Sakela is the main festival of Rai people which is celebrated twice a year distinguished by two names Ubhauli and Udhauli. Sakela Ubhauli is celebrated during Baisakh Purnima (full moon day in the month of Baishak) and Sakela Udhauli is celebrated during the full moon day in the month of Mangsir.
The main characteristic of this festival is a ritual dance call Sakela dance performed by large groups of Kirats wearing their traditional attire. People from all ages dance together in a large circle. There are male and female leaders in each circle known as Silimangpa and Silimangma respectively. They choreograph the dance moves known as the sili while others follow them. The sili reflects the different aspects of human life and their relationship with nature. The ritual starts with the chula puja, a worship of the chula at home by the kirat Rai priest nakchhong. After completion of the chula puja, nakchhong performs a sacrificial rite (usually with chicken) over a sacred place known as Sakela Than, which is usually under a sacred tree.
The nakchhong signals the completion of the rituals by starting the Sakela dance by him/herself and the actual group Sakela dance commences. All dancers form a large circle and dance joyously around it. The beating of the Dhol and Jhyamta (traditional drums and cymbals) accompany the different silies guided by the Silimangpa and the Silimangma.
Among Kirats Sunuwar and Rai celebrate this festival, whereas Yakkha’s and Limbu’s have their own Youchyang and Chasok Tangnam. Despite important local variations, indigenists view these dances as specific as well as common to all Kirat.
According to the Kirat holy book, Mundhum, a year is divided into two phases: Ubhauli (Going up) and Udhauli (Going down). It is generally accepted that the naming comes from the migration pattern of birds. During the start of the winter season in Mangsir, the birds migrate downward toward the warmer Terrain belt, and thus this phase of the year is known as Udhauli, meaning downward. Likewise, during the rise of the summer season, the birds migrate upward to the cooler Hilly region, and therefore this latter phase is known as Ubhauli, meaning upward.
Kirats believe in Shamanism and are worshipers of nature. The Sakela celebration is a prayer to Mother Nature for healthy crops and protection from natural calamities. Therefore, the festival is also known as Bhumi Puja. Starting on Baisakh Purnima, Sakela Ubhauli is celebrated for 15 days in Baisakh (April/May) marking the beginning of the farming year.
Similarly, the celebration of Sakela Udhauli during Mangsir (November/December), which is the harvest season, is their way of giving thanks to nature for providing them with a good harvest.