In mid April comes the significant New Year of the Kathmandu Valley, the first day of the Nepalese solar calendar, this year it is on the 14th of April. A peculiar form of New Year’s Eve takes place in Bhaktapur district. Bisket Jatra (Bisket festival) is a celebration of victory over the snake gods that ruled the valley in the time of prehistory. It is believed that most of the nagas, or snake gods, evacuated the Kathmandu Valley with the prehistoric draining of its great lake, but a few remained, great serpent kings dwelling in the rivers and the ponds, wielding that most significant of powers, control over rainfall.
On Bisket, “snake slaughter,” all the spirits of the gods descend on Bhaktapur, where an eighty-foot lingam (pole) carved from a tree stands fluttering with banners. The banners represent two serpent demons slaughtered by a prince of Malla Dynasty, when they emerged from the nostrils of his sleeping princess.
Crowds follow a procession of two heavy chariots, one carrying Bhairav, the wrathful form of Shiva; the other Bhadrakali, the bloodthirsty form of Goddess Parvati (Lord Shiva’s consort). The crowd divides into teams for a tug of war between the chariots. The winners will have good luck in the coming year. Finally, more straining teams compete to bring the giant lingam to earth. The moment it crashes, the old year dies, and so do the snake demons. The Nepalese New Year begins.
Three miles west of Bhaktapur, at the village of Thimi, the new year is celebrated late into the night with the burning of hundreds of ceremonial oil torches so hot that they drive away the last of winter and bring warm days of sunshine to nourish the crops. On the second day of the New Year, neighbourhood deities are carried through the street in temple-like wooden structures called khats. Spectators shower the images and one another with orange powder. To soak one’s friends and neighbourhood in dye powder is a token of good wishes and respects, just as it is to honor gods and goddesses.
Across the highway from Thimi is the village of Bode, which has its own New Year procession and another ceremony, a tongue boring at the temple of the Goddess Mahalaxmi (Goddess of wealth). A volunteer, who has a undergone a four-day cleansing ceremony, offers himself to the temple, pujari (priest), who holds the man’s extended tongue with a piece of cloth. The priest thrusts a long, spike like needle through the penitent’s tongue, and the man walks about the village so that all may witness the penance. Bleeding is considered an ill omen; a bloodless penance is seen as evidence of great merit.
An abundant rice harvest requires the heavy rains of the monsoon, falling in torrents, day and night for three months, turning the soil to oozing mud from which tender green rice shoots emerge, grow and ripen. If the snake gods are not happy, they will not release the rain. Once, they were imprisoned, which caused a twelve-year drought and great famine, until the god Rato Macchendranath released them, restoring the rains and thus the prosperity of the valley.
Western customs may have gained a certain foothold in business life, but in most ways Bhaktapur still functions in the ancient rhythms of sun, moon and seasons. Those seasons are subtle, one flowing into the other with mild temperatures that seldom exceeds 86-degree Fahrenheit, seldom drops below 50 degrees. Each year, 60 inches of rain soak the land; each year the land produces 3 beautiful harvests. The rotation of crops, plantings, harvests, and rituals and festivals that accompany them control time more surely than any watch or calendar.
Tourism grew in Bhaktapur with hippies who arrived in late sixties and glamorized and romanticized it. While many hippies disappeared by the mid- 1970s, their heritage, a mom-and-pop tourism industry catering the youthful budget travelers is still active. Tourists were welcomed by Newar landlords and transformed the ancient Newar tol (locality) to crash pads that have become today’s lodges and restaurant.
Days begin as early as 4 AM for the people living in Bhaktapur. They fetch water from village well or stone waterspouts, clean their house and then discreetly visit temple and salutes their patron deity. After a very early brunch, children go to schools while educated youth go their offices. Kuma Prajapati, the caste of potters, in the Taulachem and Talaco areas, with their precision skills make blue clay utilitarian pottery. Carpenters begin their work on rafters, columns, cornices, balconies, windows, doors and walls of temples and traditional houses. Women of Jyapu caste (farmer caste), break apart clods of stubborn earth in preparation for next plantation. While men balance a load of vegetables on a kharpan head downtown to sell them. Kharpan, is a bamboo pole which has been a vehicle of load transport for centuries; it allows the porter to shift weight readily from one shoulder to the other as he trots down the road.
Every available space is used at harvest time in Bhaktapur. Even alleyways serve as places for grain winnowing and drying. During festivals the same alleyways see procession of chariots carrying gods and goddesses. Mask dancers. Female devotees swarm wearing haku patasi (traditional wear) and men clash cymbals, drum dhimey drums, play local instruments and chant mantras. Such notions of continuity saturate all levels of life in Bhaktapur.
Another delightful sanctuary in Bhaktapur is Kathmandu University’s Department of Music where young musicians practice local instruments in a restored courtyard and garden, they are instructed in the methods and skills of the study of music in culture.
Living in Bhaktapur gives on considerable time to absorb the swirl of cultures and their traditions and develop a comparative awareness that life is changing here with great speed. Amid the changes there remain the festivals; learn about them, and you will come to understand the interplay between gods and people living here, hence it is a CITY OF DEVOTEES.
(Text by Patricia Roberts and Nikki Thapa)