It’s truly an amazing sight to behold! The 32 haat (hands) long chariot beautifully decorated, inside which resides the god of rain Rato Machhindranath in its small abode. And to see this huge chariot sometimes even towering over houses by the side of the road being pulled by hundreds of men is an awesome moment. Only when Rato Machhindranath Jatra begins that I feel like the Nepali New Year (Bikram Sambat) has finally come around.
The name Rato Machhindranath means ‘Red Fish God’. Rato as in red, Machhindra or Matsyendra means fish and Nath means god, even the statue of the deity is red in color.
The legends behind Rato Machhindranath (also known by the names of Karunamaya and Bunga Dyah) are so many that is hard for me to say which one is the real one. Maybe that’s why they are called legends. All legends are not contradicting to each other. It’s just that they are like different versions of the same story told by different people in their own set of values and beliefs. Most of the time the names and characters differ but the story is the same of a drought in the valley for which to end people seek out the help of Rato Machhindranath.
The legend states that when Guru Gorakhnath came to Patan, no one knew his true identity. When he wasn’t given any meals from the locals he found the Nags (serpents) responsible for the rain in the valley and he captured them, then he went on to mediate. While the nags were in captivity they could not make rain bringing in severe drought in the valley. So, the advisors to the King Narendra Dev then asked the King to bring Machhindranath, teacher of Gorakhnath from Assam in India in hopes to end the drought. And when Gorakhnath heard his teacher is in Patan he decided to visit him setting the serpents free. The valley then had plenty of rain, being thankful to Machhindranath the local started to worship him for saving them from drought and King Narendra Dev started the festival of Rato Machhindranath in 879 A.D.
Whether true or not, I love to hear stories and I have heard so many versions for Rato Machhindranath that it spins my head. You cannot even begin to imagine all the details involved in every ritual and rite and I am not going to talk about those either. Otherwise, this particular note of mine will be freakishly longer than it already is. Plus, I am not a scholar and this is not my university thesis! But if you are someone who believes in facts than the stories themselves then I suggest you hit the books from you think are reliable because there is so much information available and find the truth about this particular legend from the people who know it all. Trust me, if you do so, it will be an adventure in itself trying to get to the bottom of the truth! Whether you find the truth or not is another story altogether!
The 1600 years old festival of Nepal starts every year at the end of Baishakh (April-May) depending on the auspicious date calculated by the priests for the festival. Everything related to this festival even the tiniest detail is calculated and prepared in advance in accordance to the astrological signs needed for all the rituals. The festival formally starts after the ritual of ‘Gai Daan’ (cow donation). The preparation for the festival starts with the ritual bathing of the statue of Rato Machhindranath in Lagankhel square in Patan and then after is kept in the 16th century old, Rato Machhindranath’s Temple located in the south of Patan Durbar Square, until the ordained date to be transported in the chariot.
Meanwhile, the chariot to house the deity for the festival is started to build days ahead in Pulchowk. People from Newar community but belonging to different sects come together to build the chariot in its different stages and follow a strict code of conduct while they are building it. The building materials for the chariot are mainly wood and cane of specific kind and measurements. The beautiful but heavy chariot is pulled with the help of two big wheels and supported by two long and strong ropes to keep its balance while being wheeled around the city.
Because this festival is held just before the monsoon season starts and being the compassionate god of rain and harvest, it usually rains during the first few days of the festival, like Machhindranath himself giving the blessing to the people of the valley. The chariot tour starts from the place it’s built i.e. Pulchowk, circling the city via Natole, Gabahal, Mangal Bazaar, Sundhara, Lagankhel, Kumaripati and finally ending at Jawalakhel.
Along with the chariot of Rato Machhindranath, there is another small chariot which is pulled only by little boys at the same time. This chariot has equal importance as it houses the deity embodiment of Lord Shiva known as Chakawadyo (in Newari), Minnath and Jattadhari Lokeswor a form of Lord Shiva. And this is THE BEST part of jatra for me! Watching these guys shout “Haste Haiste” while they pull the chariot with fervor is so much fun. Enjoying every bit of it and getting even more excited, if that’s even possible, when people watching from their verandas’ throw water to cool them off.
