Neku Jatra-Mataya: Patan's Festival of Lights

Features Issue 83 Jul, 2010
Text by Ashesh Maharjan

Your parade-sore feet ache less when you look up to see warm eyes upon you from the windows of the roadside houses; when you look ahead to see the pinnacles of the Durbar Square with the summit of Langtang range in the background; when you see elderly men in the waysides, with their grandchildren in their arms giving them their first lessons of faith; when you turn back and see a line of pretty women in bright matching dresses following you. A little foot weariness is a small price to pay for the joy you get from participating in the holy parade of Neku Jatra-Mataya, the ‘Festival of Lights’.

Very few cities in the world compares with Patan (Lalitpur) in the richness of its cultural heritage—a claim that really makes sense, especially when you are talking about something with the unmatched wonder of Neku Jatra-Mataya. For Patan’s Newari community in a city where festivals function as rites of passage throughout the year, the series of festivals during Gunla (the ninth lunar month) has become a way of life. The highest point of this greatest of all Buddhists months is Mataya (and its twin procession, Neku Jatra, both celebrated as one) which follows the day after Gai Jatra. This day-long journey around the historical city starts at the dawn, on the third day of the dark fortnight of Shrawan (August).

From Neku Jatra-Mataya, neku (in Newari) means a ‘buffalo horn’, jatra is ‘festival’, mata means ‘lights’ and ya (from yatra) refers to a sacred ‘journey’. Neku Jatra is also known as Sringavheri Jatra, which also is associated with the buffalo horn. The name itself says it all, for the  most significant feature of this festival is the blowing of buffalo horn in each lane and baha (courtyard) and at every corner along the way. Men and women walk in a line of thousands between these musician groups and do puja at the votive shrines (chaityas) carrying lighted candles and torches.

The preparation for Neku Jatra-Mataya begins on the first day of Gunla, after the celebration of yet another popular Newari festival called Gathamugha. After mid-night on this day a group of some hundred people with nava bajan (traditional Newari musical ensemble) gather and follow the exact path that they are to follow on the day of Mataya. They don’t finish the whole route on a single go, but gather every night for a few nights and mark the shrines and courtyard with vermilion, husked rice and coins as they pass. In doing so, they are preparing the path for people to follow during the great procession so that they won’t get lost in the narrow and confusing lane-mazes. This ritual helps make the final day go smooth and better.

On the big day of Neku Jatra-Mataya, massive number of devotees, sometimes as many as several thousands, gather at the locality that is in charge of the festival for that year. There are ten different localities which take turns to organize the festival by sponsoring instruments, musicians and all the other expenses. This year’s (2008) Mataya was organized by the Bu-Bahal locality. They gather at the lead locality at the dawn and start their yatra with a hint of excitement and uncertainty in their cheerful faces; for they must walk all day long often bare-footed and fasting. It is a great scene to watch people prepare for their procession around the four principal Ashoka stupas (the bigger shrines attributed to the 3rd century BC Indian King Ashoka) spread in and around the four corners of Patan. The group assembles with the neku (horn) players accompanied by a percussion section.

They must all visit all the 1400 private and local votive shrines scattered in the city on their way. Groups of friends participate, dressed alike—Maharjan women in the traditional haku patasii dress; men in traditional daura suruwal and dhaka topi. Some of the men dress up as demons or ghosts (lakhe) or wild animals such as monkeys and lions. The devotees offer rice, grains, vermilion, incense, guru patra (a gift cup for a guru or religious teacher) at the shrines. The offering of oil or butter lamps signify the enlightenment of Sakya Muni Buddha.

Inhabitants of Lalitpur are obliged to participate if they have lost a relative during the preceding year. Those who are particularly going through austerities for the merit of their deceased loved ones wear sacking over their near-naked bodies to protect them as they prostrate themselves before each shrine that they visit. It is believed that this helps their dead ones rest in peace. Despite the seriousness of this parade, connected as it is to death and tragedy, it is carried on with a carnival atmosphere. People gather to observe the fun and give a helping hand to the participants of this holy parade. Since helping the participants earns religious merit for oneself even if one does not join the procession, people gather at intersections to offer assistance to the devotees. Friends and relatives stand by the roadside with rice and coins to replenish their stock. Some guide the traffic while others stand with containers of cold water and first aid. It is an interesting and inspirational sight to see people with spray cans dousing water on the marchers to cool them down, as the going gets a bit too hot. 

