Nepal’s Grand Mela to Lord Vishnu
Every year during the nepalese month of magh (january/february), crowds of devotees make their way to the Hanuman Ghat in Bhaktapur, a city in the eastern corner of Kathmandu Valley. They come here to observe a month-long festival to Madhav Narayan, a name for Lord Vishnu. The festival starts on the full moon of the previous month and ends during the full moon of Magh.
The event emphasizes personal devotion and discipline in the forms of daily fasting, special pujas, pilgrimages to various shrines by foot and by rolling and walking prostrations which are done by the few that have dedicated themselves to this more intense form of sadhana. The earliest written mention of this festival is dated at 1604ce, when the event was said to have simply been a month of personal worship and fasting. In later years, with the patronage of the royal family, it slowly took on the popularity and grandeur that is seen today.
For the duration of the festival, a small murti of Narayan is brought to the festival’s epicenter, the Hanuman Ghat, located in Bhaktapur, which lies about eight miles east of Kathmandu. In the following days, Narayan is paraded to many of the area’s most ancient and renowned temples, accompanied by a group of men and women who have taken vows, or vratas, to observe special disciplines for the month. These devotees are thus known as vratalus.
Hanuman Ghat itself, Khorey in the Newari language, is a religious pilgrimage site for the Newars, the natives of Bhaktapur. It is located at Triveni, the holy confluence of the Veera, Bhadra and Tamasa rivers, which merge to form the mighty waters of the Hanumate. Veera is commonly known as the Brahmayeni River, while the Bhadra is the Tabyakhusi. The Tamasa is a river of legend which originates beneath the ghat itself.
Legend says that when Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman were en-route to Ram’s kingdom, Ayodhya, after the epic battle in Sri Lanka, they stopped here to bathe at the confluence. They then enjoyed a mix of rice and yogurt, shared on a banana leaf. Hanuman, being the humble servant He is, didn’t want his touch to defile his God’s food, so He pierced the earth underneath him to create a natural spring in which He could wash his hand before every bite from the shared plate. When Ram noticed this humble act, He hugged Hanuman tightly and named the area the Hanuman Ghat. The spring of water Hanuman created is believed to be the Tamasa.
Also according to Newar folklore, in the Treta Yuga, after the poet Valmiki composed the Ramayana, he visited many holy sites, including Hanuman Ghat and installed a Sivalingam there for his morning puja. Today it is known as Valmikeshwar Mahadev.
While the ghat has many shrines, it has no Narayan murti of its own. For the past 300 years, the tradition has been to borrow the Shrestha-Vaidya family’s 12-inch tall silver murti. On the first day of the festival, the assistant pujari brings the Madhav Narayan murti to Hanuman Ghat from Ishwari Prasad Shrestha’s home. A temporary shrine for Narayan is kept at the site for the full month. For each of the festival’s 30 days, the murti is brought to the river for blessings, after which it travels with the vratalus for their day’s disciplines. At day’s end, the Madhav Narayan murti is carried back to the enclosed area near Hanuman Ghat and placed at its makeshift altar. Each evening the male vratalus return to homes in the area, while the women perform a special dhala puja (an offering of water with a conch) at an altar at Hanuman Ghat Ashram. There they stay the night and live here for the entire month, only eating one saltless meal each evening. After the festival, during the full moon, Magh Shukla Purnima, the murti is carried back to its original home.
Nepalese Hindus worship different forms of Sri Narayan and Lakshmi for each month of the year. Madhav Narayan, the Narayan for the month of Magh (January/February), has held a special significance for the people of Bhaktapur district for as long as anyone remembers. Bhaktapur locals observe a fast and venerate Narayan, and others travel from far away to pay homage to the God any day during the festival.
Day 1, Arriving at the Ghat
Throughout the festival, I must start at dawn to drive the 25 miles with Rajeev Gurung (my co-author) and reach the site before 7am. Many people are baffled when I tell them that such a short trip takes a full two and a half hours; but Kathmandu’s narrow, winding roads are always under construction, and like many other developing countries we lack the concept of sticking to our side of the road. Drivers and riders adopt a serpentine wiggle as they weave their way along the roads and around the slower vehicles ahead of them.
