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Rato Matsyendranath Festival in Nepal

As you look up at the pinnacle you can't help but marvel at the feat of architecture that is achieved every single year. You can't help but fathom and hold a breath when the revellers put all their hearts and strength to pulling the chariot to the words of, "Haste Haiste."

The annual chariot festival of Rato Matsyendranath in Nepal, dubbed the longest chariot festival is the biggest chariot festival for the people of Lalitpur. The deity known by various names in various regions and religious doctrines, Bunga Dyo(God of Bungamati), Matsyendranath(In Hinduism), Aryavalokiteswara Padmapani(In Buddhism) and Karunamaya(In Newar Pantheon) is celebrated as the god of rain, protector of the city and lord of prosperity.

The origins of the chariot festival is entangled with a great tale of devotion, endevoured to relieve the kingdom of a drought that had stricken the city for twelve years. One of the best documented legends, the tale of bringing Karunamaya to the valley kingdom of Nepal dates back to the Lichhavi Era. During when, a drought which had caused great chaos and misfortune caused by the disciple of Karunamaya, Goraknath who had been meditating atop the naags(Snakes) to achieve great blessings from Karunamaya.

King Baradeva, son of Narendradeva struggled to relieve his kingdom. With every measure taken and none yielding the gift of rain. The King then left his court in secret, disguised as a commoner to listen to his people. He eavesdropped upon the elders to know his people’s pain and if the elders had a way out of this. One night, the King went to Triratna Bihar where an Acharya named Bandhudatta lived. The King eavesdropped upon the conversation he was having with his wife. The wife asked, "Acharya, what is causing this great drought? Is there no remedy?" to which the Acharya replied, "The only one who is able to put a stop to this is Aryavalokiteswara, who resides in the Kapotal mountain; and he can be brought only by the prayers of the ruler of the country. Now the Raja is young and foolish, and the old man his father, Narendra-Deva is living in a lonely Bihar because he and his son do not agree."

"There was still hope, not all was lost." The King went back to his palace, and the next morning he went to visit his father at Ak-Bahal in Bhatgaon. King Bar-Deva must have hesitated for some time, for he was to meet his father who left the riches of the Kingdom for a life of meditation and harmony. He sat with him and told everything he had heard at Triratna Bihar. "We must act now. I may be a King by the crown but you are my father. This is your Kingdom, if not for me then for the people you must."

The Acharya was summoned to the palace. He was asked to relieve the distress upon the Kingdom for which the Acharya promised he do everything in his power. But, he would not be successful without his Yajamana(King) for which Narendra-Deva left with the Acharya. The Acharya instructed King Bara-Deva to take a large supply of offerings and halt at a spot south of Patan where they will find a Dolana Tree. Here they were to perform great ceremonies and offerings, starting with one thousand and then up to ten million.

As the Acharya foresaw the journey ahead, only one element remained, for which he performed a purascharana (prayer) reciting the mantra one crore times. The winds must have howled and the sun beamed away from trees as Jogambara-Gyana-Dakini appeared. The goddess pleased promised to offer her assistance. The Acharya then ascended the hillock upon which Gorakh-Natha was in devout meditation and was performing Nag-sadhana (bringing the Nags under his control). He freed Karkotak Nag from his grasp. And thus they began the journey to bring home the Aryavalokiteswara- Matsyendranatha, in the native dialect called Karunamaya - the Lord of Compassion.

Encountering many frights placed along the way - bad terrain and high rivers - the Acharya took assistance from Karkotak Nag riding on its back to overcome the mighty rivers. When they reached Kapotal mountains the Acharya performed purascharana to invoke Aryavalokiteswara. They then came to know that Aryavalokiteswara resided in the home of a Yakshini (Demon Queen) who was known as Gyana-Dakini. The Acharya recited mantras to summon Aryavalokiteswara, but just as he was about to go to Bandhudatta, his mother prevented him. Aryavalokiteswara thus transformed himself into a large black bee and entered into the kalas. As the party was about to leave, Gyana-Dakini, with numerous gods, yakshas, and devils, attacked Bandhudatta who called upon the gods of Nepal for assistance. The Queen thus gave into the gods of Nepal and let the party leave for the valley of Nepal.

The kalas, in which Aryavalokiteswara resided, was carried by four Bhairava, Hayagriva, Harisiddhi, Lutabaha, and Tyanga. They entered the valley through Kotwal Dwar where the valley had been drained by Boddhistva Manjusri, whereupon the back of Karkotak Nag they crossed the grear river. Thereafter plentiful rain fell in Nepal, as they moved towards the valley center. At a certain spot Harisiddhi Bhairava in the shape of a dog barked and said, "Bu"" which the Acharya explained to the King to mean "Birth-Place." Thus in consultation with the King they built the city of Amarapur (Bungamati) where he placed the kalas in a temple. They assigned priests and plentiful land for the maintenance of the city and the temple.

They then made their journey to Lalitpattan (Lalitpur) when they decided to institute a rath-jatra with an image of the god. The image created from the earth from Hmayapido mound (across Balaju) is believed to be the chaitya of Swayambhu that was built from the same mound. After this they took the image to Amarapur (Bungamati) to worship it and then the spirit of the god was transferred to the image.

Bandhudatta Acharya then established all the rites of worship. He stated that the image of was to be brought from Amarapur (Bungamati) and to be placed facing the northern hemisphere and kept in Tirtha Bihar (Te Bahal) The image was to be bathed on the 1st of Chait Badi and be kept in the sun on the 8th. On the 12th and 13th the das-karma was to be performed. On 1st of Baisakh, Sudi was to be placed on a rath and taken around the city of Lalitpattan (Laitpur) and later be taken back to Amarapur (Bungamati).

Thus began the festival of Karunamaya. Today known as Rato Matsyendranath, the festival is still conducted still upon the very set of instructions issued by Bandhudatta Acharya. The rath (chariot) is a marvel of architecture symbolizing the elements of how Aryavalokiteswara was brought into the valley of Nepal. The four wheels represent the four Bhairavas that carried the kalas from Kotpal (the mountains near Kotwal Dwar) to the valley. The Gyo Si, or Dhoma (longinsh piece of wood protruding outward) represents Karkotak Nag, upon the back of which all obstacles are overcome. On the forehead of Karkotak Nag is a bronze face of Hawo Grawo Bhairava who is believed to ward away all obstacles during the chariot festival. The image of Karunamaya is placed at the center of the chariot atop which is a log of sal (pine) held by traditional rope with a wooden joint core. It is said to symbolize the Shikhara temple of Karunamaya at Bungamati. The pinnacle is topped by a Ba: Mwo (circular base created with traditional rope) atop of which the Swayambhu yantra is placed.

Worshipped as the Lord of compassion and rain, the chariot festival of Karunamaya begins from Baisakh Chaturthi and is dubbed the longest chariot festival in Nepal. Devotees flock in numbers to worship and take part in the chariot festival from all over Nepal. The festival ends with the ceremonial display of a Bhoto and the image of Karunamaya is placed in a palanquin and taken to Bungamati. This is where Karunamaya resides for the next six months after which the image is brought to Patan and placed in Te Bahal.

The love and compassion shown by Karunamaya through the protection of the valley and provision of plentiful rain for the harvests is returned by the people of the valley through devout worship and prayer. It is not just a festival for the gods but also a medium of communal gathering and celebration which has helped built strong communal bonds between communities of Patan. In turns they pull the chariot of Karunamaya through the passages of the city of Patan, celebrating the coming of the Lord and rejoicing in the grace of Aryavalokiteswara Karunamaya Padmapani.