Gathamuga festival has been celebrated by farmers in Kathmandu valley since time immemorial as a means of bidding formal farewell to other-worldly powers.
The early settlers of Kathmandu Valley probably chose to stay back here because of its great agricultural potential, the valley floor having been enriched by the waters of a pristine lake that existed above it for thousands of years before it slowly drained out. In due course, when the settlement developed into a complex society, a distinct culture evolved, giving rise to many traditions and rituals that revolved around the agrarian lifestyle of the populace. The tradition of Gathamuga is one such practice that has survived the passage of countless centuries.
In recent years, mainstream Nepali media has wrongly and irresponsibly connected Gathamuga to the legend of the atheist demon Ghantakarna, possibly hailing from Kashi in India, and seems to have gotten away with it. In reality, the cult of Gathamuga is indigenous to Kathmandu Valley (also called Nepal Mandala), and has a significance that is deeply ingrained in the agronomic lifestyle and livelihood of the valley’s people. This meaning is now all but lost, giving way to unfounded, imported explanations.
The story starts with the beginning of the plantation season at the onset of the monsoon in July. The combination of an abundance of highly arable land and environmental conditions conducive to farming ensured that agriculture prospered in Nepal Mandala since ancient times. The valley dwellers however, constantly faced a shortage of farm hands. The working-age headcount of the valley population simply was not large enough to take on the vast farmlands available that had to be tilled, watered, sowed, weeded and looked after – all within a short span of about a month during the peak of the monsoon. Scarcity of food, and possible famine was a certainty a few months down the road if the plantation did not go well. The shortage was so severe that even if a death occurred in the family during plantation season, the dead body would be stored in a dark corner in the ground floor until the family could take time out from their farming duties to carry out the funeral rites.
To address this labor shortage, at the beginning of the plantation season, the farmers invoked onto themselves, with tantric ceremonies, supernatural spirits who gave them superhuman physical strength and thus enabled them to toil hard in their rice fields day in and day out until the plantation work was over. This practice apparently addressed the labor shortage issue quite adequately. However, the next problem that arose was getting rid of the spirits after they had fulfilled their role of lending extra muscle power to the farm hand. On the fourth day of the waning moon of the month of Shrawan (mid-August), a colorful festival is celebrated in a mirthful atmosphere to bid farewell to these helpful spirits until their contribution is sought again a year later. This festival is known as Gathamuga.
Muga is a Nepal Bhasa (Newa) word for street intersection. A tall dummy made of the common Narkat plant is erected at intersections on the day, adorned by a colorful but fearsome-looking mask. Every household in the area contributes a small rag doll, representing the unwanted spirits residing in that house, to this formidable effigy. A local vagabond, his body painted in grotesque colors, is assigned the duty of looking after the incongruous statuette all day long. As payment for his work, the ill-fated tramp is fed beaten rice and yogurt to his heart’s content. Passersby and nearby shops give him alms of small change. As dusk falls, the awe-inspiring figurine, now representing a compendium of all undesirable forces residing in the neighborhood, is dragged down unceremoniously to the nearest riverbank, together with the unfortunate bum. Amidst the chaos of the unruly hooting and taunting of onlookers, the panhandler quietly slips away from the raucous mob, happily pocketing the day’s earnings, long before the wild parade reaches the river.
To counter the risk of running into unwelcome spirits who prowl every nook and corner of the city on Gathamuga, people wear iron rings on this day, as iron is believed to act as a repellent of evil forces. On this pretext, petty vendors make brisk business several days in advance selling all kinds of metal ornaments.
At night, the eldest man of each household performs a tantric ritual of driving three-pronged iron nails onto the main doorways of the house chanting mantras, while family members douse all rooms of the house with thick smoke from white and black mustard seed burnt over coal fire on a small clay pot. While this procedure symbolically depicts driving away any remnants of malicious energy from the house, the mustard smoke doubles up as strong insecticide that undoubtedly helps eliminate unsolicited ticks and pests. Finally, an offering of cooked rice, husk and raw buffalo lungs is placed at the street intersection to appease the departed spirits, acknowledging that their services will be solicited the following year. Once this offering ritual, known as Bou Wayegu in Nepal Bhasa, is completed, the doors are locked up tight, and no one ventures out that night, as it is believed that practitioners of witchcraft are especially active in visiting funeral grounds and other places of worship seeking dark knowledge that night.
With the plantation task taken care of, the people could then afford to pay attention to enhancing their quality of life. Gathamuga marks the beginning of the festival season – a plethora of religious and cultural events take place in rapid succession over the next several months, allowing the populace to cherish and further develop a civilization that has fostered in an environment of plentifulness and abundance.
Alok Tuladhar (email@example.com) is a visual storyteller whose zeal for photo and video documentation matches his drive to promote the Nepali heritage.