Celebrating Indra Jatra festival in Kathmandu, Nepal

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, Nepal | 48

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.

The Vibrant Indra Jatra
The Vibrant Indra Jatra

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.

Indra as depicted in the festival
Indra as depicted in the festival

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

The Indra Pole erected on the first day of Indra Jatra
The Indra Pole (Linga) erected on the first day of Indra Jatra

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.

The Indra Pavillion at Maru Tole of Kathmandu Durbar Square
The Indra Pavillion at Maru Tole of Kathmandu Durbar Square

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

Butter Lamps being lit for the deceased at Indra Jatra
Butter Lamps being lit for the deceased at Indra Jatra

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.

Offering prayers for the deceased at Indra Jatra
Offering prayers for the deceased at Indra Jatra

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 🙂

More of the Butter Lamps at the Akash Bhairava Temple
More of the Butter Lamps at the Akash Bhairava Temple

Worshipping Bhairav

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 –

Sweta Bhairava

Sweta Bhairava
Sweta Bhairava

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?

Kal Bhairava

Kal Bhairava
Kal Bhairava

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.

Akash Bhairava

Akash Bhairava
Akash Bhairava

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.

The beautiful doors of the Akash Bhairava temple
The beautiful doors of the Akash Bhairava temple

Lakhey and other dances

Lakhey Dance at Indra Jatra
Lakhey Dance at Indra Jatra

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.

Pulu Kisi dance
Pulu Kisi dance

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!

Band that accompanies the procession at Indra Jatra
Band that accompanies the procession at Indra Jatra

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.

Guruji Paltan in attention at the Kathmandu Durbar Square
Guruji Paltan in attention at the Kathmandu Durbar Square

Kumari Jatra at Indra Jatra

Kumari Jatra
Kumari 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.

Crowd that throngs for the Indra Jatra
Crowd that throngs for the Indra Jatra
Trying to get the best seat for the Indra Jatra
Trying to get the best seat for the Indra Jatra

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 three chariots that are ready for the Indra Jatra
The three chariots that are ready for the Indra Jatra

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.

The priests at Kumari Ghar
The priests at Kumari Ghar

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.

Ganesha at Indra Jatra
Ganesha at Indra Jatra
Bhairava at Indra Jatra
Bhairava at Indra Jatra
Kumari - the living Goddess
Kumari – the living Goddess

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

Samaya Baji
Samaya Baji

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?

Indra Jatra

Getting here

  • 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.

Travel Tips:

  • 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.

P.S: I was invited to visit Nepal for the Indra Jatra festival by Nepal Tourism Board and Explore Himalaya

 

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48 Responses

  1. very detailed and beautiful coverage…….. very informative too……

  2. Some terrific information there! 🙂 the festival was indeed a delight to watch and I relived all the festivities through your post:) the doors do the Aakash Bhairav temple are so awesome! Loved that picture:)

    • Thanks Divsi. I think this is one experience that will stay with us through our lives. Glad I could share it with you.

  3. beautiful photos and insights – I had to cancel my plans to visit Nepal due to the earthquake. Glad to see it’s possible again to go!

  4. I like the way you have explained the religious side of the festival as well as the travel part. Nepal’s culture is very similar to that in India and may be that’s why we have a strong bond with the Himalayan country.

    • There is some part of Nepal still connected to India and that becomes obvious when you visit it. Glad I was able to. Thanks for stopping by Ambuj

  5. wow, I truly love how you have elucidated all the details about the festival as well as the religious side of this event. The festival looks so colorful and full of life, which express the beauty of culture in Nepal. I haven’t heard about this one and seemed so interesting. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    • Glad to share the same. It is one culturally vibrant festival and if you ever get a chance, you must go for it.

  6. A an amazing celebration in Nepal! I hope to visit the place one day and enjoy the Indra Jatra festival. You have provided us with a very detailed information and beautiful pictures about the festival. Thank you and keep it up!

  7. This looks like a fantastic festival! I’ve never been to Nepal but would love to go for this!

  8. SO much love for Nepal, would love ot be there to celebrate this festival. Wonderful photos.

  9. It is always great to be able to witness a local festival. Everything would be so new. Love the colors and the history attached to the festival.

