The Panauti Mela takes place every 12 years at Trivenighat in Panauti in Kavre. Triveni ghat is a confluence of three rivers- Punyamati, Lilawati, and Rudrawati in Panauti Town. Panauti was on an ancient trade route to the Terai, Southern Nepal, and with its Indreswar Mahadev, Bhadrakali and Unmatta Bhairav shrines Panauti is predominantly Hindu.
The Mela (fair) begins as the Sun enters Makar Rashi (Capricorn) on the day of Makar Sankranti, the significant day as per Vedic astrology, hence the fair is also known as “Makar Mela”. It is celebrated all days of the Nepal month of Magh (Jan/Feb). It is believed that taking a dip in the holy river, Triveni Ghat, during this Mela washes away off all our sins and cures skin diseases too. Therefore, millions of devotees from all over the country and India make trips to the fair to take a holy bath at the confluence. And The numbers of pilgrims sometimes exceed six million by the time Mela ends.
The local management committee marks and builds separate areas for men and women for holy dippings at the river. Those areas are separated by tall bamboo sticks. They also place sandbags to create a make-shift dam that prevents the water from polluting.
Tales of Panauti Makar Mela
Panauti, The City of Nagas
It is said that serpents from Taudaha, the lake located in Southern Kathmandu came to visit the temple of Lord Shiva during the Makar Mela and stayed there for the whole month of Magh. Panauti is also known as the city of nagas (snakes) and every 12 years, devotees go to Panauti to worship the snakes. These snakes stay in the town and leave only after the completion of the Mela. So during Mela devotees claims that they witnessed snakes around the Shivalaya. In fact, even today, it is said that the devotees witness these snakes around the Indreshwar Mahadev Temple.
Lord Indra Cured His Ailment at The Triveni Ghat in Panauti
Lord Indra, the God of Heaven, was suffering from an incurable disease. He meditated for 12 years to please Lord Shiva in the hope that his disease would be cured. As Lord Indra used to bathe in the Triveni Ghat, Shiva decided to mix the medicinal nectar into the waters of Rudrawati. When Indra bathed in the holy water of this river, he was instantly cured of his disease. Since then, it is said that the medicinal nectar of all diseases flows through this river during the fair. It is also believed that taking a bath at Triveni Ghat relieves one from all the earthly sins and they receive salvation.
Lord Indra Washed Off his Sins at The Triveni Ghat in Panauti
Ahilya was the daughter of Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe. She was a beautiful woman who everybody wanted to marry, but, Brahma married his daughter off to the Sage called Gautama Rishi. Lord Indra, who still had a strong desire for Ahilya, transformed himself into Gautam Rishi in an attempt to seduce her. He visited Ahilya after her spouse left the house and invited her into bed. When Gautam Rishi returned home, he found his wife sleeping with another man.
The sage then threw holy water from his kamandalu (a water vessel) and cursed Indra to bear a thousand vulvae which will turn to eyes when he worshiped the Sun god, to punish his misdeed. The sage also cursed his wife to become a stone. Indra’s wife Indrayani, knowing this, sought help from a Sage called Guru Brihaspati. He advised Indrayani to go to the confluence of Padmavati and Lilavati rivers in Panauti and meditate for mercy from Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Indra and Indrayani meditated for 12 years after which Shiva and Parvati appeared in front of the couple. After listening to their plight, Goddess Parvati transformed herself into a Rudravati river and joined Padmavati and Lilavati rivers, creating a confluence of three rivers. Shiva and Parvati then told Lord Indra to take a dip in the river to wash off his sins and lift the curse.
So, the devotees make a pilgrimage to the site during the fair to take a dip in the holy confluence and wash off their sins.
Besides these stories related to the Makar Mela, the fair itself is a grand celebration of Panauti’s proud heritage during which there is a vigil for the king of the serpents, Vasuki Naga, the serpent coiled around Shiva’s neck. The Shah Kings, the ex-monarchs of Nepal never attend the Mela because they would have to compete with another ‘King’.
Previously, a masked dance called “Devi Pyakhan” used to be performed at the Makar Mela to ward off cholera from the town.
In one of the bilingual books Panauti: Passé– Présent Panauti Past- Present (1976-2020) the significance of the festival is perfectly timed not just as the 12-year festival which starts on 15 January but also to draw attention to the town’s cultural aspects.
All Photos by Priti Thapa