The eight-day-long Indra Jatra festival in honor of Indra, the ‘god of rain’, is held every year in August/September (September 23 this year). It heralds the coming of Nepal’s biggest festival, the ten-day-long Dashain, soon after, which is a time to get together with family and have lavish feasts throughout. Dashain becomes all the more enjoyable if the preceding harvest had been good, which is, of course, dependent upon bountiful rains. Indra Jatra festival is held to thank the ‘god of rain’ for just that, and to keep him in a good mood so he blesses the valley with as good rains the following year too. During this colorful festival, Kumari (the Living Goddess), Lord Ganesha, and Lord Bhairabh are paraded around the city on chariots.
As colorful as the festival is, what makes it even more interesting is that it is held in a world heritage monument, that is, Kathmandu Durbar Square (a.k.a. Hanuman Dhoka). The royal palace in this fantastic square was the seat of power of the Malla and Shah Kings of yore. King Pratap Malla (1641-74), one of the brightest firmaments of the Malla Period (12th-18th centuries), is credited with the construction of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace. You can see his statue atop a tall pillar facing the Taleju Temple in the square. Another renowned site in the square, the Kumari Ghar, the abode of the Living Goddess, was built in the 1750s by King Jaya Prakash Malla.
In 1768, King Prithvi Narayan Shah, ruler of the tiny kingdom of Gorkha, conquered the Kathmandu valley during his bid to unify the country. Thus began the rule of the Shah Kings (1768-2008) from the Hanuman Dhoka Palace. As was usually the case in those days, as far as royalty was concerned, Prithvi Narayan’s death in 1775 was followed by succession struggles highlighted by assassinations and intrigue. In 1846, a Chettri nobleman, Jung Bahadur, organized what is infamously known as the Kot Massacre, during which the elite of the Shah durbar were killed in their hundreds while assembled in a kot (courtyard) adjoining Kathmandu Durbar Square. This horrendous act brought the Ranas into power, with Jung Bahadur becoming, first, Prime Minister, and then Maharajah, a title that was given hereditary status. The Shah Kings remained mere figureheads for a century and more.
Indeed, a tour of the Kathmandu Durbar Square is a tour of the country’s history, and its culture, as well. The historic square is where, on the seventh day of Dashain, that is, Fulpati, jamara (barley sprouts having ritual significance) and other ritual items are brought in from Gorkha in a stately procession, carried in a covered palanquin by Brahmins, and escorted by musket-carrying soldiers dressed in uniforms of the bygone era. On the eighth day (Maha Asthami), Kathmandu Durbar Square is where numerous animals (goats, buffaloes, ducks, and pigeons) are sacrificed to Goddess Kali. On the ninth day (Maha Nawami), the Taleju Temple is opened for the public, which is the only time it is done so, while in the kot (courtyard) of Hanuman Dhoka, army men slaughter more sacrificial animals with khukuris in front of a high profile audience of officers in full dress regalia and other dignitaries. It is a spectacular event, with brass band, cannons sounding off big bangs, et al.
Kathmandu Durbar Square’s cultural significance is also obvious from the numerous ancient shrines and temples in and around its premises, including those dedicated to various gods of the Hindu pantheon like Ganesh, Shiva-Parvati, Bhagwati, Saraswoti, Krishna, etc., besides Taleju and Kumari Ghar. Close to the famous square is a temple from which Kathmandu’s name is said to be derived, that is, Kasthamandap Temple (mandap: pavilion, kastha: wood). The wood of a single tree is said to have been used to construct it.
Speaking of constructions and such, here’s some modern history to do with this world famous square—King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah was proclaimed King on Jan 31, 1972, after his father’s death, but the formal coronation ceremony was held only on February 24, 1975. During the three years in between, the first restoration works in the valley began, and it started with restoration of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, where the main ceremonies of the coronation would be held. Funded by UNDP, an UNESCO consultant, Architect John Sanday, was put in charge of the project. Although the project went on five years, involving some 300 hundred workers (including 50 wood carvers), Sanday managed to complete quite a lot of work, especially restoration of the façade and the main courtyard, in time for the historic coronation, a lavish spectacle attended by royalty and dignitaries from all over the world.
In 2000, a comprehensive plan for restoration of the temples at Kathmandu Durbar Square was launched as the ‘Kathmandu Durbar Initiative’. Funded by the U.S. Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation, it was conducted by Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) under Architect Dr. Rohit Ranjitkar. Its major beneficiaries were the Kal Bhairav Shrine, Kageshwar Mahadev Temple, and Lakshmi Narayan Temple. No doubt, Kathmandu Durbar Square has benefitted immensely from such attention, but at the same time, it must be said that there is so much of ancient artifacts that remain as solid as they were hundreds of years ago, that even without any embellishment they are attractions that continue to captivate the senses.
Without doubt, Kathmandu Durbar Square lives up to its high status as a UNESCO designated world heritage monument, and the fantastic thing about it is that it continues to play such an important role in the lives of all dwellers of the enchanted valley of Kathmandu.