Police stop Patan chariot pulling citing Covid-19
The Machindranath festival is usually supposed to be in May to ensure that the rain gods bring a timely monsoon. The chariot was built during the lockdown, but police stopped it from being pulled on Thursday to enforce the extension of the lockdown in Kathmandu Valley.
Police tried to reason with members of the guthi that handles the logistics, but some of them started pelting stones at a police van. They were then tear gased and police used water cannon to disperse the crowd. Although most of the pullers were wearing masks, there was a crowd of about 200 people.
Authorities have once again extended the lockdown in Kathmandu Valley by a week until 9 September to contain the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the community. All services are closed except for essentials and crowding is restricted.
Roshan Dhungana of the Lalitpur Guthi Sansthan says they were unaware about the chariot procession. “It shouldn’t have happened during the lockdown, despite the government’s ban but we had no idea.”
On Monday, 30 members of a prayer group that regularly chanted in front of the chariot every morning tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Neither the Guthi Sansthan or local groups were said to be aware about the chariot being pulled today, and it is not clear who authorised it. The devotees appeared to have moved the chariot since the coming month is regarded as inauspicious, and there were angry comments from a range of supporters who said the festival could not be stopped because it was a part of Patan's intangible cultural heritage.
Indeed, the Machindranath chariot's circumambulation of Patan, and its travel to and from Bungamati every 12 years is a major part of the city's cultural calendar.
Police fought pitched battles in Pulchok for a while against protesters angry at being prevented from pulling the chariot. Several policemen, including a traffic policeman, were hurt when stone-pelting protesters attacked them.
The local government has tried to stop the chariot procession because of the fear that it would make the outbreak of Covid-19 in Kathmandu worse.
On Thursday, Kathmandu Valley recorded 445 more people with the virus. Nepal saw its highest total testing positive with 1,288 in the past 24 hours taking the nationwide total to 42,877. So far 24 607 people have recovered.
The red god resides in the Machindranath temple in Bungamati, except for six months in a year when it is drawn through the streets of Patan in a chariot. Usually, the god is ceremonially installed on the chariot in mid-May and devotees believe that the chariot pulling will appease the rain god before the monsoon. This year, the festival has been by five months due to the coronavirus crisis.
The chariot festival is often linked to the fate of the nation, and in fact the years in which the Machindranath chariot has keeled over or caught fire have been closely followed by major political upheavals and natural calamities in Nepal.
Many of the faithful at the chariot this year will be praying for a speedy end to the pandemic, and a return to normalcy for the country.
All photos: BIKRAM RAI