Rato Macchendranath Idol by Suprince Shakya
Lord Rato Macchendranath’s 32 feet towering and massive chariot, rath, is hauled through the streets of Patan in April or early May, and these days it is celebrated by everyone regardless of caste or creed.
The Newars of the Kathmandu Valley have religiously preserved all the old traditions and ceremonies of Macchendranath’s gala procession since its inception in the 7th century i.e during Licchavi Dynasty. They do this festival, in the special honor of Rato Macchendranath, the guardian of Kathmandu valley. To Hindus, he is also Bunga deo and Avalokiteshwara to Buddhist while learned Buddhists identify him as Padma Pani, the fourth of the five Buddha who represent the elements.
Ceremonies start two weeks before the actual chariot procession, on the first day of Bachhalā Thwa, the dark fortnight in April, Macchendra’s five-foot image is carried from his temple in a small palanquin to an open field in Lagankhel in Patan.
He has a red face and eyes benevolently lowered. Red face, hence the Rato Macchendratha. The other Macchendrathnath is white-faced hence called Seto Macchendranath. (Rato is Red, Seto is White). He too has an equally extravagant chariot festival during Nepali New year time merrily paraded in Kathmandu district just like the former one.
Here the idol is bathed in holy water, while thousands of devotees merrily cheer in the presence of an ancient sword of the King of Bhadgaon representing his presence as in the olden days. An invitation is sent to the headman of Kirtipur, from whence come the men who pull Macchendranath’s chariot near the end of the festival.
For the next few days, the Idol undergoes ten ritual ceremonies and it is recolored. Then he is carried back to his temple in the dark of night to await his installation in a splendid rath waiting in the Pulchok area, ceremonies which take place on the first day of Bachhalā Gā, the bright lunar fortnight in April/May.
A gigantic rath, is constructed at Pulchok at the western end of Lalitpur. This vehicle of the god protrudes an upward-curving horizontal beam of 60-foot length, lavishly decorated with evergreen branches, flowers and coloured festoons. Attached to it is the ornately carved head of Karkot Naga, the Serpent King, who helped King Narendra Dev procure Macchendranath from Assam of North-East India. This massive vehicle carrying Macchendranath in the temple-like throne room runs on tremendous primitive wooden wheels in each of which dwells the spirit of the four Bhairab deities, a wrathful form of Shiva, who is said to have frightened off the demons from Assam so long ago.
On the fourth day of the same bright fortnight, the Yatra, a spectacular journey begins through the narrow and rough stone streets of Patan from Pulchowk area with bands of musicians and marching soldiers. The towering spire of chariot sways precariously close to the several-storied buildings followed by another, only slightly less grand, containing the idol of Minnāt, popularly called Chākuwā Dyah, God Bhairab ’s daughter—or often his son. When Chākuwā Dyah rath is pulled from his temple which stands across the street from Bhairab‘s Patan shrine, people say ‘he is going to Pulchowk to receive Macchendranath’. Devotees swarm alongside it in its train to worship the god of rain and harvest. People pull the thick ropes of the chariot or push it from the rear as a sacred duty. Again many who cannot share this honour surge in just to touch the ropes, in the hopes of a good fortune for everybody.
“There is a close relationship between the Jatra and the cosmos, it has always been the belief that it augurs the fate of rulers,” says American Anthropologist Bruce McCoy Owens. He has researched about the festival for the past 40 years. There were Jatra accidents in which have lead to political upheavals. For example, The year before Royal Massacre of June-2001, Rato Macchendranath chariot had keeled over twice on its way to the Bhoto Jatra in Lagankhel, and the event was officiated by King Birendra.
Mary Anderson writes, “in 1969 one of the great chariots was set ablaze, probably from ceremonial lamps left by devotees at the idol’s feet, and it remained in the middle of the street for days waiting for the spire to be repaired and recovered with foliage. Incidents such as this make the people uneasy, for they consider them ill omens.”
