To appease deities for adequate rain and a rich harvest, the festival of Rato Machhindranath or Bungdyah locally is celebrated in the valley. It is the longest-running and most culturally colorful chariot festival in Nepal. Worshipped equally by Buddhists and Hindus, it is the deity of Karunamaya (a Bodhisattva for Buddhists) or Indra (compassionate god of rain and harvest for Hindus).

The festival begins with the construction of the chariot in Pulchowk, Patan. A festival, not only in terms of the towering height of the chariot but more due to the rich cultural aspects and clever mix of social fabrics embedded into it. All communities including Newar in the valley celebrate it by pulling the chariot to different places in Lalitpur or Patan. The entire festival, starting with the bathing ceremony of the idols to the grand-finale of the display of vest Bhoto Jatra, is fixed by astro-religious calculations based on Nepal-Sambat Calendar. Normally falls around March/April annually, the celebrations of Bhoto Jatra are sadly marred by pandemic and confusions. Every year, the Government of Nepal declares Bhoto Jatra as a public holiday in the valley.   

Numerous fascinating legends are knitted around the deities, their activities, and historical events. A popular legend says Gorakhnath, a legendary yogi or saint, came to Patan begging for alms but nobody donated him which made him furious. In order to punish the locals and take revenge, he gathered and imprisoned all rain-producing snakes together and sat on for penance in Mrigasthali Forest near Pashupati. The valley thus experienced an unprecedented drought. Astrologers advised the king that the only way to break the deadlock to bring Lord Machhindranath for help. Machhindranath is the spiritual master of Gorakhnath, in Kamaroop Kamaksha of Assam in India.

A mission was choreographed with a team of then King of Patan Narendra Malla,  a renowned tantric Bandhudatta from Kathmandu, and a farmer Lalit from Bhaktapur.  They were able to bring Machhindranath to the valley in the guise of a sparrow or bee. It was declared that Lord Machhindranath will be made public with chariot celebration on an auspicious day. Hearing the news of the teacher’s arrival, Gorakhnath had to get up and visit to pay respect to his master. As he stood, rain-producing snakes were freed and reactivated resulting in covetous rain in the valley. Any mishap or an accident of chariot during the celebration is regarded as inauspicious to the country. The festival cleverly blends three former kingdoms of the valley Bhaktapur, Patan, and Kathmandu into an interesting cultural formula. The cultural system still being practiced today has it that the sword is brought from Bhaktapur, the trooper from Kathmandu, the musicians from Patan, and visitors and worshippers from all over the valley confirms the cultural partnership and harmony the festival resonates.

The fever of Rato Machhindranath is perhaps best observed when people of all ages and backgrounds join together gleefully to pull the chariots to major parts of the town around. The ambiance reaches to its climax when hundreds of enthusiastic devotees pull the chariots of their beloved deities joyfully supported by a feverish musical parade observed by tens of thousands of people balcony produce sheer exhilaration. Musicians tootle out with Dhime (local drums), Bhusya (musical plates), horns, and cymbals to supplement the festive fever. Frenzied devotees of all walks of life and ages, from dawn to dusk, would visit and worship the deities in a cherished religious celebration. Every worshipper wishes to see the deities or be a part of the celebration. Every window and balcony is seen full of excited eyes. Interestingly the chariots are, for a short distance, pulled by armies of women-only known as yaka bhujya.

As per the tradition, the main image is kept half a year in Tabahal, Patan, and half a year in Bungamati. The festival of Rato Machhindranath is the festival of Red Fish God of Indra. It is celebrated primarily to appease the deities for a healthy monsoon and rich harvest. The long-awaited celebration begins even before the chariots being pulled. More than a month-long festival that engulfs the culture of the entire valley concludes with the display of a vest. A Bhoto (a bejeweled vest) is displayed to the crowd. Legends have it that the vest was given to a farmer by Karkotak Naga (Serpent God) in reward for curing the eye ailment of his queen but got stolen later. When the farmer was attending Machhindranath celebration once, he saw someone wearing his stolen vest. A dispute erupted between the farmer and the man wearing the vest, was settled when both of them accepted it to be a property of Machhindranath. The Kumari of Patan, President, Prime Minister, and high ranking officials don’t miss to attend the finale of one of the most vibrant events of the nation.

There are two chariots erected for the celebration. Every twelve years the chariots are built new and the greater fanfare of bahrabarse mela begins from Bungamati, 5 kilometers south of Patan. Construction of two chariots, Machhindranath and Minnath, requires hundreds of craftsmen and builders and an estimated fund of more than one and a half million Rupees. The first chariot, about 60 feet in height, has a 7th-century wooden image in red of Karunamaya or Padmapani Lokeshwor in the abhaya-barad mudra (peaceful blessing position) or Indra as revered by Hindus, and the second is a smaller chariot of Minnath (Chakhubaha dyo locally) is the daughter or sister of Machhindranath. The chariots are constructed with special wood and clothed with bet, a bamboo type. Chariots used to be made from non-iron elements only. Four thick ropes attached to the dhama (the long arcing prow representing the Snake God, Nag Karkotak), are pulled during the procession. A coconut is thrown from the chariot to the crowd and the one who catches it is considered to be blessed with immense luck. Panaju, the religious and tantric priests, guide the celebration for more than a month on its 3 km of journey.

 

As the country is fighting the pandemic of Covid-19, the priority of the hour is to ensure health safety protocol even while worshipping or celebrating the festival.

By : Pramesh Pradhan