Print Edition - 2014-05-24  |  On Saturday

Banepali Jatra

- Peter Gill, Kathmandu
Banepali Jatra

May 23, 2014-

Photos: Gautam Shakya

Text: Peter Gill

Near midnight, a boisterous crowd of several hundred people—mostly young men, many of them more than a little tipsy—gather around a brick home in Banepa’s old bazaar. After a few minutes of restless anticipation, a great cheer goes up. A middle-aged man has appeared at an upper-story window, a basket in his hands. The basket contains the eyeballs, ears, and other facial bits of 12 sacrificial goats, which the man proceeds to throw by the handful into the expectant crowd. Young men jump and dive and push and shove and shout, and the few women in the crowd also try their best to grab hold of the meat, because eating some is said to bring prosperity for the coming year. After about a minute, the meat is gone and people recollect themselves, finding friends and family and chappals lost in commotion.  The crowd thins, but does not clear out for some time to come, as people continue to chat and gossip into the night. This is the Kalandan, part of the Chandeshwori Jatra that takes place here every year.

During the Jatra, the goddess Chandeshwori is paraded around town on a giant rath (palanquin) so heavy that over 70 young men are required to carry it—sort of a cross between religion and extreme-sports. The palanquin itself is much heavier than the idol, which seems impractical but perhaps this is precisely the point—if five or six people could carry her around on their own, what fun would that be?  The town more or less shuts down for two days as the rath makes its journey around the bazaar, and families reunite for bhoj and to make offerings to the goddess when the rath stops in their neighbourhood. This is all to celebrate the goddess’s victory over a demon, Chandasur, who terrorised local residents until he was beheaded by Chandeshwori.

My mother was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Banepa from 1966-68, and she recently shared with me a letter she had written home to my grandparents, describing the Jatra in 1966. What struck me about it was that while the town seems to have changed much (back then it was small and more or less purely Newar, the Araniko Highway was brand new, and Scheer Memorial Hospital had just one doctor), the Jatra she describes is very familiar: “It takes about 75 people and lots of liquor, or roxi, to get [the rath] to budge...all this in a great crush of people, peddlers selling sweets, groups singing, etc...People make all sorts of colored breads, sweets and meats and throw these along with rice at the goddess...” I asked one of my mother’s former students, Tika Bhochhibhoya, if the festival had changed much since he was a kid. He said that people had become more lax in their ritual observances; for example, whereas before the rath carriers walked barefoot, now most wear shoes (some even wear leather ones). But despite changes, the spirit of the festival seems very much alive, especially among the youth, who are very proud of their cultural heritage. In contrast to the West, where religion seeks to engage young people through somewhat-cheesy attempts like ‘Christian rock,’ Newars seem to know how to make religion truly fun.

An old Banepali family friend, Gautam Shakya, is a shopkeeper by day and a gifted amateur photographer nearly all the rest of his waking hours. During the Jatra, he followed the procession around town with his camera, and some of his shots are shown here. The photos convey some of the richness and beauty of his culture, giving a window onto the heart of the town, beyond the dusty highway strip that most travelers who pass through know as ‘Banepa.’

The Jatra begins early in the morning with Mata Puja, the carrying of lamps to the Jaleshwor Mahadev shrine near a stream above the Chandeswori temple, located a kilometre outside of town.

Circumambulating the Chandeshwori temple during Mata Puja.  The temple’s Bhairab mural is said to be the largest in Nepal.

  The team lifts the rath and begins to carry it forward.

The rath begins its journey from the bazaar to the temple in order to collect the goddess.

The goddess is given a grand welcome upon reaching the edge of town

After the welcome ceremony, the rath enters town

Musicians accompany the procession

The Kalandan, when a large crowd vies for goat meat thrown from an upper story window, said to bring good luck to those who eat it

 

Published: 24-05-2014 08:58

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