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INDRA JATRA FESTIVAL: WHEN KUMARI, THE LIVING GODDESS OF NEPAL VISITS STREETS OF KATHMANDU ON CHARIOT!
This blog is a part of 2 blog series of my account of Kumari Jatra aka Yanyā Punhi or Indra Jatra. Kumari is the living Goddess revered by Newari Hindus and Buddhists of Nepal. The festival takes place in the month of September in Basantapur Durbar Square (aka Basantapur Durbar Kshetra), Kathmandu, Nepal.
A narrow staircase took me to the third floor of the Kumari House in Basantapur Durbar Square of Kathmandu. Minutes away from the bustling backpackers haven Thamel, Kumari House is an unpretentious yet remarkable building. It is the home to the current Kumari. The 11 year old Manita Shakya is currently the living Goddess of Nepal. I stood barefoot at a distance from Kumari, my eyes transfixed at her, less out of devotion, more out of curiosity.
During the Indrajatra, commoners are allowed to have darshan of Kumari for certain hours of the day. It was not a crowded circus as I had imagined. There were just 2-3 women who accompanied Kumari, possibly her family members. They talked softly as Kumari listened, somewhat disinterested. The Kumari didn’t speak a word, nor did she emote. Embellished generously in hues of red and gold, she exuded an aura fit for a Goddess. Adorning elaborate jewelleries and dramatic make- up, her personality had a certain grace which is absent in kids of her age. The kohl lines drawn around her eyes reached her temples. The red tika painted on her forehead has a silver agni chakshu (the third eye) at the centre. Red ‘alta’ lined her feet as she sat on a raised platform on the floor.
I stared at her silently when our eyes met. I quickly prayed in my mind, wishing the Kumari didn’t smile at me. I was told that if she smiles at you, there is trouble. She didn’t. The Kumari remained impassive and silent which was good news for me.
I left without making a commotion, still absorbed in deep thoughts about this unique tradition of Nepal, steeped in mystery and mysticism. Practiced since centuries now, the festival draws people from all corners of Nepal, the small Hindu nation bordering with India and China.
I returned to the eco friendly heritage hotel apartment complex Dwarika Chhen. Just 2 minutes walking distance away from the Basantapur Durbar Square, it was a perfect place to stay because of the easy access and handy tips by its helpful owner Mr. Sagar. I retired to my room after sampling vegan version of local Newari food Samaya Baji.
I emerged from my room again in the evening. The Basantapur Durbar Square which was sparsely populated with devotees in the noon was now swelling with crowd. A sea of humanity filled all the horizontal surfaces. Even the ancient statues which survived the massive earthquake of 25 April, 2015 were not spared.
People glued themselves to the statues, doors, windows, stairs, (ancient) temples waiting for the Indra Jatra to begin. Popular with both Hindus and Buddhists, Indra Jatra is also known Yanyā Punhi (Kathmandu’s Fullmoon) or Kumari Jatra.
The foreigners, nonplussed and curious, tried to fit in. Myriad rituals were performed before Kumari appeared out of the Kumari house. They cheered at the proceedings enthusiastically, their festive fever at a boil.
Amidst loud drum beatings and cheers, young men started chasing what looked like a huge mythical creature. I tried to catch a glimpse when I lost my balance (and a slipper), thanks to the unruly crowd, whose only focus was the ‘animal’. I regained my composure, brushing aside the ordeal and hopped on to the bandwagon. My decade long travels have taught me that the best way to experience a local culture is to become one of them. I ran along with the crowd and finally managed to catch a glimpse of the large white elephant puppet through a thick maze of impatient arms and heads. A man hid himself inside the white elephant puppet and played along with the crowd, teasing and inciting them.
The white elephant is called Pullu Kisi who in a symbolic ritual, runs across the streets of Nepal looking for his imprisoned master Lord Indra. Pulu Kisi aka Eravat is said to be the carrier of Lord Indra. A man bearing a torch runs along as the Pulu Kisi does mischievous and unpredictable things to the amused crowds. Knocking any random person or moving the tail in amusing manner are some of the naughty things that the Pulu Kisi does.
