Authorities caught unawares of protests despite calls for allowing the Machhindranath chariot festivalThe rituals will now start Friday without the chariot and authorities have declared a curfew within the Ring Road in Lalitpur district from 4am to 10pm as precautionary measures.
Around 10 am on Thursday, around 100 people gathered near the chariot of Rato Machhindranath to protest the authorities’ turning a blind eye to the festival.
But soon, despite prohibitory orders being in place, 100 became 200 and within a couple of hours, there were over 500 people assembled in Pulchowk, dime baja and bhusya in hands, urging people to pull the chariot of the rain god.
“The people you see here came because of their faith. We didn’t have to call anyone. They came here out of their own free will,” said Rabi Shakya, a local from Patan.
But things quickly turned ugly. Despite repeated warnings by the police, locals continued to protest, and pull the chariot.
A clash between the locals and the police force ensued, with police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Locals resorted to stone pelting. Several people were injured including the police.
“Since people had arrived in huge numbers, police alone were unable to control the crowd,” said Senior Superintendent Tek Prasad Rai, chief of Lalitpur Metropolitan Police Range. “So we sought the help of the Armed Police Force.”
In the aftermath of the clash, the chariot of Karuranamaya lay in the middle of the road, tilted dangerously, less than a 100 metres from where it was kept for nearly two months, surrounded by Armed Police Force personnel and the red bricks that now lay strewn on the street.
Within a few hours, the atmosphere at Pulchowk turned from euphoric to something that has never been seen before at a major festival in the Kathmandu Valley.
But what happened in Patan on Thursday was not just a matter of frustrated locals wanting to celebrate a festival. It was a culmination of a series of events that started since the lockdown that prohibited Patan locals from observing one of their most important festivals.
Chief District Officer of Lalitpur Narayan Prasad Bhatta said that they had not imagined that the situation would escalate as much as it had and put the blame on "irresponsible groups" for causing tension.
“We never expected something like this would happen,” Bhatta told the Post.
Chandra Maharjan, who coordinates the festival, said there was a meeting going on with stakeholders when they heard that people were pulling the chariot.
“We were not part of what happened earlier today. Today’s incident does not involve the main stakeholders and we don’t recognise those who attempted to pull the chariot,” Maharjan said
The exact details of who started the protests is not known yet.
However, according to Rai, nine people were leading the protests and among them were those who beat up a traffic policeman.
Among those arrested is activist Yaddab Lal Kayastha who can be seen arguing with the police without a mask on videos making the rounds on social media, a protester said.
“Those leading the crowd could be jailed for up to six months as per the Infectious Disease Act 1964,” said Assistant CDO Lalit Basnet.
But as the day unfolded, a meeting between stakeholders decided that the festival will commence from Friday. “No one present at the meeting took what happened today positively,” said spokesperson of the Guthi Sanstan Saroj Thapaliya.
A meeting in the evening between representatives of the various bodies involved in the festival, Chief District Officer Narayan Prasad Bhatta and Mayor of Lalitpur Metropolitan City Chiribabu Maharjan decided to resume the rituals with Chhama puja on Friday.
“The chariot is in no position to be moved and may topple over, “ Maharjan told the Post. “Therefore the idol will be carried to the four destinations and on September 7 taken to Bungmati.”
As a precautionary measure following clashes on Thursday, the Lalitpur district administration office has announced a curfew within the ring road from 4 am to 10 pm on Friday.
Spokesperson Thapaliya says that what happened was a result of the public losing patience with the government and the district authorities and added that the Guthi Sansthan was unaware about the protest until people started to pull the chariot. He said that the guthi is responsible for conducting the puja and other rituals related to the festival while the local authority’s role is to assist them with the pulling of the chariot, an issue that has been in limbo since it was built back in June. The festival organisers had decided to organise the festival after the government eased the lockdown in mid-June.
“This was an outburst of spiritual and cultural beliefs,” said Thapaliya. “We cannot call it wrong entirely because this is something to do with people’s faith and belief. However, we do feel this could have been avoided.”
A group had even written to the office of President Bidya Devi Bhandari asking her how to conduct the festival this year, but they say that they got no response.
What also caused today's incident is the significance the festival holds for the people of Patan. The locals believe the chariot festival has to be completed before the onset of Malmas, which is considered an inauspicious time to conduct any festivals.There is also a belief that if the chariot isn’t pulled before the start of the malmas which starts in mid-September, the idol of Rato Machindranath has to be taken to Bhaktapur.
According to John Locke in his book Karunamaya, if the chariot still houses the idol of Rato Machindranath beyond the eight day of the dark half of Ashwin, the people of Bhaktapur have the right to take the idol with them to Bhaktapur.
Keeping such aspects in mind, Thapaliya also informed that in previously held meetings with authorities, they had talked about how to conduct and conclude the festival.
Another protest also took place in Gabahal where locals tore down a police booth, used it as a shield and started pelting stones at police. Locals were agitated because the chariot wasn’t pulled to Gabahal, which is what is traditionally done on the first day of the procession.
“This could have been avoided had they let the locals pull it to Gabahal. The way the police acted was not correct,” said Rohan Bajracharya, another local of Patan.
The four destinations of the chariot are Gahabahal, Sundhara, Lagankhel and Jawalakhel where the Bhoto Jatra is held.
Senior Superintendent Rai told the Post that four police personnel and dozens of others were injured in the clash
“We are investigating the case further and have arrested the concerned people. They seem to have gathered people through their facebook page called Hamro Jatra,” said Rai.
Even Patan locals were not happy about what happened today. Sunny Rajbhandari, a Patan resident, questioned who will be put to blame if today’s incident sparked an outbreak in Patan.
“I can’t believe how stupid people can get at such a senstive time. We still don't know who initiated the chaos today which in itself, to be honest, is appalling,” said Rajbhandari.
Besides the proper process was not followed in the pulling of the chariot.
“There was no one to hold the khadga, the guruju paltan weren’t present and most importantly there was no formal announcement” said Rajbhandari. “ I want to ask the people who haphazardly started the procession if they know what actually goes on during the festival. Or are they just trying to prove a point?”
(Shuvam Dhungana contributed reporting.)