On Shrawan Shukla Chaturdashi of the lunar calendar, a unique festival is celebrated by the Newar community. The festival has many names, but in the common tongue is known as Ghantakarna, but various Newar settlements call it with a different name. In the city of Bhaktapur, it is called Gatha Muga, whereas in Kathmandu and Lalitpur it's called Gathe-Mangal.
Each name aspired from a different legend which shared closer bonds with certain religions. The commonly used name of Ghantakarna refers to an ancient South Asian Raksasa (demon) who according to Mary Anderson, “Was so corrupt that he vilified the gods themselves, defiled and destroyed homes and fields, roaming the land, stealing children, maiming the weak, killing and devouring his captives. His depraved sexual orgies and unspeakable excesses with his countless wives horrified the pious people”(1971,72). Locally Ghanta refers to bells whereas Karna is ears thus during the festival effigies of the demon Ghantakarna are made out of bundles of straws from the old harvest and large ears are named from either leaves or local sieves( nanglo’s).
In Bhaktapur however, the festival is known from a completely different name and has a different legend associated with it. “Gatha Muga: was a man who believed in karma, and not in the power of gods. He loved the poor people and sat at the crossroads where he took money from the rich to give to the poor. If the rich people refused to give money to him for this purpose, he would kill them. He also lived without concern about pollution. As he lay dying he hung bells on his ears, so as not to hear the gods’ names called out. After his death, as he was not associated with any religion, no one was willing to cremate him, and his body was left at a crossroad. But then people joined together to donate money for his cremation, and they called a low caste man to perform it. Many people followed this procession because he had always protected the ordinary people.” Levy,1990, p.520
Personally photographing this festival, I have to say the most elaborate festivities are done in Bhaktapur. Where the effigies of Gatha Muga at times tower higher than eight feet, with great attention to detail. Each neighborhood constructs own representation and at times, it’s like a competition for the size, complexity, and elegance. Primarily made of bundles of straws it is masked and painted with fangs. Some go even further to dress the effigies, but none miss placing bells on the ears and placing a phallus, and two circular fruits representing testicles. Many historians and scholars have stated how the festivities and its representations were used to make the people aware of sex education. Such can be seen in the tudals (struts) as well, as during that era there was no form of formal education and due to the conservative nature, parents normally didn’t pass the knowledge to their children. Thus festivals were used as a medium to make the younger generation aware of the elements of reproduction.
In the cities of Kathmandu and Lalitpur, the common legend which even I grew up associating with the festival is of how the farmers during the season of the plantation, took help from the evil spirits and demons to plant their fields. A task which took farmer days was completed by the demons in a matter of hours. The demons needed a lot of food and the farmers realized that they would not be able them throughout the year. Demons began becoming hungry and wreaked havoc, destroying houses, stealing children and destroying farms. Thus, the farmers had enough and collectively chased the ghosts down to the river and they were never seen again. During this day, I remember huge iron nails being hammered down in the main door of our old house. The years and years of nails accumulated had now become a huge hump. Thus, to symbolize the day it is believed that Gathe Mangal is celebrated.
The legends surrounding the festival of Ghatakarna might differ in various settlements but the end of these brightly painted is the same in all. It is known as Bha Kayegu which refers to processions accompanied by shouting victorious phrases. As the sun sets, these effigies are dragged, beaten and taken to the nearest river to have them burnt. Procession goers wash their faces and eyes in the river for purification and bundles of straws are burnt in the crossroads to purify it of evil spirits and demons. In some neighborhoods, a communal feast is prepared to celebrate the day.