The Chariot of God – Rato Matsyendranath Festival

Rato Matsyendranath Festival

by Utsav Shakya – Travel Times

It was a cold winter’s day in the Nepali month of Poush (November-December) when an inspection team from Kathmandu set off for Makwanpur in the southern belt of the country. The purpose of their visit was to search for, and choose, the perfect tree to cut down in order to make certain parts of the Rato Matsyendranath chariot. The festival of the same name would start in a few months’ time, marking a tradition that has been carried out in the ancient city of Patan year after year for decades. The team soon found a suitable tree but, for some reason, returned to Kathmandu without performing the customary ceremony of marking the tree by making a scar-mark on its trunk.

When the team, now accompanied by woodcutters, went back two months later in Falgun (January-February)to cut down the tree and bring back the wood, the tree could not be found. Dil Kumar Barahi who had not joined the inspection team earlier was confounded and asked members of the initial inspection team if all rites and rituals had been performed the first time around. The members unwillingly accepted their mistake. Following this, animals were sacrificed, a traditional ceremony was carried out, and another tree was chosen. Just as one woodcutter was about to strike the newly selected tree to cut it down, something made him look back. What he saw startled him – the tree that had been chosen earlier was staring right back at him!

There is no shortage of skeptics who might scoff at such stories, stories that all Nepali festivals are invariably tied to. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of Nepalis have a strong belief about such supernatural tales. Dil Kumar Barahi is a believer. He is a modest Newari man living in Patan’s Yanga Bahal near the famed Patan Durbar Square. He runs a furniture store that specializes in traditional wooden doors and windows, the kind that are seen on so many old houses in Patan and Bhaktapur. Dil Kumar, who started tinkering around on the Rato Matsyendranath chariot since he was twelve, is largely in charge of the historic Rato Matsyendranath festival.

Building the Chariot for God

Dil Kumar Barahi, now 51, comes from the Barahi clan, a group originally from Assam, India, who were specially brought in to Nepal for making the Rato Matsyendranath chariot. It is the responsibility of Dil Kumar and his fellow Barahis to see to it that age old traditions dating back more than thirteen centuries are followed as strictly as possible. But talk to Dil Kumar, and he makes it feel like his is like any other job in the world! Confirmation perhaps of how, fascinating and unique religious practices such as this one are such a natural part of everyday life for every Nepali. So much so that he never stops to think twice about its mysticism and splendor.

The Rato Matsyendranath festival is one of the oldest festivals celebrated in the country. However, the festival’s significance is not just in its longstanding legacy. For a country of strongly religious people, celebration of the festival according to exacting rites year after year holds immense religious and economic significance. The lion’s share of the enthusiasm for the festival though has to go to a chariot that basically looks like it was plucked right out of a Hindu mythological tale. Standing more than sixty feet tall in its journey through Lalitpur and across the river to Bungamati, the chariot commands attention everywhere it goes and deservedly so. For, the making of Rato Matsyendranath’s chariot is not like the making of just any other chariot.

For starters, there is a staggering checklist of rules passed down from generation to generation that must be followed. The people who make the chariot every year are chosen from two groups; the Barahi clan who only do the woodwork and the Yawal clan who only do rope work. Interestingly, the only metal used for support or structure on the chariot is for holding together the four huge wheels. The entire structure is made using only wood (of various kinds) and rope to tie up the different parts. A local governing body which looks after the community’s welfare (known as guthi) acts as a supervising body overseeing the entire process.

Different types of wood are used to build different parts of the chariot’s body. The noticeably tall structure above the image of Matsyendranath is made up of a species of wood known locally as falnat. The rather long protrusion of wood the entire chariot rests on, and which runs from back to front, known as dhama in Newari, is made up of a single piece of wood known locally as sau. The four wheels of the chariot are made out of wood known as san-nan and the brakes are made of wood known as maeel. The four small pillars that surround the image of Matsyendranath are made up of another type of wood called lakuri. All in all, more than five different kinds of wood are used to construct the chariot.

The word Bungdya is made up of two Newari words, bung and dya. Bung refers to a place called Bungamati and dya is the Newari word for God. Bungdya is more popularly known as Matsyendranath, hence the name of the festival. In the month of Mangsir, this image of the Bungdya, which rests inside the chariot, is brought from Bungamati to Patan’s Tabahal where it is kept inside the Matsyendra Bahal temple. After this event, estimates of the wood required and other expenses are presented to the guthi. In Falgun, on approval of the guthj, the wood is brought in from the Terai. The work on the chariot takes place phase wise. About half of the wooden structure is readied in about three days by the Barahi group and then, on the fourth day, passed on to the Yawals for the rope-work. A type of rope called baet is used to tie up the wooden parts that constitute the chariot’s main body. Certain clever tricks to strengthen the chariot tend to amuse and amaze. The baet that comes in two qualities, Chiruwa-baet and Maha-baet, is first made wet with water to shrink it considerably before using it tie up the wood. As the rope dries up naturally, it expands and automatically allows for the knots to get tighter and stronger. Another type of rope called manila rope is used to pull the chariot on its journey through Lalitpur. This rope is brought in especially from India.

