The Kathmandu Valley’s oldest, longest and most exciting festival, the Machhendranath Rath Jaatra begins the day after the full moon of Baisaakh (April/May), when priests ritually bathe Raato Machhendranath’s sandalwood idol in Patan’s Lagankhel square. Moved back to its temple at Ta Bahal, the idol spends the next ten days undergoing the life-cycle rituals of Buddhist Newars. Meanwhile, just south of the Western Stupa at Pulchowk, Machhendranath’s chariot (raath) – more like a mobile temple – is assembled and its 18m-high tower of poles and vegetation constructed. A smaller chariot to carry Minnath is also built.
The idols are eventually installed in their chariots and the great procession begins. Scores of men heave at the ropes; Machhendranath’s unwieldy vehicle rocks, teeters and suddenly lurches forward, its spire swaying and grazing buildings as it passes. The crowd roars, people leap out of the way, and the chariot comes to a stubborn stop until the pullers regroup and try to budge it again. Separately, local children pull Minnath’s chariot. It goes on like this, in stages, for four or more weeks, until the chariots reach Jawalakhel Chowk, a journey of about 4km.
At Jawalakhel, the stage is set for the dramatic Bhoto Jaatra. A huge crowd begins assembling before noon on a day ordained by the astrologers – usually the fourth day after the chariots’ arrival at the chowk. At around 4pm or 5pm, Patan’s Kumari is carried in by palanquin. Local VIPs climb aboard Machhendranath’s chariot and take turns holding aloft the god’s magical jewelled vest. Since the procession culminates during the showery pre-monsoon, Machhendranath usually obliges with rain: bring an umbrella.
Machhendranath’s idol is then carried to Bungmati, 6km to the south, where it is welcomed home with great fanfare; the cult of Raato Machhendranath being believed to have originated in Bungmati, accounting for the god’s Newari name, Bunga Dyo (“God of Bunga”). The idol spends the summer months in Bungmati before being transported back to Ta Bahal, but once every twelve years it’s kept in Bungmati all winter and the chariot procession begins and ends there. That will next happen in 2015.