Rajeev is the best friend of one of my younger brothers. We have known each other for over 25 years, so he is like a sibling to me. He speaks perfect Nepali, Hindi, English, French and Newari, the local language of Bhaktapur. We both love learning about people, culture and traditions, so this mela offered us a perfect opportunity to combine our skill sets.
Binod Prajapati, one of the vratalus, tells us Kathmandu Valley was under a partial Covid-19 lockdown when the Madhav Narayan Festival started, therefore the number of vratalus, audience and visitors were reduced to one-fourth. Kathmandu’s District Administration Authority had imposed an odd/even rule for traffic movement based on vehicle registration numbers, so we could only attend the festival on alternate days.
Arriving in Bhaktapur for our first full day, we hear the Madhav Narayan bhajan resounding from Hanuman Ghat as we approach: “Madhav Narayan! Madhav Narayan! Guli daya dumha re. Bhakta yaata kripa tayaa darshan byumha re…”
We reach the ghat at 6:30am. This ancient, stair-stepped complex leading to the river’s gentle edge is replete with historic shrines. Among the many Gods and holy figures enshrined here are Ganesh, Valmiki, Kirateshwar, Badrinath, Sitala Mai, Ram Sita, Hanuman, Madhav Narayan, Seshnarayan, Buddha, Uma Maheshwar, Dasavatar, Draupadi and Bhimsen, Ashta Matrika (the eight Mother Goddesses), Nagas, and many Sivalingams. Each image is embellished with bright yellow sandalwood and glowing red vermillion from countless daily worshipers.
At this early hour, we find a group of elderly women wearing Haku Patasi—their traditional hand-loomed black saris with red borders and scarfs—singing and dancing around a bonfire of hay at the northern side of the complex. Other locals are worshiping at the many shrines. Around 7:00, during the brisk sunrise, the rest of the crowd begin gathering at the river’s western edge. The local assisting priest initiates the morning devotions by dipping the base of the one-foot-tall silver Madhav Narayan murti into the river. This marks the beginning of the day’s ritual fasting for all those participating. The male vratalus in their white dhotis line up along the steps, each offering a conch of river water to the rising Sun and to the murti of Narayan.
After offering water, they line up on the front row with the priest, the women on the steps around them. Led by the pujari, everyone chants the Madhav Narayan Shloka. The assistant pujari then offers water from a copper pot to the Sun God, while the vratalus hold water in conch shells or cupped hands and chant mantras for the ritual’s sankalpa (statement of intent) to begin the day’s events.
Bowing to Madhav Narayan, they depart for the Til Madhav Narayan Temple, where they will begin their prostration journey. For this spiritual practice the male vratalus do rolling and walking prostrations as they circumambulate the sacred temples and shrines throughout Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square.
The Til Madhav Narayan Temple at Taumadhi Square in Bhaktapur, built around 1118ce, is one of the oldest standing temples in Nepal. This two-story pagoda-style temple houses a stone statue of Narayan bedecked in a silver crown and flanked by Saraswati and Lakshmi on either side. Both the Goddesses are also covered in magnificently carved silver jewelry. Photos here are strictly prohibited.
Directly in front of the temple is an image of Garuda perched on top of a tall column. Flanking him on either side are two other columns which support a conch and discus or chakram. The temple complex also has shrines for a Sivalingam, Hanuman and a Tulasi plant. Its walls have niches where one will find many miniature-sized Deities like Ganesha, Radha, Krishna, Matsya Narayan, Sita Ram and others. Houses for Ganesha and the Sivalingam are found at every temple here, because our worship always begins with Ganesha worship and often ends with worship of Siva, the patron Deity of Nepal.
Beginning the Journey
Arriving at the the Til Madhav Narayan Temple, the vratalus queue up by age, from 73 to 13, to be blessed individually by the temple pujari. After sacred water from a temple conch is poured over his head, each vratalu bows down in reverence of the Deity and prostrates fully upon a white cloth that has been positioned upon the ground by other devotees. From here they begin their day’s austere journey in the name of the Divine. The vratalus roll their bodies on the white fabric for over half a mile, chanting “Madhav Narayana” as they make their way from shrine to shrine over the course of an hour. The cloth guides them along the old city streets, on a path carefully mapped out by those helping in the event. Every day in the month of Magh, the vratalus perform the same morning routine, commencing with these prostrations—and each day the cloth maps out a different route through the area. The rolling prostration is called silamantuleu in Newari. Everyone starts rolling except for the last vratalu, who instead makes walking full-body prostrations—mha-du daneu.
