If you see loud chants of celebration by the boys and procession of teenagers led by a demon impersonating person on the crossroads of Kathmandu in July, be sure Gatha Muga festival is being celebrated.
Among numerous frenzied celebrations in the valley, Gatha Muga or Gathe Mangal or Ghanta karna is one. The festival falls on the 14th day of the dark fortnight of Hindu calendar Shrawan (July) just before the no moon day. The festival is celebrated with victorious joy and to ward off evil spirits and bring peace and prosperity to society. This also marks the beginning of numerous festivals to follow.
Effigies of the demon Ghantakarna-representing the evil spirit- are erected at street crossroads and corners. Girls give away their dolls and tie them to the effigy. Each area with the effigy will have a boy-painted all over his body and face, impersonating the demon, with enthusiastic boys chasing him. They often collect money from passerby to sponsor the funeral. Enthusiast boys chant Om shanti Jaya Nepal, Aaju jaya haa (Peace and prosperity to Nepal, death to the demon). At the end of the day, the effigy is dragged to the nearby riverbank for disposal with the painted man sitting on it. Some variations can be observed depending upon the local areas. In some communities, the demon’s effigies are burnt during celebrations.
Believed to have started in Lichhavi era, it can also be regarded as a festival of appeasement, of cleansing and of purifying from the evil spirits. Houses are thoroughly cleaned that day to ward off any traces of evil spirits. People worship bali (new harvest) and eat offerings after a ritual samyabaji (consecrated offering) to avoid impacts of bad spirits for the coming year. To avoid any effects from bad spirits, a three-legged iron nail is driven in on the doorway. Householders then place pots of cooked rice at the crossroads as food for the evil spirits to please and not to harm anyone. An iron ring, believed to safeguard anyone from evil spirits for a year, is worn on the day. Legends and folktales have narrations of evil spirits causing diseases among people and crops.
A popular legend has it that demon Ghantakarna, literally meaning bells like ears, used to terrify the people by stealing and eating children. People could not go out because of the terrors of the demon. Entire society looked deserted and lifeless. Frogs, friends of farmers, too were as sad as the people. Ultimately, the frogs decided to come to the rescue of the people. Frogs croaked loud to protest his terror. Furious Ghantakarna tried to catch them. Clever frogs croaked louder and jumped into the river. The demon, too, jumped without realizing that it was a swamp and soon started to drown. The frogs swarmed around his head to drown the demon to death. Thus, was the valley was liberated from the draconian terror of the demon. Frog, in farming communities as the remover of an obstacle, is worshipped by the even today.
The festival is ‘Thanksgiving Day’ in Nepalese context. Animals, visible and invisible contributing to human-like the frogs, are thanked. Farmers make candid apologies for hurting or killing creatures and insects unknowingly or knowingly during the plantation. On this day, locals do also worship tools and equipment used during farming.