Among the many jatras happening throughout the valley each year, the Rato Machhindranath Jatra stands out for being the biggest and longest jatra of Patan, and featuring the highest and the biggest chariot. Rato Machhindranath is also known as the Bung:dyo in Newari, translating to ‘Farm God’. Amongst his many names, another one is Karunamaya, meaning the one who has compassion. As residents of Patan, we look forward to this jatra every year. To us it means a lot of joy, an excuse to take a day off, have local Newari food, family gatherings, a carnival sort of vibe throughout the streets on which the chariot is pulled, traditional Newari music, dance, fun, street markets, the devotion and reverence towards God, and an emotion that binds us to our heritage and culture. It is much more than just a festival for us. We are very thankful to our ancestors for creating and passing on this jatra to us.
We went there on the first day of the jatra, on which, the chariot building work is completed and the god is seated inside the newly built chariot. The red idol of Rato Machhindrnath stays in Ta:bahal in Patan for a few months before the jatra officially starts. Ta:bahal is an open courtyard with a temple standing at the center. There are many such courtyards in Patan of varying sizes. When we entered Ta:bahal, we saw a group of old folks sitting and singing bhajans with musical instruments like harmonium, dhime, and khyali, building up a relaxed ambiance. We saw the Rato Machhindranath idol seated inside the temple in all its glory. People were lighting butter lamps and incense sticks and praying to the god, as in any temple. One butter lamp cost Rs.15. It was a casual and relaxed atmosphere.
But not to be fooled by the chilled-out vibe, we knew that the important ritual of the day was about to happen soon. The police had already arrived to manage the crowd, and also, the Guruju Paltan had taken their position. The Guruju Paltan is a group of ten to twenty soldiers (depicting the ancient soldiers of Patan), distinctly clothed in traditional black uniforms and carrying traditional weapons and musical instruments. One of them carries the Patan king's sword. It is believed that the presence of the king's sword is equivalent to the presence of the king. Guruju Paltan makes a compulsory appearance at every Rato Machhndranath Jatra ritual and all its chariot pulling processions. They play their distinct music with flutes and other musical instruments every time when they walk. They always walk together in a line and in sync. As every ritual or chariot procession begins or completes, the Guruju Paltan fires gun shots in the air to announce it to one and all. This adds dramatic flavor to the vibrant jatra.
So we chilled and waited there, and a few moments later, the crowd gathered outside the temple, many with their DSLR cameras, as four or five pandus dressed in their pink and white-striped skirt and top costumes entered the temple. Pandus are the priests who are actively involved in the Rato Machhindranath Jatra as the caretakers of the god. They lifted the heavy Rato Machhindranath idol and took it to the right side inside the temple. There, the idol was worshipped in seclusion for a short while.
Outside the temple, a khat (small palanquin) was brought along with a traditional colorful umbrella. The police encircled the front entrance of the temple and did not let anyone enter. The golden top of the khat was lifted and taken out, so that it was easier to place the idol in it. A priest in his white hat, red top, and white skirt came out of the temple with a jug in one hand and a little grass in the other, along with another person carrying a fire torch. The priest dipped the grass in the jug's holy water, took it out, and sprinkled the water around by shaking the grass. It is done to cleanse and purify the space before the idol is brought out. Also, another person came out with a silver pujwo (plate-like utensil used for worship) containing holy water, and sprinkled it on the people with his hand.
Shortly after, the Rato Machhindranath idol was finally brought out of the temple, carried by two or more pandus. Another two people on each side of the idol held and waved white brush-like tools. One person held the silver nhaaykann. The idol was placed straight into the khat. The top-lid of the khat was put back on, and the khat was carried by four men. One person held the traditional colorful umbrella over the khat and they headed off to Pulchowk, where the chariot has been built. As the khat was lifted, the Guruju Paltan fired gun shots in the air to mark the start. The paltan and the crowd also followed the khat.
The khat was carried along the way from Ta:bahal to Kumaripati to Jawalakhel, and finally Pulchowk, which is a fairly short trip lasting ten to twenty minutes. Road traffic on the road section is blocked for the ritual for some time. More traffic police personnel than usual are there to handle the traffic. After the khat reaches Pulchowk, it is put down near the chariot. The pandus climb on the chariot and lift the red idol from the khat to the chariot. As the god is well-seated in the chariot, the Guruju Paltan fires another round of mandatory gun shots. After the gunshots are fired, it's official.
After hearing the concluding gunshots, we locals say a phrase in Newari, “Dyo yaa nyaata," by which we understand that the chariot has reached its designated stop for the day and it is already made official by the Guruju Paltan by firing gun shots. The residents of Pulchowk celebrate their Chwayla:bhu on the day. They invite their family and relatives over and feast on Newari food. The chariot remains at Pulchowk for another two days. On the third day, the chariot is pulled to Ga:bahal and then to many other precisely designated locations around Patan. Wherever and whenever the chariot stops, the residents around the place celebrate: Jatra aayo!