Tuesday, 18 January, 2022

The Other Horse Festival

Aashish Mishra

The contrast between the horse festivals of Kathmandu and Lalitpur could not be greater. While the festival is marked by the army in the grandest of manners with demonstrations in Kathmandu, a single Guthi and a small group of Guthiyars conduct a quiet celebration in Lalitpur. While skilled horsemen ride their exquisitely trained stallions, performing extravagant stunts and acrobats in Tudikhel, a lone steed calmly roams around the ancient settlements of Patan – ridden not by a soldier but by an average civilian with no more horse-riding credentials than you and me. While the Ghode Jatra in Kathmandu is nationally famous, attended by dignitaries, including the President and the Prime Minister, and broadcast live on television, the Yaaka Sala Jatra (Lone Horse Festival) in Lalitpur is hardly even a city-wide affair. Even people living in the core areas are found to be unaware of the festival’s existence in their city.
Taking place on the same day as Ghode Jatra, the Yaaka Sala Jatra gets overshadowed by the more lavish fair next door. But that should not prevent us from delving into the history of this festival because its origins are rooted in an interesting account of perhaps the only time in Nepali history when a king has willingly acknowledged and accepted one of his servants as an equal to himself and an extension of the monarchy.
The story begins with Shiva Simha Malla, the king of Kantipur. Malla was an ambitious king ever keen on conquering his neighbouring states and expanding the territories of his kingdom. In 1597, he attacked and conquered Lalitpur and he ruled the city until his death in 1619. In Lalitpur, he had a stable where his horses were attended to by the finest caretakers of his kingdom. One of these caretakers was a young man from Walkhu Chibahal, well-liked by his peers and devoted to his work.
One day, Shiva Simha (called King Simsim by his subjects) decided to visit the stable. There, he saw all his horses very healthy and well-groomed. Happy, he went around the stable, meeting the caretakers personally and rewarding them for their work.
At one corner, one a stack of hay, he saw the young man from Walku sleeping. The king called him but he did not wake up. So, Shiva Simha went closer but then, he stepped back in astonishment. Over the young man’s head was a five-headed cobra spread out like an umbrella. The cobra was guarding him.
This left the King speechless. The young man was no ordinary human; he was divine. It would be a great sin to keep him working as a horse attendant, Shiva Simha felt. So, he woke the man up, bowed before him and gave him his sword as an acknowledgement of his holy status. “From this day forth,” Shiva Simha declared, “This man shall be a king in his own right – equal to and even greater than the royal family. In him resides divinity.”
With the King’s sword in hand, the man was then taken around the city from the centre at Mangalbazaar to his home in Walkhu to Bhola Ganesh and the outer limits of the city at Balkumari. The man rode on a horse while the Shiva Simha, his ministers and his generals walked behind. This is still enacted every year on the new moon day of the dark lunar fortnight by the Bhimsen Guthi of Patan.
Over time, maybe to add excitement to the ritual, people began intoxicating the horse with alcohol, causing it to run wildly as if it were blind. That is why the Yaaka Sala Jatra was also referred to as Kano Ghoda Jatra (Blind Horse Festival) in the past. This is no longer done though and the horse used these days is kept completely sober.