There’s going to be a riot on the streets today. The roads are go ing to be teeming with people. Public transport commuters will be stranded. Hundreds will be marooned. Overhead electrical lines will get tangled up, blanketing the neighborhood in darkness at night. The heat will bear down on the people, but the riots will go on. Rato Matsyendranath, Patan city’s annual chariot festival looks, sounds and even smells like trouble. Accidents are bound to happen and there is a cloud of uncertainty and danger mixed with festivity hanging in the air. In Nepal, nothing attracts people in hordes than celebrations and potential danger.
The story of Rato Matsyendranath is a typical Nepalese mythological tale, but one that weaves fantasy and reality beautifully together. Matsyendranath breaks down into Matsyendra—associated with fish, and nath—which comes from a cult by the same name. The deity Karunamaya, as Rato Matsyendranath is also known, is said to have been born into a family of five hundred demons. The name Karunamaya is made up of two Nepali words, Karuna and Maya, compassion and love, respectively. All of Karunamaya’s siblings were demons. But the irony is in that such an entity, who would only eat after all of humanity and even animals and insects had eaten, was born into a family of demons. There are many versions of the reason behind the celebration of the Rato Matsyendranath chariot festival. The most popular one describes it as a festival to honor the deity who kept the residents of Kathmandu valley from succumbing to a famine by bringing both rain and harvest to the valley.
For first timers and veterans alike, the sheer scale of the Rato Matsyendranath procession, attracting increasing numbers of devotees and onlookers every year, never fails to impress. The brilliant chariot is made with numerous kinds of wood and rope and is entirely free of any metal support or iron nails. Approximately 40 feet tall, the chariot sways dangerously from side to side as the procession makes its rounds on the Patan thoroughfares. The chariot is pulled and guided by the city’s Jyapu youth using ropes attached to it’s front and back.
Rato Matsyendranath’s procession would not be complete without its accompanying music. The trumpets that are blown to announce the arrival of the Matsyendranath are said to be made of animal bone. This particular sound is also believed to be very disturbing to demons who might try to take back arunamaya. The chariot festival means a lot of things to a lot of people. For adolescent boys, the procession is a platform to display their strength. The festival sees young people attend in hordes, some for the prestigious opportunity of pulling the chariot while most just flock to be a part of the fun. For older participants, it is a festival of nostalgia. Old people, on the streets and on windowsills, strain their eyes for a view of the age-old congregation of faith and religion, their eyes lighting up as the procession shouts and screams its way past them. For them, it is a time to contemplate on how different things were in their day.
Ram Krishna Tamrakar, a resident of Chakrabahil in Patan has been involved in the festival every year for as long as he can remember. For him not much is new this year, but when the air is brimming with such festivity, he cannot help but go about organizing his own way of celebrating the festival. The journey of the Rato Matsyendranath’s chariot begins from its resting place in Patan’s Tabahal, where it is laid cleverly in storage during the off season by men of Patan’s Jyapu ethnic group. The procession takes the idol—believed to stay in the form of a bee inside Tabahal’s Matsyendranath temple—and moves to Pulchowk. From Pulchowk, the procession moves to Gabahal and then to Lun Hiti. Lnu Hiti is Newari for ‘golden water tap’. It is then taken to Lagankhel, where many believe Karunamaya’s mother rests under the shade of the peepal tree. so that Karunamaya can meet his mother every year. Next the chariot procession moves to Pode Tole. At every place where the chariot takes a rest, there is a celebration called a Bhujya. Newari people, renowned for their extravagant feasts, use this auspicious occasion for organizing an informal get-together called a Nakhtya. The day before the Bhujya celebration is known as Chhwela Bu, where chhwela. a popular beef delicacy, is prepared by the Newars and enjoyed by most non-vegetarians.
This year, Chhwela Bu for Ram and his wife, Chandra Shobha, started with Ram going off to the local meat vendor to buy some beef to prepare the chhwela. His wife, meantime, readied the utensils used in traditional Newar religious ceremonies in the family’s charming, traditional kitchen. In a red sari, Chandra Shobha moved about with elegance, knowing what to do next and where to find something she needed almost without a thought. If she felt any monotony or not, due to years of doing the same thing, I could not tell. She showed no signs of it on her face.
Ram came back soon, holding on to a sizable plastic bag full of beef and another of black lentils. The beef would be used in preparing the chhwela and the lentils for another Newar delicacy known as Woh, a type of pancake. Together, the husband and wife, sat down to begin the cooking. Ram’s wife also found time to phone their daughter and son-in-law, inviting them for a small home cooked feast the following day.
There is also the popular Naikya Luegu ceremony on the day of the Bhujya. A coconut is unfurled from a long piece of red cloth from the top of the chariot. People believe that whoever gets hold of this coconut will soon be blessed with a child. Then, on an auspicious day, the chariot is moved to Jawalakhel and finally to Bungamati where it is left for six months. After the six months are over, the chariot with Karunamaya intact is brought back to Tabahal. Naikya Luegu is the reason people in Patan organize these nakhtyas on this day so that their own can take part in this festival and maybe even get blessed by a child.
The next morning, on Bhujya, Chandra Shobha started her day by offering a small meal to please the gods. The process is known as bau biu. While only men pull the chariot on other days, Bhujya is also the day when women get their chance at it. Patan’s women, young and old, have a gala, noisy time pulling the chariot as the men watch from the sides, all smiles. By midday, the entire Tamrakar family was gathered in Ram Krishna’s home. All engaged themselves in the preparation of the night’s feast. Even in the afternoon, however, the Tamrakars were unable to help themselves from having a small pre-party sip of aela (Newari wine) and meat.
