Indra Jatra is the largest religious street festival in Kathmandu, Nepal’s largest city. It was started by King Gunakamadeva to commemorate the founding of the city in the 10th century. I have to be honest; I didn’t really know much about the festival when I decided to go, so I wasn’t all that prepared for such a wild afternoon in Kathmandu’s largest public square.
We had only been there a few minutes when it started to downpour. I wrapped up my camera and put my rain jacket over my backpack as the water rose above my ankles. Later my friend and fellow photographer Sunny told me that Nepalis consider it good luck if it rains on auspicious days.
It turns out we’d been doubly lucky as the festival had an auspicious start the previous evening. Each year a pole (also called yosin or linga), actually a huge tree stripped of its branches is hoisted manually using ropes. If the pole falls while it’s being raised, it’s considered bad luck and many believe that something bad will happen during the festival. This year, all went well with the pole raising and it was raining which was good for us because our afternoon end up being filled with dicey situations.
That day’s celebration was the Kumari Jatri, the chariot festival of the Kumari. The Kumari tradition involves worshipping young, virgin girls as manifestations of the divine female energy. To Newar Buddhists, the kumari is regarded as the embodiment of the female deity Vajradevi, a Buddha. To Hindus, she incarnates the goddess Taleju, a version of Durga.
These young girls go through an extensive selection process as babies, historically live separately from their families (though this appears to be changing), and are considered to have the goddess living within them until they have their first period or illness or loss of blood due to injury causes the goddess to leave the girl’s body
During this festival, three chariots carrying human representations of the Hindu deities Ganesh, Bhairava, and Kumari are pulled by men with ropes along the festival route. The first thing that Sunny told me is that the chariots have no brakes and are frequently being pulled by slightly – or completely – intoxicated men. Then he showed me a few places I could retreat to if I didn’t want to get smashed by some chariots.
Just then, I noticed a lot of police officers, soldiers, and packs of volunteers in matching t-shirts milling about. I soon learned that their primary job was to push back the crowds with their police shields or with their bodies by linking arms with other volunteers. From the moment the festival started, this body crushing technique created complete chaos.
Luckily, Sunny had photographed this festival a few times before and was able to get me in the right locations to catch the action. Kumari Devi, age 11, was hand carried on a divan from her house to the chariot as a Kumari’s feet should never touch the ground outside her home. She was immediately rushed by worshippers. I ran along side Sunny through puddles to get a shot of her. Then the throng of police, soldiers, and volunteers pinned me with their human barricade.
The other two gods Puli Kisi (the carrier of indra and really two men in an elaborate elephant costume) and Majipa Lakhey (the peaceful Bhairava) danced through the crowds of people. Each time they appeared I’d lunge forward with the crowd in the hopes of grabbing the photograph only to be pushed back again by the human baracade. Sunny interrupted my involuntary crowd surfing to make sure I was in place to photograph the chariots as they were pulled wildly by drunken revelers past our location on the festival route. It was a wild, muddy, joyfully chaotic experience.
I’ve lived in Kathmandu for almost two years and yet I’m still awed by the incredible traditions that are part of every day life. You never know what you might stumble upon… if you’re willing to brave rain, riot police, and thousands of drunken revelers. If you visit one of Nepal’s many religious festivals, just make sure you know where the safe zones are. No one wants to be run over by a wooden chariot.