“I was really excited, though this wasn’t my first time and I knew my legs would hurt,” said Rina Shahi, a local of Thapa-Hiti locality, who shared her experience of Mataya this year with us. “It is, in a way, a strange experience. We had to walk past the houses of many people, and we even walked in through the bedrooms and kitchens of some houses.” When asked about her overall feelings she puts it this way: “It was irksome at times when we had to walk so long and back just to visit a single shrine which was a bit off the track. But it was a fun experience, overall. Guys just couldn’t seem to help but tease and flirt with us girls, which was a bit annoying. I made some new friends on the way, and the people were really helpful. I hope I did well enough for my Maiju (aunt) to rest in heaven.” 

There are two famous schools of belief of how this festival originated, one is a local belief and the other is famous among the cultural scholars in town. According to the local belief, this is the festival commemorating the victory of Shakya Muni over the Maras. When the Shakya Muni Gautam was in his deep penance to become Buddha, The Enlightened One, the Maras disguised themselves as demons and damsels in order to corrupt him. The day of Mataya is the day when Shakya Muni overcame his temptations and attained Nirvana. 

Who’s better a person than the expert himself to hear the second story of Mataya from? Here is a version of story on origin of Mataya told by a culture expert, Mr Satya Mohan Joshi:

Once upon an ancient time, even before The Buddha, there lived a king and a queen. They were perfect, meant for each other. The only difference between them was in their notion about animals and how they should treat them. The king was a violent man and liked hunting and abusing animals, but the queen was otherwise—compassionate, peaceful and believed in worshiping animals. Their life went on, happily in fact, until they grew old and died. The queen, being a religious person, was re-born as a Brahmin’s priest’s daughter, Sulakshyana; and the king was reborn as Shringaketu, a buffalo in the same Brahmin’s farm. The priest’s daughter, being a holy person, realized that the buffalo was her husband in their past lives. She looked after him and nourished him. Under her care the buffalo got healthy and sizeable. Sulakshyana even refused to marry, as she knew that the love of her life was Shringaketu.

On one unfortunate day Shrin-gaketu fell off a cliff and died. Sulakshayana, all mournful, preserved the remains of her husband’s body in a shrine and worshipped it. From one of his horns she maked the gajur (pinnacle of the shrine) and she used the other horn to water the shrine. One day she made a hole at the sharp end of the horn and tried blowing it. The sound of the horn was so deep and mournful. She kept blowing it with all her heart to reach her dead husband, meaning “Where are you? My Love!” Finally, after a lot of one-sided futile effort, the king answered from the other horn “Here I am! Here I am!”

This is the reason why people blow horns. It is believed that the sound of the horn reaches to the dead. Till to this day two horns are played, so that during Mataya their words are believed to be parallel to those of Sulakshayana and Shringaketu.

Though this festival appears to be nothing more than accruing merit to the deceased, an insightful essay by Mark Johnson shares more of its significances (and of the series of festivals during Gunla), “This time of year,” he writes, “has a purifying effect in the city of space. The Mataya procession and those that precede it are intended to re-establish the sacred city space.”

 As monsoon is the lifeblood here in the city of god, and there is a lot of rain, people believe that these festivals help keep them safe from disasters. As an elderly Tamrakar has put it: “At this time there is so much rain it is likely to flood. No one must sleep during this night, otherwise the world will turn over. So the nava bajan players go around keeping people awake.”

 This is the time, moreover, when the dark shadows, illness and epidemics fall upon the city. Traditionally, Nepalese took sickness to be caused by ghosts, witches and deities (like the chwasa aajima, the Remains Deity). This array of festivals is believed to have a curing effect also. There is laughter and there is song. But there is also sickness and death. And cure and victory.

Ashesh Maharjan is a freelance writer, a Newar, and a member of the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory. He may be contacted at