Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Rato Machchhindranath Temple © Som Bahadur Dhimal

Restoring ICH in Nepal since the Earthquakes of 2015

Two powerful earthquakes (7.8 magnitude on 25 April and 6.8 on 12 May) hit twenty to twenty-five districts of Nepal, bringing heavy losses and damaging 800 cultural heritage structures and collapsing 190. The devastation also directly affected intangible cultural heritage since many elements are associated directly with the damaged heritage sites. With many temples and monasteries damaged, the deities were shifted to temporary places for daily offering rituals and homage. Among seven monument zone World Heritage Sites, Hanumandhoka, Swayambhu, and Boudhanath Stupa were partially damaged, obstructing devotees’ daily rituals. Many problems have arisen due to the damage of cultural heritage structures in and outside Kathmandu Valley. Two case studies of Kathmandu Valley are presented here.

The Chariot Procession

A myth of Kathmandu Valley recounts events of getting rain upon the arrival of the Machchhindranath deity, after a twelve-year drought. Now, locals celebrate their adoration for Machchhindranath with a chariot procession, which starts from Pulchowk, where the chariot is constructed, and travels along historically defined routes for one month before ending at Jawalakhel where the precious waistcoat (presented in the name of god by their ancient king) is shown to the general people. The devotees in traditional and cultural attire dance to the beat of traditional musical instruments during the procession. One very interesting part of this procession is that only women pull the chariot between localities of Iti to Thati.

Every twelve years, the procession starts from the seventeenth-century Karunamaya Temple (also known as Machchhindranath Temple) at Bungmati. The festival, one of the longest in the country, now remains within the Newar community, but is observed by diverse ethnic, religious, and social groups, including visitors.

However, Karunamaya Temple and the surrounding architecture and cultural sites were completely damaged by the 25 April earthquake. And the festival procession, which started in Bungmati just three days before the earthquake, was immobilized. The public have social, cultural, and religious aspiration to continue with the chariot procession, but the chariot has been held up about one kilometer from Karunamaya Temple for repairs. In the meantime, the communities are offering their daily rituals at a small shade where the deity has been shifted temporarily for public homage.

According to traditional beliefs, if an earthquake occurs, the chariot is to be pulled after four days and after performing a peace worship. However, because of ongoing tremors, the process has been facing difficulties. According to Mr. Madan Shakya, the treasurer of Battis Paneju Sangh, the valuable artifacts and decorative parts of Karunamaya Temple have been salvaged and securely stored at guthi houses, local trust houses for the management and continuation of rituals. The rescue operation was completed through cooperation with local and central authorities and the local Paneju Sangh itself. The community expects assistance from the central government while there is also a bilateral support being considered to rebuild the temple structure.

In the wake of the disaster comes a difficult question of how the local people can keep their ICH alive in temporary makeshift shelters. The communities per form the minimum required rituals to continue pulling the chariot as well as do their utmost to return to the usual way of life, and this could be a powerful key to restore the social dynamic in places affected by the earthquake.

Indra Jatra

Another important festival of the Kathmandu Valley is the Indra Jatra, which is scheduled to start on 27 September on the lunar calendar and last for eight days. According to myth, Indra, the god of rain and the ruler of humans, once came to earth (the Kathmandu Valley) to pick up flowers for his mother. The people of the valley caught him stealing flowers from their field, and by the time his mother came, they identified him as a god and left him. Feeling shame, the people started Indra Jatra to make the god happy.

The festival starts with erecting a wooden pole in between Kageshwari and Kalbhairav temples in Hanumandhoka Durbar Square, one of the seven monument zones of the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site. During the festival, chariots for the three living deities—Ganesh, Bhairav, and Kumari— are pulled in sequence around Kathmandu at different specified locations. Wherever the chariots are pulled, the people from the respective localities celebrate by inviting relatives to have food and take part in merrymaking. One attraction of the festival is that liquor is placed in a big pot and drips from White Bhairav’s mouth through a pipe for all devotees to drink. Samayabaji, an auspicious variety of Newari food items, including beaten rice, soyabean, ginger, burned buff, eggs, fish etc., is also served to devotees as god’s gift.

In the course of pulling chariots, people in traditional attires play music and perform a variety of traditional dances for the deities. One interesting part of chariot pulling is that only the women pull the chariots between the Durbar Square and Nardevi Asan Chowk. In front of Kumari house at Hanumandhoka Durbar Square, atop plinth of the Trailokya Mohan Temple, Das Abatar Dance (a dance related to ten incarnations of the deities according to Hindu mythology) is shown during the festive evening .

Unfortunately, among the thousands of heritage structures damaged by the earthquake, the temple is among those that have been destroyed, leaving the deity uncovered. Also the dabali, the stage from where the head of state graces Ganesh, Bhairav, and Kumari during the Indra Jatra Festival, has been completely damaged. The procession routes have been lost or obstructed due to the shoring of vulnerable houses and most of the ornaments and costumes of different characters have been destroyed. Now there is a big challenge to continue the traditional rituals as recovering both tangible and intangible losses will take time. The community has voiced its desire continue the festival, even if they have to carry the deities in cots in place of the chariots, lest another misfortune occur. We don’t have to see the challenges as problems but as good opportunities to work for safeguarding ICH. The government completed a Post Disaster Need-based Assessment to reconstruct the damaged cultural heritage. The guthi houses have the main responsibility of restoring ICH that they are collecting, and they are analyzing the data. The Ministry of Culture is also compiling data of community and national ICH to continue and normalize different festivals and rituals. The local communities are helping the government and guthi houses revive the ICH in their concerned areas.