The last vratalu performs mha-du daneu prostrations
When doing silamantuleu, devotees must clasp their hands together, fingers interlaced, and slowly roll their bodies along the ground. They can lift only the head, neck and knees while performing the journey.
For mha-du daneu, devotees begin by standing with feet together and hands folded in namaste. Then, they bow down, with the head lowering first. They kneel and flop the belly down to the ground. Their hands are stretched out in front, palms still joined in namaste as their forehead touches the ground. The soles of their feet face upwards and their heels are touching. Performing these steps in reverse order, they rise to stand where their fingers had been outstretched, thus progressing along their journey one body length at a time.
Culture expert Binod Raj Sharma tells us, “I define silamantuleu as touching of the stone street with the head and heart, as an act of devotion to Narayana. The full prostration is also an act of dedication to God. Jalashayan, lying in the cold river, is another form of penance to display one’s fidelity to Narayan. Their love, devotion and affection for Narayan are the sources of their energy and vigor, to perform such arduous acts of devotion during winter.”
Traveling like this, the vratalus make their hour-long pilgrimage through the grounds of the five-story Nyatapola temple to Siddhi Lakshmi and the Bhairav temple complexes, then along the narrow brick pathways to finally reach the Hanuman Ghat. Sometimes they must roll up or down steep inclines and even stairs, but the vratalus devotedly carry on with their discipline.
Vishnu Prasad Swongamikha, 65, says, “Brahma created the universe and Siva is the God of destruction. But Narayan is the one who protects all. He is the preserver. According to a local legend, upon seeing how magnificently Narayan was preserving the world, Brahma and Siva themselves honored Narayan by performing mha-du daneu and silamantuleu, respectively. This festival’s devotions are a reenactment of that story.”
About a dozen women, 50 to 80 years of age, accompany the vratalus, devotedly helping along the way. Wearing red or black-and-red saris, these women sweep away pebbles, dust and rubbish from the path. They also run back and forth to pick up and then lay the pieces of meter-wide cloth for the vratalus. Binod Prajapati tells us, “Up until 2016 we did the prostrations directly on the streets, but then Narayanidevi, an elderly woman who lives in Ina Chowk, Bhaktapur, gifted five ten-meter-long cloths. After her initiative, many others made similar donations. We are all very thankful to them.”
The women make small fires along the way to keep vratalus warm as they roll along the stone streets in our cold Nepalese climate. I worry at first about the vratalus’ bare bodies turning purple in the cold, but to my astonishment they all look vital and motivated, building in dedication and perseverance with each prostration.
The women also have the task of keeping photographers (like me!) at bay. If an overzealous cameraman wearing shoes accidentally touches one of the vratalus, they must restart their prostration journey from the beginning, following another blessing. I am shooed away many times despite trying to be mindful while photographing, and am even yelled at in Newari. I apologetically respond, “Jee Masyu” (I don’t know)—one of the four Newari phrases I can speak.
The teenage boys, apparently shy of a female photographer, initially hide behind their palms whenever I approach them; but by the end of the month-long festival, they are so comfortable with me that they literally drag me to every shrine of the Ghat and ask me to take their photos for immediate posting on social media.
After their rigorous hour-long journey of prostrations, the vratalus reach the Hanuman Ghat and either roll or walk into the freezing river. After bowing down to the Madhav Narayan statue, they lie on the steps partially submerged in the water, emulating Vishnu sleeping. Some lie at an angle, backs on the ghat, immersing one third of their bodies, while others sit in the river holding a namaste posture in meditation. Women who have walked barefoot behind the vratalus also queue up. They have tied up their saree, exposing their shoulders and neck, and wear their hair down.
Sarojan Sharma, the head pujari, then “awakens” the vratalus from their “slumber,” blessing each with the Struti Mantra while touching him on the head and splashing river water on him. Sarojan tells us, “The Struti Mantra is a sacred tantric mantra also known as Sushma Mantra, which I cannot chant out loud or write on paper. My guru taught this mantra by chanting it into my right ear.”
