Every year when Indra Jatra starts, Alina Kumari Tamrakar finds herself gearing up towards revelling for all eight days of the vibrant festival. Having been brought up very closely in the culture, she today knows what is going on and enjoys every bit of the festival, locally known as Yenya (meaning the festival of Kathmandu).
But sitting in a cafe, some five years ago, Tamrakar was unaware of what she did not know about the festival.
“It was 2017 and I was working on some post-reconstruction work and in the documentation of the intangible heritage. I was with Alok [Siddhi Tuladhar] dai and Bhusan Shilpakar dai. Bhusan dai, who was from Patan, turned to me and asked what exactly happened during Yenya. He admitted that, amidst all the excitement, he was not sure where each event was taking place,” says Tamrakar.
The question got her thinking that, despite being grown around the city and watching, and enjoying the festival year after year, she also did not know everything about one of the most revered festivals in the city.
“Bhusan dai threw this idea on the table that if someone could make a poster about the festival then it would help people like him and the realisation hit me that I could maybe do that,” she says.
So, from that day, she started jotting down all the locations and information in My Maps [of Google Maps] and gave shape to what would become the Indra Jatra map that has been widely appreciated.
Mapping it out
During the eight-day festival, many festivities are going around simultaneously. Depending on the day, one can enjoy a variety of processions, masked dances and musical performances at different landmarks around the city.
Tamrakar started by charting out the pathways of the various components of Indra Jatra, beginning with the iconic chariot processions featuring the Living Goddess Kumari, Lord Ganesh, and Lord Bhairav. She also documented the induction of the Yahsi (a ceremonial pole) and various dances and performances, including Majipa Lakhey and Pulukisi.
“Working in Google Maps felt easy because I could make different layers for different days and still superimpose them together, doing justice to the multi-layered nature of the festival. So I gave shape to the Indra Jatra map, one element at a time,” she adds.
In her pursuit, heritage activist Tuladhar has also been very helpful in getting in touch with the people and collecting information, she says.
It was in this initial phase of jotting out the landmarks that she also met with illustrator Romush Tuladhar, another key in giving shape to the map.
“I had just taken up doing digital arts. It did feel like I took on a challenge, but I got to learn so much more, not just about the arts but the details that go into the elements of the festival. Their unique stories and meeting people were even more rewarding,” he says.
However, it took them some time to fully develop the Indra Jatra map. They dedicated nearly a year to this project before unveiling the map to the public in September 2018. The response was overwhelmingly positive from the start.
Their efforts were not only appreciated during the festival, but also beyond that.
“We presented the map during the Kathmandu Triennale 2021. By this time, Baakhan Nyane Waa was also in full swing so, we merged the two in that event with the title ‘Yenya: Mapping and Storytelling The Layer’ and along with the prints of the map we held storytelling sessions,” Tamrakar says.
In 2022, they took the representation out of the 2D format and crafted a 3D model of the map for the ‘Deities of Nepal‘ exhibition held at the Nepal Art Council in Babarmahal. They also created the same again in Nhyakatole (near Ason) as a part of the ‘Echoes in the Valley‘ event in March this year.
Over the years, the map underwent continuous evolution and expansion. It received updates in 2019, 2021, and 2023, incorporating interviews and crowdsourced information.
A way to learn
For the duo, their initial lesson was learning to use tools to map out the route and the various elements. However, as their journey progressed, they also came to realise the intricacy of the festivities. They discovered that it is the smallest of details that make these celebrations special and uniquely captivating.
“Knowing that a particular flower comes from here, seeing the rituals being unfolded months before even the Indra Jatra begins and how people sit together to make headgear, masks etc. was truly interesting,” says Tamrakar.
“More than the details, it was more insightful to know that people are very invested in all that,” she says.
Contrary to common belief, they also learned how the festival, often thought to be exclusive to the core Newa population, is actually seamlessly connected with other communities beyond the demarcated ‘core’ area.
Connecting with people, however, was not always straightforward, based on their experience.
“First it was really difficult to find the right people who knew the stories. And when we did meet people, they would be comfortable speaking with us one-on-one yet very hesitant to talk to us on camera.”
“And since they have been growing up, following the ritual very closely, many of the details that we thought were crucial, would be very common and normal for them. So we had to pick the details from what they would say casually,” she says.
Their top priority was obtaining the tiniest details of the festival and its elements. Romush Tuladhar, the illustrator, began by sketching each element, starting with Lakhey. It took him up to a week to complete each one.
“Though small, we went back and forth a lot to get the ratios and to get the strokes and elements right. There were a lot of consultations with the respective guthi before we finalised the elements into the map,” he says.
This was also important for them because, heritage has been a very sensitive topic, one very close to people’s hearts.
7 generations on, this family is giving the face to Kathmandu’s Indra Jatra. It will continue for at least a few decades
“Also because I had been part of the heritage reconstruction and the emerging dialogues and interest in their conservation was something we were very mindful of while making the map. More so because we are only the voice, a medium to represent what they have been inheriting and practising for generations. So respecting their sentimental value was very important,” she says.
For them, learning was not just about self-improvement. Through exhibitions, storytelling sessions, and heritage walks, the duo has been actively sharing their knowledge and unveiling the layers of history, culture, art, and both tangible and intangible heritage that Yenya embodies.
In 2021, Tamrakar took a team from the Society of Nepalese Architecture for a heritage walk. This year, to kick off the festival’s first day, she intends to lead a small group of close friends on another iteration of the heritage walk. They will commence from Hanumandhoka, where the erection of the yahsi signifies the beginning of the festivities.
Apart from that, they have also meticulously crafted a booklet on Indra Jatra, a collaborative effort led by Baakhan Nyane Waa together with the Kathmandu metropolitan city using the Indra Jatra map as a guiding tool. They have also published a Yenya colouring book with Tuladhar’s illustrations and designs, a vibrant testament to generation-old culture.
The duo have been doing all the work voluntarily so far, taking time from their full-time job, for their love of the local culture. Yet, they feel like people are still expecting more of them.
“We have thought of doing an animation of the map as well. During the exhibitions, we also imagined concocting contraptions to make it more lively, but it takes a lot of effort and a lot of monetary investment too that we lack,” says Tuladhar.
Tamakar says, “If we have the investment and the right collaborations we are open to taking the map to the next level and exploring different arrays too, including virtual reality and augmented reality technology. After all, it is all about preserving our heritage and passing it to the next generations for the same, in ways that intrigue them to be a part of it.”
In that spirit, Galli Maps founded by Raj Bikram Maharjan, also a member of Baakhan Nyane Waa, has collaborated with the duo and integrated their curated Indra Jatra map into the app to commemorate the start of this year’s Indra Jatra. The team announced its collaboration on Monday evening.
Upscaling on a more advanced level might have to wait, but the duo are thinking of exploring more possibilities and making similar maps of other cultural activities of Yenyaa that are observed in Bhaktapur among other areas. They are also open to collaborating on curating maps about other festivals observed in the city throughout the year.