“Stand away from the square so when the brick throwing begins you won’t get hurt” Dr. Wegner told me days before the Bisket Jatra was to begin in Bhaktapur. Dr. Gert-Matthias Wegner lives in Bhaktapur and runs the Department of Music of the Kathmandu University, only a 100 meters away from the square where the pole is erected for the Bisket festival in April. More about that later... When the day finally arrived I was a safe distance from the Taumadhi Square, up on the first floor of the Bhadgaon Restaurant overlooking the square. I was waiting anxiously for an extraordinary brick fight between the dwellers of upper Bhaktapur and those from the lower half. As Dr. Wegner and the other residents of the “city of devotees” (that’s what Bhaktapur means) led me to believe, the fight was over
which half of the city the chariot would be pulled to first. A tug of war would take place with the two teams pulling the festival chariot in opposite directions. The victors would then have the right to pull the chariot to their half of the city first.
But with Saturn as my ruling planet, things do not quite happen the way they should or I happen to arrive at the wrong time. Just as I was settling down on the narrow balcony of the restaurant, a voice boomed through the PA system. “Please be peaceful, do not throw bricks or start a fight. We have visitors from the UN coming to attend the festival. Please refrain from violence.” Sure enough, an hour later, flags appeared from the north of Taumadhi Square. There was a Sri Lankan flag, a UN flag, an Indian one and a few others accompanying the delegation of the United Nations. What we witnessed thereafter was quite absurd. First one team pulled the
chariot towards the north while the other team let the rope hang loose. Then it went the other way and back and forth while the air was filled with boisterous cheering. It was a “tug of peace.”
Bisket Jatra as it is known today was originally Biska ( Bi=snake/ skya=killed Jatra=festival). This festival is steeped in legend. One such legend talks of a princess who married a neighboring prince but found him dead the following morning. She then married several times but always found her husband lifeless beside her when she woke in the morning. As the story goes, nobody could explain the strange phenomenon. One day a neighboring Prince arrived in Bhaktapur but just before entering the city, he encountered the Goddess Bhadrakali (the consort of Bhairav) in a nearby forest. She told him of the Princess and the dead lovers. She explained how they were slain by two large snakes that crawled out of her nostrils while she slept. They would grow in size and eventually kill the Princess’ lover. They would then diminish in size and crawl back into her nostril. The Prince went to meet the Princess but after making love, he hid behind a curtain while she slept. He was stunned to see two serpents emerge from her nostrils and grow larger and larger in front of his eyes. He mustered up his courage, drew his sword and slew the evil snakes. In the morning when he appeared on the balcony of the Princess’ bedroom, the citizens were overjoyed. He displayed the two dead serpents and there was great rejoicing. Hence every year, to commemorate the great event the Bisket Jatra is held. A 70 ft. wooden pole, known as yoshin is erected at the large square known as Yashinkhel near the Hanumante river, which flows by Bhaktapur. Two banners that hang down from the cross-piece represent the two evil snakes.
This nine-day festival also heralds in the solar New Year, which is the beginning of the Nepali New Year. New year’s day coincides with the fifth day of the festival and this year it falls on April 13th 2004. The New Year begins with the bringing down of the pole, which by itself is a big event generating immense excitement and attended by hundreds of revelers and onlookers half of whom watch from rooftops.
Bisket Jatra is one of the most elaborate Newari festivals in the valley and involves the dangerous deities, God Bhairav and his consort Goddess Bhadrakali. Bhaktapur has many God houses, which are not quite temples. The festival image (the idol that is brought out in a procession during festivals) is kept in these houses and many of them are out of bounds for non-initiates as these Gods and Goddesses are considered dangerous deities. Tantric practices are common in Bhaktapur and it involves many of these deities. Special tantric priests conduct secret rituals within these houses and there are idols which only they can lay eyes upon. Hence the rigid rules barring non-initiates. For the festival, the idol of Bhadhrakali is brought out from her God house, which is some distance away from the Taumadhi Square. But the Bhairav image is kept in the two-tiered Bhairavnath temple that lies on the east side of the square. Bhairav is represented by just his head and this one is known as the Kaasi Bhairav as he is said to have arrived from Banaras. The Kaasi Bhairav is seen as the chief of the Bhairavs. Kaasi is the other name for Varanasi.
Legend has it that the Kaasi Bhairav had come to attend one of the festivals in Bhaktapur. A tantric practitioner standing near by recognized him. Using his tantric knowledge, the tantric expert tried to trap Bhairav with his magical powers. Realizing that he had been recognized, Bhairav tried to make a hasty exit by sinking into the ground. Just then Bhadrakali also recognized him and asked that at least his head be captured. The tantric then drew his sword and just in the nick of time chopped his head off. Hence the image of Bhairav’s head rests in the Bhairavnath temple to this day.
