There’s a festival held in Patan that goes on and on for one entire month–the Rato Mtsyendranath Festival. This year it will be held from May-June. It’s also a festival that has been the foreteller of some tragic events in the country’s history.
The focal point of the festival is the hauling of an enormous chariot with massive wheels and a tall tower-like mast. Teams of young men haul it inch by inch by pulling on thick ropes. Moving this cumbersome contraption through different parts of the city is not an easy task, what with the narrowness of the streets and alleys and the tangle of electrical wires over them. Add to that newer constructions on the roadsides, and you’ll understand that it’s an unenviable endeavor. However, the enthusiastic crowd gives it their all, and at the same time, they make sure that everything is ship-shape both within and without the chariot, and that the keeling tower-like mast doesn’t fall outright. Any untoward happening, such as the idol not being painted perfectly, or the chariot being damaged in any way, or the tower falling, can spell doom, with a calamity of national proportions likely to follow.
That’s what happened back in 1680. That was when people noticed that the idol of Matsyendranath had lost some of the paint on its face. The very next morning it was announced that the king, Nipendra Malla, had died. More than a century later, in 1817, the same thing happened: the idol was painted shoddily. That year, a big earthquake struck the country. At another time, another king, Viswajit Malla, had a troublesome thought in his mind as he was attending the festival. He imagined that the idol had shown its back to him, which was not a good sign. He was right. That night, he was murdered in his bed. Yet another king fell victim to the wrath of Matsyendranath. This poor fellow had been helping pull the chariot, but the axle broke into 31 pieces. You can guess what happened: this king also died soon after. And, in 2000, the tower-like mast crashed down into the crowd. No one was hurt, but something more devastating happened the year after—the entire royal family was massacred.
All of these reasons are why everyone is very careful around this festival, taking great care in everything from its construction to its journey through the city.
But what’s the story behind this great jatra? There was a renowned sage by the name of Gorakhnath, who resided in Gorkha. He decided to go visit the valley of Kathmandu one fine day. As was the practice with such ascetics, he lived on the alms offered by the people in the locality he was in at the time, so he went around seeking that. But, the locals of Patan didn’t care much for him, not offering much in the way of alms, and showing scant respect for the revered sage.
There’s no greater anger than that of a sage offended. Gorakhnath vowed to avenge the insult, and went to the site where the nine rain-bringing snakes resided. Once there, he sat down on their heads and went into a state of deep meditation. As a result, there was no rain that season, nor the next, or the next… the valley suffered continuous drought for many years. The hapless valley dwellers went to him and begged for forgiveness, but the furious sage turned a deaf ear to all their pleas.
Finally, some cunning locals devised a desperate plan to bring him out of his trance. They decided to travel all the way to Assam in northeast India, where Matsyendranath, the angry Gorakhnath’s teacher, lived. Once there, they invited him with utmost respect to visit them in Kathmandu, saying that the people of the Kathmandu Valley were looking forward eagerly to giving him a royal welcome. Naturally, Matsyendranath was pleased by their request and accompanied them to Kathmandu. When they reached the valley, the locals took him to where Gorakhnath was sitting on the snakes’ heads and meditating. On knowing that his guru had come, Gorakhnath had no other option than to come out of his trance and stand up respectfully in the presence of his master. Thus, the meditation was broken, and the rain-bringing snakes became free to continue pouring down the rains on the valley once again.
To show their deep gratitude, the locals thenceforth started honoring Matsyendranath by organizing a month-long jatra.
Inspired by tours where you can see festivals like this? Have a look at festival tours offered by Royal Mountain Travel: