Gunla: A Month-Long Festival to Gain Merit by Giving to Poor

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Chameli Shrestha can be seen climbing up the steps to Swaymabhu every morning these days. She walks all the way to the stupa from Asan early in the morning, whether it’s raining or not. Many even older than Chameli can be seen heading to the shrine nowadays, as it is the Gunla month, a time to pay homage to Buddhist monuments.   

Of course, the Newar community people in the Kathmandu Valley are now celebrating the Gunla festival at its fullest. For the Newars, Gunla, which is the 10th month of the lunar calendar Nepal Sambat, is the holiest month in the entire year. Gunla this year started from Shrawan 13 and will conclude on Bhadra 12.

According to Ras Joshi, lecturer at Patan Multiple Campus, Gunla is the month of gaining merit as the word itself is a combination of two words Guni and La meaning merit and month respectively in Nepal Bhasa. 

He added that during Gunla, people visit different Buddhist shrines, Chaityas and Bihars to pay homage and make offerings to those who are in need. As it is also taken as the month of purification, people eat pure and simple food during the month. Most of the people do not consume meat, ginger, garlic, onion, etc. in the month to maintain restraint of the body. 

During Gunla, Swayambhu plays a vital role as it has been the focal point to make pilgrimage for the Newa people. The Swayambhu Stupa, standing on the hill to the west of Kathmandu, regarded as one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the Kathmandu Valley, bustles with throngs of devotees during this month. From early morning everyday, hundreds of people reach Swayambhu and go around the Stupa for three times. 

People aged from 5 to 80 years are seen playing different kinds of traditional musical instruments in the holy site throughout the month. One visitor, thus, finds the air there filled with traditional music.

Surendra Manandhar, artist/music teacher of Nepal Bhasa, said that during the month of Gunla, favourite music of Lord Buddha is played so as to please him.

“As many natural calamities like flood and landslide occur during the month, we pray to Lord Buddha to save us from those calamities by playing his favourite music,” he added. 

According to him, during ancient times there used to be wild animals around as the settlements were not near the Buddhist temples. To alert those animals and keep the pilgrims safe from wild attack, people started playing traditional instruments like Dha, Naye Kheen, Dhime during the visit.

Both males and females are seen playing traditional music at present. Until a decade ago, only males used to be seen playing traditional music. 

Manandar said that people have become broadminded and allowed females to learn and play the traditional music. Earlier, people had a conservative mindset that females should not touch god and goddess and play traditional music during the mensuration period. So females were not allowed to learn it. But now both genders are welcomed to learn and play the traditional music.

The people who cannot make a pilgrimage to Swayambhu visit the nearest Buddhist temple, bahas and chaityas during the month.

Gunla signifies a lot for Newa community. A number of important festivals take place during the month of Gunla. They include Naag Panchami, Gunpunhi, Bahidyo Swowonegu, Saa Paru, Mataya Jatra, Panjaran and Krishna Janmastami.

According to culture expert Hari Ram Joshi, devotees visit Changunarayan, Bangalamukhi, Bijeshwori, Shova Bhagwati, Maruganesh, Janabahal, Suryabinayak and Dattatraya temples during the holy month. On the last day of the festival, they visit Bungamati, Karyabinayak, Jalbinayak and Adityanath temples.

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