Locals prepare to defy as another jatra season in Kathmandu comes with warning of Covid-19 surge

Locals of Bhaktapur stage a protest against the District Administration Office’s order to cancel the Biska Jatra, on Monday, April 5, 2021.

Rita Tandukar has always been a bystander in major jatras of the Kathmandu valley. A resident of Nayabazaar in the city, she used to travel from places to places to see the vibrant festivals unfold with the same zeal every year.

But last year, her plan to go and witness the Biska Jatra (Bisket Jatra) was cancelled as the jatra could not take place following the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. This year, as things were dialled down, she was hopeful of not to miss it again.

On April 4, just a week before the jatra is scheduled to commence, however, the District Administration Office in Bhaktapur held a meeting and ordered the locals not to organise the annual festival this year too. Tandukar now is in limbo about her plans this season and so is the fate of jatras

With the new jatra season beginning in the country’s culture-rich capital and authorities warning of another peak of the pandemic soon, locals in Kathmandu are not only confused whether they will continue with their festival as planned or adhere to the official request but are also infuriated.

‘Disappointing decision’

File: Biska/Bisket Jatra celebration in Bhaktapur

Biska Jatra in Bhaktapur was scheduled to commence on April 10. However, after the April 4 order against the plan, the locals of the town are pouring their disappointments and disagreements with the decision online. An online call for a gathering to protest against the decision was put in place soon after the decision was announced.

Anil Pawn, a local, says, “Directions like such imply that the government authorities are ‘targeting’ the local festivals and the Newa community. That is what has made the community enraged. Just like other political gatherings, the authorities can and should coordinate with the locals to organise the festivals better and minimise the epidemic fears.”

He warns the locals are not going to keep quiet and follow the directions blindly. In fact, the locals already held the first round of protest on Monday, April 5, less than 24 hours after the decision.

Another Bhaktapur resident Hari Ram Khyaju, who was frequently visiting the Nyatapol temple to observe the progress of the chariot building, says he wants to participate in the festival this year and will support the mass.

Chariot under construction at Bhaktapur Durbar Square, in front of Nyatapol. Photo: Nasana Bajracharya

“Diseases and infections are above everyone. But, there are different people in society who believe differently. Experts recommend not to drink and smoke for health reasons, but people are doing so. So, if the mass gathers and starts the celebration, no one will be able to stop them.”

Same feeling everywhere

While the Biska Jatra at Bhaktapur is in limbo, the similar festivals at Bode and Thimi of Bhaktapur and Tokha of Kathmandu are determined to continue it.

The Bode folks voice that they will strongly oppose and defy if the government announces to cancel the festivals this year, “When the political party gatherings are to be held, they do not acknowledge the health threats. But, when it comes to the Newa festivals, they start opposing,” Hari Sharan Shrestha, a 70-year-old local, says, “We will not adhere to such orders. The festivals are of our community and we will make sure that they are held as intended.”

“The government was unsuccessful to curb the pandemic even by cancelling the jatras last year, and it will be pointless to stop the festivals this year too. We will not even follow the lockdown during the festival,” adds Kedar Sipahi, another local of Bode.

Both Shrestha and Sipahi inform they recently held a kshama puja (a ritual held to ask forgiveness) on Saturday, April 3, and pledged that this year they will hold the festival to be held from April 10 to 16.

Locals preparing for Biska Jatra in Bode of Madhyapur Thimi municipality. Photo: Nasana Bajracharya

Locals of Mahalaxmi in Thimi municipality of the district are also adamant that they will hold Sindur Jatra this year.

Meanwhile, Sanu Karmachari, a local priest in Tokha on the northern outskirts of Kathmandu, says locals in his area are determined to hold all festivals this year since they were forcefully postponed last year.

“The local guthi and residents have somewhat agreed to keep the festival to the locals here, with minimum participation from outside, and follow health precautions,” he says, also maintaining, “But, there is no guarantee. Festivals are a crowded affair; they witness people from all over the places. We cannot stop or track them.”

The locals here are gearing up for the Paachahre celebration and even a bigger annual festival of Chandeshwori Mela and Biska Jatra which starts on April 13. The locals say they have already brought a lingo (a ceremonial pole erected to signify the commencement of festivals) and are cleaning and premises and making their preparations, hoping this year the area would liven up with the festivals.

File: Buddha Krishna Baga Shrestha pierces his tongue to mark the annual Jibro Chhedne Jatra, in Bode of Bhaktapur, on Sunday, April 15, 2018.

Jibro Chhedne Jatra

Meanwhile, back to Bode of Bhaktapur, Buddha Krishna Baga Shrestha is determined to attempt piercing his tongue for the eighth time during the annual Jibro Chhedne Jatra (tongue-piercing festival) this year. Like other festivals, the festival was also cancelled last year. This year, however, he wants to do it anyhow. “Last year, when there was a big threat, we adhered to it. Not this year.” 

Shrestha, who is an ambulance driver for Nepal-Korea Friendship Municipality Hospital in Bhaktapur, says by not doing the festival last year, the locals saved lives and felt it was important. But, now he feels that doing the festival is for the greater good and health for all.

Paachahre plans

Paachahre is a three-day festival that starts on April 10 this year. On the second day, two khats (a form of palanquin) with idols of Lumri Ajima from Wotu and Lumri Ajima from Tebahal are brought together for a ceremonial event at Tundikhel [Shaktipeeth of two Ajimas], informs Dachhi Bahadur Maharjan, the Thakuli (eldest person) of Shree Lumdhi Bhadrakali Chhut Guthi.

File: Paachahre Jatra (Khat Judhaune Jatra)

“On the third day, three ajima (Kanga Ajima from Yetkha, Lumri Ajima from Wotu and Lumri Ajima from Tebahal) meet at Ason. The goddesses are believed to be sisters and among the eight forms of Ajimas or Ashtamatrikas in Kathmandu installed and worshipped for protection and prosperity. The event Dya Lwakegu Jatra (translating as a festival where the goddesses clash) at Ason is taken as their reunion,” he adds.

Every year, these two festivities attract many bystanders, like Rita Tuladhar, who come to witness and revel in the festivities of Paachahre. With the looming threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, some are sceptic the festivity will cancel this year too.

On Saturday, the three khalas (groups) representing the three temples met and discussed the same. “The three khalas have decided that they will conduct the festivities as normal as we used to do,” Shree Lumdhi Bhadrakali Jatra Byawasthapan Samiti Chair Purshottam Maharjan informs, “All are making their own preparations for the day.”

“We will adhere to the health precautions as well,” he, however, maintains, “We have not received any official statement from the authorities yet to cancel the festivities nonetheless..”

He adds that jatras cannot be held with just limited people. “We need 50 people to just carry the khats, so lockdown will affect that. If we are to organise the festival, we will encourage masks and sanitisers.”

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Bajracharya was a sub-editor at Onlinekhabar. She mostly writes on culture and nature.

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