Saturday, March 31, 2012

The chariot festival of SETO MACHENDRANATH

The chariot festival of SETO MACHENDRANATH
text: Sabina Tandukar
Images: Janabahaa Heritage Information Centre

A crowd of more than thousand people, dancing euphorically to the tune of classical music, some singing religious hymns, some praying fervently and others looking around in awe; and amidst this crowd is the towering monumental moving temple - a 'Ratha' or a chariot. This mesmerizing scenario is the procession of Seto Machhindranath in Kathmandu valley. Full of life, colour and excitement, this festival enlivens the inner spirit and gives joy to the infinity.

These processions along the routes of the medieval towns were meant to foster the culture of community living besides paying homage to the revered god. A source of religious entertainment for the mortals of Kathmandu valley, these chariot festivals started since the early days of the Malla period.


The festival is said to have been started by King Pratap Malla. But judging by the available inscriptions in the courtyard of Janabahal, it is clearly older than this time. The deity was perhaps originally from the Hamhal monastery in Ranipokhari and later shifted to Kel Tol. A myth also supports this hypothesis saying that initially Jamal was a different country called Jamadesh and Yakshya Malla was the then ruling King. The Kantipuri was such a divine place, where every morning, people used to bathe in the holy river and visit Swayambhunath; such works of virtue led them to heaven after their death. Once the god of death 'Yamaraj', saw that none of the dead from the Kantipuri went to hell and on looking further he understood that the divine power of Swayambhunath was the cause. So with his fellow men he set himself on visiting Kantipuri and paid homage to the sacred god. While he was returning, King Yakshya Malla, along with his Tantric guru, captured them and asked for immortality. Yamraj himself being a mortal could not give such a blessing and said so, but the King would not let go of him unless he bestowed such power on them. The frightened god then prayed to Arya Awalokiteshwor and requested to free him. The Lord hearing such a prayer appeared instantly before them from the water. With a white colored body and eyes half closed looking downwards, the lord said that wherever the Kalmati and Bagmati meets, a temple needs to be established and whoever pays him a visit shall always be prosperous and live long. He told the King to organize a Ratha Yatra every year for three days starting from 'Chaitra Sukla Astami' so that he could travel to the houses of those people who cannot move, are disabled or stay longer at their houses and bless them with happiness and long life. The Ratha Yatra was to start from a place from where the god originated which happens to be the present Ranipokhari area.

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The temple of Arya Awalokiteshwor is located in Janabahal. It is one of the few monastic courtyards which have a full fledged storied temple standing in the middle of a court with a shrine in the wing at the far end from the entrance. The temple is highly ornamental with gilt-copper roofs, ornamental metal banners, tympanum, and struts illustrating the diverse forms of Awalokiteshwor. While prayer wheels line the pedestal, lions and gryphon's guard the approaching step to the shrine doorway. The courtyard is large, spacious and stone paved with numerous chaityas and stone pillars holding aloft various Buddhist deities. At present the use of full length iron grills all around the temple has ridiculed its beauty and urgently calls for a better alternative to protect the enshrined gods and the historical works of art from possible theft.

Ratha (the chariot>

Ratha or a chariot is a moving temple. The Ratha with 13 stories (including those of the gajura) conforms to the shikhara style forming the Trayodasak Bhuwan; with the first storey being the "Pramodidabha" and the final one being the "Gyanawati". Each step leads up to the path of nirvana. Triangular shape determines stability, showing the right flow of energy; with each vertices of the triangle pointing to the three "Lokas" of this universe: Swarga (heaven), Martya (earth), and Narka (hell). The festival of the most compassionate divinity aims to end the sorrows of all those in these three lokas. While '32 lakchyan yukta' means the one with all the positive energy of this universe, this principle also guides the construction of the Ratha. The principle has that the total length of the Ratha from the bottom to the top of the Gajura must conform to 32 haat, even the horizontal length conforms to this principle. The circular wheels have a diameter of 16 haat (1 haat is approximate the length from the elbow to the middle finger tip).

The four wheels of the Ratha are symbolic representation of the four Bhairabs - namely; Yamantak (black), Pragyantak (white); Padmantak (red); and Bigmantak (blue). The idol of the god is placed in the chariot which is believed to be circumscribed by the 'Das Dig Lokapala' (other gods) during the entire procession.

