The tug of tradition


Prem Lal Shilpakar of in Bhaktapur was eleven when he first worked on the chariot for the ancient Biska Jatra. The chariot, which is one of the main attractions of the festival worshipping the gods Bhairav and Bhadrakali, is an engineering marvel.

Prem Lal Shilpakar. Photo: HIMAL KHABAR.

The three-storey pagoda style chariot stands 10m tall, and is supported by four wooden wheels 2.5m in diameter, all fastened together without any nails or metal hooks.

“I used to come with my father and grandfather every day and help,” recalls Shilpakar who has been involved in the construction of the chariot for over 50 years.

Bisket Jatra begins every year in the month of Chaitra. The first day of the jatra, known as Dhwo kwabijyaigu or ‘the god carried downwards’, this year was on 10 April, and saw throngs of devotees gather in Bhaktapur to join in the festivities.

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Taking place over nine days and attended by devotees from the three cities of the Valley, the celebrations start four days before 1 Baisakh, which is Nepali New Year, and end four days after, with the chariot, Bhailakha, being pulled by locals in front of the Nyatapola Temple on both days.

Shilpakar has been in charge of the construction of the Bhailakha for the past couple of years, which begins two months before the jatra and involves all castes, with Shilpakars building the structures, Chitrakars adding colour and paints, Nakarmis installing the roof, and Manandhars tying the ropes of the chariot.

This year six artisans over the age of 40 built the Bhailakha. One of them was the 75-year-old Lal Bahadur Tamakhu, who is a farmer for ten months in a year and spends the remaining two building the chariot.

“It is God's work,” he says. “Doing it gives me great pleasure and enjoyment, and we also get to make some money.”

Prem Lal Shilpakar used to be paid 60 paisa a day when he started working on the chariot. Last year workers were paid Rs1,500 a day. But chariot-making is no walk in the park.

Lal Bahadur Tamakhu. Photo: HIMAL KHABAR.

“Since the chariot is built with wood which was already part of the construction in previous years, it is difficult to find people with the right experience,” he says. There is much care and attention involved, Shilpakar adds, as new wood is only used to replace decayed or damaged pieces. The current Bhailakha has timber that is more than 65 years old in its structure.

Lal Bahadur Tamakhu shows the ropes for the Bhailakha. Photo: HIMAL KHABAR.

But an increasing number of younger people are moving away from this ancestral craft. At present, few artisans are as experienced as Prem Lal Shilpakar in the construction, but his own sons do not share his passion or enthusiasm.

“I worry what will happen when I cannot work anymore,” he laments. “If the younger generation does not step up, this craft, this knowledge will disappear with me.”

Many local traditions and heritage in Kathmandu now risk facing the same fate with the younger generation moving overseas for studies and work. But Aash Bahadur Lakhey Ghising Deu, who joined the Bhailakha artisans three years ago, is rather hopeful and says it is up to the people to keep them thriving.

He adds: “It is a tradition passed down through generations. If we don’t do it, who will?”

Translated from the Himal Khabar original by Aria Parasai.

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