The jatra for Rato Machindranath is a sight to see in Lalitpur. Newars celebrate the chariot festival of a beloved deity, in Patan around the time of the Nepali new year. Held right before the monsoon season every year, this jatra is believed to bring rain and prosperity to the valley.
Rato Machindranath is known as the god of rain and grain, and the festival is held every year to appease him. As in the history of the country, this festival is a foreteller of some tragic events that have occurred in the central valley.
In Gorkha lived a sage by the name of Gorakhnath, who decided to visit Kathmandu valley. It is normal for ascetics to live off alms from locals, so he went around seeking alms while he was in Kathmandu.
Kathmandu valley is home to 3 major cities – Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur — then known solely as Patan.
It soon became evident that the locals of Patan didn’t care much for Gorakhnath. Not only did they refuse him any offering much in the way of alms, but very less respect was also shown for the revered sage.
Few hold more fury than a sage who has been wronged. In anger, Gorakhnath vowed to avenge the insult and went to the site where the nine rain-bringing snakes resided. Once there, he is said to have sat down on his head and gone into a state of deep meditation. There was no rain that season, or for many years thereafter. Gorakhnath’s vengeful drought had begun.
The helpless denizens of the valley went to him and begged for forgiveness, but the furious sage turned a deaf ear to all their pleas.
Eventually, some locals devised a desperate plan to bring Gorakhnath out of his meditative trance. They traveled all the way to Assam in northeast India, where Machindranath — the angry Gorakhnath’s teacher, resided. Once there, they invited Machindranath with the utmost respect to visit Kathmandu valley, saying that the people of the Kathmandu Valley were eagerly looking forward to giving him a royal welcome. Machindranath was pleased by their request and accompanied them to Kathmandu.
Upon reaching the valley, the locals took him to where Gorakhnath had been meditating. Sensing that his guru had come, Gorakhnath had no other option than to come out of his trance and stand respectfully in the presence of his master. Thus, Gorakhnath’s vengeful meditation was broken, and the rain-bringing snakes became free to bring rain to the valley once again.
To show their deep gratitude, the locals henceforth started honoring Machindranath by organizing a month-long jatra, where they take him on a journey to where Gorakhnath resided.
Machhindranath (the Lord of Fish) was once sneakily listening to Sita and Lord Shiva talking about yoga. Machhindranath, who had adopted the shape of a fish, was caught. Angry, Lord Shiva sought to curse him. However, the fish transformed into Lokeswar, a Buddhist deity who spellbound Shiva.
Another legend claims that a Brahmin woman gave birth to a son on an inauspicious day. So bad was the day that she threw her newborn into the sea. An enormous fish then swallowed the child whole. After learning of this, Lord Shiva is said to have saved the child and named him Machhindra.
This 1600-year-old festival has many local tales attached to why it started. However, all the stories seem to converge at a moment in history when Kathmandu valley is said to have received no rainfall for 12 years. In order to appease the god of rain, the then kings of Kathmandu valley decided to erect a chariot for the Lord Rato Machindranath, also referred to as Bunga Dhya (बुंग द्यः) in Newari.
How is this festival celebrated?
The jatra starts off with the community coming together to construct a 60-foot tall chariot in 15 days. The chariot has 4 big wheels, each engraved and painted, and two long ropes that are used to pull the chariot across the city.
The focal point of the festival is the hauling of the enormous chariot with its massive wheels and a tall tower-like mast. Teams of young jatra-goers haul it inch by inch by pulling its 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.
The chariot is decorated with flowers and religious symbols, and is accompanied by musicians playing traditional Newari music. There are idols and pictures of the Rato Machindranath inside the chariot, often accompanied by priests. The chariot of Bunga Dyah is also accompanied on the journey by a similar but smaller chariot of Chākuwā Dyah (चाकुवा द्यः).
The chariot is dragged through the streets of Patan, Lalitpur. Starting from Pulchowk, it is driven through different parts of the city – Natole, Gabahal, Mangal Bazaar, Sundhara, Lagenkhel, Kumaripati, and Jawalakhel.
What if the festival isn’t successful?
Many things can go wrong during this festival. Sometimes the idol is not painted perfectly, the chariot is damaged on the way, or the tower falls. Any of such problems with the festival have, in the past, been followed by ominous events and at times even death.
In 1680, people noticed that the idol of Machindranath had lost some of the paint on its face. The very next morning it was announced that the then king, Nipendra Malla, had died.
In 1817, the same thing happened; the paint job on the idol had not been executed well. The same year, a catastrophic earthquake devvestated the country.
On another occasion, Viswajit Malla, the then king, felt agitated as he attended the Machindranath festival. He imagined that the idol had shown its back to him, which was not considered a good sign. He was right. That night, he was murdered in his bed.
In 2000, the tower-like chariot had crashed down into the crowd. No one was hurt, but the very next year the entire royal family was massacred.
The Rato Machindranath jatra is one of many wonderful celebrations in Nepal. Learn more about the other festivities that the country has to offer here.