Up until a few decades ago, this song could be heard in every neighbourhood of every Newa settlement of Kathmandu Valley on the full moon day of December (Marga Sukla Purnima). Kids used to wander around singing this song on the day of Yomari Punhi, taunting people into giving them their favourite plat du jour. It used to be quite the occasion and this scribe remembers his kids going around his tole bellowing this tune and getting literal trays of Yomari to take home.
Alas, this tradition seems to have very much vanished now but thank God, the tradition of cooking and feasting on Yamaris on the day of Yamari Punhi has not. Yomaris, made by steaming a cocoon of flour (made by grinding freshly harvested rice) encasing a sweet filling of either brown cane sugar (Chaku) or Khoa, is believed to bring prosperity, especially when prepared in the form of gods and goddesses. It is also believed to warm the body during the cold December days and prevent children from catching cold-induced diseases.
This year, Yamari Punhi is on Sunday, December 19, and this scribe would like to assure you that he plans to fill himself to the brim with the dumpling and dye his clothes in molasses. But, on the occasion, let us also explore the history and some lesser-talked about elements of this festival. The credit for inventing Yamari and starting Yamari Punhi goes to a married couple from Panchal (Panauti). Suchandra and Krita, as they were named, had a particularly good yield one year and to celebrate, they prepared flour from the harvested rice and cooked up a novel dish. Not wanting to enjoy alone, they shared the treat with all their neighbours. They also gave a few to a man passing by who, as it turned out, was the god of wealth Kuber.
Pleased by the couple’s generosity and delighted by the Yomari’s (named so because everyone that the couple gave the fish-shaped sweet to loved it: Ya – like, Mari – bread) taste, Lord Kuber proclaimed that whoever prepared Yamaris in the form of deities and observed four days of devotion would gain wealth and success. That is how Yomari Punhi began to be celebrated. People worship Kuber, Ganesh and Subhadra on this day and pilgrims flock to the Dhaneshwor Mahadev Temple in Banepa.
Masked dances are performed in Harisiddhi and Thecho and offerings are made to Goddess Annapurna. In Sunakothi, the residents celebrate the day as Gojamari Punhi. On this day, they carry their patron Goddess Balkumari on a palanquin and take her around the inner city from her isolated “mother temple” located in the forest of the area.
Additionally, unrelated to the festival, Newa families also garland young kids with Yamaris on their even-numbered birthdays until they turn 12 to ward off evil spirits and get the gods’ blessings. Sadly, this practice too seems to be falling out of favour. A tradition still thankfully practised by many families is Dhau Baji Nakegu (Dahi chiura in Nepali) a girl’s family bring food, including Yamari, to feed to her in her ninth month of pregnancy. In the culture of Kathmandu Valley, Yomari is also more than a nutriment. It is a representation of the earth.
The two points of the Yamari are regarded as the north and south poles. Yomaris filled with Chaku are considered to be Mahamaya (the almighty), those filled with meat are considered Ganesh and the ones filled with black lentils are believed to be Kumar.