Yenya: Celebrations in KathmanduThe spirit of this festival has also been at the heart of openness to change.
“We will miss the charm of Indra Jatra this year. Hard to imagine when we will be comfortable among a crowd like this again to drink sweet thown from Swet Bhairav,” wrote my friend Paavan on her Instagram, along with a photo of herself at the Hatu Dyaa. Hatu Dyaa is the Newa name for Swet Bhairav. Hatu Hyakiu is the term that describes the thown, or sweet wine, trickling down the mouth of the deity during Indra Jatra. Jatra-goers throng the massive face of Swet Bhairav, clamouring for the wine; their jaws open, their tongue drawn out to catch the wine with as much as their mouths can expand. The drink sometimes trickles down their chins and all the way down the neck.
I’ve often thought of this as an act of receiving. Without holding back. Without shame. Unlike so many other occasions when you might be taunted for your need for a drink or for asking, there’s no shame during this festival. You open your mouth wide and receive, your face turned towards the sky, sometimes, the drizzles mingling with the wine, making its way into your system—for we’re at the very end of monsoon in the Valley.
Thinking of this festival conjures in my mind sounds, smells and the awkwardness of strangers pressing against you, while you suck in your breath, trying to hold yourself away as farthest as possible from the touch, even in knowing that being shoved around by the revelers is a part of being at a jatra.
For as long as I can remember, if I have been in Kathmandu in September, I’ve always been at Indra Jatra. With my parents as a child and on my own as an adult. You’re never alone at this festival because you always run into friends, mostly photojournalists. But you also run into yourself constantly, in your contact with strangers. Strangers can sometimes push you closer to yourself, as you embrace your body more closely in a crowd to keep yourself from being touched, brushed against. These things can happen without intent, too, but also with intent. And so it feels like a time you’re out there, gathering yourself more tightly than ever.
But jatra or no jatra, we’re all holding ourselves now, even within the walls of our own homes. And we’re nostalgic for a hundred things related to touch, but also for events like this one, that Paavan calls “mero favourite”. And it is my favourite too, so I instantly write a comment on her post.
My brother has often asked me why I would go to this jatra on my own every year. I initially thought I liked how invisible I could be as I drifted amidst the throngs of people doing their own thing. But year after year, as I worked as a journalist, talking to more and more people about the festival, a completely new interest in the festival began to emerge in me.
I’m a fan of the untamed and this jatra is just that. Look at the fierceness in the Majipaa Lakhey and look at Hatu Dyaa! This festival is a manifestation of everything Dionysiac!
The jatra has historically drawn masked dancing troupes from all around the Valley. From Bhaktapur, Kirtipur, Ichangu and other places in the vicinity. The troupes walk hours to come perform in the courtyards around the Kathmandu Durbar Square—their head gear, their musical instruments and all. Within Kathmandu City itself, every single community has been assigned a task at the festivities. And over the centuries, they’ve continued to perform it, competing to make their performance shine. If the lead musicians in the processions are the Shahis, the Saapu community from Kilagaal move the Pulukishi. If the Ranjitkaars of Majipaat bear the responsibility of the Lakhey, the Pancha Buddhas are performed by the Bajracharyas.
As monsoon withdraws it would also be a time to set aside fieldwork and that’s where revelry comes in. The Yenya, or the Celebration of/in Kathmandu, was when the communities came together every year to make merry together. It has been a time for show of management skills, with each community managing their own responsibility best and taking to the streets to have fun with whatever apparatuses their ancestors had invented and placed a claim on for their community.
The spirit of this festival has also been at the heart of openness to change. It has constantly improvised itself over the years, beginning from introducing the Nanichayau (ref to A time called Indra Jatra by Prateebha Tuladhar, TKP), dedicated to the best aloo chop maker in the city, to the day set aside for women to drag the chariots, to a day dedicated to women drinking from Hatu Dyaa, their hair hanging limp behind them, as they jostle for their turns.
The confining of children to secluded lives under the name of anointing them living deities, which I have never been a fan of, has also undergone change over the years, because of resistance from families and activists. This week, with Kathmandu observing a lockdown, we saw miniature chariots of the living deities being drawn through the streets to fill the vacuum of the gigantonormous ones that have staggered through the streets in the past. I’ve always thought of these improvisations as a mark of how traditions need to allow for boundaries to be pushed so that they can incorporate changes to make themselves more relevant.Lately, I also find myself wondering how it came to be given its Nepali name in the first place. Legend has it that Indra was captured by the people of Kathmandu at this time of the year for stealing flowers. One of the performances at the festival is the arrival of his mother Dangii, who rescues her son. But the name “Indra Jatra”, which is nowhere close to the original name of the festival, obviously came from the rulers who wanted to find an equivalent in their own language. But in doing so, perhaps the jatra’s original idea has been hijacked. From being a time when people come together for Celebrations in Kathmandu, which is what Yenya literally means, the focus was shifted to a certain god alone, all other activities at the event being tucked away behind his name in so doing. And from a celebration that was of a city and the people, it became a festival, called after a scheming god!