More than 300 pieces of wood are joined together to form this Ratha. The 100 pieces of the total goes to the wheels each confirming to the exact 25 pieces. Woods of different species (around 8 types) are used, each making a vital part of the Ratha. Na-shin (a type of wood) forms the wheels as it has good compressive strength and the woods with higher flexibility form the towering portion of the Ratha. No iron nails are to be used so woods are joined together using lap or tongue and groove joints and tied together using 'beda' (local vine).

The Ratha is not the product of an isolated effort of a single group of people but rather various groups of people specializing in various activities come together to construct it. Since the earliest, two groups of Newar Jyapus, each from the Thane and Kwane have been constructing the Ratha. This time the troop lead by the Maharjan brothers - Prakash Maharjan and Pradeep Maharjan successfully completed the construction of the Ratha. A ritually important flower "la swan" is required which is especially grown by the Munikars. These activities bring unity and harmony among the caste groups of the valley.

The Route

View Janma Dyo (Seto Matsyendranath chariot) route in a larger map

On the day of Chaitra Sukla Astami, the priests, who are Shakyas, take the image of the chief deity, Padmapani Avalokiteshwor, out for a procession to Jamal beside Ranipokhari where the large wheeled chariot is waiting to receive it. The two leaders from Thane and Kwane lead the Ratha. The procession starts with the people of various castes playing their musical instrument and dancing to the tunes.

This colorful procession is so exhilarating that any observer is bound to feel energized, the towering chariot making its way down the alleys of the town, the enthusiastic youths pulling chariot with the rope, the peoples singing the hymns and praying, the lights, the smell of the incense sticks all create an aura magnanimous and full of divine power difficult to discern. All groups of people unify and come forward in the procession and pray for their long life and prosperity.

The very first day of this divine procession covers the Jamal, Ratnapark, Bhotahity and Ason area. On the second day, the procession starts from Ason to Balkumari, Kel Tol, Indra Chowk, Makhan and rests in the Hanuman Dhoka. Here the living goddess Kumari also comes out to pay her visit. On the final day, the Ratha moves through Hanuman Dhoka, Maru, Chikan Mangal, Jaisidewal, Jya Baha and finally reaches Lagan Tol. After circumambulating a special tree for three times the procession completes.

The religion says that the festival must complete before the Purnima or the full moon day of the month. On the fourth day, after a special puja, the image of the god is carried back to the temple and restored there.

The whole procession with its starting, finishing and stopping points enroute, interestingly shows the hierarchy of open spaces and the path-space configurations, giving a new socio-cultural meaning to existing religious sites, squares and streets. Everyday the procession pierces through the dense settlement of the city and at the end of the day stops at the Chowks or the Durbar squares that are the points of religious or political importance. These places act as the congregational points where locals come forward to perform religious activities.

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Present scenario

Even to this day the Jatra holds the same value and importance to the city dwellers. Guthi sansthan is the government organization that works for the construction of the Ratha and continuum of this festival. This year a whole new set of Ratha was prepared using only about 20% of the old resources. However due to lack of time only one type of wood (Agrakh) was incorporated in its construction and few iron straps were seen in the junction and wheels to ensure its strength.

The culture of a nation is one of its most valuable assets. However, some additions to the new urban fabric has torn apart such values and beliefs. One such addition is the construction of the overhead bridge in the Ratnapark - Baghbazaar junction which lies in the route of this chariot festival. The clear height of the bridge is far less than the height of the Ratha. Last year, the Ratha toppled over at this point because of this obstruction and level differences created in its path as the towering Ratha had to struggle through the narrow space leftover by the bridge. Such unplanned development works should be checked by the concerned authority and greater public awareness is needed regarding such public activities.


Festivals and Jatras make the heart of the Newari culture. The Jatra of Seto Machhindranath in Kathmandu, Rato Machhindranath in Patan, and Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur are famous and unique in their own style as the architecture of these towns itself.

These cultural activities give us our identity and are the part of our glorious past. We must consciously work for its continuity, making it a living heritage of the city.


Purna Ratna Bajracharya
Padma Sundar Maharjan
Guthi Sansthan


• Kathmandu Valley, The Preservation of Physical Environment and Cultural Heritage. A protective inventory prepared by HMG of Nepal in collaboration with the UN and UNESCO, the Austrian Federal Government and the JDR 3rd fund.
• Tiwari, S.R: The Urban Spaces of Kathmandu Valley Towns: a historical perspective
• Shakya, Gyanendra: Nepalese manuscripts on architecture: published in Vaastu vol. 5, pg: 53
• Bajracharya, Kamalananda; Janabahadyo Ya Bakha: Aaju publications

Related topic:
Rato Matsyendranath rath jaatra

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