Reclaiming the ancient city space by festivals and rituals


The festivals we celebrate and the rituals we perform in the Kathmandu Valley are not just letting us revisit the past but these festivals are also reclaiming their position in today’s altered urban space. Yenya Punhi is one such festival that takes us back to Medieval Nepal and provides us the opportunity to relive the life of our ancestors. But in the meantime it is also redrawing its identity in the space that we have modified, to be a“modern city” which was created thousands of years back.But these aspects of intangible heritage – festivals, rituals, and practices which were started hundreds of years back continue to exist in the present changed and altered ancient city. Some of the rituals and festivals are being abandoned due to several reasons but we still have many, which we proudly celebrate. One of such festival is Yenya and let us look into some aspects of Yenya in today’s urban space and how it is still reminding us consciously or unconsciously of how we mark the present with the memories of the past.

Raising of Yosi

The raising of Yosi, a long wooden pole made out of freshly cut tree every year, in the premises of Kathmandu’s Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square, marks the official start of the festival. Yosi is raised not only in Yenya but also in different events and festivals throughout the Kathmandu Valley. Different researchers have different views regarding Yosi. Some say this is an axis mundi, connecting the heaven to the earth while some identify it as a sacrificial post. This Yosi raising ritual in front of Kageshwor temple on Bhadra sukla dwadashi was added much later by Pratap Singh Shah. There used to be Yosi in front of Atkonarayan temple by Malla king on the day of Bhadra shukla ekadashi before that. In addition to these Yosis there are also smaller Yosis of other Guthi during this festival but unfortunately many of these smaller rituals are fading away. Going back to the main Yosi, after it is brought from the forest of Nalaknown as “YosiGu” it is kept in Bhotahiti until the auspicious date and time is drawn.

Yosi is placed at this place because it marks the outer boundary of the ancient Kathmandu. A small stone manda (mandap) that is hidden under the road during other days of the year is dug up and theYosi is placed in front of this manda which is worshipped in this place until it is taken inside the city. Prominent Sanskrit scholar and art historian Gautam Vajra Vajracharya mentions in his book “Hanuman Dhoka Rajdurbar” that the boundary of Rani Pokhari extended until the boundary of the city and the Malla kings would personally go to welcome Yosi up to their palace. The continuity for this ritual of welcoming Yosi by the king was changed with the king replaced by his sword, which is continued till date. Yosi is brought to the palace through the ancient trade route from the Bhotahiti through Ashon, Wongha, Makhan and then to the palace to raise the Yosi in front of Kageshwor temple. This route that passes diagonally through the city was economically important during the heydays of Valley due to flourishing trade between Tibet and India. Still this route is a shopping hotspot for the people of Kathmandu.

Dabu (Dabali)

While walking through the narrow lanes of ancient cities in the Kathmandu Valley, we would come across numerous square or rectangular shaped raised platforms all over the Valley which is known as dabu (dabali). Many platforms are seen occupied by tea stalls or vendors selling vegetables, while some have even made the permanent makeshift over these dabus making these structures go unnoticed. These dabus were not built just to fill the gaps in the urban space but have significant functions. These are the platforms designed for the performance of masked dances, plays and conducting rituals. One of the mask dances performed during Yenya is Devi Pyakaha, which is organized by the Jyapu Guthi of Kilagal. This dance is performed only on specific dabus throughout the festival. Unlike other dances that do not have fixed performing places and goes according to the invitation, Devi Pyakha strictly follows the route of Kumari Raath processions and is performed only on the specific dabu on the route. During the Yosi raising ceremony Devi Pyakha is also performed but just for a while without dabu.

On the fourth day of the festival when Kumari’s chariot is in procession of the upper half of the city, Devi Pyakha is performed in the middle of the busy road without dabu. This place is the starting point of Shukrapath from Indra Chwork. This definitely raises everyone’s curiosity, “Why is this dance performed in the middle of the street?” and that too without dabu. The members of Devi Pyakah Guthi share the story that this place had a dabu before the earthquake of 1934 for the performance. Road was carved through dabu and other houses and monument which we do not know for certainty for now. Some historians claim that Kathmandu Hanuman Dhoka Durbar’s area extended to the place where now Bishal Bazzar stands. Even though we have lost the memory of this place, the festivities like Devi Pyakha are making them alive, and even remind us that, it is not these rituals that are encroaching upon our roads and hampering the daily activities but our so-called modern thinking and modern cities have encroached upon the identity our ancestors gave us.

Upakhu

Upakhu is the ritual where family of the deceased people on that year goes around the city (in clockwise direction) on the evening of Yosi raising day, placing the paalchha (butter lamp in the raw earthen bowl) along the path.This ritual is also known as Paalchha Biyounu – meaning to distribute or place paalchha. People also place paalchha on the shrines and temples on the way and even offer paalchha to some relatives who happen to be watching the procession. This light from the lamp is believed to show the way to the deceased people’s spirits to the heaven, and this procession wards off evil spirits from the city. Local Guthi members with traditional music also join the procession. The locality of this route welcomes people participating in the procession by cleaning and decorating their place and temples as well as placing a huge heap of samaye baji.

According to well-known art historian and anthropologist author Mary Slusser, Kathmandu used to have a wall around the city and people on that day still follow the boundary where the wall stood. With the fall of the city wall after the Gorkhali invasion in Kathmandu, people have lost the sense of boundaries as well but the ritual, which we continue, still reminds of the old boundaries. It is still common to refer the newer settlements outside of ancient city boundary as desha pine meaning outside of the city. Older generations believed that impure and evil spirits reside outside of the city boundary while the city area remains pure. This might be one of the reasons that the mask dances of this festival of Kathmandu go outside of the old city boundary and when asked they mention they are not allowed to cross the river. Settlements were concentrated in the old city surrounded by the vast green fields for a very long time. This reason of impurity protected the fertile land of Kathmandu Valley avoiding the rampant construction of houses unlike today.

Kumari, Ganesh and Bhairav Rath Procession

One of the major highlights of this festival is the chariot procession of the Kumari, Ganesh and Bhairav along the city. The procession takes place for three days, in three different routes. The procession on the fourth day of the Yenya is marked red in the calendar as “Indra Jatra” as the head of state and various national and foreign dignitaries come to observe the festival on this day. The route of the chariot on this day is along the lower half of the ancient city and known as Koneyaa meaning procession through the lower half. On the fifth day the procession takes place through the upper half of the city and known as Thane yaa. While on the last day of the festival, the procession covers the small area and is believed to be added much later. These processions on the fourth and fifth day still mark invisible and informal old boundaries of the city, as ancient Kathmandu was divided in two parts: the upper part from Thamel to durbar as Thane and the lower part form Lagan to Maru. The people of Kathmandu still refer to these places as Thane and Kwone. Now this demarcation does not appear in any of the formal geographical distribution of the city plan but exists in the everyday conversation while referring to the places by the Newars of Kathmandu. The ancient rituals are validating the notion of the space people still have.

These are just a few examples of the festivals and festivities which reinforce the city’s identity in modern urban space. Age-old traditions are making the spaces alive and giving meaning to the place. “God does not play dice,” goes a famous quote from Einstein.  Our ancestors also did not play dice while planning and decorating the city. Not a single stone is placed in the valley without reasons and meaning behind them.

Many times when we have ceased to give continuity to these types of rituals or festivals, then we lose the functions of the space or structures and then think these structures are nuisances. These traditions are the soul of the city and in these festivals, its spirits come to revisit the place even when there is no trace of the built structures.

The author is researcher at CIDEHUS – Centro Interdisciplinar de História, Culturas e Sociedades da Universidade de Évora, Portugal.

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