains the coercive or constraining power of social facts.[27]  Social facts, according to Durkheim, comes from the social community and socializes its members.[28] Newars celebrate their festivals due to natural forces, which are external to their control, which again supports the fact that such acts are “social facts”. Durkheim defines social fact as “every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.”[29]

However, despite such festivals being a social fact, knowledge and practices attributed to the festival are slowly disappearing due to modernization of society and culture.[30] Decline in such practices can also be attributed to the declining importance of the ancient water resources like wells, stone spouts, etc.[31] The practice exists largely where the residents are local,[32] and therefore, urbanization and globalization have been a threat to such festivals.

Indigenous Knowledge and its ways of Transmission

Indigenous knowledge exists in local context and is attributed to a particular community in a particular time in a particular geographical location.[33] It has been viewed that indigenous knowledge is categorized into individual knowledge, distributed knowledge, and communal knowledge.[34] Firstly, individual knowledge is within the individual inside family without any connection, communication and sharing with the community. Secondly, distributed knowledge is with some members of a group but not among all the members of the group. Thirdly, communal knowledge means that knowledge available to virtually all members of a group.[35]Another scholar, Marglin defined knowledge in terms of four characteristics; epistemology, transmission, innovation and power.[36] Sithi Nakha festival is specific to Newar Community which might have evolved since prehistoric times. Social facts like festivals are created from “collective effervescence”. Later it is gradually learnt by generation and generation, passing informally through experience.

The Sithi Nakha festival carries scientific significance. The Mandap as well, is constructed based on the science composing of five-matter. This composition signifies the composition of the whole universe. There are symbols of power, wisdom, and spirituality from where we can draw educational implication.  Pedagogically, we can teach the mathematical contents out of this Mandap. The shapes are similar to the geometrical shapes that are taught in schools. If we could link those shapes and sizes to mathematical education, we could have simultaneous contribution on the indigenous knowledge preservation pragmatically.  As outlined by sociological and anthropological theories, Sithi Nakha has also envisaged the practices of power relations, ethno-science, and environment conservation practices.  As per educational theories’ suggestions, pedagogic contextualization of the Mandap has the potential of harnessing mathematical, scientific, as well as literature related contents that can be extracted and applied into the classroom. Ethnographic theories of sociology also urge that we need to be attached with the community in the same way.[37]  Sociology of education theory also sets such premises. If new generations can recognize and draw the pedagogical matters from the society, it has the better result in terms of achieving and preserving indigenous knowledge. Since festivals and indigenous knowledge have various environmental importance,[38] it becomes even more important to perverse such knowledge.[39] However, such indigenous practices and knowledge have been neglected by the government.[40] Since such knowledge is not codified, and since collection of such knowledge itself is laborious[41]  and time consuming; they are largely neglected. Therefore, transferring knowledge among generations becomes important.[42] Preserving knowledge through education can be an effective measure.[43] Incorporating such knowledge and practice into curriculum in early school levels can be even more effective.[44] Symbolic and decorative means of communications are used for transmission of indigenous knowledge.[45] Therefore, using the symbolic representations found in pikha lakhu in textbooks of early childhood education, can be an effective way to preserve such knowledge.

According to Micheal Polanty, there are two types of knowledge: implicit (or tacit) and explicit. Implicit and explicit have been largely understood as ones that cannot be articulated, and ones that can be articulated, respectively.[46] Emerging knowledge in society makes it mandatory for society to manage both explicit and implicit knowledge. Due to cultural imperialism, encroachment from modern culture and short-comings in oral transmission of knowledge, it creates an implicit danger of extinction of indigenous knowledge. At the same time, there exists caste hierarchical system. There are large numbers of complex form of caste, sub-caste and sub-groups structure. They are associated with superiority and inferiority perceptions. This again creates a danger of extinction of knowledge that the lower castes might have. Therefore, the solution is effective transmission of knowledge expressed in festivals and customs, whether explicit or implicit.

