Rato Machindranath Jatra

One of the oldest and most revered festivals celebrated for over thirteen centuries in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley is the magnificent chariot procession called Rato Machindranath Jatra. It is dedicated to the deity Machindranath worshipped both by Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal. The six-month-long celebrations include various rituals performed by priests and the massive chariot procession carrying the deity’s idol around the historical core of Patan city.

Among various Newari jatras (festivals) or traditional chariot festivals specific to Kathmandu valley, Rato Machindranath Jatra remains the grandest display with its towering chariot complex spanning four stories. The event is also unique to Nepal’s intangible 'living heritage' showcasing the climate-responsive creative genius of Newari craftsmen who reconstruct the sophisticated chariot architecture on an annual basis. Beyond its religious merits, the festival thus holds enormous cultural and historical significance representing Nepal’s syncretic spiritual tradition and prosperous medieval legacy.

Historical Background

The origins of the Rato Machindranath Jatra festival can be traced back to ancient legends and medieval history that shaped the cultural landscape of Kathmandu Valley.

As per legends, the revered 8th-century saint Shantikar Acharya dreamt about the red-faced deity and traveled to Assam to acquire its idol which he later installed in Patan. The idol worship started as a cult that gradually gained immense popularity by the 12th century.

Various historical evidence and chronicles date the procession tradition around the same time hinting at active patronage by Malla Kings who ruled Kathmandu valley back then. The artistic impetus translated into a magnificent chariot construction to carry the deity’s idol around localities, allowing people’s participation. The route and month of celebrations also got formalized.

Later on in the mid-20th century, the vehicles were upgraded into technicolor electrical chariots with modifications to accommodate the growing population even as core customs remained unchanged and largely supervised by Buddhist priests from Pulchowki Math. Hence from legends rooted in faith to royal institutions and public participation, Rato Machindranath Jatra signifies Patan’s living past intertwining with Nepali society.

Iconic Chariot Procession

The centerpiece of multifaceted celebrations is the ceremonial pulling of the towering four-storied Rato Machindranath chariot on the appointed day of the procession covering a predefined route across Patan.

The colossal chariot stands as an incredible masterpiece of woodwork, almost 60 feet high, designed afresh each year by the Newari Sakyas who worked for months. The octagonal panels depict various tales of Lord Buddha along with figurines of peacocks, elephants, horses, and tigers representing different directions as per Hindu cosmology.

As the chariot majestically rolls down old brick-lined streets pulled by devotees using ropes, the sea of spectators is awestruck amidst the fanfare with music bands playing traditional tunes welcoming the deity to bless their homes. Elders shower flowers on the idol while women perform arati. After circling the localities and temples where ritual halts are made for prayers, the sojourn ends once the chariot is parked back at Bungamati, the construction site.

The spectacular procession thus serves the underlying purpose of ensuring the rain god’s blessings and good harvest signifying deep cultural and economic significance attached for locals to an agrarian festival as old as Rato Machindranath's.

Preparation and Rituals

The Rato Machindranath Jatra is preceded by months of elaborate groundwork and religious ceremonies that culminate in the magnificent procession.

Starting in early April, the idol of Machindranath is removed from its temple in Bungamati, ritually bathed, and placed in a transitional chariot. After being worshipped for a fortnight behind closed doors, the icon is finally transferred to the newly constructed bigger chariot in May. The complex four-tiered wagon with extensive wood carvings, metal works, and a canopy is specially built every year by the community.

The month-long celebrations feature unique rituals like the display of the sacred vest to devotees, the ‘Tangal’ vegetable offering near temple precincts, and ceremonial pole erections near the chariot. The various rituals signify sought blessings for abundance, universal appeal for generosity, and overcoming obstructions through divine grace respectively.

Such distinctive practices spanning across summer instill great anticipation among devotees eager to witness the deity roll past them eventually in June during the climactic procession day that marks the pinnacle of year-long devotional activities culturally.

Festival Duration and Timing

Spanning over six months, Rato Machindranath Jatra is among the longest-running religious festivals of Kathmandu Valley commencing in April and concluding in September every year.

As per the lunar calendar, the lengthy celebrations start on the first day of Baisakh month with the holy bathing ritual of the idol. The devotional ceremonies continue for the next two months. Construction of the towering chariot also begins during this period adhering to auspicious days for laying the foundations and erecting the arched frames.

The astral conjunctions as per ancient astrological treatise also determine the sacred procession day which falls sometime in June on the fourth month Asar based on lunar phases. The idol returns after circulating the city in the chariot and rituals resume till Bhadra month.

