By Razen Manandhar
BHAKTAPUR - Though Bhaktapur proudly proclaims of being the World Heritage Site, and free of unplanned urbanization now and then, it blushes in shame every year after the biggest local festival of Bisket starts.
This 1400-year-old festival is the identity of this cultural city which has now turned into a means to show the extent of barbarism against own fellow-dwellers, depending mainly on agriculture and handicraft business.
This year alone, around two dozen participants of the chariot festival, that later turned into a "gang-fight" were injured right on the first day. Even police had to be rude in an attempt to take the situation in control.
The secretary of Bhaktapur Municipality sheds off his shoulder by saying that the administration did its best to prevent any such unwanted incident but it simply failed.
Buddhi Lal, an old man of 70s, ironically said that it is not a fight but only "a game, a merry-making." But there is a pain in his comment. They, however, have realized that it is certainly not an occasion to be proud of .
Even today, the residents, proud of their culture, wait eagerly for the festival but they have become used to with this "ritual" dark side of the joy so much so that the locals do not go to fetch the vandals after the incidents end, neither they even go to report to the police; they say it is their unity. Locals say it started in 1969, which somehow became an annual event.
Everything was planned this year. Bhaktapur Municipality, Chief District Office, District Police Office and political parties committed to make this year’s festival riot-free and set up a group of 800 volunteers. They indeed made a history last year by completing the festival peacefully, but they failed to continue it this year.
Local witnesses say the dispute started when the supporting beam of the chariot cracked at Taumadhi, in front of the famous Nyatapola temple by 7.30 p.m. It had proceeded around the half of the city, so the locals of the other half charged at the organisers. It was only an immediate cause which led a mass of around 60 to 80 people suddenly attack the participants and buildings with stones and bricks. They turned into demons and plucked bricks from all nearby temples, including that from the Nyatapola temple, which they love so much.
Police came late, when the situation went out of their control. So, the mass showed their anger at the police force too, leveraging them to use tear gas cells and even to shoot out. The nightmare lasted till 2 a m in the morning.
When the people woke up next day, they saw a carpet of brick pieces around the Nyatapola temple and many buildings damaged. Only those buildings, protected their doors and windows with plywood and iron sheets, were safe. This has become a routine to save their shops in this way, for some vandals target shops with expensive commodities too.
The target of the vandalism were the guest houses, local houses and temples rather than the people. Pahan-Chhen Guest House, with finest carved windows and doors had its all the window glasses shattered. The owner Ramji Prajapati said, "Even saving our life was difficult. The shower of bricks came from all directions."
The root cause of the yearly hooliganism is division of the ancient city into two parts : Thaane (the upper part) and Kwaane (the lower part). This helped them develop their localities competitively in the past ,but the modernisation has taught them only to envy and destroy each other. They wait for the festival to show off their sordid anger at the other half. And in this barbaric exhibition of the ego, residents of Taumadhi, the middle part of the city, become the bull’s eye.
Historian Dr Purushot am Lochan Shrestha said that the tradition of Bisket Jatra started from the later Licchivi Period, by the 7th Century. The original form of the festival is erecting a wooden pole that symbolizes Biswaketu Bhairava. The festival is named after this diety. As time passed, chariot festival of Bhairava and other episodes were added, making it the biggest festival lasting for nine consecutive days.
This savage fighting could never be the culture of the residents of Bhaktapur, who spend their money, time and even life to decorate the city, and have been living in harmony. The locals blame jealousy, "imported" modernization as well as political parties in this regard. Should this continue and defame the world reputed city again in the future? Only the city-dwellers of Bhaktapur can give answer.
[Kathmandu Friday April 13, 2001 Chaitra 31, 2057.]