Before adding levels to the chariot, the huge wooden wheels are fitted. The construction of the wheels starts on the auspicious day of Shree Panchami. After this, the secondary part of the chariot is constructed by the Barahis and again passed on to the Yawals for the rope-work. All in all, the chariot has to be completed within fifteen days. The woodwork has to be completed before the Snaan Jatra when the image of Matsyendranath is bathed. Almost all of the work that goes into making the chariot is easy for anyone interested enough to watch, since it is done in the wide open, besides the main road leading from Pulchowk to Jawalakhel.

A time-tested truth that these workers believe in, is that without the numerous ceremonies and sacrifices – the latter of which is now frequently frowned upon by many – the construction of the chariot is just not possible. The final wooden structure of the chariot is huge and its only support is the relatively very thin baet rope. The structure is put to test throughout the festival with people climbing on it and pulling it from all sides on its journey through the very frequently pot-holed roads of the old city. For the chariot to endure all this is considered to be nothing short of a miracle. When proper rites and rituals are not followed, strangely, work just does not seem to get completed on time and many times the chariot is even known to topple over. To pacify the spirits perhaps – some maybe even their own – more than twelve different pooja ceremonies are performed during the construction of the chariot by priests who are collectively known as Panejus. The Panejus consist of men from the Shakya and Bajracharya communities. The small doors and windows made up of gold along with the dhama are fixed on the same day, but before the image of the Bungdya or Matsyendranath is kept inside the chariot’s small temple. All finishing touches are completed on the same day as well.

There are plenty of interesting tidbits related to the construction of the chariot. Members of the inspection team that choose, mark and cut the tree to make the chariot, confide that when the tree is marked by making a wound on its trunk, the trunk bleeds a red substance that looks exactly like blood. This substance is often brought back by the priests and used as an ointment for flesh wounds by solidifying it and then grinding it into a paste with home made liquor.

Besides the tying style of the rope – now improved for strength and elasticity – little has changed in the shape and size of the chariot itself. A formal schematic drawing of the chariot was made by an overseer much later. Before such documents were available, a system of measurement common in Nepal was used, called the haat. Haat simply means the length of a normal adult person’s hand. The section of the chariot above the small temple equals thirty-two haats. Twice the circumference of each wheel equals thirty-two haats as well. The entire length of the dhama is also thirty-two haat. The reason for the number thirty-two is that Rato Matsyendranath is said to possess batttis lachchhan or thirty-two good qualities. Another reason is that thirty-two priests, besides Matsyendranath, take part in the major ceremonies of the festival.

The chariot is said to weigh more than ten tons. Thirty-six sheep are sacrificed during the construction of the wheels alone – many more being sacrificed before and after every phase of construction – making this perhaps the bloodiest festival in the country. The cost of construction amounts to more than NRs. 1.5 million even when only some parts of the chariot, that have been damaged from use the year before, are made. Every twelve years, an entirely new chariot is built, costs for which reach more than NRs. 3 million. That year, the customary Bhoto Jatra, where an ancient Bhoto is displayed from the temple atop the chariot, is performed twice, once in Jawalakhel and once in Bungamati.

The story of how the Barahi people were brought into Nepal is also quite amusing. Originally from Kamarukamachhey, now Assam in India, the Barahis were a vegetarian people in their hometown, (although since then things on the vegetarian front have not remained the same!) These workers would come to Nepal to build the chariot every year and return to Assam after work was finished. But soon some of them got married and refused to come back and work on the chariot, as was tradition. So, the next time some of them were in Nepal, the priests cleverly fed them meat without their knowing, branding them as non-vegetarians. Since they could not go back home now, these Barahi men stayed back in Nepal for good and started to raise families here. Today they are just one of the many Newar people who live harmoniously in Patan.

The Story of Karunamaya and the Journey of the Chariot

As one of the oldest festivals celebrated in the country, the Rato Matsyendranath festival brings together people from all factions of society. Rato Matsyendranath’s story is one that reads like a fairytale. There are many variations to the story, every one of which makes it all the more colorful further validating the popularity of the festival amongst the Nepali people.

One of the more popular stories relating to the prosperity of the people in Kathmandu valley, which was a separate country many, many years ago, goes like this. A long time ago, people of the valley were in great distress due to a drought that had crippled their cultivation and was thus wreaking havoc in everyone’s lives. The reason for the drought is said to have been Gorakhnath, a disciple of Matsyendranath, who started to pray for his master by sitting on the heads of all the snakes in the valley. Snakes are closely connected with rainfall in Nepali folklore.

