Meeting Kumari – the Living Goddess of Nepal was only possible due to the Indra Jatra – an 8-day annual festival of Nepal; one for which I was invited by the Nepal Tourism Board. I had heard of this festival during my previous visit when I discovered the cultures and traditions of Nepal. It seemed quite interesting back then, especially given the whole aspect of chariot processions where one could spot the Living Goddess. However, as I discovered with this visit, Indra Jatra was more than just the Kumari Jatra. And that is what made the whole celebration so colorful and enigmatic.
Legend of the Indra Jatra Festival
Also referred to as Yenya (means Celebrations in the Valley), this festival spans over 8 days and is celebrated as per the lunar calendar. It essentially celebrates the descent of Lord Indra from heaven to earth and his return thereof. The entire festival is based on the legend that Lord Indra disguised himself to steal a rare flower called Parijatha. He did so for his mother Basundhara. However, he was mistaken as a common thief and was tied to a pole in the square. Worried about his absence, his mother descended to earth and finally found him. His true identity revealed, the villagers freed him and Lord Indra returned to heaven.
The Indra Jatra started in the 10th century by the then King Gunakamadeva continues to celebrate this story. From erecting the pole where Indra was tied to dances of the demons, representations of Lord Indra’s mother searching for him and paying obeisance to the dead, there are tons of rituals that you can see during the Indra Jatra. It is during this Jatra (procession) that one can witness the Living Goddess Kumari touring through the city.
Day One begins with Linga
Day One for me was pretty much by myself for the rest of my co-travelers were yet to arrive from India. I walked around the Kathmandu Durbar Square, observing the prep that went with the Day one and getting some juicy tidbits from the locals. The first day of the Indra Jatra festival is marked by erecting the pole as a representation of how Indra was hung as a thief. The pole is called Linga or Yosin. The pole remains this way through the 8 days of the Indra Jatra and is then, slowly taken down. They say that the pole comes all the way from Bhaktapur.
Besides this pole, around the Maru Tole part of the Kathmandu square and the Makhan Tole, you are likely to come across elaborate platforms with idols of Indra. It is here that you will find plenty of butter lamps being lit and left around. Why? Well, that is where you have to read on.
Of Butter Lamps and respect to the deceased
One of the key rituals practiced during the Indra Jatra is to pay respect to the dead, quite like the Pitra Pooja that we have in India. Butter lamps are kept across all major temples, especially the Bhairav temples and you will find people lighting lamps and offering prayers with some flowers and fruits to the deity. This is a mark of respect for their forefathers.
The same continues through the day and on one specific day of the Indra Jatra, a procession is taken out with people holding these butter lamps. And yes, these were the same butter lamps that were lit near the Indra poles too 🙂
Bhairav essentially is a form of Shiva, worshipped during the Indra Jatra. He is said to be a destroyer of Evil. As I walked around the corners of the Kathmandu Durbar Square, I found various masks and idols representing him. Here are three that had people throng all around –
Right at Hanuman Chowk, this one was actually my favorite. Terrifying yet beautiful is how I would describe it. I caught it at various times of the day, and each time, it seemed to just attract you with its fearful presence. This idol as I was told by the locals, also, took in offerings of the people as well as gave out alcohol and fish to the devotees. Now that is something that would have appealed to a lot of people – right?
This statue had a lot of devotees putting forth their offerings and tons of butter lamps around it. It seemed to be highly revered. Not surprising, given that it is quite ancient. The statue is considered to be a place by the Government where people are sworn to truth.
Besides the stunning Bhairava mask, with numerous devotees lining up to pay their respects, this particular temple had me a little awestruck with its golden horses and dragons. Adding to the whole aura were the equally stunning doors. The Akash Bhairav temple also, has its own legend, one that I shall reveal in another post.
Lakhey and other dances
The festive atmosphere of Indra Jatra is further punctuated with the lively dances of Nepal. Some of these are performed during the Indra Jatra procession itself while some of them take place in the Kathmandu Durbar Square at night. Of the many that were there, I could only glimpse at the Lakhey and the Pulu Kisi (Elephant dance). Note the word glimpse!. With the swelling crowd and no vantage point to stand around, I got shoved around to capture just these snippets for you.