The same night, amidst tall tales and private stories, the men dug into the grand feast of woh, chhwela, cheura (beaten rice) and other Newar delicacies. The women in their traditional red saris were chatting up a storm in the kitchen as they served the meals, sipping a little aela themselves to relieve their tired bodies. Tomorrow, everyone would go back to leading their normal lives. They had every reason to celebrate. The lights and loud, merry conversation stayed on well into the night.
How Rato Matsyendra-nath saved the people of Kathmandu
To understand the story of Karunamaya, we must go back to what is called in Hindu scriptures the Satya Yuga, or the days when gods and demons walked the face of the earth. Satya Yuga translates as the Age of Truth when everybody lived by their word and fulfilled every promise made. In such an age, there is a story of a beautiful princess who would cry every day. Her father, the king, would try to make the princess stop by warning her that she would be married off to a wolf if she did not stop her crying. That would often quiet the princess, but the next day she would be at it again and the king would use the same threat again to calm her
Days passed and the princess turned sixteen, an age eligible for marriage in those days. But the crying just would not stop. On the day the princess turned sixteen, a pack of wolves arrived at the palace premises and asked to have a word with the king. Amongst them was one who was white in color and magnificent-looking. Upon being asked as to why they had come, the white wolf reminded the king of the threat he used on the princess to marry her off with a wolf. The white wolf then demanded that the king deliver on this promise. Hearing this, the enraged king locked up all the wolves within the palace. The same night, the princess has a dream that the wolf was, in fact, an avatar of Lord Narayana, creator of the universe and so, the next day, the princess agreed to marry the wolf. As the wolves and the princess make their way back to their new home through a deep tunnel, they are accompanied by a group of royal servants carrying gifts for the bride, the groom and their new home. The entire group of royal servants and wolves is said to have emerged out of the tunnel at a place called Sakhu, which still exists near Banepa and is marked by a huge boulder. A stone dropped into a hole nearby is heard bouncing off the walls of the tunnel for an endless number of times.
There, the white wolf showed everyone his real form as Lord Narayana much to the surprise of the royal servants who immediately reported this incident to the king. The king, no doubt pleased, set off to pay a visit to his son-in-law and as was the custom then, he washed the feet of Lord Narayana and drank the same water. This practice is still seen at some Nepali weddings. Pleased with the king, Lord Narayana granted him a wish to ask for anything he desired. At the time, Kathmandu valley was said to have been going through a famine with a great shortage of rain and rice grains. People were dying of hunger, hence the king asked for wheat to be available in the valley. Lord Narayana granted the king his wish and the kingdom saw a good harvest of wheat the following year, but the wheat grains were empty and contained no rice grains inside them.
There is another tale about how Gorakhnath, a disciple of Matsyendra-nath, started to pray for his master by sitting on the heads of all the snakes in the valley. Since snakes are closely associated with rainfall in Nepali lore, the valley saw no rain for several seasons. This is believed to be the other reason why Matsyendranath was fetched from his home.The distressed king once again reached Lord Narayana’s abode and asked him for a solution to this problem. This is where Karunamaya comes into the story. As a deity born into a house of demons, Karunamaya is said to be the god of nourishment. Lord Narayana mentions that only Karunamaya can put rice into the grains of wheat in the valley. The house of demons was a place called Bungamati, a place which still exists today (minus the demons!). Karunamaya is believed to be originally from a place called Kamachhya in modern day Assam in India. To visit the demons, the king of Bhaktapur, Narendra Dev, was accompanied by a shaman, Bandhu Dutta Bajracharya from Tebahal in Kathmandu and a Jyapu man, Ratan Chakra from Patan. Bandhu Dutta’s statue is present in front of the Sankata temple in Kathmandu’s Tebahal, behind the Nepal Airlines office.
The shaman cunningly used his tantrik powers to make Karunamaya’s mother sick, then arrived at the demon’s house to cure her. After her health was restored, the pleased demons asked the three what reward they wanted for their services. When they asked for the youngest son of the demon, Karunamaya, as a reward, the demons immediately refused. In fear that the shaman might use his powers to lure Karunamaya outside the demons’ house as the shaman successfully does anyways, Karunamaya’s mother spreads her long hair before Karunamaya as he slept. But the shaman’s powers were very strong and managed to help Karunamaya sort through his mother’s hair and escape. But in the process, Karunamaya accidentally walked over a single strand of his mother’s hair, which is considered a great sin in Hindu culture. This is said to be the reason why one hand on Karunamaya’s idol is seen to be broken in place as a curse for walking over his mother’s hair. It is also the reason why the idol is red in color, red signifying Karunamaya’s blood as a result of the wrath of the demons. But the demons were no less powerful and to escape their influence the group of three from the valley turned Karunamaya into a bee and ran with her to the valley, not once daring to look back at the demons. Once Karunamaya reached the
valley, however, a dispute broke out between the three about where Karunamaya would be kept. The Jyapu from Patan argued that he had carried Karunamaya, the shaman from Banepa argued that it was his magical power that had made the mission possible, and the king from Kathmandu argued that he had taken care of all the expenses. There is a popular saying in Nepalese culture that once a man has eaten the salt from another man, he who has eaten the salt must obey the otherThe problem of where Karunamaya would be kept was to be solved by the most senior man in the valley. But before the senior person could make an unbiased judgment, the Jyapu from Patan, cunningly fed him curd with salt. The senior person had to speak in favor of the Jyapu and therefore Karunamaya was kept in a temple in Tabahal in Patan. Tabahal, too, is a place which still exists today on the way from Patan Durbar Square to Lagankhel. Eventually Karunamaya solved the famine in Kathmandu.
Utsav Shakya is a freelance writer and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nepal is a country endowed with a rich cultural heritage and this is a fact known to all...