The Handigaon Festival
Dear Family and Friends,
It all started
a very long time ago right here in our ancient neighborhood of
Handigaon. In those days the distinction between people and divinities
was not so clear as some people today think it is. Young god
Bhat fell in love with beautiful goddess Bhateni. Sadly, he was
of high caste and she of low. For this reason they were denied
permission to marry. Like young people, young divinities too
are prone to follow their hearts; Bhateni and Bhat eloped. As
punishment, they could neither rise to heaven nor could their
feet touch the ground. They would remain forever suspended, referred
to as the hanging gods. Despite this awkward predicament, they
managed to have a child. When Bhat and Bhateni went to work in
the fields at harvest time, they forgot to cover the baby with
the little pyramid, three-pole tent that Nepalis use to shield
infants from the sun. An eagle swooped down and grabbed the unprotected
child in its talons, but the divine power of the parents kept
it from carrying the baby away. Even today Bhat and Bhateni hang
suspended two blocks from our house in the BhatBhateni Temple
across the street from the Bhatbhateni supermarket.
mother Tundaldevi lives about a kilometer north in her own temple.
Tundaldevi is a form of Durga, wife of Shiva and Divine Mother
of the Universe. In her is vested the Shaki or Supreme Energy
that controls the mysteries of life and death. All Mother Goddesses
who emanated from Durga are called Devis, as in Tundaldevi. As
with most forms of Durga, Tundaldevi is extremely fond of fresh
blood. She wears a long necklace strung with human heads. It
is prudent to stay on her good side with generous offerings.
Again back in olden times, Tundaldevi and her daughter Bhairavi
were visiting Gahana Pokhari, the pond right in our front yard.
(I am not clear whether this is the same or a different daughter
than Bhateni. When I tried to clarify this with people in the
neighborhood, they looked at me like what difference does it
make?) Somehow, the goddess lost a jewel in the pond. The pond
is normally guarded by Naga or Snake gods, but since Tundaldevi
is so powerful, she went right in to search for the jewel, and
hence the name jewel pond.
at this time, Bhat and Bhateni and their little child still in
the clutches of the eagle are carried on people's shoulders to
visit Bhateni's mother Tundaldevi at the Tundaldevi Temple. Even
though it seems a bit rude, the next day, in the dark of morning,
Tundaldevi leaves in a procession to Handigaon where she is placed
in a beautiful tiered, temple-like khat. About the same time
her daughter Bhairavi is brought from Nuwakot and placed in a
sort of kiddy khat. From early morning until late afternoon,
they are slowly paraded through the five or so blocks of Handigaon,
stopping about every 30 feet or so to receive offerings, including
blood sacrifices. The procession culminates at Gahana Pokari
with a reenactment of the search for the jewel.
I am not sure
how all of these events fit together. They have all been related
to us in bits and pieces by people in the neighborhood. (Things
fitting coherently together is of absolutely low priority here.)
From these events the Newars have constructed a wonderful neighborhood
festival that is at least 400 years old, a festival mentioned
in no guidebooks. At the outset, two tall poles topped with greenery
are erected at either end of the neighborhood to announce the
beginning of the festival. In olden days, when all of the houses
were low, these poles could be seen for miles around, and the
people of the valley knew it was time to go to Handigaon.
Photo A. Children examine the khat parked on Handigaon's
main street the day before it was used to transport Tundaldevi
from her temple to Handigaon for the festival.
In preparation for their journey to visit Tundaldevi Temple,
Bhateni, Bhat, baby and the eagle are taken down and given a
thorough repainting in an open fronted resting-place for pilgrims
beside the temple. This is the only time that non Hindus can
see more than the dangling legs of the hanging divinities. After
much worship and offerings, the god family was whisked away in
a mad procession, with us included, to Tundaldevi Temple.
Fully attired and adorned, the divine family is properly re hung,
with baby in the talons of the eagle at the far right. All day
long people came with offerings of food, flowers and animals;
they waited in long lines to touch or kiss the feet of Bhat and
Bhateni, who have special responsibility for the healing of children.
The next day Tundaldevi is removed from her traveling khat and
installed in her regal processional khat resting on street in
Handigaon. From daybreak people line up to make offerings and
contribute decorations for the khat. While chickens are killed
beside the khat, the heads of goats and here a buffalo are stuck
into the khat where their throats are cut and the blood flows
fresh into the bowl in front of Tundaldevi. A priest sits with
the goddess in the tiny space of the khat, making sure that Tundaldevi's
blood thirst is quenched.
Music is everywhere: drums, cymbals, gongs, and reed horns often
lubricated with home brew.
A grandmother holds a young girl with her eyes outlined for the
After several stationary hours, Tundaldevi's khat and the daughter's
smaller khat were laden with decorations. Finally, the worshipers
thinned enough for the slow procession to begin to make its way
at about 100 feet per hour through the neighborhood. I climbed
on a 55-gallon drum for a better look when suddenly the decorations
on Tundaldevi's vehicle shot up in flames, apparently ignited
by a butter lamp from one of the offerings. People were deeply
concerned that this was a bad omen foretelling something bad
for the people of Nepal. Since a calamity happens nearly every
day here, it seems most likely that this prophecy will prove
correct. When people realized that I had taken a picture of the
fire, many were eager for a copy. I agreed to give one to the
Handigaon ward office, for the record, as one person put it.
By the time the goddess reached her doorstep, fortunately the
grandmother had substituted a handsome rooster for her granddaughter.
The rooster was not being held tightly just to see the procession.
It took 40 or 50 young men to carry the heavy khat crashing,
scraping and teetering through the meager streets of Handigaon.
Things might have gone easier if they had all moved in the same
direction at the same time, but that is an experiment that was
Every few houses had a large clay slip square marked on the street
where the goddess first, followed by her daughter, was obliged
to come crashing to the ground amidst shouts of triumph by the
bearers and the onlookers. At each of the dozens of stops, both
the mother and the daughter goddesses were thronged by devotees.
With additions at each stop, decorations lost in the fire are
now fully replaced.
A man very proud of his goat offering wanted his picture taken
with the now headless animal.
Two young spectators reflect the wonder of the occasion.
With her bearers whipped into a frenzy, Tundaldevi enters Gahana
Pokhari to search for the lost jewel. She makes a symbolic circle
within the pond while her daughter circumnavigates beyond the
crowd. Just to the left of the red umbrella, you can see our
house. When the mother's khat emerged from the pond, the daughter's
khat bowed three times in homage. Gahana Pokhari, which had become
a swamp, was recently renovated and turned into the jewel of
the neighborhood. Most of the $30,000 for the project was raised
privately in what may be the most successful development project
The next morning, Tundaldevi rests at the main intersection in
Handigaon. Her blood bowl decorated with skulls sits in front
In the early afternoon, the festival revs up again. Nearly 200
women and girls in traditional Newari dress and carrying offerings
lead the neighborhood in a raucous procession to BhatBhateni
Temple. The divine family has returned and is hanging outside,
awaiting offerings, including a goat.
At critical points in the sacrifice, the women throw rice and
The procession of women, bands and inebriated revelers then visits
Tundaldevi in her khat at the intersection. To satiate her for
her journey home that night, she receives another water buffalo,
here covered with popcorn and rice thrown by the women.
was never like this.
Rand and Dana