Indrajatra : Some major features of the festival

Living Goddess Kumari in her chariot (Photo : Jibitesh Manandhar Tuladhar)

Razen Manandhar

Yenyaa, which is also known as Indra Jatra, is perhaps the biggest and the most eventful festival of Kathmandu. Literally, “Yen” means Kathmandu and “Yaa” means celebration or procession. This is now commonly known as Indra Jatra for the outsiders, which present the Indra as the central figure of the festival. This autumn festival also marks the beginning of the most revered festival of the Hindus, the Dashain.

The eight-day long festival is one of the most exciting and colourful festivals of the Newar community. In fact, this is an assortment of around two dozen separate events, shows or processions, which fall on the same period of time, in various parts of the core of Kathmandu. It consists of the elegant chariot procession of the “royal” Kumari, the Living Goddess, visit of the president and other dignitaries, series of mask-dances, a showcase of a tableau and so on.

The festival follows the lunar calendar. It starts from Yonlathwa Dwadashi and ends on Yonlaga Tritiya, that is, in around the middle of September.

Kumari

History has not yet traced the origins of the Kumari tradition. So far, the chronicles argue that it started as early as in the time of a twelve-century ruler Gunkam Dev, to whom the credit of making this Kathmandu city goes. A chronicle says that he instituted Yenyaa festival by erecting the images of Kumaris. Writers have stated that manuscripts written in 1280 and 1285 AD describe the method of choosing, ornamenting and worshipping Kumari.

Interestingly, a young girl from exclusive Newar Buddhist family of Shakyas is elected in around every half-decade to be worshipped as Taleju, the clan deity of Hindu Kings of Nepal. In the past, she was the main protector deity of the rulers. This is the reason, the heads of the states do visit her at least once in a year to pay homage to her.

Nepal has now turned into a republic and secular state, but the head of the state continues the age-old tradition by paying a visit on the first day of the chariot festival and on the last day too to receive her blessing. People believe that the country is protected by the goddess and she gives the power and rights to the head of the state to take all formal proceedings for one year.

In the past, people were not aware of the importance of education. Now, the Kumari receives a special tutor in her house and she attends all examinations. After retirement from her position, she goes back to her home and lives a normal life, joins collage, gets the job and gets married in due time. And Kathmandu Metropolitan City has allocated certain allowance for her, to pay tribute to her contribution for the society and the country.

Ganesh

Similar to the tradition of Kumari, a boy from a Newar Buddhist family is also selected to make an attendant of Goddess Kumari. He is known as Ganesha. He does not have a separate house to live during his tenure. He comes to Kumari House for the procession and then goes back. After a certain age, he is also retired and goes back to normal life.

Bhairava

Just like Kumari and Ganesh, a boy is also selected to make Bhairava, another attendant of Goddess Kumari. The chariots of Ganesh and Kumari precede that of Kumari during the procession.

After the festival, both the Ganesha and Bhairava go back to their homes and continue their normal life. Both of them receive allowances from the Kathmandu Metropolitan City Office these days.

Chariot procession

The most visible and crowd-attracting event of this festival is, of course, Kumari Jatra, the chariot procession of Kumari, the living goddess and those of Ganesha and Bhairava. The living goddess Kumari is taken out in a procession through the main streets of Kathmandu in a decorated chariot.

The processions take place with three four-wheeled chariots. Two chariots of the gods precede, while the bigger one, that belongs to the Kumari, comes at the end of the procession.

The history of the process is not very old, however. It is said that the last king of the Malla dynasty of Kathmandu, King Jaya Prakash Malla started this procession in 1756 AD.

The president, the prime ministers, ministers as well as ambassadors come to enjoy the first day of the procession at Gaddi Baithaka of Basantapur. Along with the chariots, the dance troupes of Lakhey, Akash Bhairava and Pulukisi as well as dozens of musical troupes, with their traditional drums and cymbals, join the crowd.

The procession goes to three areas on three days. On the first day “Kwaneyaa”, the chariots are taken to southern quarters. On the second day “Thaneyaa”, they go to northern quarters. The last day “Nanichayaa” is for the central quarters. On the last day of the festival, including the president, other stage dignitaries visit the temple to receive blessing from the Kumari.

This procession is totally Hindu, for the deities, the girl as well as the boys represent, are all Hindu. Still, the procession is followed by five Buddhist priests, who represent five dhyani Buddhas. This can be taken as an example of social harmony in the Kathmandu Valley.

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Yosin pole

Solemn erection of Yosin, a wooden pole, made of a single tree trunk, in front of the historic royal palace of Hanumandhoka signals the commencement of the festival. The pole is made of a pine tree, selected following the tantric rituals in a particular jungle of Nala, Bhaktapur. It is brought to Kathmandu by dragging manually along the streets for around 29 kilometres. Bringing of the pole as well as erection of it is done by the members of Manandhar community, by using a primitive technique. A special dance of Dee Pyakhan is performed here in this annual event.

