According to Kathmandu Valley legend, Indra, the Vedic King of Heaven, wanted to buy flowers for his mother. Unable to find any in heaven, he descended to the valley and stole some, but was caught and imprisoned. When Indra’s mother came looking for him, the people realized their mistake and to appease him, started an annual festival in his honour.

Usually held in late August or early September, Indra Jaatra is an occasion to give thanks to the god for bringing the monsoon rains that make the vital summer rice crop possible. Yet Indra’s humiliation is a parallel theme, as straw effigies of the god are placed in jails. Another local legend claims an invading king, calling himself Indra, was defeated by the valley’s indigenous people, and some anthropologists believe such an event may have provided the historical impetus for the festival.

Indra Jaatra features eight days of almost nonstop spectacle. It begins with the ceremonial raising of a 15m-tall pole in front of the Kala Bhairab statue by members of the Manandhar (oil-presser) caste. In Indrachowk, the famous blue mask of Akash Bhairab, a god sometimes identified with Indra, is displayed, as are lesser Bhairab images in other neighbourhoods. Locals do puja (an act of worship) to them by day, and light lamps by night in memory of deceased relatives. Masked dancers perform around the old city, and one group stages a tableau of the das avatar (the ten incarnations of Vishnu) at the base of the Trailokya Mohan.

Indra Jaatra is the fusion of two festivals, and the second, Kumari Jaatra, begins on the afternoon of the third day. From noon, Durbar Square steadily fills up with spectators and, in the balcony of the Gaddi Baithak, with politicians and foreign dignitaries dressed in formal attire. (Tourists are herded into an area around the Shiva Parbati Mandir, where it’s hard to get a decent view unless you’re right behind the police cordon; however, women can sit on the elevated steps of the Maju Dewal.) Masked dancers entertain the crowd: the one in the red mask and shaggy hair is the popular Lakhe, a demon said to keep other spirits at bay if properly appeased. The procession formerly began when the king and queen arrived, but now senior politicians have taken over their roles. The Kumari and two attendants, representing Ganesh and Bhairab, are pulled in wooden chariots around the square past the Gaddi Baithak. They then make a circuit of the southern old city, as far as Jaisi Dewal and Lagan, before returning to the square after dark.

When they depart, the formal ceremony gives way to all-out partying. Dance troupes from around the valley perform near the entrance to the old royal palace, and a pantomime elephant – Indra’s mount – careers through the streets. Young men gravitate toward Sweta Bhairab where, after lengthy ritual preliminaries, rice beer flows from a pipe sticking out of the idol’s mouth.

Without the VIPs and ceremonial pomp, the chariots are again pulled the next afternoon, past Nardevi and Asan. On the final day, after a few days of relative calm, the chariots are pulled for a third time to Kilagal. According to legend, this last procession was added by King Jaya Prakash Malla to allow his concubine, who lived in Kilagal, to see the Kumari. In the days of the monarchy, when the chariots returned to Durbar Square later that evening, the king would come before the Kumari to receive the royal tika that assured his right to rule for another year. Finally, the ceremonial pole is pulled down, and people take pieces of it as amulets against ghosts and spirits.

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