Nepal’s Grand Mela to Lord Vishnu (continue)

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Nepal’s Grand Mela to Lord Vishnu (continue)

Join us for a month-long celebration of sadhana in Nepalís Kathmandu Valley (continue)

Day 22, Trishul Batti

Vratalus perform rolling prostrations through the streets

This year the Madhav Narayan Mela coincides with the Barah Barse Panauti Makar Mela, also known as the Makar Mela. This large festival, a smaller-scale version of India’s Kumbha Mela, happens every twelve years. Over the next few days these festivals will overlap. All vratalus and helpers travel on foot, without shoes, to Panauti in Kavre District, a distance of almost twelve miles. As always, they all line up at Hanuman Ghat for the usual morning blessing and rolling prostrations before embarking on the journey. This time, however, the vratalus are met by about 40 other devotees from Bhaktapur, each carrying a Trishul batti. Trishul-Batti is made by wrapping ghee-coated cotton fiber around a tulsi stem to make a trident that stands on a diced gourd, all held in a plate made of leaves. The devotees light their Trishul batti while the pujari chants the mantras, then set the lamps afloat in the river. Cultural expert Binod Raj Sharma tells us, “Trishul batti is for the protection of the devotees against all evils. Trisul represents Siva, and this Trishul batti is a joining of Mahadev and Narayana.”

After finishing the day’s prostrations the vratalus depart for Panauti carrying baskets laden with their Kalash items.

Day 23, Ghats of Panauti

This next day, we witness huge crowds at the Indreshwar Temple complex and the ghats of Panauti. Most have come for the Makar Mela, which started when the Sun shifted from Sagittarius to Capricorn.‭ ‬We meet everyone from Bhaktapur at Panauti’s Triveni Ghat by 7:30am. After blessings, we walk with the vratalus to the Indreshwar Mahadev Temple, where they start their daily regimen of prostrations. They finish at the ghats, having covered a distance of about 1/4 mile. The Indreshwar Mahadev Temple, built in 1224ce, is one of the oldest and largest surviving wooden temples in Nepal. According to the14th-century manuscript Gopal Raj Vanshavali, the temple was constructed by Princess Birmadevi of Panauti kingdom and took nine decades for its completion. The golden pinnacle was a gift from King Jayasingh Ramvardhan in 1383ce.

Day 25, Pashupatinath Yatra

On the tenth day after the new moon, devotees have traveled to Kathmandu to start their kalasha yatra from Arya Ghat at the Pashupatinath Temple. After filling their kalashas with the river water from the Bagmati, the vratalus ascend to the temple through the eastern entrance before pilgrimaging across the Gaushala district to the Tamreshwar Mahadev Temple.

After paying respect to Tamreshwar Mahadev, Rajeev distributes biscuits and 10-rupee notes as offerings to all the vratalus and helpers, who then commence their 8.7-mile foot yatra to Hanuman Ghat, where they break their fast.

Day 27, Changu Narayan Yatra

On the twelfth day after the new moon, we drive to Changunarayan town, to the north of Bhaktapur. The vratalus have trekked here and have already arrived at the Sankha Pond, located in a champak forest. These trees produce intoxicatingly aromatic flowers in warmer months of the year (you may be familiar with champak incense). Together we all make a short journey through the jungle hills to the Changu Narayan Temple complex. This visit symbolizes the never-ending bond between the two Narayans, Changu and Madhav.

Changu Narayan Temple, located atop Dolagiri hill, is the oldest of the area’s four main Narayan temples. This two-story temple stands on a high plinth of stone and is embossed with detailed metal and wood carvings. It represents a historically important advent in the Nepali temple architecture. In the temple complex are centuries-old scriptures and stone statues of Vishnu in the forms of Sridhara Vishnu, Vaikuntha Vishnu, Vishwarup, Vishnu Vikrant and Narsimha. The complex also houses a temple for Chinnamasta Devi and for Chanda Narayan, a 7th-century stone sculpture of Vishnu riding on Garuda, and a Kileshwar, a temple dedicated to Siva.

Day 29, Kamal Vinayaka

On the midday of Chaturdashi, the fourteenth day after the new moon, we rush to Kamal Vinayak Temple, also known as the Lotus Ganesha Temple, at the eastern end of Bhaktapur district. This Ganesha temple has a fairly big pond. When we arrive, the vratalus are blowing conches behind a large crowd of photographers and visitors. Helper women are singing Madhav Narayan Bhajan, and others are dancing. For the first time there are musicians, boys in their mid-teens playing dhimey drums and clashing cymbals, to lead the kalasha procession. I follow the procession around bus stands, hay bonfires, the Dattatreya Temple (a famous Siva Temple of Bhaktapur), and finally back to Hanuman Ghat to conclude the day’s foot pilgrimage. Today’s procession has the largest number of people so far.

