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A chariot through time

Monday, November 7th, 2016


The chariots of Rāto Matysendranāth and Minnāth in Thaina, June 1977. The first picture of the chariot festival taken by the author.

The chariots of Rāto Matysendranāth and Minnāth in Thaina, June 1977. The first picture of the chariot festival taken by the author.

Bruce Mccoy Owens

Forty years ago at Patan’s Mangal Bazar a gaggle of young boys vied to be my guide. All but one recited the same litany of sights to see: “Golden Temple, Mahabauddha Temple, Krishna temple…” But one boy asked if I wanted to see a festival. I hired him on the spot. The spectacle to which he brought me has fascinated me ever since.

A towering chariot was stuck on what was then the muddy road leading through Thaina, and hundreds of people were struggling to pull it without success. The grandeur of Darbar Square, combined somehow with its human scale and dizzying detail convinced me that this was where I wanted to live and study. I returned to research Rāto Matsyendranāth Rath Jātrā as a window into Newa culture.

I used photography as a tool for learning as well as documenting a festival that was inherently chaotic. As  an anthropologist, I try to have as little impact as possible and introduce myself to the people involved and ask to meet them again to talk about what they were doing. I give them copies of the photographs and use them to ask questions.

In the early years of my research, I used two cameras to shoot in color and black and white. Ganesh Photo Labs in Bhimsenthan developed hundreds of rolls of black and white, but for color I used Kodachrome slide film because of its accuracy and longevity. Though people were appreciative of the prints I gave them, upon receiving them, they almost inevitably asked, “Rangin madulā?” (“Aren’t there any in color?”)


The Exhibition at Patan Museum and my recent Photo Kathmandu exhibits in Matsyendra Bahal and Bungamati are continuations of my practice of learning through sharing images and thanking those portrayed within them. For the three exhibitions I have chosen only a few of the thousands, based largely on the power of the images to convey the beauty of the festival the wide range of participants who make it possible. I have focused primarily on images of decades past, as today thousands of festival participants are also photographing and filming it.

This exhibition is intended to honor all those who have contributed to the longevity and continued vitality of this extraordinary tradition, and I hope all those who view it will share their thoughts and memories with me and one another.

The Chariot Festival of Matsyendranāth: 40 Years of Photographs

Patan Museum, Open all days of the week 10AM – 5PM, Exhibit on view till 26 November, Entrance Free

Bruce McCoy Owens is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College in the United States.

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