Rato Machhindranath is worshipped as the God of Rain. The deity is believed to have been brought to Kathmandu from Kamaru Kamakhya, India. And the chariot of this deity is pulled with much interest and enthusiasm during the chariot festival that is participated by large numbers of youngsters.
The chariot is a special one. It is a tower-like structure with a balcony, and has four huge colourful wheels. It is attractive and unique. There is a small room in the balcony, and the red statue (in the shape of a human) with beautiful artwork is put in the middle of that room. Skilful artists join hands to make the idol and the chariot. Having learned the skills from their ancestors these artisans, despite working in different fields (other than art), manage time to make the longest-running chariot festival a grand success.
This year the chariot festival started on April 30 and the Bhoto Jatra is scheduled to take place on May 25 if everything goes well, as per the Baikuntha Acharya, Chief of Guthi Sansthan Branch Office Patan.
Before the chariot is pulled, a lot of work has to be done, and different people are involved in the process. The artisans, who are behind the making of the idol and chariot, have learnt the skills — painting of the idol, arranging wooden planks and tying them with strips of cane and locking the knots — from their fathers and forefathers.
Narayan Neku, 88, who once used to paint the idol of Machhindranath, learnt the skills from his forefathers. He taught the technique to his sons Amir and Gambhir Neku. And this year, the Neku brothers have painted the idol.
“We have grown up watching him (our father) paint the idol from our childhood days. After my bratabandha (triple cord wearing ceremony) was performed when I was 15, I started painting the idol along with my father,” shared Amir, now 54 years old. Amir runs a cooperative.
Like the Neku brothers, 37-year-old Rajendra Maharjan, the Naike (head) of Yewals (the artisans who work with cane for the chariot) too learnt the cane-related skills from his father, Ram Maharjan.
Rajendra, who teaches music and runs his own business, shared, “I grew up watching my father working with canes and learnt the skills from him. Our uncles too knew the skills as the entire family used to take part in the making of the chariot. It was quite obvious for us to learn as many of our family members were involved in it.”
Painting the idol
The idol of Rato Machhindranath is red in colour with the human facial features. And the idol is painted every year, after erasing the artwork of the previous year.
“The art that was made in the previous year should be erased first. It is erased using gokul dhup (a kind of incense). Then mud is smeared on the idol so as to give it a new form. The mud is brought from Myhepi on an auspicious day. After that the eyes, nose and mouth are created,” informed Amir.
“The idol is then painted with simrik (a shade of red). White colour as well as kaajal are used for the eyes. The kaajal, made at home by burning cotton wicks, is used to create the black eyes. Meanwhile, red and white colours can be bought in the market,” Aamir informed about the ingredients required for the facial make-up.
Next, the body is painted. “The idol needs painting every year as it is often damaged when the chariot is pulled,” explained Amir.
The colours are then left to dry after the idol is painted. It takes around five to seven days to finish the work.
The idol is painted twice a year — when bringing it from Bungmati to Patan, and while celebrating the festival in Patan. The idol remains at Bungmati for six months and at Patan for another six months. The painters paint the statue inside the Machhindranath temple in Machhindrabahal, Patan.
However, if idol is damaged any time during the festival, it is repaired and painted immediately, as per the need. Once, one of the eyes of the idol came off during the chariot festival, and Narayan painted the eye sitting inside the chariot.
It was necessary to repair the damage immediately as people noticed it in no time. “Where is the eye? People commented then,” recalled Narayan.
People also notice the good work of these artists. “We often hear people talking about the bright and smiling face of the deity,” added Amir.
It is good to hear people complimenting your work, but there are challenges of painting a deity sitting inside a temple. One is allowed to eat once a day only. The painter must cook for himself. In addition to that the painters aren’t allowed to eat garlic, onion, egg, meat and fish during that time, as per Amir.
But it doesn’t matter as “when you are painting you don’t feel hungry. It’s a very pleasant experience” as per Narayan, who stopped painting the idol in 2016 due to his old age.
