Understanding the Evolution of Indra Jatra in Depth

This is in continuation to my last blog where I took you through all the action packed fun of Indra Jatra and Kumari Jatra, which I attended recently in Nepal. This blog essentially is focused upon understanding the evolution of Indra Jatra over the period, from the time it was introduced in Kathmandu

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Kathmandu was formed as a city under the reign of King Gunakamdev of Lichhavi Period (300 BC-1200 AD) and it is during this time that Indra Jatra was declared as an annual festival of Newar community of Nepal. It is said that one of the thought behind introducing this festival in Kathmandu was also to celebrate its founding and hence the name Yenya which means “Celebrations inside the Kathmandu Valley”. But no matter what the initial period of Indra Jatra has seen, tremendous changes in structures and ceremonies have been added to this glorious festival during the reign of three different dynasties including Malla and Shah along with Lichhavi.

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 Let us understand the evolution of Indra Jatra in depth

Check my YouTube for all the action on Indra Jatra

Licchavi Period:

It is said that Indra Jatra was originally was set as a 4 days festival during the Licchavi period while the rituals was introduced, which continues to be followed even today. These majorly comprised of:

  • Displaying of a life size statue of Lord Indra with his hand tied up on a wooden platform, which still can be seen at Maru Tole of Kathmandu
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Indra tied up with ropes at Maru Tole. Pic Credit- Ami Bhat

  • Dakini roaming around the street in search of her son Indra
    • People of a special caste group in the Newar community carry a Baumata during night, to light the way for Dakine Devi. Baumata is made of a long bamboo fixed with a series of clay dishes with wick lamps on them and carried by two men. This is the Licchavi tradition that people follow even today.
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Dakini going in search of his son. Pic Credit- Dipanshu Goyal

  • White Elephant going in search of his master
    • There is a place called Kishi-gaa literally means an elephant stall, in the old Kathmandu town. People believe that Indra left his elephant on which he rode down to earth, in this area, and then went around in search of Parijat flower. People in this area paint a white elephant on a mat, and two men in it, form an elephant, and go around the town dancing under the music of a single bell.  This is Tana-kishi that goes around in search of Indra.
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Pic Credit- Nepal Tourism

  • Offerings wick lamps on clay dishes on the name of the deceased which is called Upaku-wonegu

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Majorly all these traditions of Licchavi continue even today. One of the foremost traditions introduced during that time was the family members of deceased people following Daikin’s footprints in the hope of going heaven, and finding the souls of their deceased loved ones. All of them would reach Indra daha where they were required to take a holy dip in preparation for their journey to heaven.

Malla Period

It was during the period of Malla dynasty which ruled Nepal from 1201–1769 that the procession of the Kumari chariot and Lakhe (demon) dance was introduced in Indra Jatra.

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Then Malla king, Jaya Prakash set the tradition of pulling the chariot of the Living Goddess along with the chariot of Living God Batuk Bhairav and Ganesha. This is also the time when the tradition of distributing Shamhya-baji was introduced. For those who don’t know Shamhya Baji is the offering to the Goddess Kumari on the first and second day of the chariot which is considered auspicious by the locals.

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Offerings to the Kumari

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Lavish Newari spread during Indra Jatra

Chariot pulling called Kumari Jatra, King Jaya Prakash Malla set this tradition in honour of Living Goddess Kumari fulfilling his pledge made to the Goddess if he would get back the kingdom. Jaya Prakash was an unlucky king. He lost his throne to his own son. Therefore, he went to Goddess Taleju, made offerings to her, and obtained Khadga-siddhi – a kind of blessings which empowered him by the virtue of which he regained his lost kingdom. Goddess Taleju is another form of Goddess Kumari. Therefore, he set the tradition of chariot pulling to honour the goddess

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The king also set the mandate of receiving a Tika at the end of Kumari Jatra from the Kumari, which personifies that the goddess is blessing the king with power to rule the country. It is said that the goddess Taleju Bhawani was the king’s political and social advisor and would give important tips to the king on good governance. However, during one of their meetings, the king, overwhelmed by desire, attempted to rape the goddess inside the Taleju Bhawani temple, prompting the goddess to disappear and vow never to appear again.

A demon called Lakhe not finding his patron Goddess Taleju simply followed in the footprints of the Malla king and ended up at the Hanumandhoka where the Malla king enshrined the goddess Taleju in The Kumari. Thus, Lakhe dance simply depicts how the demon went in the search of Goddess Taleju. 