Karunamaya, which is another name for Rato Matsyendranath was a deity born into a house of demons. Karunamaya is also said to be the god of nourishment. So, when this famine became unbearable, the king of Bhaktapur, Narendra Dev, Bandhu Dutta Acharya, a shaman from Kathmandu and Ratan Chakra, a Jyapu man from Patan, set out to get help from Karunamaya. Now the demons would not let the group of three take Karunamaya away so easily so the shaman used his shamanic powers to get Karunamaya’s mother sick. When the three reached the house of demons, in modern day Bungamati, the shaman innocently pretended to cure Karunamaya’s mother, thus pleasing the demons. But this ploy proved useless in persuading the demons to agree to part with Karunamaya. So the shaman used his powers again to lure Karunamaya away from the demons’ house.

Finally, Karunamaya reached Kathmandu and necessary ceremonies were performed. The snakes, on whose heads Gorakhnath sat praying, were freed too and soon there was rain and the valley saw bountiful harvests. But as is the nature of humans, the three who had brought Karunamaya to Kathmandu now started to argue over where Karunamaya should be kept. Nepali folklore mentions that after having salt from a person, the one who tastes the salt, has to agree to the one who fed him the salt. The Jyapu man from Patan, Ratan Chakra, is said to have cunningly mixed in a little salt in Karunamaya’s curd, effectively settling the dispute. This is how Karunamaya or Rato Matsyendranath came to rest in Patan’s Tabahal. The temple where Karunamaya is kept before the festival is called Matsyendra Bahal, on the left when one walks from Lagankhel towards Patan Durbar Square.

Fully made Chariot

There is also a bit of mythology behind why Matsyendranath is red in color. When the aforementioned group of three – Narendra Dev, Bandhu Dutta Acharya and Ratan Chakra were trying to lure Karunamaya, her mother, wary of the shaman’s powers, prudently spread her long hair before the house’s entrance. In trying to avoid walking over the hair, Karunamaya mistakenly stepped over a single strand of hair. Since walking over any senior person’s body is deemed very disrespectful and a sin, the image of Karunamaya seems to be bleeding all over in red to signify blood. The meaning of ‘Rato’, which means red in Nepali, as a prefix before Matsyendranath, comes from here. A part of the body of Matsyendranath is also said to have been damaged because of the same reason.

Now, every year, the image of Karunamaya makes its way from Bungamati to Patan’s Matsyendra Bahal from where it is taken around Lalitpur or Patan on various days. Karunamaya’s mother is said to have forgiven the people of Kathmandu for taking Karunamaya away from her. But to meet her child every year, Karunamaya’s mother is said to come and rest under the huge tree at the centre of the busy Lagankhel. So the chariot is taken around this tree in its journey around Patan, allowing Karunamaya’s mother to see her child once every year.

The journey is also for the Bhoto Jatra festival that takes place at the end of the Rato Matsyendranath festival. Bhoto Jatra, formerly witnessed by the living goddess, Kumari, and Nepal’s royal family, now has the President as the chief guest. But more importantly, the journey is to bless the country and its people with what Rato Matsyendranath represents – nourishment and prosperity.

A Glorious Past, a Troubled Present

The role of the guthi is vital in the construction of the chariot and the celebration of the festival. The guthi is also the keeper of the valuables that are used in the festival such as the ornaments and the gold parts of the temple atop the chariot. Senior members of the guthi also take part in many of the pooja ceremonies. They are also members of the inspection team that choose the wood and bring back to Kathmandu.

Located in the premises of the Matsyendranath Bahal, in front of the temple where the Karunamaya is kept before the festival, the guthi building is a strong testament to the faith Nepali people invest in such institutions by trusting them with – what the Rato Matsyendranath and other such festivals represent for many Nepali people – their identity. But the guthi is only a supervisory group and every year a lot of the costs have to be raised by the Barahis themselves. Before, the guthi had its own land that produced crops, (mainly rice) which was distributed to its members. This practice has ceased to exist, and with little incentive, makes it hard for people to dedicate themselves to the festival’s preparations.

Dil Kumar Barahi discloses how UNESCO was once interested in sponsoring the entire festival. Besides the financial ease this would obviously have brought about, UNESCO was also interested in holding numerous training programs to help pass on the skills of building the chariot to young people. But, like many good ideas in Nepal, this one too fell through when policy level officials muffled this idea for good. With young minds bent towards the corporate world to support their livelihoods, each passing year the festival faces new challenges of finances and workers. Dil Kumar’s own son, who used to work on the chariot, now works a ten-to-five job and has very little time to help the family out with the festival preparations. Dil Kumar’s elder brother, who led the Barahi’s work before him, resigned from his duties and passed on the torch to him.

But the Nepali people are an extremely spirited people. Religion holds a sacred and dear place in their lives, right from birth to death. Unwavering faith in a higher power is more of a reassurance to a devoted populace which believes that doing good earns them good karma and refrains them from any wrongdoings. As long as this belief continues to be rooted firmly in the Nepali mindset, there is absolutely no way that celebration of the Rato Matsyendranath festival will ever stop.

( This article was published in the May 2009 issue of TravelTimes. It  has  been reproduced with the kind permission of  TravelTimes)


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