I had the fortune of witnessing a complete Lakhey Dance in my previous trip and you can read all about what this Demon dance is about on this post. Pulu Kisi was something new though. All I could see is a huge white elephant dashing around on the street while the crowds pushed around with their oohs and aahs. It was later that I discovered through a local guide that this was a representation of Indra’s elephant who charged around the streets looking for the lost Indra.In fact, the pushing around through the crowd was very much a part of his performance. LOL!
Every dance was led by a band of musicians – consisting of young kids and adults, all clad in a similar outfit. Cymbals and local drums are played with enthusiasm, almost making you tap your feet – ready to plunge in with the festive fervor. The most significant here is the Guruji Paltan – a platoon that is traditionally a part of this procession. This group of black and white uniformed people are responsible for the first salute of the procession and accompany it around the city.
Kumari Jatra at Indra Jatra
The main highlight of the Indra Jatra Festival is the Kumari Jatra. Naturally so, for this is the only time the Living Goddess Kumari steps out of her home to tour the city and shower her blessings. Catching a sight of her is considered to be lucky and that explains the crowd that you are likely to encounter for this event. Young and old, locals and foreigners, Kids and Parents all throng to the Kathmandu Durbar Square and the intended route for the chariot – all early to catch the best seat.
This is where we really got lucky – thanks to a volunteer of Kumari Jatra. He helped us with a few vantage points that allowed us some gorgeous clicks of Kumari, Bhairav and Ganesha. Interestingly, the Kumari Jatra is a procession of three Gods – where the God of Power – Ganesha leads first, followed the God of Good Tidings – Bhairava and last but not the least – Kumari. All three of them are represented by children.
The preparation for this procession was on even before the Indra Jatra with the three chariots being made and painted near the Kumari Ghar. These chariots are drawn by pulling and on each day of the Indra Jatra, they are taken through different routes. The Kumari Jatra started on Day 3 of the Indra Jatra and Gosh! Was it crowded!!! The 6 of us bloggers got pulled in all directions and were separated. We missed our Kumari shots on this day but did manage to get the fun shots in the crowds.
Day 4 was when we got a better access. Our friendly volunteer got us into the Kumari Ghar where the priests taking care of the three Gods were all dressed and ready to set out on their journey. Each of them was dressed in a specific color that corresponded to that particular God. We were ushered into a side entrance where we waited for the three Lords.
First came in Ganesha, who was shortly followed by Bhairav and last but not the least Kumari. The devotees got crazy with their appearance, showering their offerings at their first sight and soon all three of them were carried to their respective chariots for the procession to start. And with the pop of an Airgun, they were off!
Offerings to the Gods
As you walk along the streets, you will find various baskets ready for offerings to Kumari and Indra. Among the various arrangements that I saw, I found the Samaya Baji the most elaborate. The precise manner of arranging the food that is topped with a Fish was quite an artistic one – albeit unusual too. The Samaya Baji is given away to the general public as they believe that distributing this brings in a lot of Good Luck – and of course, all of us are quite greedy for those.
Peaceful end to the proceedings
Though I was there only for 4 days of this epic festival, every bit of it gave me a good insight into the culture of Nepal. From their beliefs to their behavior, from their simplicity to their vibrancy, every bit of Nepali culture was a pleasure to experience. I have said this earlier – in a lot of ways it is similar to India and yet, when it comes to certain aspects, it has its own unique shade. I shall be always thankful that I got to experience this lively festival at least once. Now that you know what Indra Jatra is, would you also, want to see it? Which part of it appeals to you the most?
- Kathmandu is well connected to most major cities in the world and you can fly down here.
- Once in Kathmandu, you can head to the Kathmandu Durbar Square by taxi to witness the Indra Jatra.
- Note down the dates of the Indra Jatra from the Nepal Tourism website so that you can time your visit here. It generally happens in the month of September
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes when participating or witnessing the processions
- Try and arrive before 3 pm to get a good vantage point that allows you to peacefully witness the celebrations
- Go for an early morning and a late evening walk around the Durbar Square. You are bound to find some interesting rituals and celebrations, especially at the Hanuman Dhoka.
- There are no tickets or fees to witness the Indra Jatra
- Keep your camera ready at all times.
- Keep your valuables safe as there could be pickpockets amidst the crowds.