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Experiencing Indra Jatra in Kathmandu

Updated: Jan 3

What Lies Beneath the Surface of Nepal's Enigmatic Festival



The gathering at Hanumandhoka for Indra Jatra
Hanumandhoka, Kathmandu

“You are in Nepal at the right time, Indra Jatra is just around the corner, and you must experience it.” Said Mr. Rajbhandari the owner of Yakety Yak Hostel where I had checked in. He spoke with a clear hint of pride for his community. Himself a Newar, “It’s a festival of the Newari People.” He said while highlighting the communal harmony that prevails amidst the thick caste system in Nepal.


Predominantly a Buddhist and Hindu nation with a multitude of castes within them, I was particularly interested in exploring their interconnectedness and how they co-exist.


One of the biggest annual street festivals in Kathmandu came in as an opportunity to facilitate my quest to understand and what I discovered was beyond what I was looking for.


The Synergistic Beginning 


Yoshin pole installation
Yoshin Pole Installation

Navigating through the lanes of the artistic Darbar Square of Basanthpur, admiring the intricate artistry of the ancient wooden structures and making my way through the sea of people, I arrived at Yosin Chowk, where the Yosin pole was to be installed to mark the beginning of the eight-day-long festival. I found a space for myself slightly at a height to get a clear view of the ceremony. The deafening sounds of drums and cymbals played by numerous groups of people belonging to the subgroups within the Newar community reverberated in the air, displaying a playful competition. 


Unlike most festivals that I have been part of in the past, where men take up prominent roles of performing rituals, being part of music bands, crowd maintenance or anything that involves physical strength, I was surprised to see equal participation from people of all ages and gender in most endeavors. Girls and boys as young as 10 drumming away with confidence among the adults. 


In the middle of the square lay an approximately 60-foot-long wooden pole, a representation of the God of rain, Indra. It was being prepared to be installed in a vertical position. The Nepal army was at work preparing the scaffolds using bamboo culms and ropes. As the auspicious time for the event neared, both Hindu and Buddhist priests began their rituals, a thick scent of camphor and incense filled the air creating a mystical vibe and flocks of pigeons began performing a drill, flying in circles in the sky right above the ceremonial site. 


It was around 10:37, the auspicious time prescribed by the Nepali calendar for the pole-raising ceremony. The synergy between the various sub-groups of Hindus, Buddhists and the army was visible as they came together singing praises to the god and bringing the pole to an upright position. 


On enquiring about the significance of this ceremony with a local media person, she said “It’s a form of communication to notify people that the festival has begun.” What I could also see was the strength of community. Symbolic representation of a group of people coming together to make something impossible possible and meeting their basic human needs of community, collaboration, contribution and celebration in the process.


Kumari: The Living Goddess of Nepal


Kumari procession Indra Jatra
Kumari Procession

A little girl with extraordinary influence, before whom the most powerful kneel in submission. Kumari, a prepubescent girl who is believed to be an embodiment of goddess Taleju sits on her throne with a stance of authority. Her red and gold attire, the prominent winged eyeliner and the crown complement her stance as she is driven around the city of Kathmandu on a chariot by the locals accompanied by a musical band. 


The girl of merely 3-4 years of age is said to undergo an intense selection process to be appointed as a Kumari. Most aspects of the selection process are still a mystery to the public. It is said that to test her fearlessness she needs to spend a night in a dark room with slaughtered goat and buffalo heads and if she shows any sign of fear, she gets disqualified. Although, there is no evidence to back these claims. Once she is appointed as a Kumari, she lives in the Kumari palace at Darbar Square with a caretaker until she bleeds from any part of her body either through a cut, falling of milk teeth or attaining puberty. Once she bleeds she loses the status of the goddess and returns to normal life.


This again, displayed the interconnectedness of the faiths. Taleju, a Hindu goddess is believed to choose a Buddhist girl as her vessel and the selection process is undertaken by the Buddhist priests.


I was initially terrified by the concept of a little girl living in isolation, being treated like a goddess and suddenly put back into the world to survive. But on enquiry, I learnt that since 2008 the rules around Kumari have been relaxed and she is allowed to get educated, play with kids her age and is also coached to transition into a normal life post her tenure as a Kumari. Since there exists a belief that Kumari’s well-being reflects the well-being of the nation, great care is taken to cater to all her needs.


This, for me, is a beautiful example of cultures learning through the experiences of their people and adapting to changing times and contexts while retaining their essence and values. Also, when I look through a lens of spirituality, it could be a practice that enables one to drop their ego in the act of bowing before a little girl.


Into the World of Mythology


Display of lord Bhairava
Bhairava at Indra Chowk


Heap of food
Samay Bhaji

Lord Indra, Indra Jathra
Lord Indra with his team

Puli Kisi, Indra's white elephant
Puli Kisi, Indra's white elephant

Lakhey, the demon god
Lakhey, the demon god

With the installation of the Yosin pole, the streets of Kathmandu temporarily transformed into a world of Mythology with shrines at every locality being decorated with butter lamps, large masks of Bhairava opened for display at Hanuman Dhoka, Indra Chowk and other localities, a huge plate with a variety of food heaped on it called Samay Bhaji a symbol of prosperity and good fortune is offered to the deity and then distributed among people. The streets resound with the sounds of drums and cymbals as the mythological story connected with the festival is enacted for the next 8 days. Men adorning the costumes of these mythological characters are said to embody their spirits as they dance. 


Indra, the god in disguise who engaged in theft, dressed in blue with a sword in his hand along with his two assistants parades on the streets led by a band of musicians. Lakhey, the demon who gained the trust of people and ended up becoming the protector of children, dressed in a red and gold heavily embellished robe, with a fierce-looking red mask and hair dances in a trance. He is invited to shops and community courtyards, worshiped and offered food and alcohol as people seek his blessings. Pulu Kisi the white elephant in search of his master Indra wanders the streets of Kathmandu and Dagin the mother of Indra in search of her lost son marches with a band of musicians. She is a symbol of loss or bereavement. With her, people remember the ones they have lost in their family that year. 


The Culmination

Indra Jatra was a display of complex human qualities, intriguing practices and deep spiritual messages intricately woven into metaphors and stories that are easier for a human mind to comprehend and convey. Its occurrence between the end of the monsoon and the advent of winter also indicates its connection to geographical phenomena. A symbol of the culmination of one phase and the beginning of the next. And just like that after eight days of relentless effort and collaboration from the entire community, the festival culminates with the burning of the Yosin pole. 



 

Things to know before you go


Indra Jatra takes place in the month of September, the dates may change depending on the Nepal Sambat calendar.


Hotels and hostels are easily available in Kathmandu. Yakety Yak Hostels, Hotel Buddha Land , and Stupa Guest House at Thamel are in close proximity to Durbar Square.


There is an entry fee for foreign nationals 150 NPR for SAARC country nationals and 1000 NPR for other nationals. 


Tour guides are also easily available and hiring a guide can be helpful too to get an in-depth understanding of the local culture.


You can download the app Galli Map to locate the position of the procession (It's really cool)


Enjoy your trip!


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