Festival Scene

SYNOPSIS:  How to bring about the monsoon season.  A festival in Patan.

One of the many guides who approached me when I rumbled across the rubble-filled temple square with my luggage yesterday was Bishwa.  What distinguished him from the other guides was his sense of humor and the fact that he owns a motorbike.  I got his number.  Today when I heard about the Rato Machindranath Jatra, an annual festival performed in Patan, another nearby ancient capital city in the Kathmandu Valley, that number came in handy.  I had a ride.  Sadly enough, I only caught a brief glimpse of this major festival which has already gone on for almost a month and is celebrated by both Buddhists and Hindus.  The most rambunctious parts of it were already over, and the last day, yet to come too chaotic to attend.

Strict guidelines apply and precise timing is calculated for the building of the wooden chariot for the blood-red rain/fish god Rato Machhindranath that comes from a nearby village to Patan every year.  For over a month the image would have been pulled through various villages in the area to the excited shouts of the attending crowd.  Upon arrival in Patan, that chariot and a smaller counterpart would be stationary, and a three-day festival ensues.  On the first day, people gather to bring offerings, and a coconut is thrown from the top of the pole into the crowd by the high priest, bringing an auspicious year, and a baby boy — or perhaps there is more at stake? — to the one who catches it.  I hear that was quite a spectacle the day before my arrival.  Quarrels broke out over who caught the coconut and according to Bishwa, there were some fist-fights until the matter was settled.

On this second day, which I attended, things were much calmer.  People line up to bring offerings and the area is filled with vendors, creating a bit of a carnival atmosphere. Butter lamps are lined up and lit just like at Buddhist temples in Tibet.   A traditional music band is playing,  and people bring fruits, flowers, and money to the chariots as offerings in hope of rain.  In return, they receive a blessing from the priest present in the shrine with the god.  The big chariot honors the rain god; the twin chariot is smaller but of equal importance, and is set up to worship Shiva.

On the final day of the festival it gets rowdy and crowded again.  I would have had a nearly impossible time to even get close to the action.  The president of Nepal is present, which makes for enormous security and even worse than normal congestion.  The highlight of the day is the presentation of a jeweled vest to the crowd, which according to one of the many circulating legends, once was lost.  It ended up in the rain god’s possession.  Every year, it is presented to the crowd, just in case the rightful owner can bring proof and retrieve this treasure.  So far, no candidates have come forward.

With Bishwa’s motorbike, we got through the dusty and traffic-congested town in reasonable time.  And like clockwork, the first 5-minute rain shower, ushering in the monsoon season, gushed down on us as we roamed the grounds.

Rato Machindranath Jatra spoke!  Ye of little faith!  Don’t say these rituals don’t work!

The proof is in the pudding.

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  1. I was at the same festival in Patan!! That was in early May and it was raining a little bit… It must have been the beginning of the festival while you were there towards the end of it. I remember the sights and sounds and smells very well. So many people brought offerings and I was just amazed and in awe that this very tall chariot could be moved without ever falling over. Everything was peaceful when we were there though, no rowdiness. Thank you for the beautiful photos!! They take me right back to Patan…
    Patan was also where we went to see the Kumari. She was close to where this festival took place.

    • Yes, Anja! This goes on forever. The parade is a national, joyous even. The final four days, too. Just that it gets a bit more rough then because of the coconut and the president’s presence. I am so sorry, I missed that parade. And yes, the Kumari shows up, too. I saw her for 30 seconds in Kathmandu. This one (from Patan), I hope to see, too.