In September, the streets of Kathmandu vibrate to the sound of the drums of Indra Jatra, a religious festival emblematic of Newar culture which has shaped the capital of Nepal. For eight days, we remember Indra, the king of the gods, whom his mother sent to pick the flowers of the parijat, coral jasmine which does not grow in the heavens. When they surprised him at work, the inhabitants of the valley, unaware of his identity, tied up the thief. Indra’s servants had to set out in search of their master so that he could be recognized in his full majesty and be celebrated with pomp before returning to his kingdom by blessing his hosts and captors.
Even today, the joy of the divine visit fills the hearts of the Newars when, in an ocean of human fervor, the three great processions of the Indra Jatra set off, leading compact crowds guided by countless young musicians . Pulled on the backs of men, three imposing chariots drive the Kumari accompanied by two boys worshiped as the gods Ganesh and Bhairab. Sumptuously dressed in scarlet brocades, the Kumari is an essential character in the Newar world because this little girl, chosen according to an immemorial tantric ritual, is the manifestation of Taleju, the tutelary goddess of Kathmandu.
On the first day of Indra Jatra, he dons the heavy red mask
In the procession, other figures arouse cries of joy: Pulu Kisi, Indra’s elephant, and especially Majipa Lakhey, a benevolent demon with a disheveled mane. His grimacing mask reveals disproportionate eyes and sharp fangs. His multicolored clothes fly in the wind as he dances gracefully. Then, the Lakhey resumes its course, embracing here and there the children of whom it is the protector.
Last summer, I met Rajesh Shrestha who, once a year, transforms into Majipa Lakhey. He received me in his small shop in Basantpur. With great humility, he told me how, from a very young age, his body reacted with uncontrolled shudders at the sight of the sacred mask. When his predecessor felt too old, Rajesh was designated as the new incarnation of Lakhey.
In September, the daily life of this father of a family comes to an abrupt end when he is introduced into the demon’s dwelling where, in an atmosphere of intense prayer, he undertakes strict asceticism. On the first day of Indra Jatra, he dons the heavy red mask. Then begins the process of possession. Rajesh no longer belongs to himself and is rendered insensitive to the pain of the fifty kilos he carries on his head while performing wild dances for several hours. Having entered another dimension, his human body becomes the seat of the presence of Majipa Lakhey.
Over time, I have realized how possession – in Sanskrit avesha – is an essential reality of the religious universe of the Indian subcontinent. Surely testimony to a shamanic background that does not want to die. Strange for the rational minds of supposedly developed societies. A clear sign, however, that the world of men and that of the gods continue to interpenetrate as in the past when Indra came to harvest the coral jasmine from the Kathmandu valley.