April 3, 2001
Seto Machhendranath Rath Jatra
Dear Family and Friends,
have had to have had a pretty wild and wonderful April Fool's
joke to match the goings on in Kathmandu last Sunday, April 1st.
Everyone agrees that there is a Rato (Red) Machhendranath and
a Seto (White) Machhendranath who are among the most revered
divinities of the Kathmandu Valley. Here agreement ends. Some
say they are two divinities; others think they are one in the
same, just a color morph. Whether they are sisters or males with
female aspects is not clear. Hindus see Seto Machhendranath as
an incarnation of Shiva, who can bring rain, an important consideration
as the country awaits the life-giving monsoons. For Buddhists,
Seto Machhendranath is Aryavalokiteswar, who attained Buddhahood
long ago. Tended by Newar Buddhist priests, Seto Machhendranath
is worshipped by devotees of Shiva as the giver of longevity
to children and the remover of sterility in women, the Ocean
of Compassion. While in America we would have a presidential
commission to resolve all of this high level ambiguity, in Nepal
if bothers people not a bit.
A very long
time ago a Newar farmer unearthed the White Machhendranath and
put it in the bin where he stored rice. To his surprise, the
rice supply never decreased no matter how much rice his family
ate. Hearing of this good fortune, the King had the statue installed
near the public granary for the benefit of all. When the King
of Tibet got word of these events, he had the idol stolen. But
the Tibetans blew it. They did improper rituals, including animal
sacrifices. This was a hard pill for the Ocean of Compassion
to swallow, and the country was struck with an epidemic. The
King immediately returned the Seto Machhendranath and dropped
it in a well at a place called Jamal (now right in the middle
of Kathmandu on Durbar Marg, the main street leading to the Royal
Palace). Someone drawing water found the idol. He was instructed
in a dream where its temple should be and that White Machhendranath
really does not like animal sacrifices.
A fierce snow lion guards the temple of White Machhendranath,
located just as directed in the dream.
The white face of Machhendranath can barely be seen through the
ornate doorway of the inner temple the day before the beginning
of the chariot festival
For a week before the festival begins, men construct the processional
chariot at Jamal on Durbar Marg, where the farmer found the idol
and now perhaps the busiest street in Kathmandu.
Bamboo lashing, installed one strip at a time, holds the chariot
together. The six-foot in diameter wooden wheels are reused,
but the towering steeple is constructed each year. The steeple
is finished with a covering of pine branches and streamers.
Early Sunday, the temple courtyard began to fill with devotees,
mostly women seeking favor with the Ocean of Compassion.
As the day moved on, the crowd grew and several bands began marching
around the temple, mostly drums, cymbals, and gongs, led by a
man with a 15-foot pole decked with flags and two yak tails.
As he passed the pole around his body to the beat of the drums,
the arched upper portion circumscribed figure eights.
Around the temple courtyard, people watched the twirling pole
from their windows.
Nawar Buddhist priests charged with moving and guarding Seto
Machhendranath did ritual cleansing of themselves and of the
silver umbrella staff to be used in the procession. The two ducks
know this means extra puddles in the courtyard.
While these preparations are underway for moving the compassionate
Machhendranath, only two blocks away another festival is occurs,
Chaitra Dasain. At the elaborate Taleju Temple, maybe a hundred
water buffalo and goats are dispatched with one stroke of the
sword each to please the bloodthirsty goddess Bhagwati, who adores
a good animal sacrifice. Entry into the temple is highly restricted,
and thus I did not witness the bloodletting first hand. However,
my evidence of it is pretty persuasive. Overseen by the Nepal
military, a headless goat departs the temple.
A procession of decapitated water buffalo leaves through the
Slaughtered animals are sold as blessed meat. If you don't have
a car and a taxi wont take your headless water buffalo home for
you, what are you to do? Dozens of rickshaws lined up for the
Meanwhile, back at the home of the compassionate Seto Machhendranath,
an honored person leaves the inner-sanctum of the temple after
The Newar Buddhist priests remove the white idol from the inner
Safely loaded into a khat, Machhendranath is carried through
the narrow old streets of Kathmandu on the shoulders of the attending
priests. A twirling gold umbrella follows the bringer of rain,
along with bands, yak tail poles and thousands of devotees. The
destination is Jamal, where legend has it that the figure was
found in a well and where the chariot waits.
At about this time, the Living Goddess Kamari is supposed to
leave her home and pay a visit to a nearby temple. Since I could
not be both places simultaneously, I take it on faith that she
did her duty. This is one of four magnificently carved 18th century
facades in the inner courtyard of the Kamari Bahal.
After a riotous procession, Machhendranath boarded the chariot
in the late evening and was whisked off, if you can call it that,
by maybe 100 youths pulling the heavy cart over broken, cobbled
streets. Here the chariot rests in Asan Tol after the first evening
journey of maybe a quarter of a mile.
All day long people come to worship, seek blessings and pay respects
to White Machhendranath resting in Asan Tol. As young people
climb on the chariot, people throw up offerings, which the kids
pocket or eat, and objects to be blessed, which the kids return
for a coin. The sacred is not isolated from daily reality.
Without a steering device, the cart makes it way down streets
barely wide enough for its passage. People cram to be near the
idol. Residents remove power and phone lines to make way for
the divine. The festival must last a minimum of three days but
often stretches on for a week as wheels catch in the gutter,
the steeple crashes into buildings and sometimes the whole thing
collapses. And in Nepali fashion, all of this is accompanied
by music, twirling yak tale poles, laughter and faith that greater
powers will see Seto Machhendranath to his or her appointed destination.
Love to all, Rand and Dana