During the chariot pulling the exciting sounds coming from the traditional musical instruments Dhime (drums) and Bhushya ( a pair of big brass cymbals) and the Guruju Paltan’s (Sarduljung Battalion) flutes serenading the procession adds to the festive mood of the jatra/festival. I get even more excited (if that’s even possible), by the small bells on top of the chariot, ringing sweetly when the chariot is pulled. Every time the chariot pulling comes to an end for the day when the Guruju ko Paltan fire three rounds of bullets in the air.
Every time the festival comes around I get excited to see the chariot being built and to see the statue of Rato Machhindranath brings a soothing feeling to my soul. Every evening devotees worship the god and light up butter-lamps in front of the chariot making the site even more beautiful surrounded by those lights. The chariot pulling on the other hand is a different story where I watch it from a safe distance away from the enthusiastic crowd.
During the Rato Machhindranath Jatra, street vendors align the surrounding area where the chariot is kept to put up their businesses early in the morning. It is quite a scene to watch devotees praying while people shop nearby. When the chariot leaves the area where it was kept for resting, it can feel empty and quiet for days.
There is a section in the chariot pulling at Thali where it is pulled only by women of all ages for a few meters. In which I haven’t taken part, simply because I don’t want to be squished like a sandwich in the crowd (Yes, I am weak! There I said it!).
When it reaches Lagankhel, there is an event of coconut throwing from the zenith of the chariot. The person who catches the said coconut offers it to the Rato Machhindranath and is said to be blessed with a baby boy and will have an auspicious year ahead. (This gives me another idea for research. Find the people who caught the coconut in the past and see if they really had a baby boy!)
Bhoto Jatra, another separate ritual and an addition to festival which has now become a part of Rato Machhindranath Jatra marks the end to this month long lively festivities. On the fourth day after the chariot reaches Jawalakhel, Bhota Jatra is held. It’s the ritual of showing a diamond crusted vest (bhoto) in all four directions three times from the chariot. On that day, there is a public holiday declared for the capital, so, thousands of people flock to the center of Jawalakhel to see the Bhoto Jatra. It is believed that seeing the ‘Bhoto’ brings good luck.
The legend behind Bhoto Jatra comes from the story in which a farmer was gifted the bhoto in gratitude by the Karkotaka Nag (snake) for curing the eye aliment of his Queen. One day the farmer lost the bhoto when he took it off to go work in the field. Later he saw a man wearing the same vest among the crowd in the festival of Rato Machhindranath, which resulted in a quarrel between the man and the farmer. At the festival, the Karkotaka Nag was also present in human form. He then proceeded to settle the dispute between them and offered the vest to Rato Machhindranath saying whoever brings the proof of ownership of the bhoto shall have it, till then it will remain in the custody of the deity.
So every year, on the last day of Rato Machhindranath Jatra, the bhoto is shown to the public in presence of Patan’s Kumari (living goddess) and the president, the head of state (previously it used to be the King before abolition of monarch system in Nepal) in hope that the owner will come forward with the evidence to claim it.
After Bhota Jatra, the statue of the deity is transferred to the shikhar-style temple in Bungamati where it will stay for six months before the jatra next year. The chariot is then taken apart. Once in every 12 years, the festival of Rato Machhindranath starts and ends in Bungamati, a small Newar village, believed to be the birth place of Machhindranath, 6 km to the south of Patan. It is going to be held in 2015 i.e. Next Year!
When the chariot arrives at their part of the town, this month long festival is celebrated by both Hindu and Buddhist Newars in Patan with great zeal and family gatherings surrounded by delicious foods and music. Rato Machhindranath Jatra is a must see festival for everyone and should not be missed. And RIGHT NOW, it’s that time of the year!