Today, Kathmandu celebrates Indra Jatra which, fused together with the festival of the living goddess Kumari, and the epic of the Nepali King Yalambar who was slain by Krishna at the battle of the Mahabharata, is Nepal’s most colourful celebration. Everyone, from the king, the royal family, ministers, government servants, the general public-even foreign diplomats, are involved.
For this is the time of the year when the king receives the blessings of the Kumari who places tika on his forehead. Superstition, well supported by strange circumstance or coincidence, enhances the belief that the Kumari, in fact, bestows upon the king the right to rule for another year. When, on occasion, she has mistakenly placed tika on the wrong forehead dire consequences have resulted.
This too is the time when all the valley’s Bhairab masks are displayed, particularly the great silver mask that Yalambar wore to battle, and the even larger, bejewelled golden mask of the white Bhairab in the old palace.
All over the valley, in city, town and village are strange erections of wood, like wayside crucifixions, to which are tied masked dummies representing the captive Indra. Numerous images of other gods are brought out to watch the festival, for nobody, not even the hosts of heaven, would like to miss so wondrous an event.
Hung from a tall pole in the old palace square of Kathmandu is a colourful banner representing the flag presented to Indra by Vishnu. As long as it is there it means that the lord of heaven is in Kathmandu, bestowing upon the city and the country, his blessings and protection. At the foot of the pole is a small cage, both confining and enshrining an image of Indra and a golden elephant, his traditional mount. They represent the god’s captivity, so many long legends ago.
The pole itself is invested with significance. Some days before the festival begins, a government appointed priest and a select group of men from Kathmandu make for a pine forest not far from Bhaktapur. There, following ancient ritual and on-the-spot portents, they select a tree, offer prayer and blood sacrifice and after felling it, drag it in procession to the potters’ village of Thimi.
Men of Thimi bear it to Kathmandu’s Tundikhel from where it is finally taken to the old palace square in Kathmandu by men of the city. There follows a blessing by the royal priest, who comes accompanied by soldiers in the olden uniforms of King Prithvi Narayan’s Gorkha army carrying muskets and swords, and marching to a military band out of history. As the pole is raised into position, cannons boom and music plays.