Another sunny Saturday afternoon in October-end in Kathmandu valley, most definitely not a time to be staying indoors. The warmth of the day was inviting me to go and explore the nooks and corners of the valley once more. So, off I went on my trusty Honda towards the big city from the small village of Thaiba, about four kilometers from Satdobato in Patan, where I was ensconced. I had half a mind to pay a long overdue visit to Kathmandu Durbar Square (a.k.a. Hanuman Dhoka); my mind savoring plonking down on the steps of one its ancient temples, watching the world go by.
However, trust Lalitpur to be the temptress that just won’t let you go, so fatal are its numerous charms. I had just crossed Satdobato and was entering Lagankhel when I had to stop in front of the big stupa (chaitya), one of the four massive stupas built by Emperor Ashoka at the four corners of Patan city during his sojourn here centuries ago. A long procession of men and women, mostly young or middle-aged, and with women predominating, was making its way through the gateway of the mahavihar (as big stupas and the premises surrounding them are called). Young volunteers were calling the shots, stopping traffic on both sides of the road. Trust curious me to promptly park my bike and start asking around about the what’s, where’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of this unexpected (for me) but welcome spectacle.
One of the energetic volunteers was eager enough to do so, and said, “We are from Bungamati, and we are celebrating the Bahi-Vihar jatra (festival) which comes once every 12 years.” To elaborate on this a little, Bungamati is a Newari village that’s some six kilometers from the ring road out of Jawalakhel. It’s famous for its many skilled woodcarvers. Chances are, quite a few of the elaborate windows and doors you see around Patan were made by Bungamati woodcarvers. Anyway, the volunteer went on to say, “It’s a lot like the Dipankar Yatra that’s held in Patan once every 12 years; we have to visit all the important bahis/bahals (those small courtyards you see all around the valley, with a small stupa at the center) as well as the bigger vihars.” So, how many people were participating? “I think there must be five to six thousand; most are from Bungamati while some are from other villages like Thejo, Lele, and so on.”
I could see that, among the women, there were small groups who were similarly attired in dresses made of handloom fabrics. All the participants had name tags hanging round their necks; on closer scrutiny, I saw that some had names of sponsors; woodcarving companies, of course! So, my guess was that the similarly attired groups were probably representing the establishment where they worked. Soon enough, the procession, after circumambulating the stupa, was on its way towards Lagankhel. I approach another young volunteer with some more questions. She, too, was pretty happy to speak to me. She said, “We have to visit about 70 bahis and vihars. We started at five in the morning and have already visited most of them (the time was around 2:30 p.m. now). Next, we’ll be going to Ga:bahal, and then, Ta: bahal, both near Mangal Bazaar. After that we’ll be going back to Bungamati by bus.”
I carried on to Lagankhel— that really, really crowded place with scores of buses and minibuses in the bus park, most of them perennially on the move, whether coming or going, and the vegetable market surrounding it, besides the many other shops selling everything under the sun all over the place. On top of which, even though numerous little shops ply on the footpaths, and many on the sides of the street going to Mangal Bazaar, no one has dared to ban vehicles from running in the area, and so what you have is a constant cacophony of noise, crowds of shoppers thronging the narrow street, and general mayhem all together.
Now, imagine if you will, a procession some 5000-strong moving through this chaotic arena, and what you get is a bazaar like none you may have seen anywhere else. However, take it from me, it’s a pretty orderly bazaar, even then, since nobody’s bothered, and everybody seems to take it all with equanimity. As I was watching all this, I asked a shopkeeper about where all these shoppers were coming from, and was it always like this? “Well, this bazaar is always crowded, and you should be here during Dashain and Tihar! People come from all over Lalitpur district. Those buses ply to some hundred places.” His small shop (not exactly one, since his wares were displayed on the sidewalk) had woolen items, as had many other similar ‘shops’: gloves, shawls, pullovers, socks, trousers, and so on. And, right, you guessed it, all imported from China, that great big friendly giant on the other side.
I sidled up to a middle-aged man who was part of the procession and badgered him with a few questions. The long and short of our conversation was that this particular festival, the Bungamati Bahi-Vihar festival was a prelude to the great big Bungamati Mela being held in the coming year. “It is held once every 12 years in honor of Rato Matsyendranath, and will go on for four months. So, before it begins, all of us at Bungamati pay a visit to the bahis and vihars in Patan to pay our respects and ask blessings for a successful mela,” he informed me. Lest you are not so well informed, let me tell you that the Rato Matsyendranath festival is a month-long affair that’s held every year in Patan. It’s to honor Lord Matsyendranath for bringing rain to the valley (the why’s, what’s, and how’s, when’s of this very vigorous festival is another story).
For now, let’s look forward to the grand Bungamati Mela which will begin pretty soon in the village of Nepal’s finest woodcarvers. For your information, you can drive down there on a fairly good road and should take you not more than 25 minutes or so. In fact, you don’t even need to wait or the mela, anytime you go is a worthwhile outing, since you’ll be experiencing the ancient way of life even this close to the capital, and going through some really great scenery on the way. Take a substantial bag along, you might want to pick up a few fantastic woodcarvings when there!