The Bisket Jatra involves two chariots and the Yoshin pole. This is the only chariot festival in Bhaktapur. The larger chariot of Bhairav that is assembled (the rest of the year the disassembled parts are kept beside the Bhairavnath temple) at the Taumadhi Square while the smaller chariot of Bhadrakali is assembled near the Bhairavi temple. There are in fact two poles erected during the festival. The smaller of the two is erected at the Potters’ Square.
Days before the festival is to begin, some men from the Sami caste (oil pressers) go to a nearby forest east of the city. An interesting procedure is followed in selecting the tree for the pole. A goat is let loose and the men watch while it picks a tree to rub itself against. The poor creature is then sacrificed right there in front of the tree it haplessly selected. The tree is felled and the branches cut off leaving only a few selected branches that will represent the Yoshin God’s hair. (The Yoshin pole is also said to represent a God). The two trunks are then dragged to Bhaktapur, which often takes several days. The bigger of the two poles is raised in Yoshinkhel (near Dr. Wegner’s school).
Meanwhile at Taumadhi Square, men from different castes like the carpenters, painters and oil pressers gather to assemble the Bhairav chariot. Work begins about two weeks before the Jatra is to begin.
An interesting feature of the festival is the arrival of a government official from Kathmandu who walks along the festival route carrying a sword. This sword represents the Malla king who introduced the festival and has been handed down for generations. It is later used during the festivities.
Bisket is the only festival in Bhaktapur where a chariot is used. The Taumadhi Square where the Bhairav chariot is made and where the Bhadrakali chariot is brought, is considered a neutral ground belonging to neither upper nor to lower Bhaktapur. Hence this is where the festival begins and eventually winds up.
On the first day of the festival a government official carrying a sword enters the sacred Taleju temple (foreigners are not allowed to enter) to hand over the sword to the temple priest. This priest then takes the role of a Malla king throughout the festival and rides on the Bhairav chariot holding the sword. The Bhairav chariot which is ready by now, is huge and the image of Betal, the vehicle of Bhairav (it is kept upside down and tied up in a house next to Bhairav temple for the rest of the year) is attached to the front. It is said that during the reign of the Malla kings, the monarch himself would ride the chariot. The priest who is the king’s representative (“Rep”) is accompanied by the Guru Purohit or the Chief Priest for the festival along with representatives of the farming people and royal guards. The Rep’s procession with an attendant holding a colorful umbrella over his head, arrives at Taumadhi and he signals for the festival image of Bhairav to be brought out from the temple. While they wait, a group of people preceded by a man swinging an iron chain to clear the way take out something mysterious (oval shaped object wrapped in cloth). It is believed that Bhairav’s original image is carried by these men and taken to the Bhairav’s God house at Gahiti close by.
The Bhairav’s festival image (all the dangerous deities have a real image hidden in the inner sanctum of the temple and a festival image that is taken out on processions) is taken down from the room upstairs and placed in the chariot. The “Rep” then climbs up and takes his position on the chariot. It is interesting to note that all these officiating persons wear costumes from the Malla period (18th century). Then the little Bhadhrakali chariot with the festival image of the Goddess inside is brought next to the other larger chariot. By this time Taumadhi Square is teeming with people waiting excitedly for the tug of war, which normally takes place. There are dancing troupes performing in the square and musicians descend from Durbar Square playing traditional drums and flutes in long processions.
First it is the Bhadrakali chariot that is pulled to the Gahiti Square. Then late in the afternoon, sometime after sundown, the tug of war finally begins. There is a lot of excitement accompanied by thunderous cheering. The side that wins, then pulls the chariot to their half of the city while the other side waits its turn. But these affairs do not always go smoothly and angry protests often lead to fights and brick throwing. It is not uncommon for the fight to get out of hand and the proceedings halted until the following day (sometimes a few days) until all disagreements are resolved. The chariot is then pulled by the two teams joining hands until Gahiti is reached. There the chariot rests for the night. By this time the Bhadrakali chariot will have been pulled further down to rest near the Bhadrakali god house that comes into use during the festival.
At Gahiti, the “Rep” and the other officials take blessed food (prasad) from the Bhairav image and get off the chariot. The “Rep” then returns to the Taleju temple (this temple plays a central role in many festivals including Dashain ‘Mohani’) accompanied by the musicians and his personal entourage. The Taleju lies within the Bhaktapur Palace and so in effect the “Rep” is returning to the palace imitating the proceedings of the Malla era. The images from the chariots are then taken to their respective festival god houses.
On Day 2 people pay homage to the two images at their god houses and may offer some sacrifice. They also receive prasad but nothing much else happens on this day. It is a stark contrast to the preceding day when there was so much excitement in the air.
