• Culture & Tradition
  • 24 April, 2024

Biska Jatra Festival: An Iconic Chariot Tradition Uniting Thousands

Biska Jatra Festival: An Iconic Chariot Tradition Uniting Thousands
The divine figures of Bhadrakali and Bhairab reside within their chariots, referred to as 'Bhailakha’. Photo by: Sambid Bilas Pant

Biska Jatra is a festival shrouded in mystique and ancient legend. It is a vibrant display of heritage, and community spirit celebrated in Bhaktapur, Madhyapur Thimi (Thimi, Nagadesh, and Bode), and Tokha. The festival is an exhilarating celebration of culture and faith that spans eight nights and nine days, commencing with the chariot procession on the first day, which occurs five days prior to the Nepali New Year on Baishak 1st. Goddess Bhadrakali and god Bhairab are housed within their chariots, known as “Bhailakha,” and are ceremoniously pulled through the winding streets of Bhaktapur by throngs of youthful participants. These chariots pause at revered locations within the city, where residents gather to present offerings of flowers, rice, coins, and red Sindur (vermilion powder).

Biska Jatra: An Iconic Chariot Festival Uniting Thousands
The divine figures of Bhadrakali and Bhairab reside within their chariots, referred to as ‘Bhailakha’. Photo by: Sambid Bilas Pant

This vibrant celebration has its roots deeply embedded in folklore that dates back centuries. Its origins are not merely a tale of merriment and revelry but one of intrigue, love, and divine intervention. Originally called Biska Jatra, the festival derives its name from a fascinating legend that revolves around the word “Biska,” meaning “snake killed” in Nepali. According to local lore, there once lived a princess in Bhaktapur who found herself entangled in a series of tragic events. Despite her beauty and charm, her husbands met an untimely demise every time she entered into matrimony, leaving the kingdom bewildered and in mourning. Another popular belief surrounding Biska Jatra is the notion that the sky and the earth represent divine male and female entities, embodied as Lord Bhairab and Goddess Bhadrakali enshrined in their respective temple-shaped chariots. According to ancient Newari mythology, the divine union of the sky and earth facilitated creation itself. The rain pouring from the sky symbolizes life-giving elements, while the earth serves as the foundational creative base.

The Festival

The highlight event in Bhaktapur Taumadhi square marks the beginning of the Biska Jatra, where the deity Bhairava is paraded outside of its temple for the festival, along with the chariot of Bhadrakali. The grand chariot of Bhairav is assembled in Taumadhi Square, where its disassembled parts are usually kept beside the Bhairavnath temple throughout the rest of the year. Meanwhile, the smaller chariot of Bhadrakali, which accompanies the chariot of Bhairava, is assembled near the Bhairavi temple.

Biska Jatra: An Iconic Chariot Festival Uniting Thousands
Crowds gather to watch the chariot. Photo by RMT

During the inaugural day of the festival, called “Dhwo kwabijyaigu” (the god carried downwards), an appointed government official, brandishing a sword, enters the revered Taleju temple, where access is restricted to non-natives, to ceremoniously present a sword to the temple’s priest. Subsequently, the priest assumes the persona of a Malla king for the duration of the festivities, riding atop the grand Bhairav chariot while clutching the sword. This chariot, now prepared and of considerable size, prominently displays an image of Betal, Bhairav’s mythical mount, affixed at its forefront. Legend has it that in the era of the Malla kings, the monarch himself would grace the chariot with his presence. Accompanying the priest, who serves as the king’s emissary, are the Guru Purohit or Chief Priest, representatives from agrarian communities, and the royal guards.

Biska Jatra: An Iconic Chariot Festival Uniting Thousands
The chariot prominently showcases an image of Betal, the mythical mount of Bhairav, firmly affixed at its forefront. Photo by: Sambid Bilas Pant

This event features a spirited tug-of-war between the upper Thane and lower Kone sections of the town. Participants pull the three-story pagoda-style chariot housing the statue of Bhairava after a worship ceremony preceding the festival. Hundreds of participants pull the 11-meter-high chariot made of wood with ropes on both sides. The remarkable chariot is upheld by four wooden wheels with a diameter of 2.5 meters, all interconnected without the use of nails or metal hooks.

