Everybody greets one another with vermillion, kids huddle over ice-cream stalls, and elders sit in small groups to chat. Every evening, hundreds of people gather in the streets of Patan (Lalitpur) to see the Rato Machhindranath chariot being pulled to its next destination. A few strong and enthusiastic attempt the pull while others just enjoy the ambience. But before this actual carnival unfolds, a staggering eight months of meticulous preparation goes into arranging for this festive procession.
“We start estimating the wood required to construct the chariot and send the order to the Ministry eight months before the actual festival,” says Hari Prasad Subedi, the Head of Guthi Sansthan Office in Lalitpur that is responsible for arranging all the economic and infrastructural support for the jatra. “This year, 500 cubic feet of fresh wood was ordered, while more than half of the timber used to build the chariot was wood stored from last year,” he adds.
One of the most important festivals and also one of the most spectacular and longest of all the festivals observed in Patan takes place in April or early May when the massive chariot of Rato Machhindranath is hauled through the narrow streets of Patan. It takes a full month to move the chariot across Patan to Jawlakhel, where the chariot is finally dismantled. The Rato Machhindranath Jatra festival is believed to have started in 11th century. Lord Machhindranath is taken as the patriot deity of the valley and is worshipped and revered as Karunamaya – the Bodhisattva of compassion. The deity is also considered to have authority over rain and hence is believed to be the ‘Rain God’. Since the monsoon is approaching at this time, this festival is essentially a plea for generous rains.
The festival ends with ‘Bhoto Jatra’ observing the public display of the sacred vest studded with precious stones, emeralds and other valued materials. Legend has it that the jeweled vest was given to the god for safe keeping after a dispute between two potential owners. Every year, the vest is displayed three times in order to give the owner the chance to claim it. After the Bhoto Jatra, Machhendranath is taken back to its temple in Bungmati, a small village in the southern part of Kathmandu valley. The procession of Rato Machhendranath starts from Bungmati itself every 12 years which is celebrated with great fanfare.