By Aashish Mishra
Lalitpur, Sept. 4: People in Patan Thursday pulled the chariot of Rato Machhindranath by defying the prohibitory order imposed by the local administration to control the spread of COVID-19, leading to eruption of tension.
Police were deployed to stop the chariot pullers. The security personnel initially tried to talk to the people but when things escalated, they fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse the crowd. In response, the people pelting stones at the police.
Those gathered, however, claimed that the police used unnecessarily excessive force. “Initially, we had only gathered to call the attention of the stakeholders on the need to conclude the Jatra before September 18; before the beginning of Malamaas,” said a man who was one of the chariot pullers. “We were just standing around the chariot with our placards when the police started forcing us to leave,” he added.
The whole incident created a tensed environment around Pulchowk with repeated clashes between the crowd and the security officers. One police constable and some civilians were injured in the clashes.
The people had pulled the chariot and brought it to the middle of the road near the Dhama Phalcha area when the police managed to gain control and stop them. The police then surrounded the chariot and that is where it lies now.
By some estimates, around 800 people had gathered in Pulchowk at around 9.30 in the morning carrying placards with slogans like “Bunga Dya (Nepalbhasa name for Machhindranath) is the centre of our devotion. No one can ignore it” and “We do not want external interference in our culture”.
But when the police intervened, some groups in the crowd started demanding that the chariot be pulled immediately and the youth started towing the ropes.
Misinformation played a part in the whole affair. “We heard that the authorities held a meeting and decided to postpone the Jatra again. We only have two weeks to conclude the festival and take Lord Machhindranath to Bungamati so when people heard this, they got agitated,” said Shyam Tha, a part of the crowd who live-streamed everything on Facebook. However, no such meeting had been held and no decision of postponement had been taken.
None of Thursday’s events happened with the consent or even knowledge of the relevant bodies.
Machhindranath Jatra is a festival conducted through the coordination of more than a dozen communities, groups and organisations. Jyapu Samaj and the Guthi Sansthan are the
two main bodies in-charge of coordinating, managing and successfully completing the festival, which is Nepal’s longest Jatra.
But Samaj President Chandra Maharjan said that they had not been informed about anything. “We don’t know who called the gathering and who authorised the pulling,” he said. The Lalitpur office of the Guthi Sansthan also said they were unaware of the events that took place.
Those gathered themselves seemed unaware about who organised the thing. Some said they were called by friends while others said they got invited on Facebook. An event was created on Facebook by the page Hamro Jatra calling people to gather at Pulchowk with the stated objective of pressurising the stakeholders to respect tradition. A total of 517 people responded to the event. But the page has no links to any official organisation or entity related to festival in any way.
“When you are not coordinating with the organisations and individuals that have been an integral part of the Machhindranath festival for years, then how can you claim to support it?” asked Chief District Officer (CDO) of Lalitpur Narayan Prasad Bhatta.
Bhatta also explained that the authorities sought a peaceful resolution to the situation. “I talked to the Guthi Sansthan, Lalitpur Metropolitan City, Jyapu Samaj, local guthis and elected representatives to understand what was going on and to know who to talk to,” he said, adding, “But what I understood was these are anarchic individuals violating the prohibitory order and putting public health and safety at risk.”
Ironically though, the crowd’s unruly actions to ensure a regular chariot procession actually ended in the opposite. The actions severely damaged the chariot and it will require complete reconstruction if it is to be pulled around the city – something completely unfeasible before Malamaas. So, there will be no chariot procession this year.
“We will conduct a forgiveness puja on Friday, pull the lord’s chariot a few metres on Saturday, celebrate the Jatra in the entire city at once on Sunday and take Machhindranath’s statue to Bungamati on Monday,” Samaj President Maharjan said, informing of a decision taken by the Samaj and 19 other organisations representing various ethnic communities of Patan.
Meanwhile, after the police took control of Lord Machhindranath’s chariot, a portion of the crowd shifted to the chariot of Minnath and pulled it from Tangal to Gabahal. They again went to pull Machhindranath but were stopped by the police.