Recently on Thursday, violent clashes between the locals and the police ensued in Patan. Despite the prohibitory order in place, there were more than 500 people gathered ready to pull the Rato Machindranath chariot. Disregarding multiple warnings from the police, the locals protested and continued to pull the chariot and frenzy ensued.
Meanwhile in Kathmandu, an eerie silence hangs in the old streets this year. The absence of the three chariots, masked dances, traditional music and the hustle and bustle of the crowds during the celebrate festival of Indra Jatra, which has been cancelled this year, has left a sad, bitter taste in the atmosphere.
The streets and temples adorned and decorated by mountains of Samaya Baji, little gallis having strings of traditional Newari music fluttering away and locals and tourists alike crammed along the streams of streets seems like a distant memory. It is possibly the first time in history that this has happened, all due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Indra Jatra, or more commonly known as Yenya in Nepal Bhasa, means celebration inside Kathmandu. As one of the biggest festivals for the Newas in Kathmandu, it involves almost all of the Newa community.
The festival itself is an eight-day event, starting on the 12th day of the bright fortnight of Bhadra. The official start of the procession begins with the erection of a wooden log called Ya Sin, outside the Hanuman Dhoka Palace.
The most popular attraction of Yenya, is the Kumari Jatra where the Living Goddess Kumari, along with Ganesh and Bhairav, take a tour of the older part of the cities on their chariots. Besides this, there are a number of different masked dances such as the Majipa Lakhey dance, Pulukishi, Sawa Bhakku, Devi Prakhan and Mahakali Pyakhan that take place simultaneously in various parts of the city. In addition, various masks of Bhairavs are displayed, with the Sweta Bhairav being exclusively taken out during this time only and Akash Bhairav being taken out in Indra Jatra.
Yenya has a huge, interlocked social, cultural and historical importance to the Kathmandu Valley. It consists of three major events: Indra Jatra, Kumari Jatra and Bhairav Jatra. All three ceremonies are loosely related to each other yet are separate entities on their own.
History and origins of Indra Jatra
There are various beliefs regarding the origin of Indra Jatra. It is widely believed that it was started by King Gunakamadeva, back in the tenth century to celebrate the founding of Kathmandu city. However, there are texts in the Natra Sastra, a Sanskrti treatise, which mentions and alludes to Indra Jatra, even during the Vedic period.
One of the more common and popular origin story of the festival is the one with Lord Indra himself, who was in search of parijat (a type of flower) for his mother Vasundhara. Lord Indra was disguised as a common man and was captured trying to steal flowers from Maru tole. This led to him being arrested and paraded in town.
It is highly believed that Indra Jatra is a reincarnation of this entire account. There are many linkages to this story, with instances such as the four Indra masks being displayed in the four toles mentioned in the myth and Indra’s trusted elephant furiously searching for its master being portrayed by Pulukishi.
Indra Jatra’s origin might have more religious and cultural significance, but the festival itself has been key in several significant political instances. Just the addition of Kumari Jatra played an important, political role for the last Malla king, Jayaprakash Malla. The incorporation of the Living Goddess got him more support from both Buddhists and Hindus due to the religious sentiments and the importance it played in their culture. Malla desperately needed this as he was under constant pressure from not just his siblings from the neighboring Kingdoms but also the threat of Prithvi Narayan Shah conquering the valley.
Likewise, it was no coincidence that Prithvi Narayan Shah chose to invade Kathmandu on the eve of Indra Jatra. It was a calculated, strategic move on his behalf knowing that the entire city, including the King would be involved in the festivities of the Jatra. Even Prithvi Narayan Shah’s decision to not majorly interfere in the way the jatras were to proceed, was not only from his respect towards the culture, but also to appease the people in the valley.
Contemporary celebration of Yenya
Even in modern history, the festival played a significant role. The continuance of the role of the king by the head of the state even after the abolishment of the monarchy, even though the Maoist party said it would eliminate all royal institutions, suggests the importance of this festival in areas other than culture.
The festival has also begun shifting from its usual patriarchal stance, allowing women as well to pull the chariots and drink the rice wine out of the Swet Bhairava’s mouth.
Yenye is embedded in Nepal’s culture and politics, and it represents the complexity and beauty of Nepali society. It showcases the unity that is ignited within all the people that take joy in this flamboyant festival.
Simona Shrestha is a sub-editor at Kathmandu Pati English, covering politics, peace, conflict, security, defence and diplomacy issues. She is a student at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, pursuing a major in Environment and Development Studies. She previously worked at Nest Media, where she was an editorial coordinator. Her areas of interest include the intersections between sustainability and development. You can find her on Linkedin as Simona Shrestha.