I think some of our best travel experiences have come from situations when we stumbled upon something else while looking out for another thing. It was Nepal and all that we could think about was visiting Pokhara and go all out for the adventure stuff. It really took something really special to keep us rooted in Kathmandu. To be honest, we have always been lucky with festivals. We had come to know about the Wangala Festival while on our trip to Shillong. Similarly, this trip promised us a few extravagant displays of joy de vivre of a festival in Nepal. We decided to change our plans and stay back in the capital of Nepal for Bisket Jatra and Sindoor Jatra.
Well, changing the plans made an entire change in our itinerary. But not for once did we regret the decision made.
Surprises are Good for Wanderlust Hearts
It all started with the long tiring bus ride from Kakarvitta to Kathmandu. While we were getting uncomfortably comfortable in our seats, one of our co-passengers asked us where we were going in Nepal. He actually took Agni as one from their community and started saying something in Nepali. We have had this situation quite a lot of times. There are instances when we visited Sikkim and even Darjeeling, the locals start talking with him in Nepali!
We answered in Hindi and our co-passenger realized that we are Indians. After some pleasantries were exchanged, he told us that he is going to Kathmandu for the Nepali New Year. And he invited us over to his house at Bhaktapur. A bit overwhelmed, we told him that it would not be possible as we had a fixed plan.
“Cancel the plan and come to Bhaktapur. You will not regret it”, he told us with a broad grin. “We are celebrating Bisket Jatra”, he continued.
I heard the word Bisket Jatra and it was enough to pique my interest. Whenever I get to know about any local festival, my mind works overdrive and I try to find out everything about it. Nepali New Year was not attractive enough, but Bisket Jatra had my full attention. After all, this is one of the most important festivals in Nepal!
And so there was I with my barrage of questions about the Bisket Jatra. Only after I got a few satisfactory answers, that I stopped talking. I guess, even our friend was relieved that I finally stopped. Just after that, he conveniently falls asleep while I started making plans of seeing the Bisket Jatra. I did not want to miss this festival in Nepal.
Agni was initially sceptical of changing the plans. After all, we were visiting Nepal for the first time and to accommodate this festival of Nepal, we might have to let go a few other things. But as usual, I was obstinate and wanted to attend Bistek Jatra.
So there we were, standing at Kathmandu Bus Park at 5.30 am in the morning waiting for a city bus to Bhaktapur. Thankfully, we had not done any prior hotel bookings. We got a bus and got down at Kamal Vinayak Bus Stand, the nearest one to Bhaktapur Durbar Square.
Just a mild warning: This article has a lot of pictures. So please get ready for some stunning visual extravaganza coming your way.
Bisket Jatra – Visually Stunning Festival in Nepal
Just as we stepped inside the old town of Bhaktapur, we could feel the charged atmosphere all around. It was 8 in the morning and the entire place was abuzz with people greeting each other and looking happy. We kept walking to look for our homestay which was right next to Taumadhi Square in Bhaktapur Durbar Square. The small temples on the way were full of people. I am sure it was a special day, for you do not generally see so many people at temples on a normal day. Finally, we reached our homestay and settled in for the day. Our host was also getting ready for going to the temple.
Bisket Jatra is undoubtedly the most important festival in Bhaktapur of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. The festival is celebrated for 9 days with thousands of visitors coming to Bhaktapur. The festival also coincides with the celebration of New Year according to the Nepali Calendar. Bhaktapur was crowded, colourful and chaotic with thousands of people involved in erecting a totem pole-like structure known as lingo and pulling chariots of deities around the Bhaktapur town. The entire episode is a spectacle to watch as we soon realized.
Visuals only do not satisfy me. I also try to go behind the history of these festivals. Luckily for me, the roof-top restaurant where we had our lunch had a friendly proprietor. He explained to us in brief about this festival in Nepal.
Though no one knows exactly when Bisket Jatra started to be celebrated in Kathmandu Valley, it is widely recognised that King Jagajyoti Malla of Bhaktapur initiated the celebration of Bisket Jatra. Let me begin from the beginning.
