Preparations are well underway this month for the longest festival of Lalitpur, that is, Rato Matsyendranath Jatra. It begins on the first full moon of Baisakh (April/May). History has recorded several calamitous events associated with this important festival. But, before going into that, here are some interesting facts about the festival
As with many other festivals in the Kathmandu valley, the chariot is the focal point of the event. It’s a mammoth structure, standing about 48 feet tall; including a spire that’s around 10 feet high. Much effort, and a great deal of expertise and ritual, goes into its making. The wood for making the wheels comes from carefully selected trees of the forests of Chitwan. The massive wheels may weigh up to two tons each. The construction of the chariot begins from the wheels and the axel, with the axel being the only structure where metal is used. Otherwise, it’s an all-wood affair. Next, the platform base (ashi) is built, followed by the four pillars. Then, the much bigger platform and the tower are constructed.
Down the ages, it is only three clans that are given the responsibility of constructing this huge chariot, the Barahis, the Yawals, and the Chitrakars. While the Barahis do all the work concerning the edifice, the Yawals do all the work involving ropes, and it’s a vital undertaking, because all the different parts of the wooden chariot are bound tightly with ropes made from bamboo. Any carelessness can result in disaster, considering its size. The Chitrakars, on their part, are responsible for all the paint jobs.
It is on this chariot that Lord Matsyendranath, also known as Bunga Dyo in Newari, is paraded around the various streets and alleys of Patan city for a month. His idol is brought from his birthplace of Bungamati, a small town some eight kilometers from Kathmandu, where he resides in a temple for six months of the year. A few weeks before the festival is to begin, the simply carved sandalwood idol is taken from its temple and taken to Lagankhel, where it is bathed in holy water, Lagankhel being where he is believed to have rested on his journey from Assam to Patan. This is followed by 10 elaborate rituals, which also includes fresh repainting of the idol’s face, which is done by artists of the Chitrakar clan, who also paint the eyes on the wheels of the chariot.
The story of Lord Matsyendranath is quite interesting. It goes like this: the revered sage, Goraknath, once had come to Kathmandu Valley on a visit, where he became so furious at the disrespect he was shown by the valley dwellers, that he decided that he would subject the valley to severe drought. Thus, with this in mind, he sat down on the heads of the nine snake gods responsible for bringing down rain, and then went into a state of deep meditation. Soon, the desperate valley dwellers were begging him to come out of his trance and to stand up, so as to free the snake gods. However, the angry sage remained unmoved, and continued to sit on their heads, all the while meditating deeply. Drought continued to plague the valley for a long time.
Then, some clever Newar fellows devised a plan to end his meditation and make him stand up. They traveled all the way to Assam in India, where Gorakhnath’s guru Matsyendranath lived, and pleaded with him to accompany them back to Kathmandu. He agreed and came to the valley with them, and was taken to the site where his disciple sat in a trance. On knowing about the presence of his guru before him, Gorakhnath promptly stood up respectfully, and in doing so, freed the captive snake gods, who did what they were supposed to do, that is, bring down pouring rain on the parched valley. So grateful were the people that they decided to hold a festival in Matsyendranath’s honor every year.
Now, coming to the above-mentioned ‘disastrous events’ linked to the festival, the first one recorded was way back in 1680, when people observed that Lord Matsyendranath’s face had lost some of its paint, and this was considered to be an extremely bad omen. That night, King Nripendra Malla, then the ruler of Patan, died in his bed, and he was seen to be quite fit and healthy just the day before. Similarly, in 1817, it was again observed that the idol had again lost some paint off its face. That very same day, a massive earthquake struck the valley, causing death and destruction everywhere.
At another time, King Viswajit Malla, another king of the valley, had a bad dream, one in which he saw Rato Matsyendranath turning his back on him. It was a dream that troubled him greatly, since it, too, foretold that something terrible would be occurring soon. Sure enough, the king became a victim of murder on the night following the dream. Similarly, in another period of history, one king himself took part in pulling the chariot through the streets of Patan. It was not a favorable undertaking; the axel broke a total of 31 times during the procession. This, too, was a sign of bad things to come. The said king died soon enough.
In 2000, as the massive chariot was making its way down a narrow street of Patan, its tall spire fell down amongst the crowd below. Everyone was horrified, and wondered what unfortunate event was to befall the country. Well, they didn’t have to wait long. Soon after, there occurred one of the most horrifying events in the country’s history—the massacre of the entire royal family inside Narayanhiti Palace. Is it any wonder, then, that people pray fervently that nothing unforeseen happens during the month long festival of Rato Matsyendranath?