Valley’s ancient Rato Machhindranath festival gets green signal amid Covid concernsAfter months of postponement, authorities allow the jatra to begin, but questions regarding the procession remain.
On Friday afternoon in Pulchowk, the 32-foot towering chariot of Rato Machhindranath, caught everyone’s attention. While a group of young men pulled together vines around the huge wooden beams, others thumped adjustments to the shrine sanctum, where the rain god will be placed to signal the start of the jatra (festival) to mark the deity’s arrival in the Valley thousands of years ago.
“We are going to bring the deity here tomorrow and if things work out, we will continue the rath’s (chariot's) procession,” said 64-year-old Dil Kumar Barahi, a leader of the Barahi Daha Guthi, one of the guthis that organise the jatra. The decision to bring the deity, now housed in Tanga Baha, to the rath in Pulchowk was taken in a meeting between the government and the organisers of the festival on Friday.
“We decided that the deity will be brought from Tanga Baha to the chariot at around 12 tomorrow (Saturday),” said Chandra Maharjan, coordinator of the festival. “However, we are yet to decide how the festival will go on from then. Perhaps, when the government lifts restrictions on visits to temples and monuments, we can continue the other rituals of the festival in an abridged way,” he added.
With the fear of Covid-19 gripping the nation, the jatra, which traditionally falls in April, has been postponed twice already, once in April and again in June. On July 7, the Lalitpur District Administration Office had again asked the Barahi Daha Guthi to suspend all work related to the festival amid rising number of Covid cases in the Valley.
But as much of the country returns to normalcy with the lockdown officially over, members of the Newa community believe that the festival should go on, as it is more than a celebration for them.
That a group of Chitrakars are already painting the dhama, a long piece of wood representing Karkotak Nagraj, the king of serpents, also signals that this time, the festival is unlikely to be postponed again. The wood, once attached to the rath with a bronze face of Heygriva Bhairava, signals that the festival has begun.
Many locals believe that if the jatra is not observed soon, it will coincide with other major festivals, and this could spell disaster for the country.
“Dashain is coming soon, and before that, we need to bring the deity to Bungamati for other cultural rituals,” said Kapil Bajracharya, one of the eldest gurjus (priests) in Bungamati, where the deity is housed for the rest of year after the festival is over. “The rituals that need to be performed need to take place even if the jatra does not see people’s participation. The festival ensures rain and good harvest, and if that is not to happen, we are going to have another famine,” he said. “That’s going to be even worse than Covid.”
It was a famine that plagued the Valley in the 7th century that led the then king Narendra Deva to join hands with Buddhist master Bandhudatta Acharya, a farmer from Lalitpur, and Karkotak Maharaj to bring the Karunamaya (Rato Machhindranath) to the Valley from Kamrupa Kamakchya, now in India. The Karunamaya brought rain and prosperity to the Valley. The festival, locally known as the Bunga Dyah Jatra, began as a commemoration of Machhindranath‘s feat. It took on various social and cultural hues as the years went by to become an integral part of the Newa people’s lives.
“Many who believe in the festival and the culture have been voicing that the festival should take place. But there are also those who are concerned; there’s confusion on whether we should celebrate the festival as before or not. There’s definitely a divided view, but the majority believe that the festival should take place,” said Shrestha.
According to Meena Bajracharya, a local of Lagankhel, one of the major reasons why many people are apprehensive is because the festival invites a huge crowd. “Hordes of people visit the chariot from morning to the evening. It will be difficult to practise physical social distancing because of that,” said Bajracharya.
She added, “We are not just missing the fervour of the festival, but also the things the celebration brings together,” she said hoping that the jatra takes place this year amid the crisis.