Kathmandu festivals muted amidst coronavirus lockdown
Spring is the season for Kathmandu Valley’s traditional festivals like Bhaktapur’s Bisket Jatra, Machhindranath in Kathmandu and Patan, as well as Ram Nawami and Chaite Dasain which this year falls on Wednesday and Thursday.
But the coronavirus lockdown means many of the celebrations will be muted, or cancelled.
Every year in April, head priest Naike Krishna Bhakta Chhunka in Bhaktapur would be very busy preparing for the Bisket Jatra organising the construction of a three storey pagoda-style chariot.
His room is surrounded by prayer paraphernalia required for performing the rituals for the festival whose highlight is a chariot procession attended by tens of thousands of people.
This year, it is all quiet. Chunk will not be needed any of it. Due to the COVID-19 lockdown and fears of an outbreak, all festivals in Kathmandu Valley in which large numbers of people gather, have either been cancelled or scaled down.
However, with no need to prepare for the festival, head priest Chhunka has more time to attend to devotees who worship at the temple, and he has extended the closing time from 8pm to 10pm.
“This year, there will only be prayers and offerings performed by the priests at the shrine, and there will be no chariot,” says Ananda Karmacharya, of Guthi Sansthan, the government organisation that supports festivals.
Sunil Prajapati, the Mayor of Bhaktapur, says that to abide by the government’s lockdown rule, the municipality has cancelled all other festivals as well. “To protect everyone from the pandemic, citizens need to be well-informed and alert,” says Prajapati. “We can always celebrate our festivals next year.”
Even so, some cultural experts fear that the centuries-old Bisket Jatra and other festivals which date back even before the Lichhavi period could be irreversibly altered or even stopped.
“Due to the outbreak, we should not limit ourselves to the incomplete version of the Jatra, but should also try to come up with alternative solutions,” notes cultural expert Binod Raj Sharma, who suggests a truncated version of the chariot festival in which selected people bring out the Bhairavnath figure and place it on a smaller chariot to be pulled by just four people and carry out a symbolic ceremony without bystanders and devotees.
“There could be the traditional musicians performing Bhajans in front of the chariot while wearing surgical masks,” Sharma suggests.
Another cultural expert, Lochan Shrestha, disagrees, saying Bhaktapur cannot risk spreading the pandemic by allowing large congregations of people. He says, “It is true that the jatra’s true essence comes from the crowd that comes together to celebrate it, and we cannot risk that right now.”
Festivals in Patan, Kathmandu, Kirtipur, Bungamati, Khan and Sankhu are also going to be affected, including the Machhendranath festival next month, according to Hari Subedi, of the Guthi Sansthan for Kathmandu.
In Bhaktapur itself, other local and smaller jatra like Tipwa, Kha: Lwakegu and Dhyo Swanga Biyagu have already been cancelled for this year.
“To give continuity to our tradition in a safe way, our panel of organisers have decided to just carry out private rituals at the temples and not have large gatherings,” says Bhaktapur’s Chief District Officer Humkala Pandey.