Indra Jatra also known as Yenya, is one of the biggest colorful religious street festivals of Kathmandu lasts for eight days usually in September.
It is celebrated by venerating Indra, the god of rain and fertility, by erecting Yo: Shi/Linga, the pole from which Dhwaja, the banner of Indra unfurls at Kathmandu Durbar Square. The Manandhars (the oil-presser caste) men of the Newar clan raise the pole. Guruji ko Paltan, the soldiers in ancient black uniforms fire outmoded rifles in salute and play equally antiquated military bands. Spectators roar in the thrill of excitement when the heavy pole is hoisted as seen in the photo above and surges uncontrollably forward to offer sweets and flowers. Other deities are also displayed before their temples so that all the gods in Nepal can also witness their celebrations together.
Yo: Shi is debranched and partially debarked tall pine tree and its preferred height is 32 hand lengths. Hand length in Nepal is measured from the tip of the longest finger to the elbow. On Bhauma Ashtami, the eighth day of the bright fortnight of the month Bhadra (August/September) devotees drag Yo: shi with the help of thick ropes to the Kathmandu Durbar Square. This tree retrieved from the forest in Nala, 29 kilometers east of Kathmandu sits there until it’s raised on the Indra Jatra day. A small cage-like prison containing an image of Indra is placed at the foot of the Yo:Shi along with a golden elephant, His mythical steed.
The Living Goddess, Kumari on this day leaves her abode, the Kumari Ghar, mount a magnificent chariot, and parades through the ancient streets of Kathmandu along with gods Ganesh and Bhairav who are on two separate and smaller chariots of their own. The Gods and Goddess’s parade continues for the next two days.
Another attraction of Indra Jatra is a masked dance which is commonly called Lakhe Naach. Spectators in hundreds crowd at Kathmandu Durbar Square to witness the ceremony. On the third day, the President of Nepal with dignitaries and diplomats attend the festival and toss coins in prayer at the masked dancers from the balcony of the Gaddi Baithak building at the square. When Nepal was still a Kingdom, the King and Royal families would receive tika from the living goddess Kumari first and witness the Indra Jatra.
For the Newars, it is also the day to remember the dead ones that occurred during the year like others do on Gai Jatra. At dusk of the first day of Jatra, they parade along the prescribed routes of Kathmandu carrying Mata Biye (lighted incense sticks and oil wick lamps) for the deceased, and the event is called Upāku Wanegu. In the process, they chant religious hums and offer lamps at en route shrines.
They say, the Indra Jatra festival lasted only seven days when it was incepted. It was extended to the eighth when King Jaya Prakash Mallas’s concubine living in Kilagal area complained that she missed the Kumari Procession. The Kumari procession taken out on a third-day parade at the concubine’s request is called ‘the procession of the half-wife’.
On this last evening, the Yo:shi is lowered amid religious ceremonies, animal sacrifices, and gun salutes. It is then dragged to the Bagmati River near Pachali Bhairab temple and immersed in the sacred waters. The Linga is later retrieved, hacked into small pieces, and fed to the sacred flame which burns perpetually at the temple.
Kumari, Ganesh, and Bhairav on Parade
Kumari with Ganesh and Bhairav ride individual chariots to parade around the ancient streets of Kathmandu and the procession is called Kumari Jatra. The Jatra from Kumari Ghar, Her house at Kathmandu Durbar square and lasts for 3 days starting on Indra Jatra after hoisting Yo: shi.
The three deities are pulled through designated routes every year.
Day 1: Kwaneyā or downtown procession to the southern part of town starts at Basantapur/Kathmandu Durbar square going towards Maru, Chikanmugal, Jaisidewal, Lagan, Brahma Marga, Wonde, Hyumata, Kohity, Bhimsensthan then back through Maru again to Basantapur.
Day 2: Thaneyā or uptown procession to the northern part of town starts at Basantapur to go to Pyaphal, Yatkha, Nyata, Tengal, Nhyokha, Nhaikan Tol, Asan, Kel Tol, Indra Chok, Makhan and back to Basantapur.
Day 3: Nānichāyā or midtown procession of the concluding day again starts at Basantapur, driving to Pyaphal, Yatkha, Nyata, Kilagal, Bhedasing, Indra Chok, Makhan, and to Basantapur for the last time.
Every evening, as the procession returns to Kathmandu Durbar Square, the chariots pause before Akash Bhairab, the great blue head figure of Bhairabh at Indrachowk street. The second pause is before the twelve-foot mask of Seto Bhairab, recessed in the wall of Hanuman Dhoka. Behind Seto Bhairabh jugs of Aila (liquor) are installed with tubes leading out His snarling mouth. When this sacred liquor runs through the tube, traditional music band blares and the crowd goes wild, trampling each other to catch pouring in their mouths or cupped hands, for the recipient thereby receives powerful blessings from Bhairav.
