Yele Dong and Maghe Sankranti

Written by Pradip Khambu Rai
February 02, 2021

Every great civilization has experienced an intrinsic need to own a calendar. Sometimes this necessity isn’t just to document solar or lunar cycles, seasonal changes, and find appropriate dates. It is also because a calendar’s presence helps define the glorious history of a people and exhibit that history to the world. For the Kiratis, who had ruled the Nepal valley (Kathmandu) for 1903 years (Gopalavamshali) and have found mention in countless manuscripts and chronicles across the world, a calendar commemorating their reign and history had become an important, albeit an exaggerated need. Hence, Yele Samvat (Yele Neri) was introduced a decade ago.

Yele Samvat is the name of the Kirati calendar and Yele Dong, the New Year, means the year of Yalambar. It is named after the first Kirati King Yalam, who initiated the Kirati dynasty that lasted for almost two millennia. About a decade ago, Kirati Khambu Rai organizations from Nepal, Darjeeling, and Sikkim came together to invent a Calendar that would be called Yele Neri or Yele Samvat. The calendar’s first date was chosen on the presumed day that Yalambar had marched into the Nepal valley, defeated the Mahisapala King Nimisa, and established the Kirati dynasty.

Of course, the date and year are highly debatable as history during that period wasn’t documented all too well. Much of Kirati history in the Himalayas rely upon a single manuscript named Gopalavamshali which mentions that the year Yalambar ascended the throne wasn’t some 5000 years ago but falls close to around 1750 BCE. However, in 2021, the Yeledong year is 5081 and how the organizations came up with the specific date and year of Yalambar’s consolidation of the Kirat Empire is a mystery. There is also no evidence that Yalambar conquered the Nepal valley on the first day of the month of Magh.  

While innocent Khambus have accepted this calendar without questioning its reliability or need, most remain confused regarding the Yele Dong New Year date. The first day of the year was chosen to coincide with the Hindu festival of Maghe Sankranti but that has created a massive misunderstanding among gullible Khambus. Maghe Sankranti is the Nepali equivalent to the Hindu Makar Sankranti, a solar-related event. In contrast, all Khambu events, festivals, and rituals are observed according to the lunar cycles. Perhaps there were logical reasons behind the choice of this particular date but for the common Khambus this has become a confusing event and a large number of them have come to believe that Maghe Sankranti is a Kirati festival.

Yele Samvat, which was initiated by modern human intervention has a limited social context among Kirati Khambus. We do not see any major social celebration or events of significance linked to this calendar. Most Khambus don’t even know at any given day in a year as to what date of Yele Dong it is. This is perhaps the reason why Khambus have started to believe that the Hindu Maghe Sankranti is their festival instead of simply celebrating it as the New Year.

For the Hindus, Makar Sankranti, also called Uttarayan, marks the end of winter.  It is the period in which the sun enters the zodiac sign of Capricorn (Makar) which marks the end of winter months and the beginning of longer days. Such a festival or occasion doesn’t find mention in any Kirati tradition or the Mundhum (Kirati oral narrative). Khambus have tried to link this occasion to the “Gali Sarap Bagaune” ritual but this ritual can happen on any given date and isn’t a unique Khambu tradition either. Gathering by the river to celebrate it creates further confusion because it’s prevalent among the Hindus to observe the ritualistic Makar immersion/dip during Maghe Sankranti.

There is no doubt that in many South Asian countries, especially where Hinduism had at some point in history been dominant, the first day of Magh is considered auspicious. To the Kiratis, who had always looked at seasonal changes in nature and lunar cycles to create a timekeeping system, a solar event wasn’t particularly significant. If the first day of the Yele Samvat calendar has been fixed and changing it would become more confusing, it is up to the Khambus to understand and inform that the celebration of Yeledong has got nothing to do with Maghe Sankranti.  

Today, the Yele Samvat calendar doesn’t hold any social relevance among the Khambus. Sakela, which is the biggest festival of the Kirati Khambus, follows the Bikram Samvat calendar. Rawa and Nuagi too, do not correspond to Yele Samavat.  So if the Khambu Rai community collectively, does not demonstrate any traditional, emotional or intellectual response to this new calendar, its relevance perhaps only attempts to answer to a persistent identity crisis. Granted, it is important but a successful propagation of a cultural event must also be viewed through the prism of distinctiveness and authenticity. However, this calendar has failed to exude that.

Among innumerable Khambus, who have spent their lives predisposed to Hindu ideology, creating cultural awareness demands caution and responsibility. Yeledong is supposed to respond to the impact of organized religions upon Khambu tribal culture in a way that reflects and asserts identity and relevance through Kirati history and its glory. It should have played a role in providing an exalted narrative and facilitating a sense of agency, which could have allowed the tribe to form a coherent sense of self. But it’s the year 5081 and many Khambus are more confused than ever!

Pradip Khambu Rai

Pradip Rai is a writer and researcher studying the ethnic culture and history of the Himalayan Tribes.

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