Bisket Jatra: The serpent festival of Nepal
This post is about how to celebrate Bisket Jatra in Nepal as a tourist. Bisket Jatra is one of the biggest and most popular festivals of the Newar community in Bhaktapur. The 9 day long festival sees a number of different rituals and celebrations that are closely linked to ancient local beliefs and superstitions.
Because Bisket Jatra falls around the Nepalese New year it is often seen by tourists as a new year festival that welcomes the start of the new year and the spring season. However, the Newari people call it the festival after the death of the serpent. For them, Bisket Jatra is much more about the celebration of ancient Kathmandu valley legends.
Bisket Jatra Legends
One of the legends about the Bisket Jatra festival is about a snake princess. During the Malla dynasty a king heard about the princess of Bhaktapur. Whomever married the princess was found dead the next morning. Many young men died until one young man volunteered to marry the princess.
Goddess Bhadrakali gave him the advice to stay awake and so he did. When the princess fell asleep he saw two poisonous serpents that came out of her nose. With his sword he killed the serpents. From now on the princess was free from the serpent curse and the king of Bhaktapur celebrated this occasion as Bisket Jatra.
In another legend the Kirats attacked Bhaktapur and it was a brave tantric warrior that changed shape into a tiger that protected Bhaktapur. His wife then wanted to see him as a python. The tantric gave her some rice grains that he needed to become a human again.
Once the tantric warrior was a python his wife became scared and ate the rice grains herself. She too became a python. The malla kings from then on raised a pole during the Bisket Jatra festival in memory of the tantric python couple.
Bisket Jatra might be a historic festival celebrated only in Bhaktapur, but it attracts people from all over the Kathmandu valley. Young men join in the fun of pulling the ropes in the tug of war and raising the pole. Devout Hindus come to pray to the fierce god Bhairav and goddess Bhadrakali.
Bisket Jatra day by day
Day 1 Tug of war
27 Chaitra: On the first day of Bisket Jatra the priests perform a special prayer to Bhairav at the Nyatapola temple in Bhaktapur. The image of Bhairav is then taken outside and placed in a special chariot.
This chariot of Bhairav will become the center of attention in a tug of war between Bhaktapurians from the western side and eastern side of the city. Both parties will try to pull the chariot in their direction. It attracts hundreds of men that push and pull the ropes and wheels trying to steer the wooden chariot in either the eastern or western direction.
The winning party can take the chariot to their part of the town.
where: Nyatapole temple, Bhaktapur
Day 2 & 3 Prayers to Bhairav
Chaitra 28 & 29: Once the chariots are in its place there are no particular rituals on the second and third day, but people will go and visit the chariot to perform special prayers to the image of bhairav inside.
Bhairav is a fierce and powerful manifestation of Shiva. People believe that Bhairav is beyond fear and protects his devotees from their enemies. Among the Newars in Nepal, Bhairav is a very important deity and almost every Newar town has a Bhairav temple.
One legend is that the lord Bhairav from Varanasi once came all the way to Bhaktapur to see the Bisket Jatra celebrations.
Day 4 Lyo sin dyo
Chaitra 30: The fourth day of Bisket jatra is another day that brings excitement to Bhaktapur as a large 25 meter high wooden pole is raised up. Everyone is invited to help pull the ropes of the lingo or lyo sin dyo at pottery square.
The chariots also move to different locations. The chariot of Bhairav goes to the Bhairav temple and the chariot of Bhadrakali to the Bhadrakali temple.
where: pottery square and taumadhi square
Day 5 New year
Baisakh 1: The fifth day of Bisket Jatra is also the first day of the new year. In the morning people gather at the chariots of Bhairav and Bhadrakali to pray. Some will even bring sacrifices like chickens or goats. The pole will be raised to the ground again and if done successfully this will bring luck to Bhaktapur.
Day 6 Sindoor Jatra
Baisakh 2: On the sixth day of Bisket Jatra, the festivities move from Bhaktapur to the small towns of Thimi and Bode. Sindoor Jatra is even more colorful. People throw orange vermillion powder on each other as they carry 32 small chariots around town with the images of different gods and goddesses. This procession also sees a lot of singing and dancing and is a joyous affair.
