Celebrated for eight days during the eleventh month of the Newari people’s calendar, Indra Jatra shows how the indigenous culture of Kathmandu Valley, one that has its roots in a time where history and mythology are indistinguishable, is still alive and strong to this day. For those who may not know, the Newari people are keen on taking up any occasion to come together and rejoice in their ancient traditions, and the end of the monsoons is an occasion like no other.
With many thanks to give to the rain, extreme devotion and enthusiasm are displayed during this festival as it marks the end of the monsoons and the beginning of autumn, and the next batch of yearly festivities like Dashain and Tihar. As is often the case with festivals in the valley, some mystical practices can be missed as they happen in the many gullies and nooks of the historical centers, while others are really quite unavoidable.
This guide will help you through the eight days of this intense period of worship. But before all that, let’s look into some mythology.
Who is Indra?
Indra holds a special place among the Hindu gods as their supreme leader. According to Hindu beliefs, Indra rules over heaven and commands both war and storms. The name “Indra” itself reflects his role, with “indu” meaning “a drop” and “ra” meaning “possessing,” signifying his association with rain. Lord Indra is often depicted with a powerful ritualistic weapon called the Vajra, which has the qualities of a thunderbolt. His mount is a celestial white elephant named Airavata, who is his trusty companion.
What is Indra Jatra?
The festival (Jatra) of Indra is born out of the tale of King Yalambar’s fateful encounter with Krishna during his journey to Kurukshetra. One day, the king crossed paths with a humble cowboy, an unsuspecting guise worn by Lord Krishna himself. Curiosity compelled him to inquire about the delay in the onset of the grand Mahabharata war. Krishna, taken aback by a mortal’s audacity to inquire about a war known only to the gods, saw something divine in Yalamber. To evade his involvement in the Mahabharata war, Krishna came up with a clever plan. He detached his very soul, perching it atop a lofty tree. Yalamber, in his pursuit, aimed his weapon at the tree’s top, where Krishna’s soul was perched on his thumb. As Yalamber got closer to hitting his mark, Krishna admitted defeat and praised the young man’s exceptional skills. He offered Yalamber a blessing.
Yalamber requested to witness the entirety of the Mahabharata war from the heavens, intending to help the losing side. Krishna saw through his plan and quickly used his divine weapon, the Sudarshan Chakra, to cut off Yalamber’s head, which is believed to have fallen at Indra Chowk in Kathmandu. This brings us to the representations of Bhairav’s face in the Kathmandu Durbar Square that are made open to the public this time of the year, as they are usually kept hidden. One of the masks, enormous and golden, is usually kept behind a wooden net in the city square, while the other, enclosed within the confines of the royal palace, is believed to be Yalamber’s head that was cut by Lord Krishna.
The festival is interwoven with the Kumari, the elusive, living goddess of Kathmandu, who plays a great role during the celebration of the festival. The Kumari is rarely seen by the public, as she lives a life of devotion within the confines of her temple in the Durbar Square of Kathmandu, which is where much of the festival plays out.
Throughout the valley, in cities, towns, and villages alike, peculiar wooden structures resembling roadside crucifixes spring to life. These constructs host masked effigies symbolizing the captive Indra. The captivity of Indra is related to the myth behind this festival, which will be elucidated further along. Various depictions of gods emerge to witness this grand event, as the celestial beings can not bear missing out on such a wondrous spectacle.
The Tale of Indra Jatra
In a mystical tale, Indra, the God of rain, donned the guise of a wanderer, venturing through the enchanting Kathmandu Valley in search of the Parijat flower, as pledged to his mother. With his noble elephant companion, Pulikishi, he descended from the celestial realm. As twilight descended upon the valley, the locals began to harbor suspicions about the enigmatic stranger and took him captive. Pulikishi, distressed by the absence of his master, roamed the streets in a frantic search. Witnessing her son’s prolonged absence, Indra’s mother, disguised as Dakini, descended to Earth in a quest to find him.
However, she too was apprehended by the wary locals. In exchange for the return of their deity, she beseeched for rain to grace the valley. Eventually, Indra was released, and with his mother, they ascended once more to the heavens. Following the release, Kathmandu Valley experienced winter dews and started to have morning fog ever since. To mark the beginning of this phenomenon and the end of the monsoon season, Indra Jatra is celebrated as a welcome to winter.
Embarking on the Indra Jatra Adventure
Indra Jatra requires precise timing for an immersive experience. Traditionally, this festival unfolds in the Nepali month of Bhadra, roughly aligning with September in the Gregorian calendar. The festival’s crescendo culminates on the full moon day of Bhadra, following the Nepali lunar calendar.
Given the lunar calendar’s shifting nature, it’s imperative to ascertain the specific dates of Indra Jatra for the year you intend to visit. This guarantees your participation in the grand processions, cultural spectacles, and rituals that define this extraordinary celebration. It is best to ask a trusted Newari local for reliable information, as the many blogs online may state different dates, only generating more confusion.