The third day is marked by a feast, (Bhoj) which is typical of Newari culture. Much alcohol flows accompanied by large quantities of meat. Meanwhile in the Taleju temple, secret rites are observed and goats and a buffalo are sacrificed to appease the Goddess. Few priests are allowed inside this sacred temple where tantric rites are practiced. Outsiders may not even lay eyes upon the idol of the deity.
The fourth Day is important since the two Yoshin poles are raised at their respective squares. First the smaller one is erected at Potters’ Square in the morning. Then the raising of the larger Yoshin pole at Yashinkhel takes place. But it is no easy task erecting a 70 ft wooden pole without any mishap. It is a long tedious process and the participants use antiquated methods such as supporting the pole with tree trunks while people at the other end pull with massive ropes. As the pole rises further up, the supports are quickly rushed forward to hold it in place lest it swing back. When the pole finally slips into the large hole built like a receptacle it stands upright and the two banners hanging from the crosspiece swing back and forth in the breeze. Some believe the crosspiece represents the arms of the Yoshin God but it may just be supports. When legends surround a festival there are often many interpretations of the symbols. The two banners that come down from the arms of the Yoshin pole are also said to represent Bhairav and Bhadrakali and when the wind brings them together it is interpreted as sexual union between the two.
Elsewhere in Gahiti, the Bhairav chariot is moved so it faces Yashinkhel and is ready to move. The “Rep” and his entourage wait by the chariot. The Bhairav image is then brought from the god house and placed inside. The group of men then climb up again as in the previous day and take their respective positions. The chariots are then pulled down along the cobbled path toward Yashinkhel Square. The Bhadrakali chariot follows the Bhairav. Interestingly the wheels of the larger chariot fall into the drains on either side, which may have been built for precisely this purpose. Once the chariot has reached a certain point along the road the pullers let go and the chariot rumbles dangerously down creaking all the way to the square guided by the drains. The two chariots then stand near the spot where the yoshin pole is to be erected. It is believed that the God and Goddess then observe the erecting of the yoshin pole.
When the pole is finally upright, young men climb up the ropes which are attached to the top. These ropes represent the eight mother Goddesses which play a major role in the lives of Bhaktapureans. These men offer coins at the place where the ropes are tied. There is a lot of music in the air as the local musicians play various traditional instruments like flutes and drums of all kinds. The Rep’s entourage circumambulate the chariots and the pole, take prasad from the chariots and then return to the Taleju temple accompanied by the musicians. The special priest “Achaju” and his helpers then carry the festival image and place it in the special temple of Bhairav that is used only during the Bisket festival. The real image of Bhairav is here too, but nobody can see it. Many sacrifices and offerings are made by the devotees.
Meanwhile the Bhadrakali’s festival image is taken from her chariot and placed in an open shrine known as a ‘pithe’. A pithe has no image and the deity is represented by a plain black stone. There are eight open shrines for each of the eight Mother Goddesses (plus a ninth pithe for a Goddess which is not one of the eight). They are found in the four cardinal and intermediate points around Bhaktapur. The one for Bhadrakali (being one of the eight) lies right here at Yashinkhel. There the image remains overnight and is worshipped by all. There is much feasting in the evening. At the same time all the other seven deities’ images are also brought out of their respective god houses and placed outside for worshipping. For four days they remain in the open, before being put away. Sacrifices are carried out throughout the city where the deities have been taken out. The Ganesh shrines also become a focus of worship during the festival. There are four Ganesh shrines around the Nyatapola temple (the famous five storied pagoda temple at Taumadhi Square).
Day 5 marks the end of the old year and the beginning of a new solar year. The fall of the yoshin pole in the late afternoon symbolically starts the Nepali new year (this year 2061 BS begins) and the month of Baishak. There was a time when hundreds of people bathed in the Hanumante river that flows by Yahsinkhel on this day. But the appalling condition of the water today discourages them and few devotees take a dip. After some rituals in the Taleju temple, the “Rep” and his entourage return to Yashinkhel. Meanwhile the Bhairav chariot is turned so that it faces west. The movements of deities and chariots here follow a set precise pattern. Until now the Bhairav and Bhadrakali are kept separate.
There is a puja in front of the yoshin pole, an offering is made and people receive prasad. Prasad is also handed out by the priests on the chariot. The Bhairav and Bhadrakali images are then placed in their respective chariots. Around this time the secret image of Bhairav is taken to the God house where the festival image will also be returned at the end of the day. The people then prepare to bring down the pole. It is dusk by then and the field is swarming with people while the rooftops are packed to the edges with onlookers. There is excitement in the air along with the dust and noise. Some are heard ominously predicting disaster. They say “ I know the pole will break this year, I have a strong feeling.” The bringing down of the pole is a long and tedious process with half the participants pulling the ropes one way while the other group goes across the river to control the fall by pulling in the opposite direction. Here’s where disaster is waiting to happen.