Myths about Minnath
Beside the chariot of Rato Machhindranath is a small chariot — of another Hindu deity Minnath. Surya Man Dangol, Naike of Machindranath’s chariot shared a myth related to the deity. In the Satya Yug, the God of Death Yamaraj transformed himself into a fish (Min) and came to Nepal where he became famous with the name of Minnath Lokeshwor.
Dangol, a lawyer by profession, further shared another story, “It is believed that around 356 BS, Yamaraj appeared in the dream of king Anshuverma, a Licchavi king of the Surya dynasty, and told the king to make his idol and install it. From the same year the deity’s idol was made and installed and was named as Minnath Lokeshwor.”
Before Machhindranath was brought to Kathmandu from India, there used to be another chariot festival. It was called seven chariot pulling ceremony, as per Dangol. There used to be seven chariots of seven different gods and one chariot among them was that of Minnath.
“Bandhu Dutta, a tantrik, who assisted in bringing the Rato Machhindranath from India to Nepal was supposed to keep all the deities in a single chariot and conduct the festival. But Minnath in anger hit a chaitya and tried destroying it. Since then a separate chariot for Minnath was made,” added Dangol.
Making of chariots
The chariots of both Machhindranath and Minnath look similar in design though they differ in size. The length (height) of Machhindranath’s chariot is 48 feet while Minnath’s chariot is 32 feet. These chariots are made of wood and cane.
The chariots are constructed with wooden frames without using any nails. Pieces of the canes are placed on the frames in a certain order and tied together. Twelve Yewals are assigned to construct the Machindranath’s chariot, while nine are assigned for Minnath’s chariot. “We have started keeping helpers of these Yewels as the task is difficult,” informed Dangol.
They tie the cane pieces with one another and make hooks and knots in each frame — and this continues up to the pinnacle of the chariot.
“It’s comparatively quite easy to work on the lower part of the chariots as the area is spacious, but space decreases with increase in height,” Rajendra shared.
The frames are spacious at the base of the chariot. As the chariot is made in the pyramidal shape, the size decreases with height.
A total of seven frames are used to construct the chariots. These frames are first placed by Barahis (who work with wood). Then the canes are placed according to the frame’s size.
Along with that, 16 pillars are constructed in different areas of Minnath’s chariot. The different areas include — kumwa (four in each corners), datamwa (four in the middle) and gathamwa (eight main pillars in different areas around the chariot).
There are no datamwas in Machhindranath’s chariot, but gathamwa do exist in both the chariots as per Rajendra.
“And these gathamwas are named after different mountains — Sumeru Parbat, Yugandhar Parbat, Ishawar Parbat, Khadirak Parbat, Sudarshan Parbat, Ashawakarna Parbat, Binatak Parbat and Nimindhar Parbat. The mountains are believed to have carried the god (Machhindranath) all the way from India to Nepal,” informed Dangol.
The most important thing during this chariot construction is the proper locking of wooden planks. “We need to lock long wooden planks — starting from the lower part of the chariot to the higher area — with hook and knots. If we aren’t careful while making the knots, they might untie and there are chances for the chariot to break,” informed Rajendra.
Ropes as serpents
The main attraction of the chariot festival is the pulling of the chariot itself. And eight long ropes are used to pull the chariot of Machhindranath. And there is a myth behind these ropes too. These ropes are associated with eight serpents — Basuki Naag (believed to be on the right side of Machhindranath’s idol), Ananta Naag (on the left side of Machhindranath’s idol) along with Sumurti Naag, Debasu Naag, Nanda Naag, Padam Naag, Chhatra Naag and Ista Naag (all around the chariot), and spirits of these serpents are believed to enter the ropes as per Dangol. The chariot is also believed to be protected by Hindu god Bhairav. The Bhairav placed in front of the right wheel is called Harisiddhi, at the back of the right wheel is Luptasamhar Lubhu Bhairav, in front of the left wheel is Tyanka (Tika) Bhairav, and at the back of the left wheel is Kundi Bhairav.
A version of this article appears in print on May 21, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.