By Aashish Mishra Lalitpur, May 16: The chariot procession of Rato Machhindranath started and concluded in Lalitpur on Saturday. The longest chariot festival of Nepal that usually lasts for one and a half to three months was shortened to just a single day this year because of the second wave of COVID-19 that has engulfed the nation, said Chandra Maharjan, president of Jyapu Samaj which is one of the main bodies in charge of managing the festival. The chariot was ceremonially pulled a distance of 25 metres from the Jogambar shrine where it was constructed to the Manda: Phalcha rest houses in Pulchowk. Initially, the various stakeholders associated with the festival had planned to take the chariot on its full route around the city of Patan with safety precautions in place. However, considering the health risk posed by the coronavirus, currently spreading rapidly in the country, the members of the House of Representatives and the provincial assembly elected from Lalitpur, Lalitpur Metropolitan City, security agencies, community organisations, astrologers, priests, chariot builders and other related groups jointly decided to shorten the Jatra and only conduct the essential rituals, a press release issued by the bodies on Thursday stated. Talking to The Rising Nepal, Maharjan informed that the chariot was pulled by 125 people only. All of the pullers, along with the priests, the path guiders (Ghaku) and everyone involved maintained as much physical distance as possible in the scenario and wore masks, gloves and face shields, he said. There was a lot of uncertainty regarding the fate of the Jatra last year which culminated in a clash on September 3 after people started pulling the chariots of Machhindranath and Minnath without receiving approval from the local administration. In order to avoid any unpleasant incidents this year, the District Administration Office had issued an order prohibiting more than five people from gathering around the chariot in the area between the Madan Memorial School (east), fire station (west), LABIM Mall (north) and Alka Hospital (south). According to Lalit Kumar Basnet, assistant chief district officer of Lalitpur, the order came into force from 6 am on Saturday and shall stay in place till 10 pm on Wednesday which is when the idol of Lord Machhindranath will be taken to its temple in Bungamati. Mayor of Lalitpur Metropolitan City Chiri Babu Maharjan was also present during the chariot pulling. He urged everyone to prioritise health and safety while conserving culture. Similarly, the chariot of Minnath was also only ceremonially towed in Tangal. It was only pulled a few
metres forward from its construction site and then immediately pulled back. Jyapu Samaj stated that it was only to fulfil the religious duty. Meanwhile, locals have mixed feelings about the way the Jatra was celebrated. This is the second year in a row when the Machhindranath Jatra, which starts with the Mahasnan conducted the day after Baisakh Purnima and ends on Ashad Shukla Chauthi, has been condensed into a single day. While they are happy that the tradition of pulling the chariot was maintained, albeit only symbolically, they feel sad that it could not be taken around the whole city as in previous years. Local elder and tourist guide Suresh Shakya said that the nature of Machhindranath Jatra did not allow it to be shortened. “Every leg of the procession is independently significant and has a specific purpose,” he said. “When the chariot is pulled to Gabahal, the residents of Kathmandu celebrate the Jatra, when it is pulled to Sundhara, the people of Bhaktapur celebrate Jatra, when it is taken to Lagankhel, the locals of Lalitpur celebrate and when it is taken to Jawalakhel, the rulers and the entire country celebrates.” Shakya added, “From Lagankhel to Thati, women tow the chariot which serves to include the women in the festivities. When at Lagankhel, the prasad of Karunamaya (another name for Rato Machhindranath) is taken to Kirtipur. The chariot should have been taken to Kumaripati for the living goddess Kumari to greet Machhindranath.” Shakya explained that Machhindranath Jatra was not a single festival but rather an amalgamation of 32 festivals that were merged into one in ancient times. “This is not a Jatra that can be summarised like this.” Nevertheless, he believed that something was better than nothing and was happy that the tradition of pulling the chariot remained unbroken. “Health must always come first and we Lalitpurians managed to show how grand celebrations can be held without sacrificing safety. I am very grateful to all the Guthis and the metropolitan for this,” he shared. Shakya also claimed that this year was the first time in history the chariot of Minnath did not welcome Machhindranath into the city at Pulchowk. “Jattadhari Lokeshwor (Minnath) has always been the one to bring Padmapani Lokeshwor (Machhindranath) into the city. This year, neither did Minnath welcome nor did Machhindranath come.” Rato Machhindranath, known in Nepal Bhasa as Bunga Dya, is worshipped as the god of rain and good harvest. In addition to Patan, an annual chariot procession for Rato Machhindranath is also held in Dolakha. Chovar also has its local Rato Machhindranath but does not organise a chariot Jatra. Similarly, a different chariot procession is organised in Kathmandu for Seto Machhindranath. Shakya said that Nala also used to hold a chariot festival for Seto Machhindranath but the tradition has died out.