The 3 Kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley
Kathmandu Valley was ruled by the Malla dynasty from 1200 to 1769 CE after which the Shah dynasty took over. Under the Mallas, Newari art and architecture flourished under royal patronage. It can be easily seen in the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu valley. King Yaksha Malla in 1482, divided his entire kingdom in Kathmandu Valley between his three sons. Thus the valley was divided into three kingdoms of Kantipur (Kathmandu), Lalitpur (Patan) and Bhadgaon (Bhaktapur). Legend has it that the three kings were very competitive of each other. If one built a statue, the other wanted to make an even bigger one. Nevertheless, Kantipur’s golden period was during the reign of King Pratap Malla. A number of magnificent monuments were built during his time like Hanuman Dhoka Palace, Taleju Temple and Rani Pokhri.
King Jagajyoti Malla also wanted his name to be remembered by all. He was quite fascinated by myths and folklore. He decided to start Bisket Jatra as an annual event after an intriguing folklore of the valley.
Legend of the Bisket Jatra
There is an interesting folklore about a princess of the Kathmandu Valley. Legend has it that there was curse on the princess of the kingdom. Whoever married the princess would die on the very first night of the marriage. The King married off his daughter to a number of eligible men, but all of them died on the first night. Finally, a man was chosen to be the fateful husband of the princess.
But before the nuptial night, he was given sound advice by an old woman. So after marriage, the young man goes in for their nuptial night. While the princess fell asleep, he remained awake. He would not sleep, no matter what. In the middle of the night, two thread-like substances came out of the nostrils of the princess and they converted into snakes! The young man was mortified, but somehow he kept his cool and cut the snakes into pieces before it could grow further. Thus the serpents responsible for the death of so many young men were finally killed by this lad. The king, on the next day, thanked his son-in-law for saving his daughter and the kingdom from the curse. The king raised a pole as a mark of victory over the evil curse.
Later it was revealed that the old lady who advised the young man was actually Goddess Bhadrakali herself. Thank God the young lad paid heed to the old lady! Quite naturally, he and the princess went on to live happily ever after. This particular legend was the favourite of King Jagajyoti Malla. He decided to initiate a festival every year to commemorate this folklore and thus started Bisket Jatra.
Bisket Jatra was originally known as Bisyaku Jatra. In Newari bi syaku means snake laughter. Even to this day, the brave deed of the young hero is remembered in the form of two long ribbons that hands from the pole as a testament to the two slain serpents.
The Celebration of Bisket Jatra
The two main shrines of Bhaktapur, Bhairab and his consort Bhadrakali are also the protective deities of Kathmandu Valley. They two deities are carried from their temples in khats to giant wooden chariots. Bhadrakali is installed in a large chariot, but it is Lord Bhairab who gets a three-tiered 10-metre high vehicle. These parts of these chariots are wired together by wires and not a single nail is used. These chariots are pulled along the street as they make a creaking noise.
As mentioned before, Bisket Jatra, the grand festival in Nepal is celebrated for nine days. On the first day, a small Bisket pole is erected at Talako, the square below Taumadhi. Later the deity of Bhadrakali is removed from her temple, carried in khat (a small palanquin like structure carried on shoulders) near the Bhairab Temple. Here the idol is put inside a chariot and the idol of Bhairab is put inside the huge three-tiered chariot.
I heard that there is a tug of war match played between two teams that evening and the loser team gets the job of pulling the chariot to Taumadhi square the next day. Infact, the residents of Bhaktapur pull these chariots throughout the old town and makes a round of all the major shrines in the town.
The fourth day is quite important and it is also the last of the Nepali calendar. The priests from the Taleju Temple offer prayers to the deity. A huge wooden pole known as lingo is erected at Lyasinkhel Square, near the Bhairabi Temple. Lyasinkhel is situated in the southern outskirts of Bhaktapur. In the middle of the square is a raised platform where the Lingo is erected by the local people. Watching the lingo getting erected is a spectacle in itself.
We had arrived at Bhaktapur on the fourth day and watched the entire spectacle right before our eyes. After attending a number of festivals in India, we are always upbeat and excited about any celebrations. As I said earlier, there were crowd all over Lyasinkhel Square. The people lifted the huge pole with amidst lots of applause and shouts.
