In the eye of the frenzied storm of the Bisket Jatra

22 05 2011

A third UNESCO World Heritage Site that I visited on the day of the Nepali New Year was probably the one that was the highlight, not just of the day, but also the trip. Having explored Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, the group of friends I was with were left with the latter half of an afternoon with which to catch the action of a Nepali festival, the Bisket Jatra, being lived out on the streets of Bhaktapur, an ancient town 13 km east of Kathmandu.

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site 13km east of Kathmandu.

It was quite a pleasant ride in once the van took a turn off from the highway from Kathmandu, this in spite of the somewhat dusty and bumpy approach we were given. Even with being on the outskirts of the city, it gave us a feeling that we were in a world far removed from the madding streets of the Nepali capital and even further away from the incessant honking on the busy streets of Kathmandu. The view we were afforded by the windows of the moving van were quite refreshing ones at that – padi fields dominated either side of the road against the backdrop of what would be the green foothills of the world’s highest peaks, interspersed with the red-brown piles of brick that lay in the yards of what must have been brick making kilns. It was the warm colour of the piles of bricks we passed that radiated from the buildings and cobblestone streets of Bhaktapur that greeted our arrival into the ancient town.

Piles of red brown bricks mark the passage into Bhaktapur, an ancient town founded in the 9th Century that once served as the capital of the Kathmandu Valley. The bricks used in bulk of the buildings and cobblestones now colour much of the town.

The point at which we alighted was at the bottom of a street that rose steadily uphill, either side of which was lined with a row of tall and narrow brick houses that in a strange sort of way perhaps resembled a scene one might associate with Tuscan hill town. The streets were strangely quiet for a town that was in celebration – just a few children could be seen playing up the street. My attention was quickly turned towards the blue of a rectangle that framed an aperture within which the colourful display of what literally was a hole-in-a-wall shop manned by an elderly lady set into the dusty sand coloured plastered wall of a building at the corner that seemed to break the orange-brown light that the earthen bricks and cobblestones reflected in the mid-afternoon sun. It was only the cry of the lady behind another aperture that alerted us to the window of the bureau which collected the equivalent of US$15 (NRs 1100) from the tourist as an entrance fee to the town.

Set against the dusty sand coloured plaster of a building that was in contrast to the rest of the town, the blue frame of the hole-in-a-wall shop caught my eye.

With the entrance fee out of the way, we sought the help of a guide to lead us to the heart of the festival of which we had found no evidence of where we were. Making our way up a dusty road that did well to obscure what we were to discover at the summit of the climb. At the top, we found ourselves making our way past the first sight of the heart of the old capital of the Kathmandu Valley, the white tower of the Fasidega temple (one that is dedicated to Shiva) that rose on the left of an alley into the eastern edge of Durbar Square. Beyond that, two stone lions seemed to guard the square within Durbar Square where the Tadhunchen Bahal stood. The Tadhunchen Bahal dates from 1491 and is where the origins of the Kumari, the living goddesses of Nepal, is said to have started from. Turning left past the magnificent wooden structured Tadhunchen Bahal, and then right through a narrow street lined with the dwellings of the town folk on the right and tourist shops on the left, we soon found ourselves with the first signs of the Bisket Jatra in full swing, with the amazing sight of the huge gathering of townsfolk and curious tourists colouring the steps of the towering 30 metre high Nyatapola temple, the tallest temple in Nepal, built in 1702 and said to be one of the best examples of traditional temple architecture in Nepal.

Part of the Tadhunchen Bahal, where the Nepali living goddessess, the Kumari, had their origins.

Townsfolk seated beneath the wooden arches of the Tadhunchen Bahal.

The crowd gathered on the steps of the Nyatapola temple in Taumadhi Square.

The scene around the Nyatapola temple and Taumadhi Square.

Continuing our way through the crowded Taumadhi Square in which the Nyatapola stands, we wound our way through yet another cobbled street in which we encountered the steady flow of townsfolk, before arriving at the entrance to Khalna Tol at which we had to squeeze our way past a wall of people before we were able to survey the square at the heart of the Bisket Jatra celebrations. The scene that greeted us was an amazing one. From where we had stood, the Khalna Tol fanned out downwards, every inch of which was filled by the gaudy colours of the sea of people decked out in their New Year’s finery. At the end of the square, a tall pole seemed to rise, as if it were a mast of a ship in the colourful sea of people. The 25 metre pole, representative of the lingam, is set into a mound of stone, representative of the yoni, and is part of the ancient festival which is celebrated in Bhaktapur over a nine day period that straddles the Nepali New Year. The festival is said to have preceded the establishment of Bhaktapur in the 9th Century and has been celebrated from the time of the Lichhavi period (5th to 8th Century A.D.) to commemorate the defeat of a snake demon that was believed to possess a princess who according to legend, was made a widow when the man who married her died of a snake bite. After that, no one would marry her out of fear of death and it was only with the arrival of a merchant who married the princess that the snake demon was defeated.

