The legend behind the myth of Indra Jatra

Parijat night jasmine flowers for which, it is believed, lord of heaven Indra descended upon Kathmandu. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Indra Jatra, or Yenya, commemorates the descent of a god from heaven dressed in peasant's clothes and bent on a very human pursuit: stealing flowers.

The deity concerned was no ordinary god. He was Indra, the Lord of Heaven. When he descended on Kathmandu wrapped in a concealing cloud, no one recognised him. So much so, that when he was discovered gathering parijat night jasmine flowers, people caught and bound him hand and foot like a common thief.

For reasons best known to himself, Indra refused to reveal his identity and none suspected it even though his celestial elephant began searching the streets of Kathmandu for him. In heaven, Indra's mother, who had required the parijat flowers for the observance of a festival, grew so anxious at her son's disappearance that she also descended on Kathmandu and lost no time in letting it be known who she and her son were.

Great was the people's rejoicing and, presumably, their embarrassment. King and commoner alike celebrated their amazing good fortune with feasts and processions, song and dance. And when their divine guests were about to depart they asked a boon of Indra's mother.

Would she take with her to heaven the souls of all those who had died that year? This she readily granted, besides bestowing a gift of her own -- a gentle morning mist that would blanket the Kathmandu Valley during the autumn and winter months to ripen the harvest. Farmers are still apt to call it the gift of milk.

As for the souls of the dead, she advised that they form a chain behind her holding on to each other, with the first taking a firm grip on her sari. Away they went like the tail of a great kite. They hadn't travelled far, when something as unfortunate as spiritual vertigo or fatigue caused the chain break and all the souls fell into a lake atop a mountain south of Kathmandu, where bereaved families went to worship and honour them.

Today, Kathmandu celebrates Indra Jatra which, fused together with the festival of the living goddess Kumari, and the epic of the Nepali King Yalambar who was slain by Krishna at the battle of the Mahabharata, is Nepal's most colourful celebration. Everyone, from the king, the royal family, ministers, government servants, the general public-even foreign diplomats, are involved.

For this is the time of the year when the king receives the blessings of the Kumari who places tika on his forehead. Superstition, well supported by strange circumstance or coincidence, enhances the belief that the Kumari, in fact, bestows upon the king the right to rule for another year. When, on occasion, she has mistakenly placed tika on the wrong forehead dire consequences have resulted.

This too is the time when all the valley's Bhairab masks are displayed, particularly the great silver mask that Yalambar wore to battle, and the even larger, bejewelled golden mask of the white Bhairab in the old palace.

All over the valley, in city, town and village are strange erections of wood, like wayside crucifixions, to which are tied masked dummies representing the captive Indra. Numerous images of other gods are brought out to watch the festival, for nobody, not even the hosts of heaven, would like to miss so wondrous an event.

Hung from a tall pole in the old palace square of Kathmandu is a colourful banner representing the flag presented to Indra by Vishnu. As long as it is there it means that the lord of heaven is in Kathmandu, bestowing upon the city and the country, his blessings and protection. At the foot of the pole is a small cage, both confining and enshrining an image of Indra and a golden elephant, his traditional mount. They represent the god's captivity, so many long legends ago.

The pole itself is invested with significance. Some days before the festival begins, a government appointed priest and a select group of men from Kathmandu make for a pine forest not far from Bhaktapur. There, following ancient ritual and on-the-spot portents, they select a tree, offer prayer and blood sacrifice and after felling it, drag it in procession to the potters' village of Thimi.

Men of Thimi bear it to Kathmandu's Tundikhel from where it is finally taken to the old palace square in Kathmandu by men of the city. There follows a blessing by the royal priest, who comes accompanied by soldiers in the olden uniforms of King Prithvi Narayan's Gorkha army carrying muskets and swords, and marching to a military band out of history. As the pole is raised into position, cannons boom and music plays.

When the festival is done, the great pole is taken in procession to the river Bagmati where it is immersed, cut into pieces to feed the perpetual flame that burns at yet another Bhairab shrine on the river bank. So much for the living, for whom the Indra and Kumari jatras are carnivals of numerous attractions: dances representing the demons Lakhe and Dagini, enactments of the mortal incarnations of Vishnu, folk dramas, processions of masked 'deities,' a dancing elephant made of bamboo, painted cloth and human legs, and the massive trundle of the Kumari's rath, followed by lesser chariots of the living Ganesh and Bhairab, virgin boys selected in much the same way as the Kumari. And there is the king who can be seen more closely and more relaxed than at any other official occasion.

For the dear departed are processions of lights and symbolic processions of men and women, holding onto each other in the way the spirits of old held hopefully to the sari of Indra's heaven-bound mother. There are prayers and fasts and feasts, and finally every bereaved family sends at least one member to the mountain top lake where the spirits once fell.

For those who like a more scholarly reason for festivals such as this, it is thought that the warrior king, whose Aryan forces overpowered India, inevitably turned his attention to the Himalaya. Perhaps the warlike hill people nagged his flanks. Leading an army against them, he was captured and held prisoner until he promised some boon of settlement. The great Nepali king Yalambar ruled Nepal at the time. No one less than a god, and the Lord of Heaven at that, could have fought and come to terms with him: an interesting thought as festival chariots toll through Kathmandu.

An artist, writer, and designer, Desmond Doig moved from Calcutta to Kathmandu in the 1970s, and made the Valley his home. He died in Pokhara in 1984. Nepali Times has serialised chapters from his book, In the Kingdom of the Gods, from which this piece is extracted.