Conclusion

The Sithi Nakha festival keeps all family members, including married sisters and daughters,[47] bound together in a social thread.[48] It indicates that the customs (Sithi Nakha) brings solidarity among Newar families through religious paths. However, currently, it has been overshadowed by individual-level of celebration[49] while the ritual act, in fact, is a collective way of participating in puja towards Kumar, kul devta, and spiritual realities. Therefore, the lack in “collective effervescence” might also indicate why such indigenous knowledge behind festivals have been declining, since this negatively impacts communal knowledge.

Newars have own kind of indigenous knowledge, skill, art, and ritual practices. Newar community inhabit their own kind of distinct society, bearing ancient epistemology, wisdom, knowledge, skills, endogenous or cosmological belief, folklore, customs, oral tradition associated with nature and valuable sources for foods, ritual, intrinsic, spiritual, customs, religious, and cultural significance of society. Their customs hold unique indigenous knowledge, and to protect such knowledge from extinction, it is important to implant such knowledge into young mind through formal education, be it though symbols, language, geometry, etc. The symbolic representations made in pikha lakhu, can be made a part of geometry studies in schools. Nepali festivals and celebrations largely include symbolic representations. Inclusion of such symbols into curriculums of arts and mathematics at the school-level can largely help in transmission of indigenous knowledge through effective communication, which helps in preservation of such knowledge. Therefore, such methods of making the new generation aware, directly or indirectly, of existing indigenous knowledge holds large importance.

[For the purpose of the article, the author has undertaken primary research as well. The views expressed in this article are personal.]

*The Guest Author is an MPhil graduate from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She has been assisted by Sankalpa Koirala for the purpose of this article.


[1] Rastriya Samachar Samiti, ‘Newars celebrate Sikhi Nakha festival’ The Kathmandu Post (Kathmandu, 10 June 2016) <https://thehimalayantimes.com/kathmandu/newars-celebrate-sithi-nakha-festival> accessed 6 May 2021

[2] Editorial, ‘Newar people observing Sikhi Nakha festival today’ Imagekhabar.com (6 April 2021) < https://www.imagekhabar.com/news/16743/ > accessed 6 May 2021

[3] Asmita Manandar, ‘Sithi Nakha: The Newar Environment festival’ (NGO forum for Urban Water & Sanitation, 3 June 2011) < http://www.ngoforum.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=11305 > accessed 6 May 2021

[4] Republica, ‘Sithi Nakha: More than tradition’ myRepublica (Kathmandu, 2 June 2017) < https://myrepublica.nagariknetwork.com/mycity/news/sithi-nakha-more-than-tradition > accessed 6 May 2021

[5] ‘Sithi Nakha’ (Vishram Society) < http://vishramsociety.org.np/sithi-nakha/ > accessed 6 May 2021

[6] Mira Tripathi, ‘A Comparative Evaluation of Stone Spout Management Systems in Heritage and non-Heritage Areas of Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’ (PhD thesis, Lincoln University 2016); Prachanda Pradhan and Upendra Gautam (eds), Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems and Governance  Alternatives (Farmer Managed Irrigation System Promotion Trust, 2005)

[7] Mira Tripathi, ‘A Comparative Evaluation of Stone Spout Management Systems in Heritage and non-Heritage Areas of Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’ (n 6) 92.

[8] Ranjan Prakash Shrestha and Keshav Lall Maharjan, ‘Climatic Change and Indigenous Knowledge and Practices with Reference to Traditional Water Resource Management in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’ (2018) 24 (1- 2) Journal of International Development and Cooperation < https://ir.lib.hiroshima-u.ac.jp/files/public/4/45249/20180316092155767368/JIDC_24-1_17.pdf > accessed 6 May 2021

[9]‘Sithi Nakha: A Traditional Cultural Festival for Environmental Conservation’ (Tunza Eco Generation, 18 June 2016) <https://tunza.eco-generation.org/ambassadorReportView.jsp?viewID=9823 > accessed 6 May 2021

[10] Asmita Manandar, ‘Sithi Nakha: The Newar Environment festival’ (n 3).

