Kathmandu’s gravity-defying chariot festival

The procession of Karunāmaya this week is full of hidden pragmatism and teachings of the Buddha


Midway along the stretch of the ancient trade route between Tibet and India lies the Kel Tol neighbourhood. The name is derived from the original Koligrām, and it is believed the Koli people, who were originally from Rāmagrām in present-day southern Nepal near the Indian border, settled here. The Koli were the maternal ancestors of none other than the Buddha.

Kel Tol is famous for the Buddhist monastic complex of Kanak Chaitya Mahāvihar, featuring the majestic two-tiered gilded temple of the white god Karunāmaya. 

This elaborately decorated courtyard is a bustling centre of the Vajrayāna sect of Buddhism, practised widely by the indigenous Newā people of Kathmandu Valley.

Karunāmaya, also known as Ārya Avalokiteshwor, is defined in great detail in the 1st century CE Buddhist text Sadharmapundarikā where he liberates all sentient beings from suffering. He helps rid the eight external fears metaphorically equated with their equivalent internal states of mind: lions (pride), wild elephants (ignorance), fire (anger), snakes (jealousy), floods (attachment), imprisonment (miserliness), thieves (wrong views) and cannibals (doubt).

Seto Machhindranath

In the Pancha Rakshyā Sutra, a Buddhist scripture from 200 CE, Ārya Avalokiteshwor was counted among the eight major deities.

Followers of the Brāhminical god Shiva worship Ārya Avalokiteshwor as Seto Machhindranāth. For Shaivites, Machhindranāth is the Indian saint who founded the Nāth cult in the 10th century CE. He is the guru of saint Gorakhnāth.

During the reign of Yakshya Malla (1428–1482 CE), a beautiful image of Ārya Avalokiteshwor was dug up by a farmer in present-day Jamal, which was then a cultivated area outside the city. The farmer, known as a Jamami (meaning the one from Jamal) took the image home for safekeeping. That night, Ārya Avalokiteshwor appeared in the farmer’s dream and told him that the proper place for him to reside is at the confluence of two rivers.

The nearest confluence was at present-day Wongha (Indrachok) and the image was installed in the Kanak Chaitya Mahāvihar complex in Kel Tol near Wongha. This made it easier for city residents to pay homage to Ārya Avalokiteshwor and spread compassion.

Soon, the deity came to be revered highly as Jamaleshwor, the one found in Jamal. Eventually, the name got corrupted, as happens often in Nepāl Bhāsā, to Janabahā Dyo. The courtyard where his temple is located is now popularly known as Janabahā.

Seto Machhindranath

The gilded temple of Janabahā Dyo, first built in the early 16th century CE, is adorned with wooden and metal artefacts that symbolise 108 forms of Ārya Avalokiteshwor. It stands out as the most decorated temple of its kind in Kathmandu.

Today, Janabahā is a living heritage site where many ancient customs and rituals are widely practised as per Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition. Devotees throng the Janabahā Dyo shrine for daily worship and to receive Karunāmaya’s blessings.

Being the compassionate one, Ārya Avalokiteshwor goes around town every year in his tall wooden chariot to allow sick and physically disabled devotees to pay homage to him from the comfort of their homes. One could say it is a door-to-door visit by the Compassionate One. 

For the pragmatic minded, the chariot festival is an annual renewal of communal harmony, validation of our ancient mathematical supremacy and demonstration of the need to keep practical skills alive, including the craft of building earthquake resilient houses.

Seto Machhindranath

The Janabahā Dyo chariot is pulled from Jamal, where his image was found by the farmer, through the historic heart of Kathmandu in a gala parade every year. The procession, accompanied by folk music ensembles and revellers, starts on the eighth day of the bright half of the month of Chaitra, and lasts up to a week (ending on Saturday this year). Hundreds of devotees pull the chariot along the streets as a way of expressing their gratitude to lord Karunāmaya for blessing them with compassion and well-being.

Purna Ratna Vajrāchārya is an ordained priest who belongs to the clan responsible for taking care of Janabahā Dyo. He has been studying the design and architecture of the chariot for the past 40 years, and overseeing its construction for the past 15. He has learnt that the engineering principles of building the chariot are based on the mathematical system in which Buddhism is taught.

For example, 365 pieces of wood are used in the chariot, each representing a day of the year. Each of the four wheels consist of 25 pieces of wood, totalling 100, representing completeness or fulfilment. The chariot is vertically divided into 13 sections, a parallel to the Buddhist concept of Trayodashi Bhuvana that describes the 13 steps that one must take to achieve the state of Nirvana. 

Seto Machhindranath
Seto Machhindranath

 Exactly nine types of wood are used, which is the sum of the four base elements that make up the universe (earth, water, fire and air) and the five human senses.

The height and length of the chariot is 32 arm’s length (hāt in Sanskrit), 14.8m. The number 32 represents the maximum number of auspicious and physical qualities one could possess to be considered an outstanding human being. 

Says Vajrācharya, “Observing how the chariot is built helps one learn the fundamental pillars of the Buddha’s teachings, and find an easier path to Nirvana.”

The structural design of the nearly 15m wooden chariot is not only awe-inspiring but also gravity-defying. It leverages the pliancy of the materials used in its construction -- flexible joints tied with cane soaked in water for several days.

The precise proportions of the chariot ensure great manoeuverability in the narrow streets along the route of the chariot procession that include some 90° bends, without colliding into houses.

Seto Machhindranath

Driving and steering the chariot with brute muscle power of the mirthful crowd is a seemingly impossible task. But this has been achieved year after year, despite the fact that the devotees who tug wildly at the ropes lassoed to the two front wheels, are most likely in high-spirits (pun intended).

Sanjay Manandhar, a US-based technology entrepreneur, recounts how his high school physics teacher from Canada asked his students to go observe the locals build the chariots of Karunāmaya if they were interested in becoming engineers in the future. 

“That made no sense to me then, but, after all these decades, I now see clearly how the structural design of the chariot, adopted early on by our ancestors is full of earthquake-resilient properties that need to be applied in building houses in an earthquake-prone zone like Nepal,” says Manandhar.

A highlight of the chariot festival is that human goddess Kumari makes an appearance at the final destination in Lagan, usually on the third day. This is only one of the 13 times that people get to see the Kumari outside her temple abode.

Seto Machhindranath

On the last day of the festival (Saturday), the image of lord Karunāmaya is carried on a palanquin by priests from Janabahā in a gala procession and brought back to his permanent residence at the temple in Kel Tol. 

The chariot festival is thought to have started during the reign of King Pratap Malla of Kantipur in the 17th century CE. For close to four centuries, the construction of the chariot and its operation has proven to be a phenomenal engineering feat, and the people’s faith in divinity means the tradition is alive. 

The essence of the colourful rituals and the religious beliefs of this ancient chariot festival is now all but lost. The logic, technology and practicality must be brought back to light, as they reflect the high civilisation and wisdom of our ancestors that we can leverage in modern times and into the future.  

Alok Tuladhar is a culture and heritage documentarian.