If you live in the Valley, then you will be familiar with the many jatras that the people here celebrate. Jatras are such a big thing here that (true story) a job applicant recently asked her employer-to-be if she would get off days on the days of Bisket Jatra that is going on in Bhaktapur right now.
Bisket Jatra, celebrated in Bhaktapur, is a nine-day eight-night festival that witnesses many participants along with thousands of visitors which involves erecting a lingo (pole), pulling of chariots of deities, worshipping them, and much merrymaking.
Of pythons and rice grains
Though no one knows the exact date of the Bisket Jatra, there are many legends associated with it. One legend as per Culture and Tourism Expert Professor Dr Som Prasad Khatiwada is this: the kingdom was once ruled by the Shivadev kings. During the rule of one of the Shivadev kings, Bhaktapur was attacked by the Kirants wherein the people were looted and beaten up. To handle such attacks, the king consulted a tantrik Shekharacharya, who transformed himself into a tiger and chased away the Kirants. The land then became free and peace and harmony prevailed.
However, one day the tantrik’s wife wanted to see the azingar (python) form of her husband and requested him to change into it. Before changing himself into the python, he gave her some holy rice grains to sprinkle on him to enable him to change into human form again. But when the tantrik turned into a python, his wife became scared and instead of sprinkling the rice grains on him, she ran away and ate the rice grains herself. As a result, she too was transformed into a python! When the couple realised that they had no hope, they committed suicide. Then king then started erecting the lingo in memory of this couple.
Mukti Sundar Jadhari, Naike at Bhadrakali Guthi, Bhaktapur, retold another legend of the jatra: Once a king’s son-in-law died on the very first night of marriage. The king married his daughter to someone else the next day, but this man too died. Courtiers used to search for a man for the princess, but any man the princess married died on the first night. Then an old woman’s son was selected for the princess. The old woman didn’t want to give her son because he was her sole support in her old age. Another old woman suggested what the boy should do in the night to remain alive.
When princess fell asleep, the boy, now married to her, remained awake. Two thread-like things came from the princess’ nostrils. They took the form of snakes, but before they could grow further, the boy cut the snakes into pieces as advised by the woman. Later on, the citizens came to know that the woman who had advised the boy was none other than Goddess Bhadrakali. The deity was then kept in a chariot and pulled around in celebration for saving the country.
“The place where Bhadrakali advised the boy remains still,” shared Jadhari. Another temple of Bhadrakali also remains in Itchhu Tole. “The deity (idol) is not viewed by anyone besides the Karmacharyas. It is the only time of the year when the public gets an opportunity to see and worship the deity,” informed Jadhari.
Bhadrakali is believed to Kashi’s Shiva’s wife. Bhairab is one of the forms of Shiva. When his wife did not return, Bhairab looked for her and found that she was being worshipped in Bhaktapur. He took human form and watched the ceremony. He was taller than most and different from the people of Bhaktapur. One of the tantriks came to know that it was Bhairab in their midst and wanted to catch the deity. While trying to catch Bhairab, some strands of hair (tuppi) came into the tantrik’s hand while Bhairab’s body vanished. But the head bounced on the ground here and there. “This is why there are hole-like structures with stones in them in the areas around Taumadi and Chapal, and others,” Jadhari added.
Such act against Bhairab was supposed to be a crime, so to please the deity, the citizens started the chariot pulling ceremony of Bhairab during Bisket Jatra.
The temple of Bhairab was also established in Gahiti. Though the temple was destroyed in the earthquake of April 25, 2015, the idol is placed on the verandah of the remnants of the temple and worshipped. “We are planning to construct the temple,” shared Kumar Chawal, former president of Bhaktapur Ward-12.
Anyone who visits the deities and chariot are supposed to live a prosperous life and remain happy, as per Jadhari.
The lingo (a pole) is erected during the Jatra. “The lingo is erected to celebrate the life of the king’s son-in-law. Two long red coloured cloth pieces are attached on the right and left arm of the lingo to represent the snakes. When the snakes were killed, the public was assured that snakes would not kill anyone from then on,” informed Chawal.
People come to the area where the lingo is erected and light butter lamps there. “They worship the lingo and the idols of snakes,” informed Chawal.
“The festival might have been started as a way to celebrate New Year by citizens then. Snakes are connected to rain and water, and are helpful in agriculture. The celebration might also have been done to show respect for the reptiles,” shared Khatiwada.
A version of this article appears in print on April 16, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.