Bisket Jatra, one of the festivals celebrated by Newars
There are no celebrations of the age-old festival this time, so I'm going to take you guys down memory lane.
It was back in 2013 when I witnessed Bisket Jatra for the first time being a live witness to the happenings in Taumadhi Square and Dattatreya Square.
Here's what happened:
I may get into a bad situation if I say this, but I have never ever fancied taking part in any kind of Nepali festival or that of any other nation. The only time I have been interested in festivals was when I was in a band and we would be asked to play at some festivals in Kathmandu. I had never been interested in learning about festivals in detail until I came to Bhaktapur and met some really nice people who are passionate about experiencing culture and traditions from all over the world. And then I found the answer to my question: What actually happens during the festival? I decided to write about it.
The nine-day long Bisket Jatra is celebrated every year and starts four days prior to the Nepali New Year’s Day. However, this year 2020, the festival was scheduled to be celebrated on the day of Nepali new year, but, Coronavirus (COVID-19) made Newars cancel one of their important festivals. No wonder this pandemic will make people cancel their important life events this year. Moving forward, the festival is managed by the Guthi Sansthan (a social organization of the Newars) which is based in Bhaktapur. It is basically the celebration of the death of the serpents which starts with a chariot temple procession of Goddess Bhadrakali and God Bhairav. The ‘Yeo-sin-deo’ pole is erected on the fourth day and lowered on the fifth. The ‘Yeo-sin-deo’ pole is made of Sandan wood brought all the way from Makawanpur, which is about 142 miles south of Kathmandu. On the sixth and the seventh day, the chariot temple processions of Goddess Mahalaxmi and Lord Mahakala, Brahmayini and Lord Ganesha take place. The festival concludes after the priests gather and offer their prayers and sacrifices to the deities attending the festival. The Guthi members start all necessary preparations for the festival a month earlier.
A long time ago, Princes who married the then Princess of Bhaktapur kept dying on the night of the honeymoon and it had spread terror across the land. This mystery could not be solved until a wise prince decided to step up and find out the reason for the brutal deaths of the princes. He married the princess some days later. On the night of the honeymoon, he stayed awake until the Princess fell asleep and then he witnessed two giant serpents crawling out of the princess’s nostrils*. The prince chopped off the heads of the serpents with his sword and displayed them on a pole the next morning for all to see.
Now I get it! The ribbons that are tied to the pole in the festival represent the serpents! The pole and the two flags that are attached to it represent the serpents which feature in the myth, on which the festival is founded.
When and where does it start?
On the 10th of April, a Wednesday, some friends invited me to the Namaste Café to check out the view of Taumadhi Square, where the festival commences. We went there without any knowledge of what the festival was all about, at around 4.30, in the late afternoon and took some pictures of the crowded square and some interesting people (I’m sure there was a man dressed in a Superman T-Shirt!). The chariot temple, which was about 20 feet tall, had four huge wooden wheels on it and it was tied from both ends by thick ropes. I thought that there was going to be a race or something and I was right. There were two groups of people near the ropes on the two ends and some were on the chariot still decorating it by tying flags and an idol onto it. I didn't even really care about whatever was happening. I was not even tempted to stay and wait until it started so I left my friends there and went back to where we were staying, minutes before they started pulling the chariot from both ends.
Later on, at around 7 in the evening, my friends came back and told me that the race had started and the chariot was coming this way because this side had stronger men. What happened was, they started pulling the chariot temple from both ends and since both ends had strong people pulling them, it was stuck somewhere, 100 meters away from where we were staying. We decided to wait for the chariot temple to arrive on the narrow path adjacent to where we were staying.
At 1 in the morning, we heard a commotion and rushed to the windows and lo! There was the huge chariot temple right outside our bedroom window, charging towards the Dattatreya Square. There were a lot of people dragging the chariot temple by the ropes and there were about 50 policemen in riot gear ready to control the mob.
Do they care about destroying heritage sites?
Of course not!
The chariot temple got stuck on the narrow path between the houses but it didn't stop the throng from pulling it harder and destroying the balconies on the second floors of the two houses right in front of us. The people were aggressively cursing at each other and swearing at the chariot temple and pulling it as hard as they could, not caring about stuff they would destroy. One friend exclaimed, ‘This is one of the craziest things I have ever seen!’ and I responded, ‘This IS the craziest thing I have ever seen in my life!’ But you only see when you look, and I have never even looked at anything like that before. But in the future, I will!
To make matters worse, they pulled the chariot temple so hard that it hit the main electricity wires and there were huge sparks flying. The wires started burning and there was no electricity throughout Bhaktapur. The wires stopped burning after some time and we eventually felt safe.
When it looked like the chariot temple was almost about to crash into the house we were in, I brought a log of wood in from the courtyard. Using the wood, I tried to push the chariot temple away from the electricity wires, to protect them from being cut off, but I could not move it at all, obviously. But the chariot temple didn't even touch the roof of our building or anything attached to it (except for the street, of course).
If they had pulled it any more towards the Dattatreya Square, they would have destroyed the roof of the temple that lies at the entrance to the square. But fortunately, the police stopped them and the other side started pulling the chariot away and it hit the balcony of another house before they dragged it back towards Taumadhi Square, where it had all started. As it was already 2.45 in the morning, we decided to get some sleep as there was no sign of the chariot temple coming back our way. Then we went to bed. We found out in the morning that the race stopped at around 3 in the morning on a spot 50 meters towards the other side of Taumadhi Square.
This is my experience of the first day of Bisket Jatra, which I didn't even want to know about at first, but when I did want to know about it, that is, after I decided to witness the chariot procession at 1 am in the morning with some friends and grew more curious, I forgot about the Nepali New Year 2070 that was due in three days, which has, of course, never been an occasion for me and never will be. The newspaper announced the deaths of two men and injuries of nine men; of course, women didn't take part. I don't even want to mention the tongue piercing tradition here. I don't even want to go through all the details. :)