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Shah Dynasty which was probably the last dynasty of Nepal

The four-day festival of Indra Jatra became an eight-day affair since the Shah rule. Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah succeeded in taking over the power from the unfortunate last Malla King Jaya Prakash Malla but wasn’t accepted by the people. This was the reason that he was not allowed to get the blessings from the Living Goddess which was mandatory for any ruler as per the tradition set during Malla dynasty. The negotiations were done for four days and at the end of the fourth day, Prithvi Narayan Shah managed to receive the blessing of The Kumari in the form of a Tika and became the legitimate king.

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Action outside Kumari Ghar

The King of Shah dynasty added another piece to Indra Jatra, which is the tradition of Flag hoisting called Indra dhoj on a tall wooden pole on the first day of the festival and leaves it fluttering for the remaining eight days.

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The popular belief is that flying an Indra’s flag once a year will stop all evil spirits from entering the kingdom, and any external power from taking over the kingdom.

On the first day of the Indrajatra, people of a special Newar clan in Kathmandu pull up the pole with an Indradhoj on it, and let it flutter for a week.

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Pic Creedit- Himalayantimes.com

Indradhoj means protecting the country from the influence of any wickedness. If a pole with such a flag stands still for eight days, nothing could harm the ruler and the people

So would you be planning to visit Indra Jatra next year ? Check my Travel tips in the first blog

I was called by Nepal Tourism Board to attend this Festival

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18 thoughts on “Understanding the Evolution of Indra Jatra in Depth

  1. wow – now this is the stuff I find really interesting such fascinating facts and cultural information really make a place or a festival come alive in the mind of the reader. I would love to be able to visit Nepal during one of these events especially armed with all the information you have provided this is a perfect piece of writing to take with you on the journey.

  2. You took some amazing pictures. Nepal has been on my list for so long and I didn’t know about this festival. I have bookmarked this blog because I want to visit this festival ASAP!

  3. Ah, I always wonder what the different elephant figures represent. Such beautiful and colorful traditional outfits and the masks. What an amazing festival to experience for 8 days!

  4. That’s an indepth post on the history and heritage of the Indra Jatra. Good to know that this is being practiced since centuries. Demon dance and White elephant dance are just wow, so intriguing. The Newari spread looks so yumm…

  5. I love learning more about the traditions of this festival and the meanings behind it. Your photos and descriptions are so vivid that I felt like I was attending the festival right there with you!

  6. Wow, there is so much involved in Indra Jatra. I wonder if kids growing up in the area know the history of all the different parts of the festival. I certainly would have a hard time remembering it all. I love the white elephant segment. There is so much history and tradition behind each portion of the festival, I just love how meaningful it is to the local people.

  7. Never been or heard of this festival in Nepal but it’s very interesting! All those legends and tales are like something out of a fairytale! A very colourful history behind this festival

  8. Understanding the myth and evolution of Indra Jatra is great to know. All the customs and traditions are still followed which is very good way of preserving the culture. I would like to attend this Indra Jatra festival in future due to various dances like demon and elephant dances.

  9. Wow! This is so so interesting! I never knew any of this before and I haven’t seen any photos of this sort of thing. One of the reasons I love travelling is because it opens us up to learning new things like this. You did a great job of explaining the culture and traditions.

  10. Very interesting information! Never heard of this festival before, but it looks beautiful and colorful. Love that you included some of the background information as well–really helps to explain what the festival is about!

  11. What a great insight into their culture and tradition! That is why I love attending festivals too. It is such a beautiful learning experience and a good way to immerse into the local traditions.

  12. The Indra Jatra amazed me when I attended it last month. You blog elucidates some interesting facts I had no clue about. Now, I have a deeper understanding of the festival. By the way, loved the pictures which you shared. Kudos.

  13. This is an interesting post and helps us to understand the festival better. You have explained the evolution really well. So one that started in Licchavi Period has become so big. It was good to know the concept of Living goddess and lakha dance. Though I couldn’t attend the festival but I am glad that I could see it through your lovely pictures. Festivals are fun!

  14. Pingback: Celebrating Indra Jatra & Kumari Jatra of Nepal | Buoyant Feet

  15. Pingback: Meeting The Kumari- The Living Goddess of Nepal | Buoyant Feet

  16. I love learning about and attending cultural festivals when I can, but I’d never heard of Indra Jatra before. It looks like a fascinating festival to attend. That white elephant creation looks amazing. Thanks for sharing this festival with us.

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