At Hanuman Ghat, when everyone has settled down to relax a bit, we gift the vratalus with photo prints of the month’s events. They tell us many photographers have come to Hanuman Ghat over the years, but none before had ever gifted photographs. Their gratitude humbles us. Once again we end up with our bags full of prasadam in the form of biscuits, peas and plenty of sweet yomaris.

That afternoon eight Chitrakars (a family name literally meaning “artists”) come to Hanuman ghat to paint the many clay pots that will be used in the final day’s puja. The Chitrakar family have been offering this painting seva for three generations, according to Rajesh Chitrakar. He recounts his memories of accompanying his father to Hanuman Ghat for the first time when he was six years old. His father introduced him to the colors and the pots, and taught him to paint religious motifs on them. Since then he has always made time for this seva.

The clay pots were made and donated by potter Jagannath Prajapati. Continuing his father’s tradition, Jagannath and his brother Vishwanath Prajapati have been offering this religious service for more than 20 years. Their father, an ardent devotee of Madhav Narayan, had participated as a vratalu for 20 years, while also making each pot required for the puja. This year Jagannath has donated 60 pots in total, of varying sizes.

Day 30, Sangey Puja

Sangey is the closing puja performed on the last day of the festival. On this day the crowd is massive. It seems as though every Bhaktapur local has come to Hanuman Ghat. The morning lighting is beautiful, and my camera frame is filled with some 20 prostrators standing against the backdrop of 200 or more women, mostly clad in red, and hundreds more spectators.

As a last prostration tribute to Madhav Narayan for this year, the vratalus trace the earthen path that circles Hanuman Ghat. The atmosphere comes alive with the massive crowd chanting “Madhav Narayan! Madhav Narayan!” in one voice, all combined with the mystical drone of the many conches. As the vratalus finish the prostrations and lie partially in the river, the feeling is serene. The event is so enthralling that I almost forget to take photos.

All the women are wearing red, the married ones in their bright red bridal dresses. They sit in rows around the Madhav Narayan altar and set up their puja plates. On the right side of the altar is a beautifully decorated hawan kunda, sacred fire pit. The painted pots from the day are staged all around, decorated with ritual items like flowers and ribbons. Each pot is full of sacred water and herbs. They are said to become imbued with divine radiations from the fire ritual. When the sacred flame is lit, the assisting pujari reads verses from the Kushkandika Yagya Vidhi, as the head pujari Sarojan and head priestess Saroja Sharma perform the grand puja to the Madhav Narayan. Each woman performs a personal puja, following Sarojan’s example.

During the puja, the vratalus run back and forth, collecting puja items as needed and handling the incoming offerings from devotees. Meanwhile, the kitchen team are cooking sattvik foods such as kheer, spinach, fried potatos and peas for the upcoming feast, which will feed the hundreds of devotees. In the middle of puja, the pujari Sarojan sings the glories of Narayana and Magh month. He narrates Ram lila from Ramayana and Krishna lila from Vishnu Purana.

Following the puja is an energetic kalasha yatra, tracing the same route as in the morning. Afterwards, all the small painted pots are gifted to vratalus as a blessing, while the Indra Kalasha (the largest pot) is offered to a bronze statue of the 17th-century king Bhupatindra Malla, which kneels on the column in front of Taleju Temple at his Bhaktapur Palace Square. Uddhav Khaitu, 73, the Naya (male group leader), carries the pot to the King with his entourage of vratalus. The Naya stands right beneath the King’s statue, and devotees come up one by one for final blessings. This ends the month-long festival.

Narayan Returns Home

Although the Madhav Narayan festival officially ends with the full moon, the vratalus must perform one last ritual, Gau daan, which literally translates as “cow donation.” Today this has come to refer to one of the most divine donations anyone can make in their lifetime: giving offerings to the priests who have helped you through your spiritual disciplines. In Nepal this must take place following the month’s fasting and rituals.

After bathing, the vratalus sit in a line along the Hanuman Ghat. They have their ritual items: an offering tray of flour and rice topped with money, flowers, ginger, spinach and biscuits. Both pujaris conduct the ritual, chanting the vratalus’ names and family lineage names. They offer oil lamps and sprinkle river water over the vratalus’ heads, repeating prayers to all Gods. The vratalus then give their offerings to the priests, honoring and thanking them for their divine invocations throughout the 30 days. Lastly, amid mild fanfare, everyone parades to Ishwari Shrestha’s house to return his family’s Narayan murti to him. Madhav Narayan!

By Nikki Thapa & Rajeev Gurung, Nepal