Monday, May 16, 2011

Rato Machhendranath Rath Jatra

Every time I have passed Pulchowk on the way from Patan to Kathmandu, I saw long beams of wood being carved and painted and slowly fashioned along the side of the road:

A few days before the festivities, the chariot has taken its rough shape

This is the chariot of Rato Machhendranath, the centerpiece of a festival that occurs before the monsoon season. Machhendranath is a rain god, an incarnation of a boddhisatva, an important deity for the Newars of Kathmandu Valley. The ancient kingdoms of Kathmandu and Patan each have their own festival and their own idol of Machhendranath. A few weeks ago Kathmandu had a similar festival with Seto (White) Machhendranath, but last Saturday I saw the festival for Patan's own Rato (Red) Machhendranath. I was following around a fellow Fulbrighter and scholar of Newari culture, who told me everything that was going on and kept me from getting lost in the crowd.

Here is the chariot a few days later, covered in pine branches and containing the image of Rato Machhendranath

The front of the chariot.

The base of the chariot
The idol Rato Machhendranath in the cabin of the chariot

It is said that this ceremony brings the monsoon rains, but it almost never rains while the chariot is being pulled.  It has been raining a lot lately, but the skies kept quiet during this day

The massive chariot towers above the street. The priests slowly dress in traditional costume as they take their places in the cabin of the chariot. People throw rice and coins at the idol of Machhendranath within the chariot. A massive crowd gathers as the main street from Patan to Kathmandu is shut down. Vendors sell cotton candy and balloons. All the electrical wires along the road have been cut down temporarily as the dozens of volunteers take up a rope and are lead by volunteers in white t-shirts with Newari lettering. 

A man riding the chariot directs the volunteers to pull simultaneously

The volunteers pull on the rope but the chariot doesn't budge. They pull again and again, and for thirty minutes the chariot hardly moves and inch. Then, very slowly and in bursts, it begins to move down the street. It has to turn first so that it can move along the road, and at every twist of the chariot the massive tower leans crazily as if it might collapse. The crowd is thick around, and a collapse of the chariot would be disastrous. Just such a disaster happened in Kathmandu a few years ago, and several people died. Since then the chariots, in a rejection of ancient tradition, have been reinforced with steel wire. It still looks pretty precarious.

The chariot towers above buildings as people line the rooftops to see it pass

The chariot is pulled down the street and then down a side street into the ancient Gabahal, a neighborhood of the Old City that has the honor of keeping the chariot on its first night during its circuit through the Royal Palace and around the city. Several times we are caught in stampedes as people cheer and run away from the giant crushing chariot wheels.

The ceremonial regiment of Patan, dressed in 18th century costume

The lesser chariot of Minath in the distance
The massive chariot is being pulled inexorably toward the smaller chariot of Minath, a deity who according to my Newari co-teachers was a devotee of student of Machhendranath. This smaller chariot is pulled by children.

On the left, the Minath chariot gets stuck against some power lines and must be pulled back into the street. On the right, the chariot of Machhendranath edges closer, now tilting at a crazy angle and threatening to brush against buildings on the narrow street
As we wait for the two chariots to meet, people throw water out the windows onto the crowd below. People play drums, blow long ceremonial horns, crash cymbals. Young men are thrown into the air. The parasol of the Malla King of Patan is carried alongside the chariot, but no king has been seen underneath the parasol since Patan was overrun by the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah when all of Nepal was unified in the 1760s.  

Nearby is the house of the Patan Kumari. My previous post on the Kumari tradition referred only to the Royal Kumari, the Kumari of Kathmandu. She is most famous and most secretive of the kumari, the one who gave tika to the King of Nepal, but there are other kumaris from other areas of the Valley. The Patan Kumari is chosen amongst the neighborhoods of the Patan bahals, but unlike the Royal Kumari she lives with her parents and remains in her neighborhood. On this day she sits outside as the chariot approaches and accepts offerings from devotees.

My friend was acquainted with her and her family, and showed me around the courtyard of her house

I nervously gave an offering to the living goddess.
Then there is applause as the two chariots came to a halt. At twilight candles are lit underneath the chariots and the massive crowd disperses. The first day of the Rato Machhendranath Rath Jatra has come to an end.

Here is a video I made of the proceedings!

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