Dispatches from Nepal: Homage to the God of rain
By Jayme Poisson
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It's Rato Machhendranath Jatra. And I have been lucky enough to have been swept up in the frenzy of this month-long festival.
In this festival, the wooden chariot of rain god Rato (Red) Macchendranath is pulled through the narrow lanes of Patan. The chariot is pulled by a huge crowd of enthusiastic devotees. It begins in Pulchowk and eventually reaches Jawalakhel about a month later for the final stages of celebration. At each of the stops, the locals perform puja of the Machhendranath.
"We're celebrating for there to be rain because it will bring the people of the valley happiness so that they can grow food that will follow them for one whole year," said Kiran Nepali, a local musician.
There is surely nothing else like it. If it begs comparison, I would say the raucous procession is a bit like Mardi Gras. But with a unique Nepalese flair all its own.
The annual festival is a hallmark of Newari culture here in Nepal. Hindus and Buddhists pay homage to the god, Rato Machhendranath, who is believed to control rainfall. The timing is apt with monsoon season approaching quickly.
Hundreds of men pull the chariot of Rato Machhendranath through the streets. As the five-storey high edifice snakes its way through the narrow winding roads, past temples, statues and shimmering golden water taps, the god himself is said to look down upon the people with pleasure. The wheels of the chariot are sprinkled with rice and vermilion powder, leaving a trail of red in its path.Coincidentally (or perhaps not), since the festival began May 18, it has rained here every night.
"That's why it is raining!," said jewelry shop owner Shyam Shahi, a smile ear to ear. "Because of the festival."
Legend has it there was a severe drought in the Kathmandu Valley thousands of years ago. Rato Machhendranath traveled all the way from Assam, India to rid the valley of evil forces and bring rain to its crops.
While Kathmandu has gradually evolved from an agricultural mecca to a commercial hub, Rato Machhendranath Jatra isn't just about good harvests, but is also about preserving identity and family ties.
"The festival is to hold onto the culture," said Shahi. "As we have the festival there is the gathering of people. They organize a party and all the relatives get together. It's a reason to share the culture and the happiness with family."
For me, this festival is indicative of how I've felt about Nepal since the moment I arrived in this gem-of-a-destination. This country has taught me the value of understanding one's roots. The notion that looking back doesn't preclude moving forward. And that genuine faith can be a source of immeasurable strength.
"We still trust the gods. It's a faith in people that has been around for a long long time," said Nepali, astutely. "It's the culture. There's not much scientific about it but we do believe in the gods and that they bring good luck and that's just simple faith."
Photo: A bird's eye view of the streets of Patan. Thousands of people await the arrival of Rato Machhendranath's chariot.
Jayme Poisson is a Master of Journalism student at Carleton University. She will be trekking through Nepal during May while making a documentary about delivering maternal health services to remote and conflict-affected areas. In mid-June she will join the Star's summer intern program. She will be blogging regularly from the field.