A special banner is hung from the top, and a golden image of Indra, sitting on an elephant is kept at the bottom. People in groups visit the pole, worship, sing hymns and also offer oil lamps during the whole week.

These days, some men from Nepal Army also provide support for this event. And a troop of soldiers in traditional uniform celebrate the completion of the Yosin ceremony with gunshots.

Hundreds of people come to watch this event and many of them think that any accident in this event forecasts a stroke of bad luck for the country.

And finally, after completion of the third round of the chariot procession, this Yosin is fallen, with the same mass, cheerfulness and religious rituals and taken to the river.

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Upaku procession

On the first day evening, people take a long walk along the periphery lanes in memory of their family members who have passed away in one year. They also offer tiny butter lamps to different shrines on the way. Some others come in groups and walk along, singing hymns along the same route. Similarly, some of the trust members come with their drums and others chant Buddhist and Hindu hymns on the way.

The procession goes along the streets of Maru, Chaswando, Damaitol, Nyata, Tunchhe Galli, Kulanbhulu Ajima, Chhatrapati, Swanchhapu Ganesh, Thahiti, Jyatha, Inbahal, Kamalachhi Galli, Taha Galli, Bhotahiti, Mahabauddha, Tasithu Ganesh, Bhosikwo, Duganbahil, Tebahal, Sundhara, Bagdarbar Ganabahal, Galan, Mahabauddha, Naypacho, Wonde, Hyumata, Kwohiti, Bhindyo, Kwaparakyaba, Koprakyaba, Khyokyaba and Maru.

In addition, this is also to be noted that a similar Upaku procession is also taken out around the Pashupati area.

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Dagin procession

On the night of the first chariot procession day, a man, wearing a gloomy white mask and a woman’s attire, make a long walking procession along the Kathmandu streets. That man is acting as the legendary mother of Indra, who had come to Kathmandu in search of her son.

A legend has it that Indra (the Hindu king of deities), once visited Kathmandu to steal some bunches of night jasmine flowers (locally called Palijaa swan) for her mother, who was performing some rituals of mother-goddess Basundhara. Unfortunately, he was caught red-handed and bound him in the market place against a pillar, stretching his hands. Here, this masked person is supporting the myth of the mother, of searching for her son in the dark night.

A musical troupe precedes the masked goddess. Then thousands of people, who have lost their family members in the one year, mostly in white dresses, take fast and follow her in the procession along the streets. The participants follow the festival route north to Asan and then back to Durbar Square. The procession starts from Luku Falcha, Maru and continues around mid-town of the core city. They walk along the streets of Maru, Pyaphal, Yatkha, Nyata, Tengal, Nhyokha, Nhaikantol, Asan, Keltol, Indrachok, Makhan, Hanumandhoka, Maru, Chikanmugal, Jaisidewal, Lagan, Hyumata, Bhimsensthan and finally the procession ends at Maru. The participants also leave some bunches of various types of dry beans along the street while walking.

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Bau Mata

Bau Mata is another procession that takes place on the night of the first chariot procession. It consists of a long effigy, made of reeds. This represents a burning dragon with a big head. It is decorated with rows of around three dozen tiny oil lamps stuck on the reeds and looks quite attractive in the dark streets. It is hung on ropes and carried by a row of people on their shoulders. It is jointly done by members of various quarters of Manandhars.

After the episode of Dagin comes to half of its procession, a group of people, belonging to a certain community, take them along the same traditional route, making lots of noise on the way. Like the procession of Dagin, this also goes along the streets of Maru, Pyaphal, Yatkha, Nyata, Tengal, Nhyokha, Nhaikantol, Asan, Keltol, Indrachok, Makhan, Hanumandhoka, Maru, Chikanmugal, Jaisidewal, Lagan, Hyumata, Bhimsensthan and Maru. It becomes almost midnight when this procession completes.

Shweta Bhairava

Bhairava is the wrathful manifestation of Hindu god Shiva. This is one of the deities worshipped during the festival of Indrajatra. Huge images of Bhairava is an interesting part of this festival. The streets, mainly those, where the chariot procession takes place, are decorated with mask figures of the Bhairava. They are the age-old manifestation of Newar art too.

These masks are, in fact, big earthen or metal pots, filled with liquor. The liquor comes out of a long tube stuck in the mouth of the mask. Most of the time, this liquor is released when the chariots arrive. And hundreds of young people push one another to drink some drops of it directly from the pipe.

