Bhaktapur’s Bisket Jatra is one spectacle that’s hard to get out of the mind once you have been part of it. And, it will be a fortunate thing if there are no fatalities due to accidents during this festival. Yes, it has claimed quite a few victims in the past, some of whom have been crushed under the chariots’ mammoth wheels, while some have been unlucky to be at the wrong spot when the chariot itself overturns (yes, this happens sometimes). You see, it’s not a simple matter of tugging the chariots along a specific path; more often, different groups try to pull the chariots in different directions. The groups concerned are factions of various localities of the historical city, and to add to the bedlam, many of them are high on strong local liquor. Certainly, saying that the Bisket Jatra is a lively festival would be somewhat of an understatement.
Celebrated for a week before, during, and after the Nepali New Year (April 14) in Bhaktapur, the festival’s origin is quite interesting. King Jagajyoti Malla (1613 to 1637) was much enamored by a legend about a cursed princess, which went like this: whoever married her died the day after the first night, and there was no consummation of the marriage, either. Several young men thus lost their lives, quite unfulfilled! Then, along came one more brave young man who was willing to take the risk of marrying the cursed princess. He, however, came with a definite plan. No matter what happened, he was determined to stay awake the whole night of the honeymoon. And so, on the fateful night, he witnessed a sight that scared the living daylights out of him. As the princess slept, a fearsome-looking serpent slithered out of one of her nostrils. Terrified as he was, the new groom did not hesitate, and with a single stroke of his sword, cut off the serpent’s head. This was the legend King Malla wished to be remembered through the Biket Jatra festival every year (originally known as Bisyau Jatra).
During the festival, two massive wooden chariots (raths) carrying the gods Bhairab and Bhadrakali, along with various other gods on palanquins, are taken in a procession through the different localities of the ancient city. Hundreds of young men pull on strong ropes to move the chariots. The chariots are rested at certain places, where the people of that locality come to pay their respects to the deities. Around the same time, two tall wooden poles (lingos) are installed in separate places around the city. On the day of the New Year, the bigger one is brought down, and the two raths are crashed against each other. The bringing down of the pole symbolizes the slaying of the serpent, while the clashing of the raths symbolizes successful consummation of the marriage.
All these activities of bringing down the pole and crashing the chariots against each other is when things turn really active, and the atmosphere becomes rowdy and boisterous. And, this is also when accidents can happen. The pulling and pushing of the massive chariots becomes somewhat like a tug of war between groups of hundreds, and the bringing down of the pole is also a very contentious affair, with different groups vying for the honor to do so.
A typical Bisket Jatra program goes like this:
Day 1: The two chariots (carrying Bhairab and Bhadrakali) start off from Taumadhi square
Day 2: Palanquins with statues of other gods and goddesses are taken in a procession
Day 3: Same as Day 2, that is, palanquin procession of different deities
Day 4: The day before New Year; pillars are erected in pottery square and Yosinkhel
Day 5: New Year; people have feasts in the morning. The pillar in Yosinkhel is brought down, while the two chariots are crashed against each other near Taumadhi square.
Day 6: Festivals in nearby Thimi and Bode; Balkumari Yatra and Sindure Jatra in the former and tongue-piercing ceremony in the latter.
Day 7: Worship at temples of the eight mother goddesses (Astamatrikas)
Day 8: Bringing down of wooden pole in pottery square.
Well, here’s wishing you a memorable outing during the Bisket Jatra, and hope you take good care of yourself. Safety first, is what we say!