As I was looking through my camera lens, there was dust all over, people shouting instructions and the sun had just gone down. Then it happened. There was a crashing sound and as I watched dumbfounded, through the lens, the 70 ft pole snapped in two and came crashing down on the people standing beside it. One person was crushed to death instantly while another was fatally injured. It seemed like an hour before an ambulance arrived and took the men away. Like the man had predicted, there was disaster that day and two people lay dead. Was there a sign? Did someone feel something in the air? The bystanders told me “yes, it does happen once every few years.” But the systems do not change. There is only crude coordination between the two teams pulling the two sets of ropes. The team controlling the fall pulled too hard, while the other team maintained their force in the other direction. As a result the pole snapped in the middle. The death is only taken as a bad omen.
This is also one festival where there is total mingling of people from the upper and lower castes. People of the lower castes live on the outer edges of Bhaktapur especially near Yashinkhel. They are active participants in this festival. The Bhairav chariot with the “Rep”, other priests and officials on it is then pulled back up, the way it had come down. It is no easy task. The Bhadrakali chariot soon follows and they both come to a halt at Gahiti once more. This is believed to be the spot where Kaasi Bhairav had been decapitated. Here an interesting ritual takes place. The Bhadrakali chariot is brought towards the Bhairav chariot causing them to collide with all the passengers aboard. This is another symbolic collision representing the sexual union of Bhairav and Bhadrakali. The chariots come together three times and each time people receive prasad. After this encounter Bhadrakali is taken near her god house. The Bharav’s festival image is taken to his god house but the chariot remains at Gahiti for the rest of the festival. People will pay homage and take prasad. The New Year’s Day, which began with the bringing down of the yoshin pole, is celebrated with a grand feast. Since many people from Kathmandu and other parts of the valley come to witness the festival there are many guests to feed.
The sixth day is marked by the worship of the Goddesses Mahakali and Mahalaxmi, two of the eight Mother Goddesses who protect as well as dominate the lives of Bhaktapureans. People living in the area controlled by these Goddesses come out in processions carrying their images in palanquins. Two images of the deities are crashed together to symbolize mating. Meanwhile people living in the other areas visit Thimi and Bode where other festivals are taking place. Evening is the time for more feasting.
The seventh day is more or less the exact replica of Day 6 but the players are now different. It now involves Brahmayani and Maheswari, two other Mother Goddesses. Each Mother Goddess protects residents of a particular area in Bhaktapur. After the procession and pujas, it is a time to feast. At the pithes of these Mother Goddesses many sacrifices can be seen. On this day, the Bhairav festival image is in the festival god house while his true image is already in the Bhairav temple at Taumadhi Square. The Bhadrakali image is then brought to Taumadhi and is said to be a home coming of Bhadrakali to her husband’s home. She is after all his consort.
The eight day begins with Bhaktapur citizens dressed in their finest clothes along with musicians playing traditional music, visiting places where there are god houses and temples around the city. The deity is offered a feast which includes sweets, rice, curd and alcoholic beverages. This day also marks the returning of the deities to their respective god houses. There is much feasting and as is common, a lot of sacrifices. It should be mentioned here that these dangerous deities need sacrifices for appeasement.
The ninth day starts with the morning ceremony of bringing down of the smaller pole at Potters’ Square. The afternoon brings the Bhairav chariot back into action at Gahiti, where it has been standing all these days. It is then turned so as to face west. The Rep’s crew now appear and circumambulate once and enter the chariot. The Bhadrakali chariot is still at Taumadhi where her festival image is brought and placed within. Then what follows is a replica of the first day with the dwellers of upper Bhaktapur pulling the chariot one way while the others pull in the other direction. Once more the Bhairav chariot is pulled to the two halves of the city and finally brought to Taumadhi, where Bhadrakali’s chariot has been standing. The festival image is then taken out and put back where it came from within the temple. The Bhadrakali chariot with her festival image is taken to her god house.
With the festivities over, the “Rep” and his entourage return to the Taleju temple with the Rep carrying the sword, and they are accompanied by the musicians. The Rep returns the sword and becomes an ordinary Brahmin once more, no longer representing the Malla king. The sword is returned to Kathmandu where it is kept. This is yet another day for feasting and it goes on in the entire city of Bhaktapur. With this feasting, the spectacular Bisket Jatra is over.
For further details: Contact Bhaktapur Tourism Development Committee, Taumadhi Square-11, Bhaktapur. Tel: 6614822
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