Biska Jatra: An Iconic Chariot Festival Uniting Thousands
The impressive chariot is supported by four wooden wheels, each with a diameter of 2.5 meters, ingeniously interconnected without the use of nails or metal hooks. Photo by: Sambid Bilas Pant

The enthusiastic crowds of revelers exert their utmost effort to pull and steer the chariot in their desired direction, with the victorious side earning the honor of transporting the chariot to their area while the other side patiently awaits their turn. Tug of war can escalate into intense conflicts, with clashes frequently occurring between the opposing upper and lower teams. Participants may sustain injuries from falling off the chariot, occasionally resulting in festival delays that necessitate involvement from authorities. The number of such incidents means that hundreds of police officers are deployed during the festival to maintain order and prevent rioters from causing disturbances.

Subsequently, the chariot is taken to Gahiti, where it is housed for two days before being further moved to Lyasinkhel on the eve of Baishak 1, the Nepali New Year. A towering 25-meter pole called “Yoh si Dyo” is erected in the Yosi Khyo area, adding to the festive atmosphere. The procession for erecting the pole is another highlight of the festival. The eight ropes used to hoist the lingo are regarded as symbols of the Ashta Matrikas, the eight mother goddesses. The chariot is then positioned at Lyasinkhel until the following day when the Yoh si is ceremoniously dismantled in anticipation of the new year. After Yoh si Dyo is pulled down, the chariot of Bhairava and Bhadrakali are pulled towards Gahiti, culminating in the final day, signifying the return of the deities to the temple. The community comes together to pull the chariot on both sides before it is ultimately placed at the 5-storied Natyapola temple. Additionally, various regions in Madhyapur Thimi, including Thimi, Nagadesh, and Bode, also partake in the festivities of the Biska Jatra.

The Folklore

In the kingdom of Bhaktapur, there resided a king who was blessed with a beautiful princess. However, a curse seemed to plague the princess, as every man she married would meet his demise the following morning. This unfortunate cycle continued, with a new groom being selected each day only to meet his untimely end the very next day. No one could fathom the cause of these mysterious deaths until a valiant prince arrived in Bhaktapur, driven by fate or perhaps by divine intervention. It is said that Goddess Bhadrakali, the fierce protector, revealed to him the truth behind the tragic fate of the princess and her ill-fated husbands. As the legend goes, two large snakes slithered out of the princess’s nose while she slept, bringing about the demise of her spouses. Armed with this knowledge bestowed upon him by the divine, the courageous prince embarked on a mission to confront the enigma plaguing Bhaktapur. Meeting the princess, he cleverly devised a plan to uncover the truth. After a night of passion, the prince feigned sleep but kept a vigilant eye as the princess drifted into slumber.

As the night unfolded, the prince witnessed a sight that confirmed the divine revelation. Two serpents emerged from the princess’s nostrils, their venomous intent evident. Without hesitation, the prince drew his sword and struck down the malevolent creatures, putting an end to their deadly machinations. This heroic act marked the genesis of the Biska Jatra festival, a commemoration of the prince’s valor and the triumph of good over evil. The festival, celebrated with great fervor and zeal, is a testament to the enduring legacy of the legend that gave birth to it. Biska Jatra is a poignant reminder of the timeless struggle between light and darkness, embodied in the ancient tale of the princess and the valiant prince. As the colorful processions, vibrant chariots, and jubilant festivities fill the streets of Bhaktapur, the spirit of the legend lives on, captivating the hearts and minds of all who partake in its splendor.