The male vratalus then take three dips in the river while the women bend forward from the waist and wash their hair in groups. Both groups then offer water with their conches or hands—first to the Sun, second to the Madhav Narayan murti and lastly to the Valmikeshwar Mahadev Lingam shrine on the bank. Other devotees then wash the white cloth in the river and place it on the opposite bank to dry for the next day.
With their prostrations done for the day, I take the opportunity to ask these vratalus if they are participating in this month of diciplines to fullfill any sort of wish or desire. Many reply that they are doing it as an unconditional sadhana.
Though this main event is over for the day, the town maintains a lively atmosphere, with so many people visiting from far and wide to participate. Some visitors are gifting a combination of biscuits, fruits and other small offerings, each with a five-rupee note, to all who had taken vratas for the festival. These small acts of giving are performed as a form of devotion. One couple gave me some yomari prasad. I tell them I am a visitor just like them, but they insist. Yomari is a steamed rice-flour dumpling with a molasses filling. Thirty-year-old Prem Laxmi Awal, visiting Madhav Narayan with her husband Milan from Thimi, Bhaktapur, have made these edible gifts for others as a gesture to pray for a pregnancy. A couple from Kathmandu have come to pray for their daughter’s job, which she lost when Nepal announced a nationwide lockdown in 2020.
Over the next 14 days, these prostrations will be the main event, along with the special dhala puja performed each day at the Hanuman Ghat Ashram by the women vratalus. These disciplines continue during the second half of the festival, augmented by special pilgrimages on foot to other holy places in the area. Because of the restrictions for being able to visit only every other day, Rajeev and I must choose which of these pilgrimages will be the most important to observe.
Sahasrara Dhara Kalasha Yatra
Sahasrara dhara kalasha literally means “a water pot with thousands of straws.” For the second half of the month-long festival, the vratalus carry these special pots on their heads. (See them being blessed in photo above.) The pilgrimage (yatra) they perform is called Desh Parikrama—meaning to circumambulate holy areas. Each kalasha (copper pot) has an embossed image of Madhav Narayan on its neck. The body of the pot is perforated with many tiny holes, each with a foot-long wheat straw inserted into it to act as a water spout. This design symbolizes the 1008-petaled lotus, the chakra at the top of the head. The kalasha is set on a two-legged wooden frame and balanced on the head with a braided straw ring. The water in the vessel is regarded as the source of all the holy rivers and oceans of the world. When the vratalus stop at certain holy locations, they twirl around to shed water from the straws as a blessing. The sahasrara dhara kalasha yatra starts on new-moon day.
On the 14th festival day, the day before the first yatra, the vratalus blow conches and call attention to the upcoming pilgrimage. Each one prepares his kalasha, filling it with water from the confluence, and all head to the Til Madhav Narayan Temple to begin. Every vratalu participating in the yatra must observe Niraahar Brata (no food, no water) until the kalasha yatra for the day is completed. If anyone unintentionally breaks his fast, he is immediately dismissed from the kalasha yatra for the day.
Day 15, Nyatapola Temple
Chanting the Kalasha Mantra, pujari Sarojan consecrates the vratalus by pouring conch water on their heads. He then helps load the kalasha on each vratalu’s head. The vratalus give dakshina to the pujari and then approach Krishna Laxmi Prajapati, the 79-year-old Nakin, or female group leader. The Nakin has many responsibilities during this month-long festival. She must light the Akhanda Mata, “undying light,” on the morning of the first festival day and make sure the lamp is kept oiled and protected so that it burns throughout the festival. She starts each day of the festival by purifying and cleaning the space for the dhala puja and by performing puja to Ganesha and Kumar. She is a guide to the young, fasting devotees and leads them in all the rituals. Each day of pilgrimage, she and her fellow devotees stand at the temple platform to consecrate the kalasha yatris before they embark on their journey.
On this day the vratalus journey to the Nyatapola Temple, Talakwa’s Jetho Ganesha Shrine, Vamsagopal Temple, a local Siva shrine, the Pottery Square and then return to the Hanuman Ghat. All throughout, the assistant pujari wears the Madhav Narayan murti suspended from his neck on a saffron stole. Holding the base of the murti firmly with both hands, he leads the kalasha yatra. People along the way offer money to God in exchange for flowers and prasad. Those who remove their shoes can touch the God, but otherwise pray from a distance.
By Nikki Thapa & Rajeev Gurung, Nepal