Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, is a mixture of rich culture, ancient traditions and hustling bazaars. Home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the city boasts of natural beauty, vibrant culture, unique cuisine, and an intense religious devout that are apparent by the variety of festivals celebrated throughout the year. Among such reviving festivals, Indra Jatra is one of the most significant festivals celebrated for eight days in the month of September, observed mostly by the Newars – the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley.
‘Indra’, is the Hindu Lord of rain, also known as the ruler of heaven, and the word ‘Jatra’ refers to the festival or parade. Indra Jatra, commonly known as ‘Yenya’ –meaning ‘Kathmandu’s festival’ in Nepal Bhasa, is an eight days’ celebration to pay tribute to god Indra for rain, and honour Shiva’s manifestation – ‘Bhairab’, the evil destroyer. This festival interconnects with the Kumari Jatra, which is one of the main highlights of the festival. This religious & cultural celebration started by King Gunakama Dev in the 10th century, to rejoice the founding of Kathmandu. Following the ancient folklore and myths, since then it has continued down through several generations, and celebrated with much enthusiasm and participation each year.
Legend has it that Dagin, Lord Indra’s mother needed a holy flower called Parijat to perform a ritual. So Lord Indra descended down to earth in the form of a human in disguise to look for Parijat. In Indra’s extended absence, Dagin came down to earth looking for her son & Indra’s white elephant; only to find him imprisoned by a Tantric owner accusing him of stealing. She then freed him, on conditions that he would return to earth every year; provide enough rain & dew for the winter crops, and with a promise to take all those people who have died that year to heaven. When people realized that he was actually Lord Indra, they regretted and worshipped him for forgiveness. Indra Jatra festival thus, honours the deceased and celebrates the devotion to Indra and Dagin for the coming harvests.
There is also a different tale of the Goddess Kumari attached to this festival. Many years ago, the Mallas who ruled the Kathmandu Valley used to worship the Goddess Taleju Bhawani, who was very pleased with King Jay Prakash Malla. In fact, the Goddess often came to the king’s palace, chatted and played dice as well. One day during a casual game, the Goddess sensed a discomforting gaze, so she left the palace immediately, declaring to never return as a result of disrespect to a woman’s dignity. The king was embarrassed and begged for forgiveness after which the goddess made a strange concession for the king to find a young virgin girl from a Newari Shakya family, she herself would manifest.
Later one night, the Goddess appeared in his dreams and confirmed that the girl he met the other day was herself. Then the king visited the girl’s house and apologized; the girl accepted his apology, put vermilion powder on his forehead and blessed him. After this, the king ordered to build a beautiful house for her and set a system to worship and take care of her as Kumari Devi, the living goddess. Since this incident in the mid 18th century, the procession of Kumari is held on the day of Indra Jatra along with other two chariots carrying human representation of the deities, Lord Ganesh and Lord Bharava.
The festival begins in the Durbar Square with erection of a ceremonial pole called ‘Linga’ of 36 feet long, bearing the flag of Indra. The Durbar Square and the main streets are filled with people rejoicing in an unparallel cultural ambience. Afterwards, the chariots are pulled through the main streets of the southern, northern and central paths of the old part of Kathmandu on three different days. Many images and figures of Lord Indra and Bhairab are put on display, with various classical mask dance performances depicting stories and forms of deities dressed in striking traditional costumes and colourful masks adding further vibrancy, colour and attraction.
Among the remarkable performances in the Jatra, Majipa Lakhey dance, Pulukisi Nach, Mahankali Nach, Sawa Bhaku, and Devi Pyakhan, are the most significant, each with their own set of musicians playing distinctive forms of traditional music, while accompanying the chariot procession. Another event is the enactment of the ten earthly incarnations of Lord Vishnu that is performed every night on a platform near the temple of the Living Goddess Kumari. The festival ends with lowering of the Linga, marking the end of the festivities, and beginning of the major festive season of Dashain and Tihar.