Bisket commence four days before Nepali New Year day and continues for four days after it. Every year, the whole city of Bhaktapur, empties itself into the streets for over a week to celebrate. Lasting from April 9 until April 16 this year (2012), the multifaceted festival is a ritual welcome extended to the New Year and carries immense cultural significance for the people of the city.
The first day of the festival is celebrated by pulling of the Charioit of Bhairab and Bhadrakali from Tamumadhi square. A huge chariot carrying images of god Bhiarab is hauled by dozens of mildly inebriated young men. The creaking and swaying chariot lumbers around town, pausing for a huge tug of war between the eastern and western sides of town. The chariot also rests at certain time-honored places in the city and people come out to pay their homage and throw offerings of flower, rice, coins and scarlet color sindur powder.
Although the chariot procession is a very important event, the people of Bhaktapur engage in celebrations throughout Bisket Jaktra. The city is divided into eight zones; each one presided over by one of the eight forms of the goddess Astamatrika (the ‘eight mothers’). After the first day’s procession, the goddesses are taken around the areas over which they preside. The principal one among them is led throughout the city.
Two wooden chariots – one belonging to Bhairav, the patron deity of Bhaktapur City, and the other to Bhadrakali, Bhairav’s female consort – are paraded through the city streets on New Year’s Eve (fourth day) as the central event of this festival. Two wooden poles (lingos) measuring many meters in height, representing devils are erected, one in Pottery square and another in Yoshinkhel on the same day and pulled down on New Year’s Day (fifth day), symbolic of the destruction of evil in the beginning of the New Year.
A huge high lingam or lingos (phallic symbol) erected in the stone yoni (female genital symbol) base also symbolize male and female genitals. A symbolic collision of the two chariots of Bhirab and his female companion Bhadrakali on the New Year’s Day near Taumadhi square represents the union of masculine and feminine, bringing promises of fertility in the New Year.
Following New Year’s Day, families feast together with their relatives for the remaining four days of the festival. The senior family members place a tikaon the foreheads of the younger ones and relatives exchange blessings. Known to all, Bisket is an important occasion that brings families, friends and relatives together to strengthen feelings of kinship. Seventh day of the festival is celebrated by presentation of delicacies to deities in all eight Asthamatrika (pantheon of eight goddess) temples. Idols and images of god and goddess are taken to their respective seat in the temples after serving them with offering of delicacies. Same day lingo at pottery square is bring down.
Like other festivals Bisket Jatra of Bhaktapur also holds its own folklore.
There is a popular folklore about the origin of this festival. It relates to the time of the reign of Lichchhavi King Shiva Deva. A Tantrik by the name of Shekhar Acharya was said to possess the extraordinary power of transforming himself into animals and reptiles. Once, his over-curious wife, Nararupa, wanted to see him change into a serpent. After much pestering by the wife, he finally gave in to her demand. But before doing so, he warned her not to be scared by what she was likely to see and to throw some grains of rice on him that would return him to his human form. He then changed himself into a huge python. But when Nararupa saw the gigantic serpent, she was terrified. She lost her nerve, and instead of throwing the rice at her husband-in-serpent form, she put the rice in her own mouth, which turned her also into a python. It so happened that in the whole kingdom, none other than the king knew the mantra (chanting of sacred words) that could resuscitate them from the serpent to human form. Therefore, expecting to draw the attention of the king to help them return to human form, the husband and wife pythons would stand and gaze towards the palace every day in the hope that the king would notice and resuscitate them to human form. Time went by, but to no avail. Finally, the frustrated python couple committed suicide at a place called Chuping Ghat (a river bank). This tragic end of Shekhar Acharya and his wife brought famine to the country. Not knowing what had come to pass, the alarmed king summoned the Tantrik Shekhar Acharya to court for advice to help quell the famine, but he was nowhere to be found. Ultimately, it was discovered that the Tantrik and his wife had committed suicide in the form of serpents. The king and the people were highly dismayed. Since then, every year, in memory of the Tantrik and his wife, two long cloth banners, representing and symbolizing the serpent couple, are hung from a wooden pole, called the lingo, to commemorate their tragic death.
Another popular folklore about festival’s origins go back hundreds of years to the medieval age of Nepalese history, a golden age of Nepalese art, craft and architecture. It is believed to have started by the king Jagajyoti Malla. According to the legend, every male who married the princess of the city in those mythical times was found dead the morning following the honeymoon night. After a number of grooms lost their lives, one clever suitor decided to stay awake the entire honeymoon night. Soon after his princess fell asleep, a ferocious snake slithered out of a nostril. Acting quickly, he disposed of the monstrous creature with the help of his sword, bringing tremendous joy and relief to the denizens of the city. From then on, they have celebrated this undoing of evil through the ritual crash of chariots symbolizing the consummation of marriage.
Light is shed on many aspects of the festival through interesting legends. In ancient times, when Bhaktapur was newly built, Bhairav is believed to have travelled all the way from Kansi, in India, to see the city. As the traveller Bhairav was a manifestation of the god Mahadev, and hence not an ordinary man, his head stood far above all other citizens of the city. The tantric leaders of Bhaktapur quickly noticed this strange feature and discovered the truth through meditation. Seeking to keep Bhairav in the city forever, they hurled a magic spell (tantra) at him to keep him from escaping. In his defence, Bhairav made a great effort to escape from the trap, but quickly met with an unusual fate. As Bhairav struggled to free himself, his head was severed from his body. Free of the spell, his body ran back to Kansi. Today, a statue in Kansi consists only of his body, while the ones in Bhaktapur bear only his head. When the lingo(wooden pole) is erected in a town square on New Year’s Eve, the body of the deity is summoned from Kansi by beating at the bottom of the pole. The clamor of Bhaktapur is said to be heard in Kansi. Other interesting myths and beliefs are associated with the Betal, a ferocious-looking copper statue, the duty of which is to serve as Bhairav’s bodyguard. This mischievous deity is a source of fear to the people, so much so that it is tied tightly with ropes all the time, even in the chariot. People believe that Betal dons different facial expressions every year. A bright expression bodes ill for the town and for the conduct of the festival itself, with the connotation of violence and death; an angry look bodes well for the city.
Written By: Hitendra Raj Joshi