It’s quite understandable that Nepal always conjures up the world of towering mountains, distant valleys, misty grooves and highland cultures in everyone’s mind. And there comes the instant urge to ramble on the rugged trail and hug the mountains. However, Nepal is not just about meeting mountains only. It’s also a wonderful cultural trove of South Asia- immensely unique and surprisingly vibrant! We can encounter some of the best kept secrets in every nook and corner of this Himalayan Kingdom. Nuwakot’s Devi Jatra, popularly known as Sindure Jatra, is also one of them!
Every year, Newari people of Nuwakot, 75 km north of Kathmandu Valley, celebrate Sidhure Jatra, which literally means “vermillion powder festival”, in the month of Chaitra or Baishakh (April). This festival starts from Chaitra Sukla Chaturdashi (14th day of bright fortnight as per lunar calendar, this year from 18th April) and continues for next 12 days. It takes place in Nuwakot Durbar Square, a historically and culturally important place having a significant connection with King Prithivi Narayan Shah, the founder of modern Nepal. During the festival, people worship Goddess Bhairabi, perform various rituals and feast with family members and relatives.
The major highlight of this festival is the chariot procession of Goddess Bhairabi, one of the Das Mahavidyas, the Divine Mothers and the patron Goddess of Nuwakot. Considered as the longest chariot procession in Nepal and one of the oldest festivals dating back to pre Malla period, the festival is unique in its own way because of its association with tantric cult. The legend behind the festival is unknown but it is believed to be an ancient celebration rite to commemorate human ability to summon God in one’s body and attain “siddhi” or the mystical unison with the divine power. So, unlike other festivals, the chief figure is not a priest but a Dhami, a Shaman who is believed to possess the power of Goddess Bhairabi.
Beside its religious importance, the festival is also about people of Nuwakot and their way of life! You can see hundreds of people milling in the Durbar Square area from far and near. The colorful street markets, busy shopkeepers, awestruck devotees, enthralled musicians, jostling chariot pullers, the pervasive smell of the ritual assortments and the occasional gun salute – well this festival is quite an extraordinary experience that awakes all your senses!
Day 01: On the first day, the Dhami dressed in white receives an ablution ritual by Living Goddess Kumari of Nuwakot. The bath ritual that symbolizes the purification process takes place in an open altar in front of Bhairabi temple. Afterwards, he is dressed in a red ceremonial costume along with elaborate silver and golden accessories that include crown of nine headed Nagas, earrings, bangles, chain necklace, Astamatrika necklace etc. Then, a Bajracharya Guru, who performs all the rituals for the Dhami throughout the festival, offers a special sacrificial ritual to Goddess Bhairabi in the temple. The Bajracharya Guru is also the one who summons Goddess Bhairabi in the body of Dhami. Later on, a procession of Dhami, Dhamini (Dhami’s wife), Bajracharya Guru and other attendants proceed to nearby Budi Devisthan, the maternal home of Goddess Bhairabi. On the same day, another interesting ritual of erecting two wooden poles also take place, marking the official beginning of the festival. One pole is erected in the premises of Bhairabi temple. Another is erected at the maternal home of Goddess Bhairabi. Each pole should measure 42 haat, approx. 63 ft.
Day 02: The second day starts with a feast ritual in which Dhware, a State Representative, offers clothes to Dhamini and head dress to Lord Kumar, Lord Ganesh and Dhami. Vermillion powder is also put along the hair partition of Dhamini. After the state feast, the procession proceeds to the temple of Taleju Bhawani, the Guardian Deity of Malla Kings, where special ritual is performed by the Bajracharya Guru. After that, Dhami, Dhamimi, Bajracharya Guru and other devotees proceed to Devighat along with the chariot of Goddess Bhairabi carried by 36 Tamangs from Lachang. The chariot has the masks of 12 different God and Goddesses including Goddess Bhairabi, Astamatrikas, two dakinis Syangini and Byangini and Ganesh. Along with the chariot, one attendant also carries “Khadga”, a sacred weapon wrapped in white piece of clothes.
The chariot procession takes about 4-5 hours to reach Devighat, which is a confluence of two rivers Tadi and Trishuli. It is a home of Jalpa Devi, Goddess Bhairabi’s sister. These two sisters meet only once a year during this festival. Devighat also has a special mention in the history of Nepal as King Prithivi Narayan Shah was cremated on the bank of Devighat. After reaching Devighat, the Bajracharya Guru performs esoteric tantric puja with sacrifice of a black uncastrated goat. The Dhami, by the power of the Goddesses, gets the insight to foresee the country’s future, which he secretly tells the State Representative who later on sends the message to the State Head. After the whole ritual finishes, at about mid-night the chariot is brought back to Nuwakot Durbar Square. However, the procession doesn’t go to the temple directly. They rest at Dharampani, a nearby place approximately 500m down from the Durbar Square.
After resting there for few hours, in the late afternoon the procession continues to the temple accompanied by State Army with great fanfare. A group of people also play traditional music. Once the procession reaches Bhairabi temple premises, Bajracharya Guru again initiates a puja and scatter Sindur (orange vermillion powder) followed by Dware. Other attendants also smear vermillion powder to each other, the ritual after which the festival is named. Then after, the procession moves to Taleju Temple where the whole attendants have feast. After the feast gets over, Dhami and Dhamini return back to their residence near Bhairabi Temple and keep a night vigil performing various rituals.
Day 03: Early morning, the overnight puja ritual concludes with a sacrificial ceremony. Two buffaloes and one uncastrated goat are sacrificed in the open altar, in which the Dhami sucks fresh blood and eats raw flesh of the sacrificed animals. The Dhami is believed to have possessed by Goddess Bhairabi during the ritual. This particular practice seems to be bit unusual in one regard as the tantric ritual that particularly relates to consuming blood and meat is distinctly private in nature. However, this one is done as a public performance. Viewer’s discretion is quite required here if one can’t stand the sight of blood and violent scenes as the sacrificial ritual is quite extreme one. Then after, the Bajracharya Guru wraps up the ritual indicating the end of the major part of the festival.
Day 04-10: During this time, the Gods and Goddesses in the chariot are restored in their own respective places in Bhairabi temple. Devotees and locals those who belong to Newar community have family feasts.
Day 11-12: In the final days, locals gather around Bhairabi Temple to lower down the wooden pole raised on the first day. The other one in the Budi Devisthan is left for the next day’s ritual. The second wooden pole is also pulled down following the same ritual as the previous day. Chhyama Puja, a ritual asking for forgiveness for any mistakes, is also performed in Bhairabi and Taleju temples. With this, the festival finally comes to an end.
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