Nepalese celebrate different festivals with energy and enthusiasm. Of these festivals, the chariot festival of Red Machhindranath has its own significance whether you are a Hindu or a Buddhist. Among the series of festivals, the chariot procession of Red Machhindranath is one of the most fascinating street festivals of the nation. There are many Lokeshwors such as Raktawalkites (Red Machhindranath), Anandadi Lokeshwor, Shristikanta Lokeshwor and Aryavalokiteshwor. Among these four Lokeshwors, the chariot procession of Red Machhindranath is the biggest and most popular cultural festival of Patan.
Rato Machchhindranath is considered a god, who, according to legend, was brought from Assam, India to Lalitpur valley in Nepal to prevent a drought during the paddy plantation season. The longest running chariot festival in Nepal recreates this event in the hope of good rain. It begins with the construction of the chariot at Pulchok, Lalitpur and ends with the vest exhibition ceremony in Jawalakhe. During the festival time, the chariot of Red Machhindranath is taken to different places in the town of Patan.
The Red Machhindranath is a widely venerated deity in Patan. The wooden four wheeled chariot is quite huge with about 50 feet towering structure designed to symbolize the supreme power of fertility. It takes hundreds of hands even to make the chariot move slightly. The chariot is pulled with big ropes from left and right. The massive wheels are painted with eyes. When the chariot moves, people of Patan await with great excitement - the arrival of the chariot at their respective toles, so they can make their ritual offerings to Karunamaya and celebrate the occasion. Beginning at Pulchowk, the chariot passes through various places such as Mangalbazaaar, Sundhara, Lagankhel, Gawbahal, before finally reaching at Jawalkhel. Many people perform religious activities for attaining prosperity in their lives and fulfilling their inner desires. It is believed that when the chariot festival is successfully concluded, there will be no draught and famine in the country in that year.
There has been substantial role of nine ethnic groups of indigenous Newar community in course of successfully accomplishing the Rato Machchhindranath fiesta. Though the festival organizers and priests of Machchhindranath have the visible role during the festival, the significant contributions by the nine ethnic groups have not come to the fore. Basi – an ethnic group of the Newar community – is obliged to look and select the wood used for the construction of the chariot of Machchhindranath in the first phase. Another caste Yanbal has the special task of fastening the chariot with bamboo cords after the beginning of the construction of the chariot. The presence of Sese Baje or Rajopadhyay Pujari (priest belonging to another Newar ethnic group) is mandatory to take ahead the chariot following the completion of its construction. It has been made an integral part of the chariot festival with the assumption that the chariot should not be pulled without the presence of the priest on the chariot.
Interestingly, a group of youths of another ethnic group called Dhaku takes the special job to control the chariot to avoid possible collapse. However, Jyapu ethnic group has the responsibility to pull the chariot through. In the similar vein, people belonging to Mali ethnic community come to offer Muswan - a rarely found flora – to the chariot. People from other castes are not allowed to offer the peculiar Muswan flower, which is deemed to be liked the most by the Machchhindranath. Another ethnic group namely Joshi holds the responsibility of setting the auspicious time of all the activities involved during the festival. The tradition has been that only the locals of Kantipur are to pull the chariot from Pulchowk to Gawbahal. They pull the chariot in memory of their guru Bandhudutta Acharya. Generally, locals of Bhaktapur take ahead the chariot from Gawbahal to Sundhara as a legacy to pay homage to Malla king Narendra Dev. Traditionally, folks of Lalitpur pull the chariot from Sundhara to Lagankhel to pay respect to a farmer named Lalit Rathchakra.
There is an interesting myth about the chariot pulling of Red Machhindranath. Once upon a time, lord Gorakhnath visited the Kathmandu valley but nobody noticed him while seeking alms and sitting in samadhi on the serpents (the cause of rain). As a result serious drought occurred in the valley. The great tantrik Acharya Bandhudatta suggested the king Narendra Dev to invite Lord Machhindranath. So the king brought Lord Machhindranath to the valley from India. Knowing that Lord Machhindranath was in the valley, Gorakhnath stood up to greet him and thus the serpents were freed and it started raining which then took away the drought. Ever since the festival of pulling the chariot of Machhindranath is observed with much fanfare to honour him.
According to historians, the festival was introduced by king Narendra Deva in 879 A.D. It stays in the street for several weeks. Sometimes it takes even months before it completes its ritual rounds so on this ground it is rightly called the longest street festival of Nepal. When the festival chariot of the Red Machhindranath arrives at its final destination at Jawalakhel, it is attended by the head of state of the nation and it concludes with vest exhibition ceremony, called Bhotojatra. That ceremony is explained by an equally interesting legend. Bhotojatra is the ceremony of an age old jewel-studded vest, which is said to have been originally owned by a serpent king who gave it as a very special gift to a farmer who did something miraculous for the king. The vest was soon stolen by a goblin. Finally, the jewel studded vest came to be offered to Rato Machhindranath.