Akash Bhairava

This is another image of Bhairava, placed in front of its temple at Wonghaa (Indrachowk). It is relatively smaller than Shweta Bhairava, but heavily decorated with fresh flowers every day throughout the festive week. Thre is a huge vase behind the blue-painted mask and also has a similar pipe attached to its mouth. Liquor is released from this mouth at the time of arrival of the chariots and people again put all efforts to drink some drops from the pipe. They take it has the holy blessing of Bhairava.

Some say that this mask of Aakash Bhairava is the head of King Yalambara, who went to participate in the war of Mahabharata, a Hindu epic, and his head was chopped off in the war.

Throughout the festival week, different troupes from the Valley come here to perform their devotional songs in front of the temple. And a crowd is gathered there every day.

Bakadey Bhairava

Bakadey Bhairava is the third big image of Bhairava displayed during the festival. It is kept at a lane going from Indrachowk to Wotu. The image of Bakadey is quite similar to Akash Bhairava. This is also decorated with a carpet of fresh flowers every day.

Apart from this, many other smaller faces of Bhairava can be seen displayed in different quarters of the city in the period of the festival. Unfortunately, many of them are disappearing year by year.

Similarly, quite many other places are also decorated with images of such Bhairavas in the streets. Those which deliver liquor form the Bhairava’s mouth are named as “Hathu Dyo” and all such images of Bhairava are commonly called “Aju Dyo”.

Young people often go around such images and ask for Samay-baji, a tradition Newar set cuisine, consisting of bitten rice, chopped and smoked buff meat and others.

Indra Images

Apart from masks of Bhairava, another visible image displaying during the festival is that of Indra.

Images of Indraraj Dyo with his outstretched hands bound with rope are exhibited on a tall platform at Maru near Durbar Square. Similar images are on display also in and at Indrachowk, Naradevi, Mazipat and some other quarters of the core Kathmandu.

This Indra is the main character of the celebration of Indra Jatra. This is the reason this festival is given this name. According to a legend, once, Indra, the Hindu king of deities, was caught red-handed by the locals of Kathmandu while he was trying to steal some bunches of unique flower Palijaa Swan. They took him for an ordinary thief and insulted him by tying him up against a pillar, stretching both of his hands. Later, the locals recognized him and celebrated his arrival in Kathmandu.

The biggest such image is kept next to the Kasthamandapa and other communities. Others display smaller such images in other parts of the core city. This practise is followed in Pashuptai and Bode area as well. But again, many of them have ceased displaying such images.

Some argue that this image belongs to a typical Newar deity named Yomba-dyo and it does not attribute Indra, the Vedic deity of King of the gods. They claim this is only a result of Hinduization of Newar culture of the Kathmandu Valley.

Majipa Lakhey

Indra Jatra is also a festival of mask dances. Among others, the most popular is the fierce-looking demon, named Lakhey.

According to historians, the tradition began as early as in the seventh century, though opinions vary about the exact date. A popular legend has it that a man-eating demon fell in love with a local farmer girl and married her on the condition that he would protect the city and stop eating human flesh. The dance is to honour the Lakhe’s keeping of the promise. On the other hand, some people call him Shanta Bhairava, that is, this demon is a manifestation of Bhairava but he is relatively peaceful and does not accept animal sacrifices etc.

There is a Lakhey House in Lakhenani Mazipat, from where the dance of Lakhey is taken out around Kathmandu streets during the eight-day Indrajatra. People believe that the wearer of the sacred mask is possessed by the demon-god. And he dances in trance. Along with the beats of the drums and cymbals, the Lakhe jumps here and there and entertains the crowd during the festival. He is accompanied by a young boy Jhyalincha, who teases and provokes him to demonstrate more wrathful modes of the dance.

The demon-god dance of Majipa Lakhey is performed on the streets and market squares. The Newar families of Ranjitkars have been keeping the tradition of Lakhey alive.

Dee Pyakhan

Dee Pyakhan, performed exclusively during the festival of Yenyaa or Indra Jatra is one important variety of mask dance. It is performed by the farmers’ community of Kilagal, Kathmandu. Probably, this name is derived from Sanskrit word Devi. Pyakhan means dance and drama in Newa language.

A legend has it, a lengthy epidemic hit the country and people died at an alarming rate. And, the king of that time saw a dream that the prime Goddess came to him and told him to commence a dance of goddesses. The king asked the experts to design a dance of the goddess and her team. The dance thus started and peace prevailed in the country.

Seven characters play roles in this dance. It also tells a story of how Kumari, the daughter of Bhairava and Chandi, kills the demon, the Daity. Kawon, Betaa and Khyaa are other assisting characters of this dance drama. Musical instrument players, as well as singers, also give company to the dancers.

KMC Photobook 2019

A writer, a journalist, an Esperantist and a student of Buddhism; and works at Bodhi TV in Nepal.

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