The Legend of a King and a Tantric

Another popular legend surrounding Biska Jatra revolves around the tale of Lichchhavi King Shivadev. It is said that during his rule, the Kirants invaded Bhaktapur and inflicted suffering upon the inhabitants. In a desperate attempt to combat the Kirants, the King sought the guidance of a tantric named Shekhar Acharya. The tantric used his powers to transform into a tiger and drive away the invaders. One day, Shekhar Acharya’s wife expressed her desire to witness an Azinger (python) and urged her husband to change his form once again. Reluctantly, the tantric complied and instructed his wife to sprinkle rice grains over him in order to revert back to his human form. However, upon transforming into the python, his wife was overcome with fear and fled the scene. In her panic, she consumed the rice grains herself and also transformed into a python. Realizing that they were now trapped in their new forms, the couple tragically ended their lives by the riverbank. In honor of their tragic fate, the kings of the region decided to erect a lingum pole and fly a pair of flags as a memorial to the ill-fated couple.

The Tongue Piercing Festival

The Tongue Piercing Festival, a mesmerizing facet of the Biska Jatra festival, draws crowds from far and wide to witness a ritual that dates back a thousand years. The festival is celebrated in Bode, an ancient Newar settlement nestled within the confines of Madhyapur Thimi. The historic town truly comes to life during the Tongue piercing festival in a way that captivates both locals and visitors alike. At the heart of this spectacle lies a one-foot-long iron needle, a formidable symbol of ancient beliefs and customs. Legend has it that over a thousand years ago, Bode was plagued by the presence of a malevolent spirit, casting a shadow of fear over the town. Desperate to rid themselves of this ominous entity, the residents turned to the guidance of tantric rituals. Through their collective efforts, they constructed a wall, a mystical barrier intended to ensnare the spirit and bring peace to their community. The climax of this saga came when the spirit was captured and paraded through the streets of Bode, a momentous event marked by a singular act – the piercing of its tongue with a specially prepared iron needle. This symbolic gesture was believed to bind the spirit and repel evil forces, ensuring the safety and prosperity of the town.

Today, the Tongue Piercing Festival pays homage to this ancient tale, preserving the traditions and beliefs passed down through generations. As part of the elaborate ceremonies of the Biska Jatra festival, a male volunteer steps forward to undergo the ritual, willingly offering his tongues to carry on the legacy of protection and resilience. Preparation for the festival begins well in advance, with the iron needle being meticulously crafted and soaked in oil for an entire month, infusing it with potency and significance. The chosen volunteer, guided by faith and devotion, braces themselves for the piercing, a moment of profound spiritual significance. As the needle is driven through the volunteer’s tongue, the crowd holds its breath, immersed in a mixture of reverence and awe. It’s a spectacle that transcends mere spectacle, embodying the enduring spirit of a community bound by tradition and belief.

Beyond its ceremonial significance, the Tongue Piercing Festival serves as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Just as the residents of Bode confronted their fears a millennium ago, so too do the participants of today’s festival confront their own challenges with courage and determination.

Sindoor Jatra

On the 2nd of Baishakh annually, the Sindoor Jatra festival forms an integral part of the Biska Jatra festivities, cherished by the Newar community in the Bhaktapur district. This vibrant celebration heralds the onset of spring, drawing devotees who gather to partake in a grand procession. Thirty-two ornate palanquins, each bearing idols of various deities, are carried through the streets. Participants joyously smear sindoor, an orange vermilion powder, on one another, accompanied by traditional music, singing, and dancing. Amidst the rhythmic beats of drums and cymbals, the procession revolves around the Balkumari Temple, with sindoor playfully tossed into the air. The pinnacle of the festival occurs with the arrival of the Ganesh Khat from Nagadish village, where throngs of people navigate through Thimi, adorned with decorated umbrellas atop each khat. Amidst the revelry, a spirited contest ensues as other khats attempt to impede Ganesh’s progress toward the Taleju Temple, resulting in a whirlwind of pushing and pulling. Despite the chaos, Ganesh eventually triumphs, advancing towards his destination amidst the jubilant crowd.

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