Dagini is a masked dancer who re-enacts Mother Aditi descending to earth in search of her son Indra. A masked dancer accompanied by musical troops emerging from Maru Hiti treads the Southern part of town upon the return of Kumari in the evening before the full moon.
People who have lost their family members trace Dagini’s path making offerings at en route shrines in the name of the deceased. They are joined by a group of men carrying Bau Mata, a long plank suspended on ropes from their shoulders, along which is set a series of flaming oil wicks. These rows of lamps help Dagini and her procession to file through the dark city lanes. These pilgrims later visit the lake called Indra Daha and take holy baths to honour the souls.
Pulu Kishi is the elephant dance depicting Indra’s steed in search of his imprisoned master. No man dares to approach this elephant to make because when it swings its enormous tail the spectators are knocked completely off their feet.
The story has it that long ago a man called Majipa Lakhe had an illicit relationship with a girl from the Chikanmugal area. Upon discovery he was sentenced to severe punishment, later he was spared from it when agreed to perform the Lakhe Naach each night of the Indra Jatra. Majipā, the demon Lakhe wears a ferocious red mask and the wearer is possessed by the spirit he represents, therefore, he seems to be in a religious trance. He is treated with great respect and reverence.
In Sawa Bhaku, a long-maned Bhairab in the blue mask is accompanied by two attendants in red. They carrying swords move through the streets in trance and if aroused these wild dancers can be pacified by chicken or goat sacrifice only. According to tradition, no legal action may be taken if bodily harm comes to those who offend.
Devi Pyakhan is a masked dance for Devi, the goddess. For this, dancers from Kilagal area don masks of goddesses namely Bhairavi, Kumari, Chandi, Daitya, Kawan, Beta, & Khya and perform at Kathmandu Durbar Square Jaisidewal, Bangemuda, Indrachowk and Kilagal
Each night of Indra Jatra, people gather around Kathmandu Durbar Square to witness the Dasavatar enactments. Das: ten and Avatar: Incarnations, i.e story of 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu who according to famous mythologies born as mortals on earth to save the world from devils. Masked dancers dressed in rich costumes and gaudy masks unfold these dramas on the streets.
Kathmandu Valley was composed of three Kingdoms; Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. Indra Jatra is celebrated in Kathmandu only.
Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Shah unifier from Gorkha, chose this day to invade Kathmandu in 1768. King Jaya Prakash Malla, the last Malla King of Kathmandu fled to Patan since he couldn’t muster the courage to face the Gorkha troops. Prithivi Narayan as a conqueror got tika (forehead blessing) from Goddess Kumari in Jaya Prakash’s stead, sat on Malla’s throne. He then ordered inhabitants to continue with the twin festivals of Indra and Kumari celebrations.
Indra Jatra Story
According to a story, Indra, the king of Heaven and controller of rain and clouds descended to earth to fetch Parijaat, jasmine flowers for his mother’s Teej rites. He disguised as an ordinary mortal at the behest of his mother Aditi because there was a dearth of those flowers in heaven but in abundance in Kathmandu Valley. It was Bhadra Shukla Chaturthi, the fourth day of the bright fortnight of the month Bhadra.
According to another story, Indra stole those jasmine flowers for his ailing mother rather than for Teej, which makes more sense because Teej falls on the third day of the same bright fortnight and day Indra supposedly descended to earth was on the fourth.
But whatever reason was for Indra’s descendence, he was eventually caught stealing Parijaat and held captive.
Aditi got worried at Indra’s long disappearance so she appeared in Kathmandu for investigation. She was disheartened to see her son’s hands and feet tied to a pole like a thief. She then disclosed Indra’s identity and his motive for stealing flowers, to the inhabitants of Kathmandu. They were embarrassed and Indra was released. The locals worshipped and profusely showered flowers on Lord of Heaven and mother; were feted and carried in processions through streets for weeks. They announced that they would redeem this mistake by instituting a yearly festival in Indra’s honour, and called it Indra Jatra where mother and son’s idol is paraded through the streets on a chariot.
Aditi in compensation of Indra’s release, promised to lead all the souls who died during the year to heaven. When she left for her heavenly abode, all the souls clung to the clothing of the one head following her in the long procession. In the process, many spirits fell into Indra Daha, a lake on the hilltop of Switzerland Park. Strangely, Aditi continued on to her journey, leaving behind the people to mourn for the souls of their dead, a rite that has become a traditional part of Indra Jatra and is called Upāku Wanegu.
- Festivals of Nepal, Mary Anderson
- Welcome Nepal
- Featured Photo by Prabin Napit