It is not a stretch to say that this year’s Barah Barse Mela of Rato Machindranath will forever be imprinted on peoples’ mind as the year, the deity blessed the city from a chariot pulled forward not on wooden wheels, but wheels of will and faith.
Historically, the annual chariot procession of the deity Rato Machindranath is celebrated in April – May. One of the oldest and longest festivals celebrated in Lalitpur, the deity of Machindranath is placed on a tall chariot, about 65 feet high and pulled in stages throughout the month through the old streets of Patan. It is believed that a successful conclusion of the festivities will result in a long monsoon with plenty of rainfall that is oh-so-vital for the agricultural economy of the valley.
On 22nd April,the chariot procession kicked off at 3 pm amidst a huge gathering of revelers with much jubilation and excitement. This was supposed to be a bumper year for harvest: after all 2015 happened to be the year of the Barah Barse Mela(Chariot Procession of 12 years). Every 12th year, instead of the procession starting off from Pulchowk as is the norm, the festivities begin from Bungmati, the Newari village on the outskirts of Patan, that is believed to be the birth place of Machindranath.
There were no forewarnings of what was to come. Just three days later on 25th April, Nepal was hit with a devastating earthquake of 7.8 magnitude that cost as many as 8800 lives across the country with many villages in the affected districts flattened to the ground, livestock and livelihoods lost, over 20,000 maimed or injured, countless lives changed forever.
Like several centuries old heritage sites ravaged by the quake, the temple of Rato Machindranath and the temple of Bhairabnath in Bungmati were also obliterated to the ground. The chariot procession was halted in Chyasikot as communities focused on rescue and relief missions. The monsoon that was so prayed for turned instead to an ominous threat lurking in the horizon; a rush against the clock began to secure shelters and ensure food security before the heavens opened.
On the 24th day after the temple crumbled, it was confirmed that a search team of Nepal Army and security forces had finally recovered the Bhoto (bejeweled vest) and other invaluable cultural treasures from the debris of the Machindranath and Bhairabnath temples. Seemingly against all odds and amidst all the chaos of the largest natural disaster to hit Nepal in recent memory, an auspicious date was set again to restart the chariot procession.
On the 4th day of September, nearly four months behind schedule, the chariot of Rato Machindranath started its much anticipated tour of the city again. Undeterred, several thousand poured onto the streets to pull the chariot through alleys that have been altered by the quake forever. The monsoon has come and gone, the ropai season long over, even Indra Jatra, celebrated to thank the Rain God for a wet monsoon has been concluded. Yet the chariot procession that was supposed to be the precursor of monsoon made its belated rounds of the city with determination: the Newari people were not going to let a natural calamity interrupt their celebrations.
All who turned up in Jawalakhel on the 12th of October for Bhoto Jatra, the final day of the chariot festival where the bejeweled tunic was displayed to the public, were survivors of the quake. Many had suffered colossal losses of love, life and livelihoods. There is no doubt though that none present had permitted any dents on their faith.