Indra Jatra

Indra Jatra

Type of Holiday: National, Religious (Hindu, Buddhist)
Date of Observation: September-October; late Bhadrapada to early Asvina
Where Celebrated: Katmandu, Nepal
Symbols and Customs: Ceremonial Pole, Kumari, Mask of Bhairava, Upaku Route


Both Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal observe the festival known as Indra Jatra, a weeklong celebration that combines paying homage to the Hindu god Indra with the commemoration of an historical event: the day when Prithwi Narayan Shah (1730-1775) achieved his goal of unifying Nepal's many separate kingdoms and became the country's first king. According to legend, Indra, the Hindu god of rain and chief of the gods, came to the Katmandu Valley to find some special flowers for his mother. He was caught trying to steal them and put in prison by the valley's inhabitants, who didn't realize who their prisoner was until his mother came looking for him. To show how sorry they were, they held a festival in his honor.

The celebration goes on for eight days, beginning with the erection of a CEREMONI AL POLE in Durbar Square, in front of the Royal Palace at Hanuman Dhoka. On the evening of the festival's opening day, families who have lost someone during the year follow the UPAKU ROUTE around the city of Katmandu. Traditional dances are performed in the square throughout the festival, and it is believed that the spirits of the gods are actually present in the bodies of the masked dancers.

The third day of the festival is the day on which young boys representing the Hindu gods Ganesh and Bhairava are pulled through the streets of Katmandu on chariots, while a twelve-foot-high MASK OF BHAIRAVA , the city's guardian deity, is put on public display with beer spouting from its mouth. But the highlight of Indra Jatra is the appearance of the living goddess KUMARI , a young girl in the third chariot who is dressed in red robes and sparkling jewels. These chariot processions take place three times during the festival week, and their route is often illuminated by butter lamps. The king of Nepal himself asks for Kumari's blessing, since it is she who has the power to reassert his authority over the people of Nepal.

Indra Jatra ends with the lowering of the CEREMONIAL POLE that was set up in front of the palace on the festival's opening day, accompanied by religious rituals and sacrifices.


Ceremonial Pole

The ceremonial pole raised in front of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace is a phallic symbol representing the power of Indra, who brings monsoon rains to the Katmandu Valley and makes the harvest possible. It can be fifty feet tall, and its appearance on the first day of Indra Jatra is usually accompanied by music and the shooting of cannons.


Kumari or the "Living Goddess" is actually a young girl who is believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Taleju Bhawani, later known as Durga. She is chosen by a group of senior priests when she is only four years old, and she must meet a number of strict physical standards to prove that her body is perfect. She is also subjected to tests of her courage, and her horoscope must be compatible with that of the current king.

Once she has been selected, the young Kumari is sequestered in Taleju Temple on the south side of Durbar Square, where she is schooled by a private tutor and allowed to leave only once a year for the Indra Jatra processions. She remains there until her first menstrual period, which is considered a sign that she is no longer "pure." Then she is replaced by a new Kumari and allowed to resume a somewhat normal life, except for the fact that she can never marry. The Nepalese believe that any man who marries a former Kumari is likely to meet an untimely death, and for this reason an aura of bad luck surrounds her for the rest of her life.

Mask of Bhairava

Images of the god Bhairava can be seen throughout Nepal, particularly during festivals, but the huge masklike image that is revealed to the public during Indra Jatra is one that was consecrated in 1795 and is seldom seen because it spends most of the year hidden behind a latticework screen.

The beer that appears to flow from Bhairava's mouth during Indra Jatra comes from a clay pot concealed within the mask. Gravity draws the beer out through a copper pipe and a small hole between the teeth, and those who come to see the mask try to catch a little in their mouths as a symbolic blessing from Bhairava.

Upaku Route

The route referred to as the Upaku Route, which is followed by families in mourning on the first day of Indra Jatra, marks the outer boundary of the old medieval city of Katmandu and is a popular "culture walk" for tourists visiting the city today.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.


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Indra Jatra

September-October; end of Hindu month of Bhadrapada to early in the Hindu month of Asvina
Indra Jatra is the most important festival of Nepal, combining homage to a god with an appearance by a living goddess. The festival, lasting for eight days, is a time to honor the recently deceased and to pay homage to the Hindu god Indra and his mother Dagini so they will bless the coming harvests. It furthermore commemorates the day in 1768, during an Indra Jatra ( jatra means "festival"), that Prithwi Narayan Shah (1730-1775) conquered the Katmandu Valley and unified Nepal.
Legend says that Indra, the god of rain and ruler of heaven, once visited the Katmandu Valley in human form to pick flowers for his mother. The people caught him stealing flowers. Dagini, the mother, came down and promised to spread dew over the crops and to take those who had died in the past year back to heaven with her. The people then released Indra and they have celebrated the occasion ever since.
Before the ceremonies start, a 50-foot tree is cut, sanctified, and dragged to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace in Katmandu. It represents Shiva's lingam, the phallic symbol of his creative powers, and shows he's come to the valley. As the pole is erected, bands play and cannons boom. Images of Indra, usually as a captive, are displayed, and sacrifices of goats and roosters are offered.
Three gold chariots are assembled in Basantpur Square, outside the home of the Kumari, the living goddess and vestal virgin. She is a young girl who was selected to be a goddess when she was about three years old, and she will be replaced by another girl when she begins to menstruate. This indicates she is human.
Two boys playing the roles of the gods Ganesh and Bhairab emerge from the Kumari's house to be attendants to the goddess. Then the goddess herself appears in public for the first time, walking on a carpet so her feet don't touch the ground. The crowds go wild. The king bows to the Kumari, and the procession moves off to the palace where it stops in front of the 12-foot mask of the Bhairab. This is the fearsome form of Shiva in Nepal and is displayed only at this time. The Kumari greets the image and rice beer pours from its mouth. Those who catch a drop of the beer are blessed, but even more are those who catch one of the tiny live fish in the beer.
In the following days the procession moves from place to place around Kathmandu. Masked dancers perform every night at the Hanuman Dhoka square dramatizing each of the earthly incarnations of Vishnu. On the final day of the festival the great pole is carried to the river.
Nepal Tourism Board, Tourist Service Center
Bhrikuti Mandap
P.O. Box 11018
Kathmandu, Nepal
977-1-4256909; fax: 977-1-4256910
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 515
HolSymbols-2009, p. 408
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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