Wine and women during Yenya

Indra Jatra was improvised to allow women-only events and made way for changes in society

Women-only night at Indra Jatra festival where participants drink rice wine from Swet Bhairav’s mouth as a blessing. Photos: MONIKA DEUPALA

Here is what the image shows:  her face turned towards the sky, her mouth open, catching a fountain of thwon (rice wine), flowing down Hatu Dyaa’s mouth, straight into hers.

Her eyes are shut, like they were caging inside them a perfect moment of desire. It is an image from a day at the Indra Jatra week, now, popularly known as a women-only night at the festival.

“How was it?” I ask her.

“It was exhilarating!” she texts back.

In 2017, the Yenya or Indra Jatra committee set aside a day for women to drink from Hatu Dyaa (Swet Bhairab) an activity which in the past had not been segregated by gender, and was therefore accessible mostly to men.

“It gets quite rowdy,” my friend says. And explains she had gone prepared with a “quick dry tee and shoes and all”. She says she would love to do it again and I assure her I would join her.

Growing up in Naradevi Tole, tucked away in old Kathmandu, Yenya was the focal point of the year for me, and not any other festival. In the evenings, the family would set out for a walk through the festivities.

One time, my काका raised me through a crowd of men, taking me all the way to where the wine was trickling down the mouth of Swet Bhairav. I carry a faint memory of being scooped up from the ground and being flung under the massive face of the deity as some wine spray hit me.

As a grown-up, however, I have only experienced the ceremony from a distance. I got on a call this week with some girlfriends who had attended the event in 2019, and felt an excitement rise in my belly, looking at images of them jostling to get under the wine tap.

“I definitely want to do it again,” Anbika Giri laughed. “It was hard to push others and go all the way to the wine pipe, but I still managed. It splashed  over my face, body, mouth, my hair. But I also came away with a sense of achievement.”

Bhawana Gurung, who was alongside Anbika that evening, did not exactly get to drink, but was definitely showered on as she got shoved around in the crowd: “I came home smelling like thwon.

Anbika recalls how everyone around her looked overwhelmed by the experience, despite clothes and hair that had become soaked in rice wine. She calls the experience a way of exercising your will. She calls it a symbol.

“I saw it as a way of choosing. To push your way through the crowd and then to compete to drink — not everyone gets to do it. But the thing is, you’re not being hindered. You’re making a choice to experience it,” says Anbika. “Fun events for Nepali women are limited. We’re told that enjoyment is not right. We internalise it. So this activity is a symbol to reverse that. Even if it was water instead of wine, people would still go. It is about claiming space.”

Coming from a Janjati community, Bhawana has experienced more “freedom” than her friends from other communities. “I think it’s a privilege that we don’t have to observe seclusion when we’re on our periods. I’ve also had freedom of mobility. But my mother would still bar me from drinking alcohol, which means that even within our community, my freedom is inferior to that of a man. So, the event for me was not so much about drinking, as much as it was about participating at free-will.”

Bhawana’s main take away: “We have festivals where women aren’t allowed to go to temples or attend certain festivals. If this festival can be inclusive, so can the others.”

Festivals, in different cultures, are known to restrict women’s freedom as they are mostly confined to kitchen duties, while men revel. Then, there is also the sunset curfew for women. The liberty for women to drink from a deity, has also been seen a mark of how women have the right to be outside their homes at night, participating in celebrations alongside their male relatives and friends.

Ever since drinking from the Swet Bhairav spout opened to women five years ago, women clamouring before Hatu Dyaa, have been some of the most viewed photos on social media. While a lot of these images clearly come from the male gaze, there is also the photo-opportunity side to it, the two strands representing two very different things.

Anbika says media has glamorised the event like it has always done with events where women and drinks come together. She also cites examples of front-page images from Tundikhel during festivals like Udhauli, Ubhauli and Sonam Lhosar, where it is always young women who are splashed across the pages. There is certainly the risk of over glamorisation of an event eclipsing the meaning of it, she argues.

Some images of women drinking at Indra Jatra, however, have come to represent the other side of the gaze. They depict women as aspirants to be seen as equals in a society where the festive nightlights and the right of participating in a fun activity are male entitlement.

Bhawana argues that the festival, with so many female deities at its centre, must have always had women at the heart of it. “When I watched Anil Chitrakar talking about how Indra’s mother makes the journey from Heaven to Earth to rescue her son, I instantly thought of how the festival’s crux was a woman’s journey and how that is an empowering story in itself.”

Even though Bhawana moved to Kathmandu many years ago and lived in Patan, she says she has never felt like she could be a participant in the jatras of the valley, however, a sentiment that Anbika echoes: “People who are migrants to Kathmandu shy away from local festivals even though we live here. And no one invites us. Who takes the first step to make them more inclusive is also a thing.”

Asha Thapa, who has been quietly listening to our banter interrupts: “I will surely attend the festival in a pandemic-free world for the experience. I come from a community where even as someone in my late 20s, I’ve never had alcohol with my parents and to give women an opportunity to drink publicly seems me like a way of saying that the culture is making space for women to be who they want. Whether to drink or not, is also a choice women should get to make, don’t you think?”

For over a decade now, I have sauntered around Basantapur alone during Yenya, observing its many eccentricities and critiquing its ways that are beyond my comprehension and sense of agreement. But I have also thought that if a festival can keep improvising to make way for changes in society, it also means there is hope that the culture will keep up with its people.

And so, in a pandemic-free world, I will probably jostle alongside my girlfriends, sharing a moment with them before Hatu Dyaa. For I have learned that sometimes it takes a moment in our memory to set us free.

Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.

Pratibha Tuladhar


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