The rath may travel only a few hundred yards each day on its route of Gabahal, Mangal Bazar, Hakha, Sundhara, Chakrabahil and Lagankhel to reach the final destination at Jawalakhel perhaps months later depending upon the auspicious moment carefully calculated by astrologers. Gahabal, Sundhara and Thaiti in Patan are predetermined areas where chariot rests overnights for maintenance giving people the opportunity to make offerings to God himself and Karkot Naga. Sacrifices of animals are made to the heavy wheels to pacify wrathful Bhairab residing in it, for these wrathful Bhairabs have been known to crush a straining rope-puller who may slip and fall under the wheels.
When the procession passes Lagankhel the second time, the chariots circumambulate three times to the tree representing Macchendranath’s mother. Circling tree or temples three times is an ancient form of honour and respect. It waits at Thaiti for several days while astrologers calculate the timing of the last move to Jawalakhel, for upon arrival there ‘the sun must be in the northern hemisphere’. During the stop at Thaiti, two men climb to the uppermost section of the chariot’s spire and drop a coconut into the crowd. Hundreds eagerly waiting for this moment believe one who catches the coconut in the mad scramble is blessed with sons. Also, the belief is, when Lord Macchendranath stops near Pode Tole the women of the area sleep the night stripped, for Macchendranath is supposed to come for a nocturnal rendezvous. (Pode is a toilet cleaner class.)
The climax takes place in an open field at Jawalakhel any time between May and August. Devotees swarm in tens of thousands, many keep an all-night vigil offering oil-wick lights. Some very pious would go as far as sitting or lying down with burning oil lamps resting on his body with cow dung for hours to gain merit for himself and his locality.
This concluding day is the day of Bhoto Jatra when Bhoto, the jewel-encrusted vest sacred waistcoat, will be displayed for the entire populace to behold.
Bhoto Jatra According to the legend, Karkot Naga of Taudaha, a lake on the southern outskirts of Kathmandu, gifted bhoto to Jyapu (farmer) who was also an eye-healer when he cured the ‘eye-sore’ of his serpent queen. After some time, the splendid garment was stolen by an evil spirit. The Jyapu saw someone wearing his long-lost waistcoat at the chariot pulling festival and thus there arose a great quarrel between the two. Neither party could prove ownership, also Karkot Naga who didn’t want to disclose his existence didn’t come to testify. It was then agreed that the bhoto would be kept with Bunga Dyah, another name for Rato Macchendranath until the rightful owner came to claim it with adequate proof. Each year in the presence of Kumari of Patan, the bhoto is fluttered from the archway of the chariot so that the straining, excited populace may catch a glimpse of this sacred relic and be assured of its safety.
The President of Nepal, (earlier, the King and Queen of Nepal), government officials and military officers join their countrymen to pay homage to Macchendranath and to see once again his sacred waistcoat.
Macchendranath is removed from his rath with a smart military honour guard while a volley of gunfire cracks in salutation and transferred to a small but gilded palanquin. Singing crowds carry him to Bungamati and install him in his ‘birthplace’ temple reciting holy mantras. He will remain installed there for another six months. But before his departure, a priest climbs to the tops of the rath spire and drops a copper, bowl-shaped disc to the ground in an ancient ritual. If it falls to the ground face down this is a good omen, foretelling rainfall and prosperity for the valley. But if it lands ‘mouth open’ to the skies, the people may suffer from hunger and want.
Once in twelve years, the festival of Macchendranath is held on an even grander scale, he is then pulled in his rath all the two miles to Bungamati across the Nakhu River. On these occasions Bhoto Jatra, the ‘showing of the Sacred Garment’ is performed at his original home.
A popular legend tells that, there was once a snake who hid at his home near the Nakhu River at Bungamati to avoid his money-lender. But in April, he ventured out to watch the Rato Machhendranath procession, leaving his wife behind with a warning not to reveal his whereabouts to anyone. No sooner had he departed than the creditor appeared at his hide-out and the wife in fear blurted out that her husband wearing whites could be found sitting atop a certain temple of Buddha witnessing jatra.