For an authentic cultural immersion, contemplate lodging in guesthouses or homestays situated in proximity to Kathmandu Durbar Square. That being said, Kathmandu boasts a multitude of hotels, spanning from opulent establishments to more budget-friendly alternatives, to homestays, which may be considered the epitome of responsible tourism.
The Itinerary of Indra Jatra
Indra Jatra is your chance to witness a living legacy, to immerse yourself in the stories etched into the very stones beneath your feet. While you may have traveled far, and your journey may have its own trials, rest assured, your soul will find solace in the timeless beauty and mystique of Indra Jatra. Here’s everything you need to know about the eight-day-long festival.
Day 1: Hoisting the Lingo – The Festival’s Inception
What happens: A long wooden log, known as Lingo or Ya Sin, is brought to Tundikhel from Suryabinayak forest, and then taken to Hanuman Dhoka where it is kept till the hosting. Early in the morning, the Ya Sin is hoisted, marking the beginning of the festival. The pole is hoisted in front of Hanuman Dhoka, and the festivities officially commence.
Significance: The sacred pole made out of a single, tall tree is selected after meticulous rituals in the Nala forest, situated twenty-nine kilometers east of Kathmandu. Several days prior to the festival’s commencement, a government-appointed priest is accompanied by a select group of Kathmandu residents. Together, they journey to the pine forest near Bhaktapur, where, after following ancient rituals and divinely guided signs, they choose a tree, offer prayers and blood sacrifices, and, once felled, transport it in a grand procession to the pottery village of Thimi.
From Thimi, the residents carry the pole to Tundikhel in Kathmandu, where it receives a blessing from the priest. Accompanied by soldiers clad in uniforms reminiscent of King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s army, complete with muskets and swords, they march to the tunes of a historical military band. As the pole ascends into position in Hanuman Dhoka, cannons resound, and music fills the air.
A colorful banner representing the flag bestowed upon Indra by Vishnu adorns the Lingo in Kathmandu Durbar Square. As long as this banner flutters, it signifies that the lord of the skies and the rain graces Kathmandu, bestowing his blessings and protection upon the city and the nation. At the base of the pole resides a small cage, serving as both a prison and a shrine for an image of Indra and a golden elephant, his traditional mount. These symbols evoke memories of Indra’s ancient captivity, a tale passed down through generations.
How can a tourist enjoy this day: Early in the morning, before 6 A.M, you can come to Hanuman Dhoka, and witness the erection of Lingo. Following the erection, you can enjoy the performances that happen in Durbar Square itself.
Day 2 and 3: Upaku Route – Unveiling the Festive Mood
What happens: People tour the old city of Kathmandu through the Upaku route, representing the city’s boundary where bereaved families light lamps at religious shrines to honor their departed loved ones, and rare Bhairav masks are displayed. The tour begins and ends in Basantapur on both days. The route takes people to Pyaphal, Nyata, Tengal, Nhyokha, Nhaikan Tol, Asan, Kel Tol, Indra Chowk, Makhan, Yatkha, Nyata, Kilagal, and Bhedasing.
Significance: The touring of these two days is meant to pay homage to the old Kathmandu, thus, every place that was a part of the ancient city of Kathmandu is walked around with extreme enthusiasm.
How can a tourist enjoy these days: You can be a part of the procession, and walk with the crowd to the neighborhoods in this route. Alternatively, you can wait in a particular neighborhood, and wait for them to pass by and follow them for a brief moment if you do not wish to follow them from beginning to the end. This can be a good opportunity to strike up a conversation with local onlookers and ask them questions about the festivals. The right person will without a doubt talk to you about customs, and perhaps tell you a story many of us haven’t heard before.
Day 4: Kwoneyaa – The Lower City Extravaganza
What happens: This is the festival’s main day! The heads of state pay respect to Kumari and other deities at Hanuman Dhoka. Chariots, where Ganesh, Bhairab, and Kumari are seated, begin to be pulled during this day. Pulling chariots is not only meant to showcase devotion, but to bring blessings, and prosperity to the community as it is believed chariots carry deities’ divine energy.
Significance: This grand celebration unites the Hindus and Buddhists of Kathmandu in the largest street festival in the city. The Kathmandu Kumari, or Dyah Meiju in Newari, a Newari, prepubescent Buddhist girl, is chosen based on a propitious horoscope and the alignment of thirty-two Lakhshans (lucky characteristics). She embodies the goddess until she reaches puberty, either biologically or symbolically, but she holds great powers afterward too. During this day, human embodiments of Ganesh and Bhairabh grace the streets too, but the Kumari almost always steals the limelight.
How can a tourist enjoy this day: It might be very difficult to be a part of the chariot-pulling crew as those spots are quickly taken up by locals who are emotionally and physically invested in the activity, so you can just follow the crowd and witness the tug-of-peace in the pulling of chariots from the edges of the crowd. If you wish to look at the festival without being in the depths of the crowd, there is a large array of restaurants that offer a fantastic view of the city square. If you go early enough to secure a good spot, you can witness the human surge from a height.
