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Indra Jatra Festival and its Mythological Characters in Kathmandu

Enter the doorway into the fascinating world of Nepali mythology where contradictions meet faith and what takes shape is a joyous celebration of community that transcends time.

Bhaktapur building and mountains

by Yashika CG

3 de oct de 2023

A sea of people gathered at the Darbar Square of Basantpur, the army performs their customary parade, the dignitaries arrive and exchange pleasantries, and the sounds of drums and symbols take over the air. The gathering responds with hoots and cheers as the enchanting characters from the world of Mythology take over the stage dancing in a surreal trance on the third day of the Indra Jatra festival in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Celebrated by the Newar community of Kathmandu, Indra Jatra is an annual festival that takes place at the cusp of monsoon and winter in the month of September for 8 days. A celebration intertwined with ancient legends, folklore, natural phenomena, cultural beliefs, and mysteries. I was fortunate to arrive here at this time of the year.

The festival was a doorway to the fascinating world of mythology where a God was deemed a thief and the demon gained the trust of people and ended up being their eternal protector. A little girl before whom the most powerful bow and the battle to receive the holy alcohol dispensed from the mouth of a fierce deity. With that setting of context, let me take you through my encounters with each of these characters.

A shop with hand painted wooden masks and string puppets

The Kumari | Photo by Khaledur Rahman

The Kumari: A Living Goddess of Nepal

Dressed in bright red, adorning a thick winged eyeliner and elaborate makeup, carrying a stance of power she sits on the throne of the chariot as a group of people drag the chariot through the streets of Kathmandu. People gather everywhere she goes to get a glimpse of her and seek blessings. Kumari, the word translating to virgin, is a prepubescent girl believed to be the embodiment of the goddess Taleju.

According to the legends, goddess Taleju enjoyed the game of dice and would visit King Trailokya Malla often in pursuit of the game and to discuss the welfare of the kingdom. One day she felt humiliated learning about the king’s desire to pursue her as his wife and chose to leave only to reappear in the king’s life in the form of a little girl. The king reached out to her seeking forgiveness. The king then built a palace for her where she could live until she bled in any form: either from a cut, the loss of a milk tooth, or upon reaching puberty.

The girl is said to have gone through an intense selection process before she was appointed as the Kumari. Most of it is still a mystery to the public. Although there are stories of her being put in a dark room with beheaded goats and buffaloes, put through a test to recognize the belongings of the goddess, and her body examined against the 34 perfection guidelines, there is no credibility to these stories.

People believe that the health and state of the Kumari impact the health and state of the nation and hence great care is taken to ensure all her needs are met. Once the girl bleeds from any part of her body, she loses the status of the goddess and returns to normal life.

A Nepali Temple

The Lakhey | Photo by Yashika CG

Lakhey: The Demon Guardian

The demon who gained the trust of people and became their eternal guardian. A fierce face with thick red hair, clad in a heavily embellished robe with a cape, dancing to the rhythm of drums and cymbals. He playfully chases the little boy on the streets of Kathmandu. People invite him to their shops, community courtyards, and homes, offer him a variety of food and alcohol to please him, and seek his blessings throughout the 8 days of celebration.

The story goes that Lakhey, originally a demon, falls in love with a human and arrives on Earth to see his beloved. Upon discovering a demonic entity, the locals promptly bring him to the king. The king makes an offer to let him stay if he agrees to be the protector of the children of Kathmandu. But, how could the people trust a demon? They decide to put him through a test where they send a little boy to him to see how he responds. To their utter surprise, Lakhey begins playing with the little boy. Seeing this, people begin to trust him and accept him as the protector.

At the Indra Jatra celebration, it is believed that the man wearing the costume embodies the spirit of the demon god and performs the dance without any training.

Indra: The Main Deity of the Festival

The god who was deemed a thief. With a sword in one hand, dressed in blue, he dances to the beats of the drums along with his two attendants. Indra, the god of the heavens and the god of rain is believed to have arrived on earth in disguise in search of a rare flower called Parijata. The flower was capable of curing his mother from an illness. On spotting the flowers in a garden at Kathmandu he decides to take it without permission and gets caught by the owner of the garden.

People captured and tied him at Darbar Square as a practice to punish the thieves of that time. On realizing his true identity, people insisted he stayed on earth. But he had to return to his home, so he left with a promise to return every year to bless the people of Kathmandu or so goes the story.

The calendar placement of the festival also indicates thanksgiving to the rain gods that aided the agricultural season and seek blessings from Dagin the mother of Indra who promises to provide a sustainable environment for the crops to grow during winter in return for the release of his son.

Dagin: The Mother of Indra

The worried mother dressed in gold and white wanders the streets of Kathmandu in search of her lost son on the first day of the procession. It is believed that on observing that her son has not returned from Earth, she descends to Earth in search of him. She is a symbol of loss or bereavement. With her, people remember the ones they have lost in their lives that year.

Pulu Kisi: The White Elephant

An energetic, playful white elephant in search of his master. Pulu Kisi the white elephant is said to be Indra’s vehicle on which he descended on Earth. A large white structure of an elephant made of wood carried by a group of men with a band set, parade through the streets of Kathmandu performing the Pulu Kisi dance.

Bhairava: The Fiercest Form of Shiva

Bhairava, the fiercest form of the Hindu god Shiva has no direct link to the story. However, he is a prominent part of Nepali culture. Large masks of Bhairava are displayed at different squares around Kathmandu with the most prominent being the Sweta Bhairava at Hanuman Dhoka. A metal pipe sticking out of his mouth dispenses traditional Nepali alcohol and rice beer. The locals battle to receive it as a form of blessing from the deity.

Final Thoughts

Humans’ relationship with symbols has been a long and fascinating one. From documenting daily life through cave paintings in ancient times to passing down knowledge in the form of stories, symbols have always been a part of us. Helping us navigate through life’s situations.  Also, the mysterious spirit possessions often difficult for a logical mind to comprehend put me in a state of wonder. Being from India, I could connect to these stories and immerse myself in the experience. The Indra Jatra experience did reaffirm to me that there is so much to life we’ve yet to discover; encouraging me to shed my judgements and embark on a journey of understanding the intricacies of existence.

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