The Pull of the ThrillA year ago, my best friend, who is also my almost neighbour, asked me if I wanted to go pull the Buñga Dyah, also known as the Rato Machhendranath. Two of my other friends were also going.
A year ago, my best friend, who is also my almost neighbour, asked me if I wanted to go pull the Buñga Dyah, also known as the Rato Machhendranath. Two of my other friends were also going. There is a day dedicated exclusively for the women to pull the chariot, the day after the coconut dropping ceremony, when the chariot is at Iti Tole of Lagankhel—the day of Yãkah Misãyã Bhujyã. “You should come,” she said. She had talked to Chiri Maharjan or Chiri didi as we call her, a staff at her family-run bed and breakfast place. Chiri didi was a regular during the chariot pulling and had given her the details.
When I was smaller, I’d go circumambulate the chariot, bow down to its wheels and pray to the Karunamaya like I’d seen my mother do. Come May, when the Jatra usually takes place, I attend a series of feasts that my relatives invite my family to when the chariot reaches their locality. And of course, I go watch the chariot being pulled. By men. I prefer watching from a distance because of the crowd, the drunkenness in the air, the shouting of ‘hãste’ and ‘haiste’ and the dhimey and bhuchhya playing always makes my heart palpitate. So, from the terrace of my neighbour’s street facing house, the window in my aunt’s room, on my grandfather’s waist, almost standing only on one foot on the crowded footpaths in Mangal Bazaar—I watched. The men pull the Buñga Dyah? and young boys pull the smaller Chãkuwãa Dyah or the Minnãth.
During Buñga Dyah?Jãtrã family gatherings, a common question asked is whether the young men of our family went to pull the chariot this year. And if they went, which section did they go pull. Was it fun? I’ve heard men ask each other whether they want to go pull the chariot or not, as a common greeting and invitation in passing, during the Jãtrãamid-afternoons when the time to pull the chariot approaches. Pulling the Buñga Dya? has mostly been a thing that men do. I’d never seen women pull the chariot and had never imagined this was something I would do.
“Okay,” I said nonchalantly, almost not registering what it was that I had signed up for. The nervousness, self-doubt and fear kicked in later and progressed as the time for us to go pull the chariot neared.
“You might break your hand, you might fall and people might step on you,” my mother warned me. I knew her concerns were valid. But I was determined to go, even if the idea had never occurred to me all my life of celebrating the Buñga Dya? Jatra and a few years into my adult life of finding out about the day when only women pull the chariot. I was determined to go even if I didn’t believe (still don’t) in the strength of my body and always picture twigs in place of my forearms. I was determined to go even when I knew I would have never gone on my own, had my friends not been going.
And I did fall, right onto a pile of evidences of yesterday’s feasting, with a few other women tumbling down with me, but I was immediately picked up by strangers. But thankfully, the only thing that broke was my pervious apprehension about the whole affair.
The four of us woke at 4 am and walked through the darkness of the morning and emptiness of Patan’s streets to get to Iti, where the chariot was stationed. Not many people were around, except a few devotees who’d already come to give their daily offerings to the Buñga Dyah. We waited in anticipation, frequently asking other women who had gathered about what time the pulling would begin. We found out there wasn’t a lot of pulling to be done, that it was a small stretch of barely 200 metres that we would be pulling the chariot. Still I was nervous and caution was my constant mode. As the sky brightened, more people began to show up and at about 6 am, with tips from other women who had gathered, we began to line up in two parallel rows in front of the chariot. The preparations for the pulling began. There was a slight drizzle, as usual. We pulled up our rain-cheaters and caps. The Prasad was distributed and the thick, braided, jute ropes were let out. Since we were one of the first ones to get there and line up, we were able to find a good part of the rope to hold on to. All around us, women who had done this before were passing tips: Don’t let go of the rope no matter what, the best spot is towards the front, be careful about your shoes. We also met Chiri didi who had come with her friends.
I wasn’t expecting the pulling to be as fun and thrilling as it turned out to be. Upon the cues of the man who shouted ‘hãste’, we shouted ‘haiste’ and then shouted ‘haaaa’ as we pulled with all our might. The rough ropes felt too big for my tiny hands, but I held on to the rope like my life depended on it. The drizzle continued. On some tries, the chariot didn’t budge. But when it did, when the wheels of the chariot moved effortlessly, I almost couldn’t believe it. It is amazing what is possible when energies sync. The procession overflowed with women who wanted to get hold of the rope, there was a lot of squeezing and pushing and in no time, I ended up towards the end of the rope from being at the front. That is when we all tumbled. And we all got up, laughed it off and began pulling again. Quickly after, we had brought the chariot to the designated stop. We were all ecstatic. Everybody was dancing and laughing. We did too.
There are many beliefs as to why the tradition started. A popular version of the origin story leads to a woman who lived all by herself. “The woman had no family or relatives. No one invited her to the feasts. She was poor and had to work hard. But, she too wanted to celebrate. So she started this tradition. Other women joined in to help her and after the chariot was pulled, she celebrated with a feast,” Laxmi Khadgi, a resident of Iti Tole shares the story that she’s heard from her grandfathers. The name of this day of the festival, Yãkah Misãyã Bhujyã, also translates to the Single Woman’s Festival.
Earlier, only single women and women of the Podè community participated. But the tradition is now being taken forward by other women as well.
I didn’t go pull the chariot this year. Chiri didi went.
“A woman died this year. She used to come every year. She was from Dupat and was probably in her 50s. I went to attend the funeral,” Chiri didi shares. At some point during the pulling, the chariot needed extra rope support and the bundle of rope was thrown from the chariot deck to the ground. The rope strangled the woman and she passed away instantly. “Earlier, they used to warn us and clear the road when the rope was being brought down. This year, they didn’t,” Chiri didi says.
Accidents and the possibilities of accidents are not uncommon during the chariot pulling. “Two years ago, as we were pulling, the rope snapped. So many fell and broke their hands,” recalls Chhiri didi. But every year the excitement among women to pull the chariot is strong and hence this tradition continues. “Even those who broke their hands, came back the following year. There are many regulars,” Chhiri didi shares. Chiri didi has been pulling the chariot every year since she started about 4-5 years ago.
“One of my closest friends, who lives quite near me, invited me to accompany her to pull the chariot one year,” Chiri didi recalls, “’We also need to have fun, let’s go!’ She said. She is a fun-loving person just like me.” At first Chiri didi was hesitant, there would be a lot of pushing, she’d heard. “‘Come on, let’s go, we will guard you’ my friends told me.” Chiri didi shares.
“It isn’t that difficult. The chariot moves surururu. Just like that,” Chiri didi says, “I never let go of the rope no matter what!” I ask her why women only pull a short distance, to which she says, “Perhaps because they think it will be difficult for the women.” When I ask her if she believes that, she says, “Women are strong too. They will be able to pull just like the men do. We’ve talked about us pulling a longer distance but we are told that this is how it has been for years.”
Today, she encourages every woman to be a part of the chariot pulling and doesn’t give in when others ask her not to go. “Some older women in my neighbourhood call us ‘Apwopi mista’ (‘over-smart’ women) and discourage us. We will go, no matter what you tell us, we tell them. Sometimes my family asks me not to go, but I go anyway,” says Chiri didi. “We also need to have our share of fun!” Chiri didi says, smiling and with conviction. She really enjoys pulling the chariot, she says, just like she enjoys dancing to the beats of the dhimey—both of which she does every year, with all of her heart.