A spectacular display of a variety of dances, with youths in joyful mood pulling chariots of different gods followed by a chariot of The Living Goddess Kumari, marks the festival of Indra Jatra that falls normally in Bhadra (August/September) annually. It is probably the most celebrated event in the Kathmandu. The festival is celebrated primarily to appease God Indra and in return solicit his blessing for the richer harvest. In Hinduism, Indra is the God of Rain who could contribute to a rich harvest, as well as the King of Heaven and the King of Gods.
Legends have it that Indra’s mother Basundhara, a Dakini (enlightened female power) was in search of the rare flower of parijat (jasmine) for her religious ritual. She asked her son Indra to bring it for her. He could see the flower in a garden in Kathmandu. Indra descended down to Kathmandu incognito in a human form. But interestingly, he got caught red-handed while stealing the flower. The locals not knowing him as a God made him public and tied him with ropes and he somehow could not escape. Gods saw Indra in tied on the streets of Kathmandu and displayed publicly as a thief. Gods and Indra’s mother Basundhara came down to earth to rescue the prisoner Indra in Kathmandu. A troop of Gods had to fight with the Kathmanduites. Kathmanduites were defeated but realized that their famous prisoner was no other than the King of Gods. People apologized for punishing Indra and tried to appease him by arranging all types of dances they could show in his honor. Indra was so pleased to the locals begging for their pardon and with the dances that he agreed to be the patron of the valley. The statues of Indra with his hands tied displayed during the festival is not without the reason.
A 36-feet long wooden pillar yosin symbolizing Indra’s phallus and his victory flag Indra Dhwoja – believed to be a gift given by Lord Vishnu is erected as a symbol of Indra’s victory in front of Indrapur. The wooden pillar, as a ritual, is brought from the forest in the Nala area in Kavre.
Indrachowk, the busiest city center in Kathmandu, is named after the God Indra. It has an impressive temple of Akash Bhairav. Indra’s image is taken out from there and displayed with honors to the public. People gather in large number the whole day to watch the dances and sing religious hymns. Legends say Akash Bhairav, one of the Shiva’s numerous manifestations, was the Commander-in-Chief that led the battle for Indra during the war. The local name for Kathmandu in Nepal Bhasha (Newar language) is Yen which is associated as the City of Indra.
Indra Jatra combine many traditional dances namely Lakhe (masked) dance, Kumari (Living Goddess) dance, Das Avatar (ten incarnations of Vishnu) dance, Devi (God) dance, Daitya (monster) dance, Pulukisi (Indra’s elephant Yerawat) dance, Shobha Bhakku (Bhairav) dance, Mahakali (Parvati) dance, Kathi Maka (monkey stick) dance and numerous other dances. A theatrical performance of ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu is being staged every night during the festival at the raised platforms Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple (just in front of Kumari temple) in Kathmandu Durbar Square.
In the evening, families who have lost their beloved ones during the year remember the dead members of their family by following a procession led by a masked person. They carry burning incense or oil lamp and walk around the older parts of Kathmandu. The masked person impersonates the mother of Indra- Basundhara who upon release of her son wanted to thank the people by showing the way to heaven. She is believed to have disappeared when they had reached Indra Daha (pond of Indra) a hillock pond near Thankot in Kathmandu. Believers and worshippers visit the pond even today in a procession of lamps, take a bath in the pond or worship there for the liberation of their departed ones. This oil lamp or candle procession is called Dagi.
The festival has begun around mid-15th Century credibly during the reign of Sthiti Malla. The last Malla King of Kathmandu Jaya Prakash Malla added the chariot of Kumari during the annual celebration. Kings of Malla and Shah dynasties used the occasion to solicit the approval of Kumari to run the nation by offering puja.
The history has it that a very tactical maneuvering after a few defeats, King Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the valley on the day of the year 1768. Monarchs have gone but the legends and traditions are still being gleefully commemorated. Tens of thousands of Kathmanduites in every inch of the street and around Kathmandu Durbar Square wishes to have a seat to enjoy a large parade of dances and chariots. It is a rare cultural occasion in the country where the head of state, the head of government, and highest-ranking officials are present to witness the program along with the Living Goddess Kumari.
The gilded chariots of Kumari (a manifestation of Goddess Parvati), Bhairav (A destructive manifestation of Shiva) and Ganesh (God of auspiciousness and a son of Shiva and Parvati) are being pulled to the different parts of the city by devotees. As the fun-filled celebration nears to complete hundreds of youth wish to taste a few drops of local bear Thon believed to guarantee the good fortune dripping out of the mouth of Swet Bhairav (A Shiva manifestation). The wooden pillar and the flag erected before the festival is lowered down on the last day. The pillar is taken to the confluence of Bagmati and Vishnumati Rivers in Teku to be put to rest which formally brings an eight-day long gala to a close.
Avenue of Kumari House turns into a magnet for people of walks of life to witness the celebrations. The excitement of the festival reaches its climax when chariots of Ganesh, Bhairav, and Kumari are pulled by several hundreds of enthusiastic youths and worshipped by a sea of devotees in a feverish of celebration. Sadly, celebrations this year, except a few symbolic rituals, are marred by the pandemic of Covid-19.
By : Pramesh Pradhan