The snake was so angry at his wife when the money-lender accosted him that he surrendered without an argument, telling the man he could deal with him as he liked. The creditors in disappointment decided to offer him to the Lord Macchendranath because there was no possibility of payment. When the wife learned of her husband’s fate she went crying to the Bunga temple, begging the snake’s forgiveness. The resentful husband not only sent her away but forbade her to see him but once every twelfth year.
Today the snake remains with Macchendranath in Bungamati, and the snake-couple meet for a brief moment once in twelve years, when the great chariot is pulled across the Nakhu River. People in villages say sometimes in the late-night they hear she-snake weeping alone in her underground home near the river.
Origin of the Macchendranath
The chariot procession was instituted to celebrate the arrival of Bunga Dyah in Nepal to end devastating drought during Narendra Deva reign (640-683 AD)
According to the Vamsavali texts, a twelve-year drought in the valley caused all the water resources to dry up and killed many animals and humans during the reign of the old King Narendra Dev of Bhadgaon. It was Gorakhnath, a disciple of Lord Macchendranath, who caused the drought by imprisoning all nine of the valley’s rain-giving Snake Gods under Mrigasthali hill, near Pashupatinath temple. Gorakhnath with the dual motive sat on top of serpents; one to punish the valley people for neglecting to accord him due respect, second to gain an audience with Lord Macchendranath, who was also in deep meditation in the hills of Assam. Gorakhnath, not daring to interrupt Lord Macchendranath in seclusion, knew that this compassionate deity would surely appear to rescue people in distress.
King’s priest, understanding the situation of Gorakhnath, with Bandhudutt, from Kathmandu, together with a farmer-porter from Patan, set out to fetch Lord Macchendranath. According to legend, this deity was 108th son of King Sashi of Yakshya Desh in Assam.
Karkot Naga also joined the journey, who would alleviate the obstacles and supernatural impediments placed in their path by powerful demons. Bandhudutt performed such efficacious religious ceremonies by reciting powerful mantras upon arrival that Lord Macchendranath and his mother could not stop transforming the deity into a large black bee that flew into Bandhudutt’s golden vessel. Bandhudutt invoked four powerful Bhairab deities, the most vengeful and wrathful form of Lord Shiva to aid the party to take Machhendranath to Kathmandu.
Gorakhnath arose from his hillock upon his Guru’s arrival near the Nakhu River, two miles south of the Patan, all the Snake Gods he sat upon for years were released with torrents of rain that ended the Kathmandu Valley drought of twelve years .
Macchendranath in the bee form was enshrined there and the place was called Bunga Village or Bungamati, the birthplace of deity. “Bu” means birthplace in the Newari language. That is why Macchendranath is also adored under his ancient name Bunga Deo, the god of Bungamati. Narendra Dev appointed priests to worship Bunga Deo as the god of Rain and Harvest, a great land endowment was granted for his maintenance.
Also, Nepalese refrain from killing bees in honour of the deity since he disguised a bee form to enter Nepal.
Another Legend says, Lord Shiva after learning the secret of attaining union with the Supreme Being from Lokeshwara as his disciple was recounting all of it to his wife Parvati, but she fell asleep in the course. Meanwhile, the divine guru in the form of fish secretly listened to it all. Shiva divined that there was an eavesdropper. ‘Whoever is lurking in this place must appear at one or I shall put a curse on him,’ said angry Shiva. With this Lokeswar manifested himself in his true form and Shiva fell at his feet begging forgiveness. Ever since, the great Lokeswar has been known as Macchendra—from the word machha meaning ‘fish’ in Nepali.
Again, it is said a Brahman woman cast his newborn into the sea because he was born in an inauspicious day. That child, instead of perishing, entered the stomach of a great fish and continued to grow. When this matter came to Lord Shiva’s attention, he released the child and he ever after was called Macchendra in honour of the fish that gave him life.
- Mary Anderson, The festival of Nepal
- History and Origin of Machindranath Temple – Lalitpur, Nepal
- Feature Photo by Suprince Shakya