The crowd seen from the top of Khalna Tol, where the main festivities were taking place on the fourth day of the Bisket Jatra which coincides with the Nepali New Year.

The lingam pole erected in Khulna Sqaure with one of the two chariots that are pulled through the streets of the town over the nine day festival.

The highlight of the festival, which culminates in a tongue piercing festival during which participants carry a Mahadeep (similar in some respects to the practice of the carrying of the Kavadi still practiced by southern Indian communities of South-East Asia during Thaipusam and Panguni Uthiram), is the pulling of two chariots, the Bhairavnath and Bhadrakali chariots, containing the idols of the god Lord Bhairavnath and his consort, the goddess Bhadrakali respectively. The chariots with huge crude wooden wheels, are traditionally made of a mix of wood and cane and coated with gold at the top. Iron nails and bronze rods have now been introduced to strengthen the chariots which undergo quite a fair bit of punishment as they are pulled from Taumadhi Square in a slow parade around the streets of the town. It seems that on the last day of the festival, the copulation of the god and goddess is enacted by the ramming of the smaller chariot carrying the goddess Bhadrakali against the chariot carrying Lord Bhairavnath.

The chariot carrying the idol of Lord Bhairavnath seen in Khalna Tol.

The highlight of the festival is the pulling of two chariots through the streets of the town.

While we did not have the opportunity to see all of that happening, we did weave our way through the sea of people towards the lingam and the Bhairavnath chariot which was being pulled through Khalna Tol near where the lingam was located. The chariot up-close was a lot bigger that it had seemed from a distance floating in the sea of people. The wheels were huge, the diameter of which was certainly larger than the height of a person. The chariot itself was mounted by many young boys, perhaps seeking a good vantage as well as hitching a ride on the chariot, oblivious to the dangers of doing so (the wheels do sometimes give way during the drawing of the chariots). A pause in the pulling saw even more children attempting to climb on, as well as giving a chance for parents of the very young to seek blessings for their children from the bells that hung from the front of the chariot. That also allowed us to get right up to the chariots to see the feathers and blood of chickens on the wheels – evidence of a sacrifice that would have taken place at the start of the festival.

A closer inspection of the chariot reveals the scale of the crude wooden wheels.

Evidence of the sacrifice of a chicken could be seen on the wheels which had feathers and streaks of blood on them.

A pause allowed children to scramble up the chariot - one seen having his share of an ice lolly ...

Sights and sounds at the heart of the festivities in Khalna Tol.

It wasn’t very long before the cries of men perched on the curved front of the chariot that extended much like the bowsprit of a sail ship rang out, urging on the two lines of boys who held two lines used to draw the wooden structure as if they were participating in a tug-of-war against the chariot. It was with that that some of us were drawn towards the heavy looking ropes – something that one is probably ill advised to do, as an attempt to turn the chariot resulted in the lines sweeping swiftly across the crowd that had gathered, causing a few including a woman carrying a baby to fall … the thought that immediately crossed my mind was “stampede” – as bodies swept by the rope pressed me hard against the wall of people that stood behind me. Fortunately nothing worse than what happened to the woman who fell resulted from this and a pause in the drawing of the chariot allowed order to be restored, giving me an opportunity to quickly make my way out of the eye of the storm. We were to learn later from two Israeli travellers with whom we had the pleasure of sharing a bottle of whisky with on the terrace of the Peaceful Inn in Nagarkot that the festival has in the past proven to be a deadly one … they how they had witnessed the lingam pole being pulled down and breaking in the process and whilst on this occasion no one had been hurt, it was common knowledge that a few deaths are not uncommon as a result of the pole falling on the crowd or from a runaway chariot.

Trying to get close to the action during the pulling of the chariot proved to be not just an exhilarating, but also quite a terrifying experience.

One of the two lines being tugged at by children to the cries of men perched at an extension at the front end of the chariot.

Short clip of the chariot being pulled in Khalna Square.

Being caught up in the frenzy of the ancient Bisket Jatra close to the action probably counts as one of my most exciting experiences. If you were to ask if I would do it again, I would definitely want to … but knowing what I know now, chances are that I would keep a safer distance from all the action – as did many of the better informed tourists in the square. Leaving the excitement of the festival behind, we made our way back to Taumadhi Square and then to Durbar Square – that was enjoyable in many ways as we were able to take in some fine examples of traditional Newari religious architecture for the first time on the trip … but what probably remains etched most in our memories were the events of Khalna Tol that we had moments before, been caught up in.

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