From dancing deities to folk music and engrossing tales; discover the customs and celebrations that bring Newari communities together in Khokana for the Shikali Jatra.
"Have you heard of the Shikali Jatra?” asked a friend. "It is celebrated by the people in a village near Kathmandu who don't celebrate Dashain." His words piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to know more about this festival and the people who celebrate it.
Every year, at the beginning of autumn, there is a festive atmosphere throughout the country, since Dashain is around the corner. It is one of the biggest festivals, celebrated by majority of people in the country, mostly Hindus. However, eight kilometers south of Kathmandu, there's a village in Lalitpur known as Khokana, where the villagers, though practicing Hinduism, do not celebrate Dashain. They, instead, have their own annual five-day-long festival dedicated to Goddess Shikali, also known as one of the sisters of Dakshinkali. There is a temple in Khokana dedicated to Shikali.
Infused with enthusiasm, I boarded a bus from Lagankhel and headed to Khokana on the third day of the festival, which was celebrated with much fanfare and excitement. Khokana is a medieval Newari town frozen in time. You will be welcomed by the sight of people harvesting mustard and preparing mustard oil. In the fields, threshing is done the old-fashioned way. As you walk through the narrow alleys, you will see women spinning wool, using traditional spinning wheels, and winnowing rice with a fanner basket.
Although one can easily reach the Shikali Temple from Bhainsepati, I decided to take the longer route and walk through the village with the pilgrims. En route, most of the houses are examples of intricate Newari architecture. Sadly, many of the houses had been severely damaged by the 2015 earthquake. After I passed the settlements, I saw a long narrow path through the green fields that looked like an ant trail, with the pilgrims heading towards the temple resembling ants, slowly following the trail. I followed the pilgrims and met a group of people from a local guthi, (religious and cultural council or institution) According to them, there were three different guthis that played a chief role in the festival. The three were called Ta-guthi, Salaa-guthi, and Ja-guthi.
After walking for some time, I finally saw the Shikali Temple,at a distance, crowded with devotees. The temple was on a hillock, which sloped down gently to the fields. According to the folklore, once upon a time, the goddess Shikali herself came to the place where the temple now stands. I met an elderly priest dressed in white and politely asked him about the festival. "The festival begins when eight virgins from the guthi participate in a secret worship of the gods that lasts for two days. No person or animal is allowed in the area of worship. Then, there is a hom, a ritual in which offerings are made into a consecrated fire, similar to Dakshayajna, an important part of SwasthaniBrata Katha, a religious Hindu book read every year at the end of autumn."The priest pulled his shawl around him and continued, "On the third day, money is collected to buy a sacrificial buffalo."
Soon, there was a procession of Newar priests and individuals representing forty-six gods; among them were fourteen wearing masks of deities such as Kali,
Bhairav, Mahankali, Indrayeni, Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva,and others. They were followed by other holy men in brown-colored costumes with white hats, playing payntah, a conventional long horn.
The sun was beating down on the hillock, and those who enacted the roles of various deities in colorful elaborately decorated outfits and different metal masks danced to the loud music of dhimay, a traditional drum, and jhyali, a folk percussion instrument.
"Once they put on the mask, the spirit of gods takes over their bodies and dictates the movements," the priest told me. One could see that some of the people behind the masks were quite old and needed help to even walk, while others moved like their bodies were possessed by a higher power.
It's a festival where old souls are worshipped by young minds, and many of the elders are hopeful the tradition continues. "As per the tradition, the role of being a deity is passed along from one generation to another, and that’s what keeps our culture strong."
When I asked the locals why they don’t celebrate Dashain, they had different answers. Some of them believed Dashain was brought into the valley by King Prithvi
Narayan Shah in the 18th century after he conquered Kathmandu, while they had been celebrating ShikaliJatra since the reign of King Amar Malla in the 15th century, and so they continued following their tradition. There were also those who thought it was an alternative version of Dashain. However, the priest believed that the festival is a way to mark the beginning of Dashain in the country, although the people in the village don't celebrate it. Whatever the reason, large crowds of worshippers from all over Khokana and neighboring villages, towns, and cities gather at the hillock annually, making it one of the major festivals of the region.
After the eventful third day, the festival moves on to the fourth day, when a special dance is performed in the village courtyard to enact the killing of the demon by the goddess. And on the final day, the colorful masks and costumes are storedproperly and the festival comes to an end.