“The Newars have jatras 366 days of the year,” my Nepali friend tells me, as we wait for the bus to Kirtipur. The Newars are said to be the historic inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, descended from the Kirat, the legendary ‘People of the Himalayas’. Living on the crossroads of many ancient trading routes, a multitude of influences have commingled to form their unique culture. The saying goes, a Newar is 60% Buddhist and 60% Hindu.
Kirtipur is an ancient Newari kingdom, perched on a small hill nonchalantly looking down on the chaos of Kathmandu. In the 18th century CE, when Prithvi Naranyan Shah defeated the Malla kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley, creating what we now think of as Nepal, Kirtipur was the sight of intense fighting and a strategic point of interest.
History says Shah conquered Kirtipur on his third attempt, in October 1765, sneakily attacking while the town’s inhabitants were celebrating a jatra, of course. The locals, meanwhile, attest it was on his thirteenth attempt. Once Kirtipur fell, the die was cast for the Newari rule of the Kathmandu Valley. As we climb the stairs into the old city, Juliana Shrestha, my Newar friend who grew up in Kirtipur, shows me the stone upon which one of Shah’s most powerful generals lost his head after being captured in battle. Locals, she says, still spit on this stone.
We are in Kirtipur for Indrayani Jatra, the celebration of the goddess of marriage, and Kirtipur’s most important festival. As we wait for the locals to obtain permission from the goddess to parade her idol around the city, we head to Lahana Newa, a traditional Newari restaurant. Lahana Newa serves up all the Newari favourites, such as sapumhicha (buffalo intestines filled with bone marrow) which I am cajoled into eating. Luckily for me, there is plenty of chang (fermented rice beer) to wash it down.
The old town of Kirtipur is built around Uma Maheshwor Temple, a Shiva-Parvati temple sitting at the top of the hill. Today, the Himalayas are obscured by a layer of dust and pollution sitting above the sprawl of Kathmandu, Meanwhile, only private vehicles are allowed in Kirtipur old town giving it a very relaxed feel. Juliana tells me, “when I was young there were no houses in the flat land below Kirtipur. The old people say that when this land fills up, and there is no greenery left, some disaster will occur.” Ominously, I am struggling to see any green spots in the valley.
She then points to the carved beams of the temple which are flaunting highly explicit erotic carvings. Several depict imaginative acrobatic positions, often with several people. “This is a tantric temple,” she explains. “But only the priestly castes understand and know how to perform the tantric rituals.”
From here we hear that Indrayani is at last on her way around the town and it’s not hard to locate the dozens of inebriated men charging through the narrow lanes under the weight of a bulky, wooden chariot. Perhaps a dozen men are carrying Indrayani, whose temporary abode is covered with branches of juniper trees, red lalupateys and marigolds. It’s hard, thirsty work: the men are sweating and the ladies are circling with jugs of aila (Newar rice liquor).
The Indrayani chariot, along with a smaller one carrying Ganesh, the god of beginnings that has been entrusted to a bunch of wayward adolescent lads, is soon due to arrive at a marked spot in the town’s main square. The inhabitants of Kirtipur are lining up to observe the festivities. Colourful bunting is criss-crossing the square and Madhesi hawkers are doing brisk business in balloons and candy-floss.
Preceded by cymbals and drums, the men arrive, breathless and perspiring, carrying Indrayani. When I see the speed of the procession, I am not entirely sure they will be able to stop themselves, but somewhat miraculously Indrayani arrives at the right spot and the young men break into flailing, over-zealous dancing.
Meanwhile the women are lining up, with silver trays of vegetables and snacks made out of rice to offer to the goddess. Everyone is thronging around the chariot, pushing to get the chance to touch their head to her feet or scrape up a touch of liquid vermillion from the base of the idol, with which they tikka their foreheads. Before the offerings are made, auspicious plants must be tied to the roof of the casket and barefoot men clamber to the top with ropes. After much attention is spent on this task, the men launch the ladies’ prasad into the crowd. “This is what everyone is here for,” Juliana tells me. “Catching something is very lucky.”
Behind us is a liquor shore, from which men with glazed eyes are falling. The dancing is becoming increasingly wild and to the delight of the crowd, an elderly woman joins the whirling men. At this point Indrayani is again picked up to be taken to another part of the city to receive more offerings. This feels like an auspicious time to make an exit, and we leave, to be fed more Newari delights, this time by Juliana’s aunt.
As we set off for home, we pass a pond, or pokhari, which acted a water source in the days of old. “At the end of the day a buffalo is sacrificed,” Juliana explains. “And the head is thrown into this pokhari. It is to say thanks to Indrayani for allowing the town to parade her around.” We don’t wait to watch this part, and descend back to the modern Kathmandu of motorbikes, vehicles and dust, feeling like we have just been back in time.