One of the most thrilling and revered celebrations of the Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley is the eight-day long Indra Jatra festival, which takes place in September. This also heralds the start of the month-long autumn festival season. A wooden pole constructed of pine is first built at Basantapur Square in front of the former Hanuman Dhoka Palace.Hundreds of onlookers assemble in the Palace Square and on the nearby temples for the pole-raising event.Through Kathmandu’s main streets, the chariot of Kumari, the Living Goddess, is paraded.Nearly every evening, masked dancers known as Lakhay perform in the streets to the accompaniment of loud drums.The celebration honors the day when Indra descended from heaven in human form to search for a herb.
During Indra Jatra, oil wicks are used to illuminate the shrines and historic palace structures near Kathmandu Durbar Square. On the platform in front of the Living Goddess temple, a performance symbolizing Lord Vishnu’s ten terrestrial incarnations is performed every night. At Indra Chowk, the enormous representation of Akash Bhairab’s head is placed on public display in front of his temple. Ecstatic crowds congregate near Hanuman Dhoka Palace in the afternoon of the day before the full moon to see the long-awaited Living Goddess’ chariot procession and catch a glimpse of the revered young Newar girl who has been deified as Kumari, or Goddess Taleju, in person. People congregate in the tiny alleyways of the old Kathmandu to witness and pay reverence as the chariot of the Kumari is pulled by two other, smaller chariots pulling a representative of Ganesh and Bhairav. The lowering of the (lingam) pole holding Indra’s flag during religious rituals marks the conclusion of the Indra Jatra celebration.
Tracing the history of the festival
The origin stories of Indra Jatra, the largest celebration in the Valley, are as varied as the civilizations that make up that region. There are several widely acknowledged theories about how Indra Jatra came to be, each with its own significance and logical underpinnings. But the most typical and widely believed narrative is that Lord Indra personally visited Nepal Mandala (the old name of Kathmandu Valley). Indra is thought to have traveled in quest of parijat, a flower that his mother Vasundhara required in order to perform a puja. He was caught collecting flowers from a garden in Maru tole while assuming human shape, which prompted the locals to arrest him and parade him in the middle of the town while he was chained.
This particular story is acted out during the entire festival. Later, Indra was saved by his mother, who assured the locals that, in exchange for Indra, their farms would receive enough dew in the upcoming winters. Even throughout the Vedic era, Indra Jatra was present. The Natyashastra, a Sanskrit scripture written between 200 BCE and 200 CE, also mentions the celebration of Indra Jatra and the raising of Ya Sin, a pole that is raised on Bhadra Shukla Dwadashi to signal the start of the festival. The tradition of Lakhey and Pulu Kishi Pyakhan (dancing) at the Jatra was also said to have begun during the reign of Gunakama Deva in the 10th century, when Indra Jatra is thought to have first been celebrated. Gunakamadeva, according to Subarna Shakya, also constructed 12 statues of Bhairav, with the Akash Bhairav in the center, which helped to demarcate Kathmandu’s territory at the time and start the custom of Bhairav worship during Indra Jatra.
The importance of the festival
Alok Siddhi Tuladhar, a heritage conservation activist, contends that while many scholars and priests generally accept the religious tales of Indra’s arrival in Nepal Mandala, which led to the celebration of Indra Jatra, the festival actually has a deeper meaning attached to the culture and traditions of Newa society—worshiping nature and ancestors. Bhaktapur also celebrates Indra Jatra for eight days, however it is not as well-known as Kathmandu’s jatra. It has its own special customs and practices, some of which include the idea of keeping a bukhyacha, or scarecrow, in various locations. Since scarecrows have been used in fields since ancient times, the use of scarecrow figurines lends credence to the theory that Newa society, which was originally agrarian, celebrated the festival to mark the change of season and emphasize the significance and value of fertile land.
Following the rise of Hinduism in the nation, Indra became associated with the celebration. Gautama Vajracharya, a Sanskritist, art historian, and scholar, concurs with the theory that Indra Jatra has been celebrated since before the advent of Hinduism and describes it as a festival that originated to honor nature and ancestors. However, the festival also has a strong connection to the culture of worshipping nature. Before coming into contact with Sanskrit-speaking people and their literature, the Newars had no concept of deity. According to Vajracharya in Nepalese Seasons: Rain and Rituals, “They regarded their ancestors as magical creatures, therefore they united the name Indra with aju, ancestor/grandfather, to make Indra aju, grandfather Indra,” explaining why Newa people refer to Indra as Indra aju.
How do we observe Indra Jatra?
The event opens with the construction of The Linga (Yasingh), a ceremonial pole, in the style of a carnival, and is followed by a unique presentation of the deity Akash Bhairab, who is symbolized by a huge mask spewing Jaad and raksi (Nepali local liquors). At this time of year, households all around Kathmandu (particularly Newar households) display sculptures and statues of Indra and Bhairab. The Linga (Yasingh), a timber pole measuring 36 feet long, was carefully selected from the Nala forest in the Kavre district, east of Kathmandu. Tradition has it that Lord Vishnu had given this flag to Indra as protection. On order to express gratitude to Indra, the rain deity, the Kumari (living goddess) finally departs from the solitude of her temple in a palanquin and leads a parade through the streets of Kathmandu. The parade of chariots and masked dancers portraying gods and devils is the festival’s principal draw. Yanya is the Newari name for Indra. Hanuman Dhoka’s Bahirab statue, which is amazing to look at, is dripping with jaad (local Nepalese liquor).
In the procession are:
Majipa Lakhey, Pulukishi, Sawan Bhaku, Ganesh (chariot), Kumar (chariot), and Kumari(Chariot)
In addition to these, the city’s open stages host a variety of dances known as dabu. As well as other local deities, Swet Bhairava is on display.