Nepal is one of my favourite destinations for spiritual journeys. The Himalayan country, full of sacred sites, is a centre of love, peace, and serenity. It’s also a land of age-old myths and traditions. Even today these myths and traditions are deep-rooted in the culture of the Nepali people.
During my recent spiritual trip, I wanted to explore some such traditions and myths, and came to know about one such traditional chariot festival, the Bhoto Jatra, celebrated in the Patan are of the Kathmandu Valley.
Bhoto Jatra, or Bhoto Dekhaauney Jatra, is celebrated to pay homage to the God of Rain and good harvest, Rato Machhendranath. Known also as Bunga Dyah Jatra or the Rato Macchhendranath Festival, celebrated locally among Newari communities, this is a month-long festival, while the Bhoto Dekhaauney event happens on the final day.
‘Bhoto’ means vest in Nepali, and ‘jatra’ means festival. So, this is a festival relating to a vest. People from various Newari communities don their cultural dress, play traditional instruments and dance along to celebrate this procession. A black jewel-studded vest (bhoto) is displayed on the last day of the month-long chariot procession. The procession itself starts from Pulchowk Road, then go to Gabahal, Sundhara and ends at Jawalakhel. It is believed Bhoto Dekhauney Jatra brings good luck to all.
The dates for this chariot festival are calculated according to the lunar calendar. It begins on the fourth day of the bright fortnight of Bachhalā, the seventh month in the lunar Nepal Sambat calendar. The auspicious day when the Bhoto Jatra is held is determined by a group of four astrologers from the Joshi community. In 2019, June 9th was the auspicious date when this festival took place at Jawalakhel.
As the myth goes, the chariot festival is held every year to celebrate the arrival of Rato Machhendranath in Nepal, and the end of a devastating drought that lasted for many years. It is one of the greatest religious events in the city, and the longest chariot festival in the country. The god that it honours, Rato Machhendranath, is revered as the giver of rain.
An 18-metre tall spire above the chariot is constructed from bamboo poles on Pulchowk Road. The chariot has enormous wheels and various carvings related to the legend of the Bhoto Jatra. The image of Bunga Dyah from the temple is installed in it. It is then pulled through the streets by devotees for a month. Another smaller chariot of Chakuwa Dyah (another Bodhisattva) follows Rato Machhendranath on the journey.
Its also interesting to note that every 12 years, there is a slight change in the rituals. This year the chariot is constructed at Bungamati, a town a short distance from Patan, instead of Pulchowk. The route of chariot is also longer than the usual annual jatra. The chariot is pulled from Jhamsikhel to Pulchowk at night. Then the chariot is pulled through the town on its normal route.
After the two chariots arrive at Jawalakhel, on an auspicious day chosen by astrologers in the presence of the head of state, a government official climbs onto the chariot and holds up a black, jewel-studded vest from each side of the chariot, so that the gathered crowds can take a look.
After the jatra the bhoto is stored alongside the statue of Rato Machhendranath, which is later taken to the temple of Rato Machhendranath in Bungmati on a palanquin. It is placed there for six months, until it’s taken back to its temple in Patan.
The bhoto-showing ceremony is always blessed with the presence of the living goddess, or Kumari of Patan. She watches the entire ceremony and blesses the attendants with tikas and flowers. A lot of curious onlookers gather around Jawalakhel to watch this marvelous event.
Bhoto Jatra is in fact a re-enactment of an event that happened centuries ago. According to legend, a Jyapu (Newar farmer), who also was good at traditional medicine, treated the ailing wife of serpent god Karkotka Naga, and received a valuable vest in return from the serpent god.
The farmer was very happy and showed off his newly earned, priceless vest everywhere, and drew a lot of attention from everyone. Unfortunately, one day the vest was stolen by a ghost who refused to return it, running away from the village.
After a long chase, the two reached the wide plains of Bhaktapur, where the Rato Machhendranath festival was taking place and people were pulling a chariot. The argument between the two caught the attention of the King Gunkampdev. He gave both the parties a chance to present their side of the story and claim the bhoto. Ultimately, he demanded that both the farmer and the ghost present proof of ownership. Until they could, the king decided that the vest would remain with the priests of the Rato Machhendranath chariot.
The farmer requested that the snake king come forward and be a witness, but he wouldn’t. The priests waited until the last day, and kept displaying the vest for someone to come and take possession. But nobody ever did. So, the priest at the Machhendranath chariot displayed the bhoto to the crowd a final time during the festival. “Who does this bhoto belong to?” he asked the crowd, displaying it from all four corners of the chariot.
No-one came forward with any proof. And so, the tradition of Bhoto Jatra began, with the display of the bhoto like this to the crowd every year, the priests waiting for someone to come forth and claim the bhoto with concrete proof of ownership.
Even today, the tradition continues and as the ceremony ends, the bhoto is packed and handed to a representative of Patan for safekeeping, along with the image of Rato Machhendranath. Awaiting its rightful owner to come forward, again.
Article by Pradeep Chamaria.
For more information about festivals in Nepal, have a look at Inside Himalayas: Major Festivals of Nepal in 2019