Thunder god romps in Katmandu

by Jon Burbank

For eight wild, magical and sometimes disconcerting days each September the great festival of Indrajatra turns Katmandu into a raucous celebration.

A living goddess rides a massive thundering chariot through narrow streets crammed with worshippers. A god battles demons by turns fierce and comical. A white elephant careens through a crowd that laughs even as their heads get knocked.


Young men jostle to drink beer spewing from a god’s huge white-fanged mouth. The ferocious red-maned demon Lakhe dances through the streets with upraised sword, scaring the pants off every kid in town.

Indrajatra commemorates an ancient instance of celestial “wrong place, wrong time” that turned into phenomenal good luck for the Katmandu Valley. The Hindu god of rain, Indra, came to the valley to collect flowers that his mother, Dagini, needed to celebrate the approaching women’s festival of Teej. Disguised as a mortal, Indra strolled the valley collecting flowers. Being a god, he wasn’t accustomed to asking permission, so he picked whatever and wherever he wanted.

Katmandu farmers treasured their flowers (they still do) and it wasn’t long before an irate posse followed the trail of missing blossoms, pounced on Indra and bound him up as a thief.

They scoffed at his claims of divinity. Indra’s white elephant, half faithful mount, half companion, came down to earth and, after looking everywhere, found him, but, unable to free him, went back and got Dagini.

She came before the farmers and pleaded for her son’s forgiveness. The farmers hemmed and hawed, but finally let Indra go. In return Dagini granted the farmers a boon: heavy fogs to water crops during autumn and winter’s dry months, which still bless farmers’ fields. Indrajatra commemorates the farmers’ good fortune.

Indrajatra is also when the Kumari places a red tika mark on the King’s forehead, reaffirming his rule for the coming year.

The Kumari, a young girl selected as the living incarnation of the goddess Kumari, lives in her beautiful 18th-century palace beside the old royal palace. Her reign ends when she reaches puberty or bleeds from a wound, so she and her family enjoy things while they can. The Kumari is spoiled terribly with whatever she wants, but it is a life of isolation. She lives secluded from public contact. Casual trips to the bazaar are forbidden (her feet must never touch the ground).

Indrajatra is the only time she appears publicly, pulled through Katmandu’s narrow streets in a massive wagon with wooden wheels as tall as a man. It takes dozens of men to pull, and each neighborhood in the city takes its turn organizing a group of men to haul it.

Crowds lean out upstairs windows showering her with coins, flowers and short prayers as her throne rumbles past, all with the hope that this will obtain the goddess’ good favor for the next year. Fueled by the moment’s passions and more than a little home-brew, progress is ragged. Sometimes the huge eyes on her wagon wheels don’t see very well. Power poles are knocked down, tile roofs demolished and spectators’ bones are broken.

Indra fights the demons during the Indrajatra Festival in Katmandu.

Masks of Bhairab, god of wrath and destruction, are also displayed and worshipped. Dozens of masks gaze fiercely along the city’s streets, but two are truly awesome.

Fearsome purple Akash (sky) Bhairab towers above the crowd. Each neighborhood buries him beneath wreaths of flowers and constructs mounds of fruit to appease him. As soon as one group is finished, everything is cleared and another group appears, arms heaped with fragrant flower wreaths as thick as a man’s leg.

Seto (white) Bhairab near the old palace is even bigger. For three nights, rice beer trickles out of a pipe protruding from his mouth, a white-fanged maw that could easily swallow a man. Drinking this beer guarantees good luck, and hundreds of young men vault each other’s shoulders to get a sip. Luckiest of all is the man who swallows the single small live fish placed in the beer.

Indra, an elaborately costumed and masked dancer, vanquishes dancers dressed as demons in a ritual dance performed in neighborhood squares all across the old city. Children watch mesmerized. Old people grow nostalgic as the world of their childhood returns for an evening.

The demon Lakhe, with hideous scarlet face and mane, bounds through the streets as a drum beat warns of his coming. Terrified children huddle behind the nearest grownup’s legs. More than a few passersby are roughly shoved to the side as he rushes on. Dripping sweat, radiating body heat from his exertions, neck veins popping under his heavy mask, caught up in the emotions of his romping dance, Lakhe is a powerful figure. Like most elements of Indrajatra he creates a tension, a prick of danger, as he roams the city.

Even the comic search of Indra’s faithful elephant has two sides. The elephant’s mask has no eye holes, and the two men inside the wicker body rely on guides. Sometimes these guides simply let go. The crowd roars as the elephant careens from side to side, but more than a few come away with bruised bodies and egos.

Under the silver light of a full moon Indrajatra works the same magic it has for more than two centuries. There is an energy that is almost primordial, taking us back to a time when we all believed the gods really did roam our streets. It is an atmosphere all too often lost in our age of tailored-for-tourism, Disney-esque “events.” There are no souvenir Indrajatra towels or boxes of chocolates. There are no Kumari butter cookies.

Indrajatra is still the real thing. There is a lot of fun, but with a touch of danger — which makes the festival all the more memorable.

A craftsman touches up the Seto Bhairab mask.