The chariot festival of Seto Machendranath in Kathmandu is called Janabhaa Dyo in Newari
In Kathmandu among the more famous and popular chariot procession is Janabhaa Dyo (Newari) or the great chariot procession of Seto Machendranath (Hindu) in the spring. There are several chariot processions across the year in Nepal. The most famous is Bisket Jatra which largely happens in Bhakatapur.
Unlike many other chariot festivals in Nepal Janabhaa Dyo is easy to see, close to Thamel and takes place over several days. It’s a great opportunity to see both a Newari festival, the Seto Machendranath statue, the Jana Bahal temple along with the living goddess the Kumari. Moreover, it all happens close to the tourist accommodation district of Thamel.
Janabhaa Dyo happens every spring in Kathmandu. It is celebrated by Newari Buddhists as Karunamaya Arvalokiteshwor and by Hindus as the White (Seto) Machhendranath. The festival involves many local communities who come together in harmony.
So important is this festival that the Living Goddess Kumari and the President of Nepal come out to witness it.
One of the most interesting things about the festival is not the gathering itself but how the great chariot is built and transported around. On all accounts here’s a close look at the festival, where to see it, best places to see it, how to get the highlights of it, the history and more …
History of Janabhaa Dyo or the chariot festival of Seto Machendranath
Like many Newari historical facts there are several linking the history of the festival together. King Pratap Malla is largely associated with the temple of Jana Bahal however there’s physical evidence that links it back further.
Legend has it that King Yakshya Malla was involved in the origin of the festival when Kantipur (Kathmandu) was still a divine place (near Rani Pokhara) where people bathed before going to Swayambunath. Such divinity led them to heaven upon death.
Hearing this the god of death Yamaraj visited the area to pay respect. However on his return King Yakshya Malla captured him with the help of a guru. The king requested to be immortal and refused to let Yamaraj go until this occurred. Yamaraj prayed to Arya Awalokiteshwor for help. With a white body and half-closed eyes lord Arya Awalokiteshwor appeared over water.
Arya Awalokiteshwor stated that whoever built a temple to him where the Bagmati and Kalmati rivers meet would live long and be prosperous. Further, he commanded the king to start a three-day Ratha (chariot) festival that would move around the area so he could visit the ailing that were not able to move far so they could be blessed with happiness and long life. To this day the Janabhaa Dyo starts near Rani Pokhara and visits the immediate neighborhoods including the main temple of Jana Bahal.
Jana Bahal in Kathmandu
One of my favorite temples in Kathmandu is the magnificent Jana Bahal which is about half way between Ason Chowk and Indra Chowk. It’s often missed by many people on the way to Kathmandu Durbar Square which is a shame. The 2015 earthquake damaged the outer gates which has been completely repaired while the temple has a protective fence and is surrounded by statues. Inside is a very clear statue of Seto Machendranath.
Jana Bahal is one of the few monastic courtyards with a building of this size. It’s also an important part of Heritage Walk IV in my book Kathmandu Valley Heritage walks where a secret passage is revealed.
The Chariot (Ratha)
The chariot used to move the Seto Machendranath statue is called a Ratha and is also known as a moving temple. It has 13 stories and forms a Shikhara or narrow pyramid design.
Each of the stories leads to Nirvana and has a separate meaning. While the triangular shape points to heaven, earth and hell. The four wheels which are made up of 100 pieces of wood represent four different versions of the god Bhairab. The entire chariot has over 300 pieces of wood of wood from 8 different pieces of tree. No metal is used in the chariots construction.
The statue of Seto Machendranath sits in a central position and is tended by several caretakers from each community as it makes its journey around Kathmandu.
Dates and locations of Janabhaa Dyo or the chariot festival of Seto Machendranath
The yearly date of the festival changes as it is lunar. It usually takes place around Nepali New Year (April 14th), also known as the month of Chaitra (first month of the year) . Do see my list of Festivals in Nepal for more on dates. In general the festival takes place in the spring.
The Janabhaa Dyo or Chariot Festival of Seto Machendranath takes place over one week so for tourists or those visiting the festival there are several locations to choose from. Most events take place after 4pm. It’s highly advisable to not visit the streets where and when the chariot is being pulled through as it gets very crowded. Instead it’s far more enjoyable to visit the chariot in the early evening when it has arrived at its destination for the night.