[11] Siddhi B. Rajnitkar, ‘Sithi Nakha’ (Kathmandu metro, 16 June 2013) < http://www.kathmandumetro.com/culture/sithi-nakha-1 > accessed 6 May 2021

[12] Asmita Manandar, ‘Sithi Nakha: The Newar Environment festival’ (n 3).

[13] Robert I. Levy, ‘Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organisation of a Traditional Newari City in Nepal’ (University of California Press 1991) ch 15, 512  

[14] Douglas Nakashima, Lyndel Prott and Peter Bridgewater, ‘Tapping into the World’ Wisdom’, (UNESCO Sources, 2000) < https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000120209 > accessed 6 May 2021

[15] Ranjan Prakash Shrestha and Keshav Lall Maharjan, ‘Climatic Change and Indigenous Knowledge and Practices with Reference to Traditional Water Resource Management in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’ (n 8) 18.

[16] Rishikesh Pandey, ‘Religion, Rainfall and Rice: Social-Ecological Interpretation of Festivals in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’ (2018) 3 Studies on Religion and Culture in Asia < https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Religion%2C-Rainfall-and-Rice%3A-Social-ecological-of-Pandey/04469eae329b42aa61ebcfb228895322c377db18 > accessed 7 May 2021

[17] Robert I. Levy, ‘Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organisation of a Traditional Newari City in Nepal’ (n 13).

[18] Ranjan Prakash Shrestha and Keshav Lall Maharjan, ‘Climatic Change and Indigenous Knowledge and Practices with Reference to Traditional Water Resource Management in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’ (n 8) 18.

[19] Bhandari, Roshan Bhakta, Norio Okada, and J. David Knottnerus, ‘Urban Ritual Events and Coping with Disaster Risk: A Case Study of Lalitpur, Nepal’ (2011) 5 (2) Journal of Applied SocialScience <www.jstor.org/stable/23548972> accessed 7 May 2021

[20] Upendra Sapkota, ‘Culture and City Planning in the Era of Globalization and Modernity’ (2013) 1 Reflections on the Built Environment and Associated Practices: Essays in honor of Professor Sudarshan Rai Tiwari < https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339472175 > accessed May 7, 2021

[21] Gopal Singh Nepali ‘The Newars of Nepal’ (PhD thesis, University of Bombay 1959)

[22] Asmita Manandar, ‘Sithi Nakha: The Newar Environment festival’ (n 3).

[23] Robert I. Levy, ‘Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organisation of a Traditional Newari City in Nepal’ (n 13) 262.

[24] Bhagwan Ratna Tuladar, ‘Pikha Lakhu: A forgotten Newar Heritage’ (Spaces Nepal, December 3 2016) < http://spacesnepal.net/2016/12/03/pikha-lakhu-a-forgotten-newar-heritage/ > accessed 7 May 2021

[25] ibid.

[26] Laurent Sébastien Fournier, ‘Traditional Festivals From European Ethnology to Festive Studies’ (2019) 1 (1) Journal of Festive Studies <https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02463860/document> accessed 7 May 2021

[27] Warren Schamaus, ‘Durkheim and Methods of Scientific Sociology’ in Lee McIntyre and Alex Rosenberg (eds), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Social Science (Routledge 2016) 20-21

[28] Patricia Snell Herzog, ‘Social Fact’ The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (20 December 2018) 1 <https://doi.org/10.1002/9781405165518.wbeoss151.pub2> accessed 7 May 2021

[29] ibid.

[30] Ranjan Prakash Shrestha and Keshav Lall Maharjan, ‘Climatic Change and Indigenous Knowledge and Practices with Reference to Traditional Water Resource Management in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’ (n 8) 21.

[31] Mira Tripathi, ‘A Comparative Evaluation of Stone Spout Management Systems in Heritage and non-Heritage Areas of Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’ (n 6) 98.

[32] ibid 10.

