Nepali Times
The jewelled gift of a snake god


The red god Machhendranath, is Padma Pani Boddhisatva or Lokeswar, protector and teacher of the gods themselves.

Always, at this time of the year, the chariots of the red god Machhendranath complete their rumbling journey through the city of Patan. Rain should fall on this last day of the festival as Machhendranath is, among many other things, the bountiful god of rain.

There are many, particularly among the farmers of the Kathmandu valley, who believe that if rain fails to drench the occasion, then a year of drought and hardship may result. Many are the foreign observers who are committed in writing to say that no one going to the Bhoto Jatra, as the last day of the Machhendranath festival is known, should fail to carry an umbrella, however bright the morning skies may be. (This year, the Machhendranath chariot toppled over and the Bhoto Jatra had to be postponed. Many believe some big calamity will befall Nepal. See #2 Nepali Times.)

This benign god was brought from Assam in the form of a black bee in a golden water vessel. He took up residence in a village called Bungamati where his five-foot scarlet image, traditionally painted by a single family of Patan artists is kept until it is rituallv bathed and enthroned on a threat wooden chariot to be drawn through the streets of Patan once a year. The scour, wooden yoke of the chariot with its gilded mask to which separate offerings are made, represents the snake god, Karkot, who helped to conduct Machhendranath from Assam.

The four massive wooden wheels of the chariot are believed to be invested with the spirits of the terrible Bhairabs who guarded the red god against the assault of demons on his journey to Kathmandu.

The tall spire of the chariot is a stunning construction of bamboo massively bound with cane: a tower so much larger than the chariot on which it rests that it appears to defy\' the laws of balance and gravity. Numerous ropes help to keep it erect.

Decorated with foliage and flowers and hung with banners of cloth and gilded metal, it is crowned with a bouquet of national flags.

The chariot of Minnath variously described as the son or daughter of Machhendranath, who is himself with numerous female characteristics, follows closely behind, similar in construction and apparently worshipped with equal fervour. Just when Minnath who is more popularly known as Chakuwa Dev became attached to the Machhendranath legend is uncertain.

He has no part in the entrancing story or Machhendranath\'s epic journey from Assam. Indeed, I had a pujari from the temple of Minnath insist that his beloved Chakuwa Dev is more ancient than Machhendranath, despite the popular belief that he is the child of the red god.

None of this really matters when one is part of the great throng that comes to make offerings to Machhendranath and ask his blessings on the final day of his festival. All Kathmandu fills the small space that was once a field where the god rested on his journey from Assam.

Many have camped out the entire night, beginning their devotions at first light and feasting between their spells of worship. The ground before the chariot is bright with thousands of votive lamps. And now. modern touch, ice cream vendors and gully-gully men selling brightly coloured geegaws like ribbons, balloons, hair clips and toys plough through the crowds offering earthly temptation. Continuous lines of devout scatter rice on the chariots, offer thalis of food, and feed the grimacing mouths of the snake gods.

In the afternoon, the Patan Kumari is brought in procession to view the chariots and shortly afterwards, the King and Queen arrive, members of the royal family, and ministers, come to pay homage. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for because it signals the display of the fabled bhoto, or jewelled waist coat of Machhendranath. Old and wondrous is the story. The wife of the snake god suffered an incurable eye disease. Every doctor and miracle worker had tried to cure her, without avail. All hope of restoring her eyesight had been abandoned, when a farmer came forward and achieved the impossible. He cured the queen. So great was the joy of the snake god, Karkot, that he bestowed upon the farmer, a priceless jewelled waistcoat which stupidly, the farmer lost. One day, while attending the festival of Machhendranath, the farmer saw his precious coat on a stranger who insisted it was his. An unseemly argument ensued that would have ended in bloodshed had not the snake king, who was attending the festival in the guise of a human, intervened and given the disputed coat to Machhendranath. Rumour has it that the original garment is in a foreign museum and the coat now exposed to view is a copy.

The excitement and unashamed emotion that greets the sight of the jewelled waistcoat or bhoto, as it is called, appears to disregard the story. This is a moment of timeless magic that mere rumour cannot tarnish. Genuine or not, the bhoto bestows a blessing on the faithful for yet anothet year, and I doubt that all the powerful ingredients of relentless change will ever detract from this ancient ceremony.

There is one more moment of special significance. An open-mouthed vessel is dropped from the very top of the chariot\'s spire. If it falls face down, then the people of Kathmandu valley can expect a year of plenty and happiness. But should the pot settle with its mouth pointing thirstily to the sky, then drought and distress may follow.

If one believes that fervent prayers must surely be answered, then the prayers of all Kathmandu must prevail. I saw them offered and they were impressive.

(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods,HarperCollins, 1999)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)