- Day 1 locations of the chariot: Starts Janabahaa at 3pm – ends Teendhara (Durbar Marg) – passes though Janabahaa – Wongha – Bhedasingh – Bangemudha — Asan – Kamalachhi – Teendhara
- Day 2 locations of the chariot: Starts Teendhara at 5pm – ends – Asan – passes though Teendhara – Ghantaghar – Ratnapark – Bhotahiti – Asan
- Day 3 locations of the chariot: Starts Asan at 4pm – ends – Hanumandhoka (Durbar Square) – passes though Asan – Janabahaa – Wongha – Makhan – Hanumandhoka
- Day 4 locations of the chariot: Starts Hanumandhoka at 4pm – ends – Lagan – passes though Hanumandhoka – Maru – Chikanmuga – Nhugha – Lagan
- Day 5 locations of the chariot: Starts Lagan at 4pm – ends – Lagan – stays in Lagan
- Day 6 locations of the chariot: Starts Lagan at 8pm- ends – Janabahaa – passes though Lagan – Dalachh – Tukan Bahaa – Nhugha – Kwohiti – Vindyo Pacha – Maru — Pyapha – Yetkha – Nyeta – Kilagha – Kel – Janabhaa
- Day 7 locations of the chariot: Janabahaa at 3pm- end of ceremony.
Map of locations
Where’s the best place to see the chariot festival of Seto Machendranath/Janabhaa Dyo?
Over the course of one week I’ve visited all the locations of the festival. Moreover I’ve done so over many years. Again I have to point out that the chariot pulling part of the festival is rowdy and there have been accidents in the past. If you visit during the day when the chariot has reached its destination it can be a little crowded but also enjoyable. It’s far nicer to visit the festival in the evening for a great atmosphere.
As you can tell from the locations of the chariot above, there are several. However the overnight and stationary daytime destinations are best. Those are Ason Chowk, Handuman Dholka and Lagan.
Out of these three locations the best place to see the Seto Machendranath festival are ranked as follows.
- Ason Chowk
- Hanuman Dolka
All three locations are shown in my book Kathmandu Valley Heritage Walks. Indeed you could easily do a heritage walk on the way to all the locations!
Ason Chowk is the closest to Thamel and is also a fascinating location in its own right. Ason Chowk is best visited in the evening for the candle light celebrations or indeed during the day if you are passing through.
Lagan is the furthest away but also has the largest open space. It’s rare for tourists to come to this area so it’s also a place you are more likely to meet Newari people who also rarely get to interact with tourists.
Hanuman Dholka is the northern part of Kathmandu Durbar Square and the chariot often does not have much room here. So it can get crowded. There’s an entrance fee during the day and there are certainly more touts. However, it also offers up an opportunity to see the Kumari Living Goddess though her time to arrive is varied.
Finally you can also visit Jana Bahal itself which is just south of Ason where the festival begins and ends. It’s also where the Seto Machendranath statue stays throughout the year and where you can visit it.
All of these locations are shown in the above map and in my guidebook.
What’s the Janabhaa Dyo or the chariot festival of Seto Machendranath like?
If you follow local advice you’ll likely end up in a throng of people pushing and pulling the chariot through small streets. Accidents happen and it’s not a very enjoyable experience. The better option is to wait until the chariot arrives at its location and join in during the evening.
The chariot usually stops overnight at a large junction like Ason Chowk or Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu Durbar Square) which means there’s plenty of room for people to move around. In the evening when it arrives people set up candlelight vigils around the chariot which are peaceful and enjoyable. There are often some traditional singers chanting prayers out near the chariot.
108 butter lamps are lit as 108 signifies the number of ways in which one can show compassion as taught by the Buddha. However, you’ll usually find different numbers of candles by different people around the chariot.
People come to the end of the chariot for glimpses of Seto Machendranath. They then walk up to the chariot and offer either small tokens of money or food. Helpers on the chariot reach down and take the offerings before placing them into the chariot where the statue is. Leaves , twigs or flowers from the chariot are often thrown out to the crowd.
During the day there’s usually a bigger crowd, no candles and no singing.
For tourists this festival can be one of the more enjoyable festivals to attended in the evening after dinner. It’s peaceful then and the atmosphere is friendly. One of the issues with festivals like this is that there’s no fixed time nor dates. The above dates and times of the Seto Machendranath festival which is spread out over a week will help you get at least one night to enjoy the festivities.
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