A masked man catches the fancy of the crowds next. Known as the Majipa Lakhe, the masked man represents peaceful Bhairabh who is supposed to protect the children from evils and demons. His antics were nowhere close to peaceful though. Dancing outrageously on sounds of drums, he whizzed past fast, never settling at one place for more than a second. The appearance of the Majipa Lakhe belies its ‘protector’ status. In traditional Newari culture, Majipa Lakhe is a demon who lives in the forests. His papier-mâché mask depicted ferocious face and protruding fangs. The wild red hair made of yak tail hair completes the demon look. As he moved wildly over thumping music, the police controlled the crowd with thick ropes, keeping them away from the unpredictable moves of the Majipa Lakhe dancer. It is one of the popular dance forms of Nepal performed in Basantapur Durbar Square during other festivals as well. Devotees offer him food and ritual items as he moves around the city in style.
As a tradition, Jhyalincha, a small boy, teases the Lakhe, provoking him to chase the boy in anger. However, Jhyalincha slips in to the crowd and disappears. The literal meaning of Majipa Lakhey is the “carnivorous demon of Majipa”. Despite the weight of the costume and mask, which can go up to 50 kgs, the Majipa Lakhe dancers move swiftly and with grace.
A long wooden pole, called yonsi thanegu or lingam, was erected at the ancient Royal Palace at Hanuman Dhoka to appease Lord Indra (The God of rains). Flag of Indra is hoisted stop the pole. Traditionally, dancers perform at the courtyard of Hanuman Dhoka as part of the festivities.
An elderly Nepalese man waved a tall Nepalese flag, smile never leaving his face. Our eyes met. He walked towards me, flag still waving, took out a sticker of Nepalese flag and stuck on my DSLR camera. We exchanged smile and went about our ways as crowds disturbed the spontaneous cultural exchange. (I am from India).
All of a sudden, Lord Ganeshsa and Lord Bhairava appeared from the Kumari house. Looking strikingly identical to the Kumari, I and other unsuspecting foreigners confused them for real Kumari. The children who dressed up as Ganesh and Bhairava lacked the impassivity of Kumari. They were more childlike and even smiled from the corner of their lips. Shielded from the crowd, they headed to their respective chariots. Kumari, the incarnation of Taleju, followed suit.
Kumari’s chariot was the biggest and the tallest. She created a stir as she sat on a throne like place at the top of the chariot. She was the focus of every one’s attention. The crowd went berserk as the chariot moved through the streets of Kathmandu. It would take tremendous effort and manpower to move the chariot at every turn. During the 8 day long festivities, chariot processions go on for 3 days.
I stood in my tracks when the Kumari looked at me again, unsmiling and blank. I stared at her for few seconds as the chariot turned, sending the crowd into frenzy, eventually disturbing my personal moment. As the chariot disappeared, I returned to Dwarka Chen. The host Mr. Sagar treated me with a lavish buffet open for guests and his friends and relatives. There was good cheer through the hotels as guests visited. In that moment I realized how important the festival is to the people of Nepal.
I visited Basantapur Durbar Square again in the night. The Kumari House had lost its admirers by then. The crowd had thinned out but was still large. The vendors were still selling noodles bhel and sil roti (Sweet doughnut like bread).
The dramatic statue of Shwet Bhiarav had usurped the attention from Kumari as it turned dark. Many temples in the Basantapur Durbar Square of Kathmandu are opened only once a year during the Indra Jatra. Temple of Shwet Bhairav is one of them. Youth had lined up to drink local Newari liqueur from a straw placed in the mouth of Shwet Bhairav’s statue. Laughter and mirth filled the air.
A parade of men and women passed by me. The procession carried a effigy of Dagini, mother of Lord Indra. Wearing white clothes, they showered rice and ritual items on the sides as they moved on. It was their way of paying homage to Lord Indra and Dagini and the recently deceased members of their family. It is believed that Dagini takes away the spirit of the recently deceased family members with her. People also pray to Lord Indra for good rain and good harvest
Once they left, I sat on the stairs of one of the temples and soaked in the ambiance before calling it a day!
The view from my #SoulWindow is bizarre!
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