Barely had the chaos generated by the tremors settled, rumors started doing the rounds about how the recklessness in handling the chariot of the Rato Machhendranath was to be blamed for the massive disaster. They didn’t follow the predetermined route which they were to follow to get the chariot from Bungamati to Patan, it was said, and the gods were angry because of this opposition to the tradition.
Many came and speculated and discussed their own reasons for what happened, some even placed blame on the priests who were said to have performed the rituals from the wrong side of the chariot. Some were even convinced that the chariot pullers were at fault. The speculation has further been fuelled by the fact that more than two months after the earthquake, the chariot is still where it was last left in Chyasikot in Lalitpur. As concerned authorities mull over its reconstruction, it’s sad to note that the chariot has been left in a poor condition, with one damaged wheel, where the constant sun and rain only worsens the state of the chariot.
However, Guthi Sansthan, the government body that is authorized to organize the festival, is trying its best to get the festival to take off again. Rudra Nath Adhikari, chairperson of the Guthi Sansthan in Machhendra Bahal in Lalitpur, who is mainly responsible for the overall conduct of the festival, dismisses the rumors.
“People have their own reasoning related to what has transpired. But we can’t let it affect our work of bringing the festival back to its glory as the rumors are baseless,” he says. But the Guthi Sansthan hasn’t been able to relay this thought to the general public, erasing any hope of relieving the public from their worries and putting a stop to the rumors.
Around two weeks ago, the members of the Guthi Sansthan formed a 19-member committee comprising of different stakeholders and officials for a special study of the condition of the chariot to decide on the recommencing of the festivities. The result of the committee was submitted only earlier this week and the officials are themselves confused as to what should be done.
Saroj Thapaliya, leader of the 19-member committee says that they have to pull apart the chariot to actually decide its fate, though he has a hunch that the chariot will most probably need to be reconstructed. “Simple maintenance of the structure is not enough now. We need to take it apart and see how much damage has been done to the skeleton of the structure to know its fate,” he says.
Acting on this hunch, the Guthi Sansthan has been collecting raw materials from different partners and sources required to remake the chariot. Woods from plants like shanadana, phalat, mahel, saur, etc, have been assembled in the premises of Guthi Sansthan in Machhendra Bahal for the same purpose.
But Purna Mangal, one of the four astrologers consulted for the chariot pulling festival, says that they didn’t have to wait this long for the festival to resume. “According to the old scriptures, it’s written that you have to conduct a ritual asking for forgiveness from the gods in the account of an earthquake. But it doesn’t say you have to put a stop to it altogether if there are aftershocks,” he says.
But as this was a special year for Rato Machhendranath festival, Guthi Sansthan decided to resume the rituals properly. But it was a double whammy this year to gather the materials to make the chariot: the Barha Barse Mela, happening once every 12 years, fell this year and it was mandatory that they get new construction materials – from the woods to the ropes.
The earthquake is bound to double their challenges. Once the festival resumes, whenever that may be, they will have a problem maneuvering the chariot around the mostly narrow streets of the city. It will be difficult to operate the jangla, the thick ropes used to maneuver the chariot, which are pulled and controlled by climbing the roofs of the houses as the chariot moves on, because even the houses that fall in the route that the chariot will pass by are weakened by the earthquake and need support of their own.
The state of the weakened houses will also question the safety of the people who come to watch it, as it attracts thousands of people from around the city and there is no provision made yet to guarantee that they will be safe.
One must keep these questions in mind, as the concerned people proceed to make decisions regarding the fate of the chariot. Rato Machhendranath festival is one that attracts not only national and cultural spotlight, but also the international limelight for its uniqueness.
Besides, Rato Machhendranath chariot festival is a time of celebration for people every year, but due to the circumstances this time around, it remains to be seen how people will take to the festival. Caretakers who are in charge of looking after the chariot in Chyasikot say that the devotees haven’t stopped coming despite the situation. In fact, the number grows every weekend, proving to some extent that despite the circumstances, belief of the people in the Gods and protectors still remains intact.
The festival is conducted by consulting the lunar calendar, which states that festival related activities are forbidden from June 16 till July 16. As the date is nearing, people are expecting the festival to resume immediately after July 16. Balram Limbu is one of them. Limbu, who has a carpentry shop in Chyasikot where the chariot rests, says that he is excited for the festival to resume, but also laments that it won’t be near his home anymore.
“My business is going really well ever since Machhendranath’s chariot has been here. People frequently come to worship the chariot and stay back for refreshments. Small eateries have been greatly benefited by this, and with them, my business, as I’ve been getting a lot of orders to make benches for them,” he says with a smile.
No doubt that people in Patan are waiting for the festivities to resume, most probably because the reminder of the festival in the form of the Minnath’s chariot that has been standing in Na:tole.
It is definitely so for Shreejana Bajracharya, whose family is responsible for the morning and evening aartis once Rato Machhendranath is in Patan. “Once the chariot crosses the river in Nakkhu, we are responsible for offering the first and last aarti of the day to Machhendranath,” she says, adding, “We are waiting for the Guthi Sansthan to make a decision.”
Despite the rumors, there is no doubt that people are looking forward to one of the most popular festivals of the city. Many are anxiously waiting for the day when the festivities will resume, giving people a religious distraction from the natural disaster that has changed the face of the nation. But as per the Guthi Sansthan’s workings, it’s going to be a long wait.