Not far from Thimi lies Bode. In this small town one man from the Shrestha caste volunteers to get his tongue pierced with an iron spike. He then has to walk around town with a bamboo rack. Both events attract large crowds of people.
where: Thimi and Bode
Day 7 & 8 Sagun ceremonies
Baisakh 3 & 4: Not much happens on the 7th and 8th day of Bisket Jatra, except that people continue to visit the chariots of Bhairav and Bhadrakali for prayers.
On the 8th day there is also the Sagun ceremony. People visit the temples to offer meat, fish, eggs, lentil cakes and rice wine. These delicacies represent the tantric elements of earth, water, air, ether and fire.
Day 9 final tug of war
Baisakh 5: On the last day of Bisket Jatra there is a final tug of war attracting large crowds to get a final glimpse of the chariot. Once the chariot is back at Nyatapola temple it is dismantled untill the next year.
Bisket Jatra practicalities
When to celebrate Bisket Jatra
Bisket Jatra follows the Nepali calendar and starts at the 27th of Chaitra till the 5th of Baisakh. Usually this falls somewhere in mid April in the Western calendar.
The biggest festivities that are interesting to see for foreign tourists are the tug of war of the chariots on the first day of the festival, the lyo sin dyo pole rituals on the fourth and fifth day of the festival and the sindoor jatra celebrations on the sixth day in Madhyapur Thimi.
Where to celebrate Bisket Jatra
Bisket Jatra is a very local festival that is only celebrated in Bhaktapur and nearby Madhyapur Thimi. Both towns are easy to reach by taxi or minibus from Kathmandu. The first five days and the last day are in Bhaktapur itself. On the sixth day there are large celebrations for Sindoor Jatra in Madhyapur Thimi.
Bisket Jatra festival etiquette
As a foreigner witnessing the Bisket Jatra festival I felt very welcome and the Nepali hospitality is heartwarming. More tourists visit the celebrations in Bhaktapur and Madhyapur Thimi every year.
Nepali people are used to tourists and are aware of the fact we do not always know their customs. Therefore, they are very forgiving for any faux pas you might make.
Some obvious etiquette does exist. Being in Nepal you should dress modestly. Taking pictures of the chariots, the rug of war and the pulling of the pole is not a problem. However, ask permission first if you want to take close up pictures of the local people.
Bisket Jatra festival safety
Bisket Jatra can be a lot of fun, but there are some safety issues to take into account. First of all, Bisket Jatra attracts large crowds of people. This causes injuries every year when too many people try to come too close to the moving chariots.
Pickpocketing is also more common during these times. It is better to leave your valuables in your hotel or keep them safe in a money belt under your clothes. Bring only what you can lose.
Women should watch out in crowds with a lot of men. Groping and touching does happen and by the time you look who the offender is, it is impossible to say when you see hundreds of people next to you.
Safety is in numbers so try to find other people and join the festival as a group. Other options are to find a viewpoint, like the balcony of your guesthouse or the temple stairs and watch the festivities from there. At last, try to find the spaces where women gather to see the festival and stay close to them.
Bisket Jatra Accommodation
To see the full festival you can choose to stay in Bhaktapur or visit Bhaktapur as a daytrip from Kathmandu
If you decide to stay in Bhaktapur it is best to reserve your accommodation in advance. Good hotels are hotel Bhaktapur Inn, Kumari guesthouse and Tulaja boutique hotel
If you plan to stay in Kathmandu you can choose between the following options
Thamel: Holiday hostel is a good option if you want to be in the center of thamel. If you prefer more peace and quiet you can look into Elbrus home, Birds Nest Hostel, Kathmandu Peace home and Best hostel. All of these are clean budget options within walking distance of Thamel, but in a more quiet area close to the more busier areas.
Boudhanath: There are plenty of options to choose around Boudhanath. I stayed a couple of times at Lotus guesthouse. A nice place with affordable and clean rooms. Aarya Chaitya Inn also has great reviews.
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