    • A local festival is a great way of experiencing the place and am glad I was able to. Thanks Gokul for reading through.

  10. Nepal has been on my bucket list. I am eyeing a flight here early next year but I’m probably visiting in September as this festival is held in this month of the year. Interesting culture, I would also love to witness and see the main highlight of Indra Jatra. It would be nice to receive blessings from Kumari Jatra and be luckier! It reminds me of an after mass activity inside the church where a priest shower church goers of a holy water where we believe it’s a blessing.

    • I shall keep my fingers crossed for you so that you get to see Indra Jatra next year. I bet you will love it. Thanks for stopping by Cathy.

  11. What an interesting post. It must have been amazing to see the dancing especially the elephant dance. Beautiful photographs as well!

  12. This festival was incredible. You have really gone into depth and wrote facts which even I was not aware of. My favourite was the chariot pulling.

    • I had the first day alone to explore – so I guess I gathered the details then 🙂 It was fun nonetheless.

  13. Nepal has long been on my list of countries to visit, and now reading through this post I will make sure when i do go I will go when this festival is on. I would love to experience it. Thanks for making me aware of this festival 😀

  14. Looks like a really special time to visit Nepal. The clothing is very beautiful, I’d love to see Indra Jatra. Thanks for the informative post!

  15. I would love to visit Nepal and take part in this festival. It looks amazing with all the colors and the celebrations that take place for 8 days! Culture and traditions are so different in this part of the world, it’s really an experience to learn about what other people are worshiping and about their beliefs.

  16. The Indra Jatra is indeed a riot of colours. Reminds me of some of the big Rath Yatras of India. The legend of Lord Indra is fascinating. The connection to the Parijata flower is so interesting. The fragile flower with an intoxicating fragrance is definitely worth all the efforts that Lord Indra took.

    • In a lot of ways, Indra Jatra is like our chariot processions. Nice to spot these similarities and yet know how they are distinct from us. Thanks for stopping by

  17. I just finished reading about your experience meeting the Kumari, and it sounded like such a rich cultural experience. I hope to include the Indra Jatra Festival on my itinerary when I manage a trip to Nepal, it sounds so fascinating to spend 8 days in the midst of the community celebrating their legends, traditions and rituals through dancing, devotions, and offerings to the gods. And then to see the Kumari Jatra would obviously be a cultural highlight.

    Nepal has such a vibrant and colorful culture, it would be a shame to miss such an epic festival. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Thanks Meg. It sure was fun experiencing it and am glad you too, hope to get there at this time. It will be worth it. Thanks for stopping by

  18. Interesting to know the details of the jatra

  19. Nepal is very rich in culture! The offerings to the gods are so elaborate indeed!

  20. These religious festivals are so full of rich history, it’s amazing to see the festivals honor these old gods in such an amazing ritual like this. I’d absolutely love throwing myself into a culture like this for awhile…. so much to learn.

    • Indeed, and the best way to immerse a culture is to visit their festival. Hope you get there the next year Anna.

  21. This festival seems so much fun! Love that India and Nepal appears to have a quite of these festivals. Such an interesting cultural experience. It reminds me of another festival in Kolkata that’s happening right now – saw some photos and videos from husband who was just there for business trip. Would love to experience one of these on future trips!

    • Thanks Eve. This is quite similar in a lot of ways to the Durga Pooja that happens in Kolkata around the same time. Hope you get to see this one for yourself sometime. Cheers

  22. Thanks for sharing this interesting post. You sure saw a lot over four days! I haven’t been to Nepal, but I would like to visit the country and experience a festival. The butter lamp tribute to the deceased seems like a lovely acknowledgement.

    • I bet I missed some too…there was so much happening that 4 days seem to be less. Hope you get to visit too.

  23. Hello I’m Michelle Andrew and I was reading your blog and it was a great blog. I got a great article about Jatra festival in Kathmandu and it was a great blog. And I am also a traveler so that your blog can give me some information about your information in Kathmandu so the festival is celebrated.Then thank you for sharing it.

  24. This really seems like a lovely celebration, Ami! I loved your stunning and colorful pictures. Is this an annual event?

    • Thank you, glad you liked the post. The Indra Jatra is an annual festival. Comes around Aug -Sept every year.

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