[33] Louis Granier, Working with Indigenous Knowledge, a Guide for Researchers (International Development Research Center 1998) 1

[34] Kamal Maden, Ramjee Kongren and Tanka Maya Limbu, ‘Documentation of Indigenous Knowledge, Skill and Practices of Kirata Nationalities with Special Focus on Biological Resources’  < http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/rarebooks/downloads/Maden_Indigenous_Knowledge.pdf > accessed 7 May 2021

[35] ibid 3.

[36] Stephen A. Marglin, ‘Towards the Decolonization of the Mind’ in Frédérique Apffel, and Stephen A. Marglin (eds) Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture, and Resistance (Oxford University Press 1990) 24

[37] Hayley Yvonne Price, ‘Analyzing Ethnographic Research in Indigenous Knowledges in Development Studies: An Anti-Colonial Inquiry’ (Master’s Thesis, University of Toronto 2011)

[38] Bhandari, Roshan Bhakta, Norio Okada, and J. David Knottnerus, ‘Urban Ritual Events and Coping with Disaster Risk: A Case Study of Lalitpur, Nepal’  (2011) 5 (2) Journal of Applied Social Science <http://www.jstor.org/stable/23548972> accessed 7 May 2021.

[39] Ministry of Science Technology and Environment, Indigenous and Local Knowledge and Practices for Climate Resilience in Nepal: Mainstreaming Climate Change Risk Management in Development (ADB TA-7984 NEP: Indigenous Research (44168-012), 2015)

[40] Subodh Sharma, Roshan Bajracharya and Bishal Sitaula, ‘Indigenous Technology Knowledge in Nepal- A review’ (2009) 8 (4) Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge < http://nopr.niscair.res.in/bitstream/123456789/6260/1/IJTK%208%284%29%20569-576.pdf > accessed 7 May 2021

[41] Patrick Ngulube, ‘Managing and Preserving Indigenous Knowledge in the Knowledge Management Era: challenges and opportunities for information professionals’ (2002) 18 (2) < https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/026666602400842486  > accessed 7 May 2021

[42] ECOSOC ‘Indigenous People’s Traditional Knowledge Must be Preserved, Valued Globally, Speakers Stress as Permanent Forum Opens Annual Session’ (22 April 2019) Meetings Coverage and Press Releases HR/5431

[43] Wahab Ali, ‘An Indigenous Academic Prospective to Preserving and Promoting Ingenious Knowledge and Traditions: A Fiji Case Study’ (2016) 46 (1) Australian Journal of Indigenous Education <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/310781453 > accessed 7 May 2021

[44] Alicia Ranck Soudée, ‘Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge and Practice into ECCE: A Comparison of Programs in The Gambia, Senegal and Mali’ (2009) 11 Current Issues in Comparative Education  <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ847156.pdf> accessed 7 May 2021; Jessica Ball and Maureen Simpkins, ‘The Community within the Child: Integration of Indigenous Knowledge into First Nations Childcare Process and Practice’ (2004) 28 (3/4) American Indian Quarterly <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4138928> accessed 7 May 2021; Elisabeth Hangartner, ‘Integrating Indigenous Knowledge in Education and Healthcare in Northern Malawi: Pregnancy through Toddlerhood’ (2013) <https://corescholar.libraries.wright.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=cehs_student> accessed 7 May 2021

[45] Margeret Bruchac, ‘Indigenous Knowledge and Traditional Knowledge’ (2014) < https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1172&context=anthro_papers > accessed 7 May 2021

[46] Eric M. Straw, ‘Knowledge Management and Polanyi’ < http://polanyisociety.org/Nashotah%20House/Papers/Straw-original-pdf-KnowlMgmnt%20&Polanyi-5-23-16.pdf > accessed 7 May 2021

[47] Siddhi B. Ranjitkar, ‘Sithi Nakha’ (n 11).

[48] Ron McGiven ‘Religion’ in William Little (eds), Introduction to Sociology- 1st Canadian Edition (2015)

[49] Prachanda Pradhan and Upendra Gautam (eds), Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems and Governance Alternatives (n 6).

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