The pole or lingo denotes the victory of the son-in-law against the curse. To the long pole is attached a crossbeam and to it are attached two long banners. The banners denote the 2 serpents that were killed that fateful night. Someone told me that the pole is almost 25 metres long, while another told me its 18 metres. Whatever might be the length of the pole, it was huge and I could just gape at it standing down. I also heard that another pole is usually erected at the potters square. We did not visit the potters square and attended all the brouhaha and celebration at Lyasinkhel Square.
Once the pole was erected, children and young boys gathered around it and there was a lot of commotion and cry all around. We were already tired after a long bus journey from Siliguri to Kathmandu and then again to Bhaktapur decided to return to our homestay. We noticed that almost all the temples were full of people offering prayers to the deities.
The fifth days is the climactic day, after all, it is also the Nepali New Year Day! The pole still stands erect at its place. The chariots of Bhairab and Bhdrakali are kept at Lyansinkhel Square. People start gathering at the temples to give their offerings and then near the chariots.
I would just want to add a word of caution here. The Newari believe in offering sacrifice to please the Gods. Animal sacrifices are offered to the deities. So if something like this doesn’t please you, it is better to stay away from the scene. Because there is a lot of bloodshed. Animals like goat, cock, pigeons are sacrificed and the idol of Lord Bhairab is bathed with the blood of the animals. Please remember, that this is the traditions of the Newari. Please do not judge. As I said before, if you do not like it, stay away from it.
We saw the locals offer sacrifice to the Lord Bhairab and then visit the temple of Bhadrakali to offer their prayers. It was a totally chaotic situation with so many people and so much sound. All these were taking place till the noon.
After the sacrifices were over, we saw various groups dressed in traditional Newari dresses playing musical instruments.
These groups played drums, cymbals and moved from one place to the other in Bhaktapur. Finally, they stopped at Lyasinkhel Square. Some group sang some melodious songs while others performed a traditional dance. Little girls were dressed beautifully and they performed folk dance in front of the Nyatapola Temple. A group of old men were sitting together and singing some folk song. The entire atmosphere was charged up. We roamed around the street and alleys of Bhaktapur and clicked pictures of this incredible celebration that we were witnessing.
The celebration does not end here. In the evening, there is a tug-of-war match again. This time, ropes are tied around the linga and two teams pull the ropes in order to bring the pole down. Eventually, the pole crashes down, thereby marking the new year. Once the pole falls down the crossbeams are dismantled. The chariots are then taken all around Bhaktapur and finally to Gahiti Tole.
Bisket Jatra – The Festival of Continuity of Life
There is another popular belief to the Bisket Jatra. It is believed that the sky and the earth are the forms of divine male and female in the form of Lord Bhairab and Goddess Bhadrakali. Ancient Newari mythology believes that the divine mating of the sky and the earth has made creation possible. The rain showering from the sky denotes the life-giving elements with the earth considered as the creative base. The pole, also known as the Yashin pole has a hole in it that signifies the female reproductive organ. So Bisket Jatra is essentially the celebration of the mating of Bhairab and Bhadrakali. It is the celebration of creation and continuity of life.
The locals say that it always rains on the days of the festival. Well, we witnessed that fact. It actually rained in the evening of the 5th day. On the 5th midnight, the chariots of Bhairab and Bhadrakali are collided to each other symbolizing the divine copulation. Fascinating, isn’t it?
We returned to our homestay in the evening. However, we could hear a loud noise and scream from our homestay. Our host said that the locals are now having fun after all the festivities. There would be a tug-of-war, mock fights, drinking and merriment. She also suggested that we should not be alone there at night without any local. Message received and we decided to stay indoors. After all, we had to visit another exciting event the next day as well.
The festivities do not end here. Remember, I told that the festival is celebrated for 9 days? On the next day, the celebration shifts to Thimi. People throw vermilion on each other celebrating New Year and spring. Well, this is another story. You need to head over to this post for more on Sindur Jatra. For now, here is a picture of Sindur Jatra.
There are other celebrations on the remaining days as well, but nothing tops that of the fifth day. We headed towards Thimi on the next day to witness the Sindur Jatra, a colourful and crazy celebration of life.
Bisket Jatra in Photographs
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