Day 5: Thaneyaa – Heading North in Style
What happens: The chariot-pulling continues during this day, however, it goes through the northern part of the core city. The pulling starts from Kumari Chhen or Kumari House, and goes up to Tengal, to Ason, and to Indra Chowk.
How can a tourist enjoy this day: Early in the morning, you can go to the Kumari House, and follow the chariot as it marches forward showering blessings to the places it covers. Even if you choose not to follow the chariot, you might witness the Kumari being brought out of her temple and seated onto her chariot, which is a sight not many get to see.
Day 6-7: Continuing Festivities
What happens: Other processions, displays, and cultural events unfold throughout the city while the chariot pulling Ganesh, Bhairav, and Kumari rests until the last day.
Significance: When the dancers begin the ritual dances, they become embodiments of the deities they represent, and the stories they depict come to life with an aura of extreme sanctity. A detailed list of dances that can not be missed is further along the article.
How can a tourist enjoy this day: Once you find out where and when a dance is coming to life, secure a comfortable spot in the surrounding temples so that you can witness this ancient form of art and worship. Some of these may be well into the night or early in the morning, so be prepared for possible chilly air. This can be a moment of deep introspection, as the atmosphere palpably shifts into mysticism regardless of your understanding of what the dance signifies.
Day 8: Nanichayaa – The Festival’s Conclusion
What happens: Chariots follow a route similar to Thaneyaa, the fourth day, but with a detour at Naradevi. The chariots eventually return to Kumari Chhen, marking the festival’s end. Then, the wooden totem pole, Lingo, is taken down, and preparations for the approaching winter commence. The magnificent Lingo embarks upon a final procession, where it meets its fate on the banks of the Bagmati River.
How can a tourist enjoy this day: This final day may seem comparatively uneventful, but a curious tourist may still take the opportunity to strike up a conversation with a local to gain a deeper understanding of the rituals that are being performed, and their significance. With much of this being passed down through oral history, the array of details one might discover is limitless.
The Centre of Attention of Indra Jatra
During the Indra Jatra festival, masked dances take center stage, offering us a mesmerizing glimpse into the heart of this cultural celebration. Embarking on a journey to experience this extraordinary event without witnessing the dances won’t justify your effort. So, here’s a guide on what to expect:
Majipa Lakhe Masked Dance:
One of the festival’s most iconic attractions is the Majipa Lakhe masked dance, which gracefully winds its way through the core city area. Accompanied by the enthralling Jhyalinchha, this procession captivates onlookers with its vivid masks and vibrant performances. It occurs during the tour and the pulling of the chariots, especially on the fifth and the sixth day.
Aakash Bhairav Naach
Before the grand chariot parade on the fourth day, three dancers embodying Akash Bhairav perform a dance related to the rains. Watch as this procession from Halchok and Pulukisi parades through the streets, creating an awe-inspiring spectacle. It occurs during the first three days of the Jatra.
Dash Avatar Performance
As night falls, around 9 pm every evening, make your way to the steps of the Laxmi Narayan temple, adjacent to Kumari Ghar, for a captivating performance of Dash Avatar, or the ten incarnations of Vishnu. This spellbinding act unfolds against the backdrop of the temple, adding a spiritual dimension to the festival.
Mahakali Dance and Khya Pyakhan
Hanuman Dhoka comes alive with the enchanting Mahakali dance and Khya Pyakhan performances. It occurs on the first day after the pole is hoisted.
On the auspicious day of Kwaneyā, an intriguing procession featuring someone dressed as Dakini embarks on a journey through the city. The route takes you through Maru, Pyaphal, Yetkha, Nardevi, Tengal, Nhyokha, Nhyakan Tole, Asan, Kel Tole, Indra Chok, Makhan, Hanuman Dhoka, Maru, Chikanmugal, Jaisidewal, Lagan, Hyumat, and Bhimsensthan. Be prepared to witness the unique charm of this procession that starts after the chariot-pulling.
Paya Night Procession
As night falls, keep an eye out for the Paya procession. Several masked men, wielding Khadgas (sword-like weapons), elegantly navigate the city’s streets. This nighttime spectacle adds an air of mystique to the festival. It occurs every night of the week.
In the heart of Kathmandu, amidst the chaos and colors, the Indra Jatra festival whispers secrets of ancient spirits and echoes the spirit of the soul of a timeless city. Masks concealed and revealed, dances speak of esoteric beliefs without the use of words, and for a fleeting moment, tradition and modernity meet in an enigmatic embrace, as the people of the present feel the same shiver run down their spines as their ancestors did while witnessing the deities come to life through the masked dances. When it all ends, the essence of Nepal’s soul lingers in the air like the faintest scent of incense, only to come alive again year after year till the end of time.