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The Nepalese Indra Festival as Index of Contemporary Political Life

Michael Baltutis

The Nepalese Indra jatra, the autumnal festival of the Hindu god Indra, is the mul Jatra (root festival) of the city of Kathmandu. The origins of this festival lie in the Sanskrit texts of classical India: the epic Mahabharata (most likely its first appearance), the dramaturgical Natyashastra, the architectural Samarangana Sutradhara, and the royal-astrological Brihat Samhita. Rather than simply describing the festival, and certainly more than interpreting the festival as an occasion that peacefully brings together all of its participants, these texts use the Indra festival as a literary trope that indicates socio-political change and innovation.

The contemporary Nepalese iteration of the festival is no different. The 1768 performance of the festival serves as the performative backdrop for the successful incursion of Prithivi Narayan Shah into the Kathmandu Valley, his overthrow of the Newar Malla dynasty, and his reception of the blessing of the tika from the royal Kumari (an event that, outside of Kathmandu, occurs more logically during the goddess-oriented Dasain festival and indicates performative change). On the level of narrative, officials at the Akash Bhairav temple in the central neighborhood of Indra Chowk – a temple that plays a central role during Indra’s festival – have reiterated their preference, popular among many Newars, that it is Bhairav who is ‘our king’ (Nep. hamro raja; New. jigu juju) and neither the Vedic Indra who is celebrated during the festival nor the Hindu Vishnu who, until recently, incarnated as the Shah king.

More recently, the Indrajatra has been the setting for the public airing of grievances between multiple parties in Nepalese society and, more generally, a reflection of political tension in Nepal. During the 2005 festival, and amidst the second jan andolan, the noisy conveyance through the city streets of the massive Indra pole, the festival’s central object, immediately brought to mind for many people the physical violence that was part of the equally noisy julus (political protest) that resulted in damage to people and goods. In 2008, the festival reignited long-simmering tensions with the officials of Guthi Samsthan over the state’s funding of Newar festivals. And, in an event that reflects the festival’s occasional appellation of ‘Fight Jatra’, the annual pulling of Indra’s pole on the Arniko Highway creates regular chakka jams that place into sometimes violent opposition local Newars, walking the highway as they manually pull the pole over three days to Kathmandu, and Nepalese citizens returning home by vehicle from their jobs outside of the city.

Rather than a offering functionalist interpretation of festivals as occasions to bring people peacefully together, I will use Peirce and Jennings’s use of ritual as a performative index to show how the Indrajatra festival places into trans-historical rhetoric the social, political, and economic issues of the day, as well as Rene Girard’s focus on performative violence as a means for realizing and potentially rectifying these pressing issues.