Mataya is a Buddhist festival typical to the city of Patan, which literally means the festival of lights. It however is quite different from the Tihar which in Nepal is celebrated every year in the month of November. This interesting festival begins early in the morning on the third day of the Dark Fortnight of Shrawan (July/August), a day after the festival of Gaijatra.
The most fascinating feature of this festival is a long parade of enthusiastic shrine-walkers paying homage to almost all the Buddhist shrines scattered in and around the old city of Patan. One must keep in mind that Patan alone has more than 1300 Buddhist shrines. It is believed that roughly around 3 to 4 thousand people participate in the parade. Men, women, adolescents, and children participating in this rally offer a variety of gifts and offerings to the shrines, temples, and monasteries. The offerings generally include rice grains, flowers, vermillion, sweets, money, camphor, and spices. However, the offering of “Mata” (a light in Nepal Bhasa) oil or butter lamps or nowadays candles, gives this festivity its name, Mataya.
Legends of Mataya
Mataya is a Buddhist festival by origin, although an equal number of Hindus also join in the celebration. It celebrates the victory of Buddha over Mara (temptations). According to the legend, once Shakya Muni Buddha was in meditation. The Mara, the personification of one’s desires and temptations, came down to disturb and distract him. Mara tried his best to lure Buddha by appearing as lustful damsels. He then tried to scare him, taking the form of a fierce demon. He did all in his capacity to seduce him, scare him, discourage him or demoralize him but thanks to Buddha’s steady determination, Mara’s attempts failed and Buddha attained Nirvana. It is believed that Mara on this day surrendered in front of Buddha and asked for forgiveness.
Another popular legend states that once there was a royal couple who lived before the time of Shakya Muni Buddha. The king was a violent man, while the queen was righteous and compassionate. After their deaths, the queen was reborn as a Brahmin girl and the king as a buffalo. The queen, thanks to her good karma of past lives, recognized the buffalo was the husband of her previous life. Unfortunately, the buffalo dies early and the bereaved girl makes a shrine with one of the buffalo horns in the memory of her past life husband and then blows a deep sound out of the other one calling out for her beloved. To her surprise, the buffalo-husband responds to the call and the two lovers are united again. This is the reason why people blow “Neku” (horns) during this festival, also naming this festival “Neku” or “Shringaketu”. It is believed that the sound of the horn reaches the dead and the families who have lost their loved ones send their prayers for the departed souls.
The expression of this fantastic story is also reflected in the parade, where one can see the dancers disguised as devils, apsaras (angels), and other funny characters representing various aspects and colors of mara. They actually are the highlight of the celebration. This parade is often accompanied by several groups of musicians playing traditional flutes and drums.
The Highlights of the Mataya Journey
The Mataya parade dedicated to the deceased starts at the crack of the day and the Buddhist Newars of Patan march around the city through the designated route. The broad route of Mataya passes through the four principal stupas of Patan located at the four corners of the city viz. Lagankhel Thur in Lagankhel, Pulchowk Thur in Pulchowk, Bagmati Thur in Kobahal and Teta Thur in Gwarko.
The path is dotted with nanglo (a bamboo tray) bearing deities like Buddha, Padmasambhava, Ganesh, etc where pilgrims make offerings of rice, coin, candies, and camphor. Some offer posters of the deceased to the nanglos while others of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. Some pilgrims walk barefoot and fast during Mataya. There are also people who are unable to take the entire journey, so they visit the above-mentioned four stupas on their own in memory of their loved ones who passed on this year.
The route of this procession passes through numerous small alleys and a Labyrinth of small traditional houses. Normally it takes around 7 to 8 hours to complete the full itinerary.
The onlookers who do not directly partake in the journey organize drinks (water/energy drinks) and medics stalls for the pilgrims to help them out to continue their hours-long journey. They also give out rice in case the pilgrims run out of theirs.