Kathmandu’s Indra Jātrā festival – the link between its past and the present
31st Aug, 2020 | Tourism Mail Crew
As the coronavirus global outbreak has hit badly around the world with Nepal not remaining untouched, probably for the first time in history, this year’s Indra Jātrā festival will not be observed in Kathmandu.
Nepal is a diverse Himalayan nation made up of communities rejoicing their cultures with vibrant festivals. The Newar people are the historic denizens of the Kathmandu valley (then called Nepal Mandal) and the creators of its historic civilizations. They have lived in Nepal Mandala since prehistoric times and have rich cultures and lifestyles. Among them, the Newar community celebrates a number of festivals throughout the year, and has so far managed to keep and rebuild the culture. One of their greatest treasures is celebration of the festival of Indra Jātrā or Yenyā in Nepal Bhasa(lit. Kathmandu festival). The annual Indra Jātrā festival commences from the day of the Bhadra Dwadasi to Ashwin Krishna Chaturdasi tithi. Indra Jātrā is one of the major religious, cultural and oldest street festivals of Kathmandu valley, and predominantly observed by the local Newar community.
Indra Jātrā was started by King Gunakamadeva to celebrate the establishment of the city of Kantipur (now Kathmandu) sometime in the 11th century. The festival to honor Indra, the God of Rain is celebrated with the dawn of the monsoon rains. The eight-day long Indra Jatra festival begins with the carnival-like raising of a ceremonial wooden pole i.e. Linga, locally called Yasingh, accompanied by the rare exhibit of the idol of Shwet Bhairab, represented by a massive mask spouting Jaadand raksi(locally prepared Nepali liquors). The thirty-six haat (60 feet) long wooden pole is handpicked with great attention from the Naala jungle in Kavre district which is at the eastern side of Kathmandu. While erecting the pole, they hang a ceremonial banner known as Hari Patah. It is kept inside the old Malla palace of Hanuman Dhoka Durbar throughout the year. The banner has eight signs of fortune referred to as asta mangal.
The first day of the festival is also observed by the Newars as a day to remember the family members who died during the past year by offering oil lamps along a customary route covering all the parts of the old city. It is believed to have been started during the reign of King Mahendra Malla. The Jātrā is illustrated by masked dances of deities as well as the demons (commonly known as Lakhe Naach, Mahakali Naach, Lusiki Naach and Dash Avatar), displays of sacred images and human representations of the Gods and Goddesses in honor of the Hindu deity Indra, the king of heaven.
According to an ancient legend, the young Indra, disguised as a farmer, descended to Kathmandu in search of Parijat, a white flower, for his mother, Dakini, who needed the flower to perform a sacred ritual. He got hold of the flower, but was caught by the garden owner while trying to pluck the flower. He was tied and imprisoned in Kathmandu until his mother, worried about his lengthy absence, came here looking for him. As the people of the valley realized who they had confined, they agreed to release Indra but, on the condition that he would return to the valley every year during that time and be displayed as a prisoner for 7 days and that he would provide enough rain and dew during winter for the crops. So, during this festival, images of Lord Indra are displayed for 7 days, but in custody. Indra’s mother promises to give enough dew throughout the wintertime ensuring rich harvest and to let doors of heaven open to all those who had deceased in the past year. The Indra Jātrā festival thus tributes the recently deceased and pays homage to Indra and his mother Dakini for the approaching harvests. Throughout the Indra Jātrā festial, there are various enactments including the dances of Sawa Bhakku Bhairav from Halchowk, Majipa Lakhey from Majipat, Devi Nach and Pulukisi Nach from Nardevi, the Mahakali Nach and Kathi Maka Nach from Bhaktapur and so on. The Dash Avatar i.e. the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu is also performed every night. The other exhilarating part of this festival is Kumari Jātrā, the chariot procession of the Living Goddess Kumari. Besides the cultural dances, the three chariots carrying human depictions of Goddess Kumari, Lord Ganesh and Lord Bhairava are pulled along the festival route through the historical Kathmandu Durbar Square—a UNESCO World Heritage site. Traditional dancers, mask dancers wearing ethnic costumes and folk musicians also go with the chariot procession.
The singing and dancing continue across the festival route to rejoice the visit of the rain god, Indra. Besides these, there are various dances held on dabu /dabali i.e. the open courtyards with a display of the huge ferocious idol of Swet Bhairav as well as various deities of the city. Legend has it that Lord Indra’s ride Pulu Kishi(the white elephant also called Yerabat) charges through the streets of Kathmandu in search of his master after he is taken prisoner by the Kathmandu’s royal guards. The demon-deity popularly called Majipa Lakheis regarded as the protector of the children. Various artist groups travel from Bhaktapur to Kathmandu for performing the divine dance known as Dya Pyaakha. The exciting celebration of the festival, however, follows a well-planned and organized ritual: each deity has a specific auspicious time and route to travel throughout the festival with different guthis within the Newar community being responsible for their proper implementation. The Kumari Jātrā to be observed during the Indra Jātrā festival started in the year 1756 AD during the reign of King Jaya Prakash Malla. It is held that King Malla separated this from Maha Nawami as he wanted to dedicate a different day for Kumari (Living Goddess) to further strengthen the Malla dynasty which then was under confrontation by the Shah dynasty rulers in the late 1700s.
During the festival time, the famous Akash Bhairab bust is put up for display at Indra Chowk laden exquisitely by ornaments and floral garlands. The head of the Akash Bhairava is related to the Mahabharata story and some believe it to be the head of the first Kirat King Yalamber. In Indra Chowk, every night different groups gather and sing traditional bhajans and hymns throughout the festival. The Newar people also celebrate the Yenya Punhior Samaya Baji festival on the third day of the Jātrā by lighting up a traditional oil lamp called Daluchaand offering Samaya Baji as a part of worship rituals. The Samaya Baji is an authentic dish of the Newar community in Nepal which is put for display in many areas of the Kathmandu Durbar Square and is later distributed to all the devotees. To bid farewell to the week-long celebrations, the wooden pole i.e. the Linga is pulled down marking the end of Indra Jātrā festival. It is then pulled to the confluence of Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers in Teku to be put to cessation. The end of the Indra Jātrā festival harbours the beginning of the Dashain festival celebrated with great joy in Nepal.
Needless to say, for cultural aficionados, sociologists and anthropologists, this is one of the finest times to plan their Nepal trip. There are many instances of a similar festival being celebrated in India to honor Lord Indra, called the Indra Mahotsav. In India too, they select a tree for the ‘linga’ like in Nepal. However, the major celebrators are Brahmins there. The festival has been quoted in the Mahabharata epic too, in which this religious feat was initiated by a religious king called Vasu. Interestingly the Indra Jātrā festival is still celebrated by the Nepali Newar community in Sikkim, India and observed with equal fanfare. Alike in Kathmandu, chariot processions accompanied with eclectic drum beats and masked dances are the integral elements of this vibrant festival that takes the streets of Gangtok in great awe of its cultural harmony. However, as the coronavirus global outbreak has hit badly around the world, probably for the first time in history, this year Indra Jātrā will not be observed in Kathmandu with much fanfare unlike in the past.
Enthusiast of Nepali history and culture, Niraj is an MBA from Sikkim Manipal University and an alumnus of IIM-Ahmedabad
Photo : Shirish Raj Singh Suwal