Finally, the festivities wind up on the fourth day of the Dashain festival in Ashwin month. So while the public procession happens on a single day, the entire festival spans over six months pivoted around the revered idol, its ceremonies, and the temporary chariot structure glorifying it as a primordial rain-bearing deity.

Community Involvement

The scale and splendor associated with celebrating Rato Machindranath Jatra annually reflects the strong communal ties, shared cultural duties, and efforts the local Newari community put in to honor the deity and their centuries-old tradition.

The tangible heritage from the chariot’s elaborate architecture to the ornate vest clothing the icon during the procession are all outcomes of various specialist groups volunteering their skills generation after generation. From chariot builders, painters, blacksmiths, and tailors to participating musicians, farmers, and priests, diverse clans ensure the progression of this beloved festival through the ages.

Even otherwise this special event breathes new energy through the historic quarters of Patan as locals spruce up their houses to welcome the deity while shops stack up ritualistic vegetables and cereals well in advance. Irrespective of caste or creed, all gather to partake in the festivities centered around art, faith, and social bonding – thus annually revitalizing their Newari culture. The collaborative synergy translates the spiritual event into a vibrant living heritage.

Cultural Performances

Rato Machindranath Jatra comes alive with a profusion of cultural programs and art displays adding color to the sacred rituals during the long festival period.

Famed traditional troupes like Lakhey dancers depicting mythological half-man-half-lion beings perform energetic shows before the Macchindranath shrines alongside melodies played by flutists in special Newari attire. Similarly, other cultural icons like Majipa, and Dyahmegu hit the streets during processions accompanied by music bands beating dhimays drums and cymbals while singing age-old hymns.

The rich repertoire also includes classical dances like Mallakhamb showcasing athletic yogic postures along with dramatic acts by Bahi & Chitka actors narrating folk stories. Such performances typify the remarkable living heritage safeguarded for centuries in Patan nourishing its exceptional arts during annual festivals.

For locals, it’s also an occasion for the upcoming artists to ply their wares from displaying handicrafts to enacting skits thus keeping rich traditions thriving through their creative participation alongside main shrine activities by priests. The artistic fare hence adds immense aesthetic and entertainment value.

Symbolism and Deity Worship

The Rato Machindranath Jatra brims with profound symbolism vested in the deity icon itself besides the artistic chariot, rituals as well and the societal roles assumed by devotees underscoring their common cultural identity and faith.

The crimson-red idol of Machindranath astride the imposing chariot symbolizes the life-nourishing monsoon rains for sustaining the agriculture in Newari society. The creative constructions housing the god also represent cosmic mount Sumeru besides emphasizing the architectural brilliance of old city builders.

The people’s participation through pulling chariot ropes or welcoming it outside homes signify unity besides their appeal seeking blessings of the compassionate Bodhisattva worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists for timely precipitation and abundant crops. The festive communion aims for greater welfare manifested repeatedly after generations reaffirm collective faith through such grand processions.

Thus at one level beyond idol worship traditions lies the enduring relevance of symbolic gestures and spaces that repeatedly reunite community in celebration of sacredness without distinction, thereby securing their newari culture.

Tourist Experience

The visually resplendent Rato Machindranath Jatra offers travelers and culture enthusiasts an incredible opportunity to immerse in Nepal’s living heritage through experiencing multifaceted religious celebrations.

Domestic and international tourists are recommended to visit Patan city during April-May to witness the chariot artisans at work constructing the majestic edifice. One can photograph and interact with the Sakyas families who have generations of woodcrafting knowledge.

To avoid overwhelming commotion during the final procession, visitors are advised to secure first-floor seats in the myriad traditional townhouses flanking the route beforehand to gain bird’s eye views of the parade. The years-old houses themselves framed by brick lanes present a befitting cultural spectacle.

While witnessing the rituals firsthand, maintaining a pious ambiance and seeking permission before photography is appreciated. One should also sample the ‘Namaste’ Newari thali or try on topis to appreciate the cuisine and fashion heritage behind such a culturally eminent festival. Sensitive reflection post-visit also aids in responsible tourism.

The splendor, rituals, and camaraderie witnessed during the Rato Machindranath Jatra leave tourists enriched with deeper insight into the valley civilization.

Challenges and Conservation

While the Rato Machindranath celebrations showcase enduring community spirit, challenges exist around sustaining certain heritage practices and ritual grandeur.

The traditional chariot construction expertise is facing extinction owing to a lack of economic incentives attracting newer generations into the highly skilled woodworking domain. Climate volatility also threatens the timely commencement of annual activities connected with agrarian cycles.

However, authorities are actively sensitizing locals towards conservation needs and possibilities around cultural tourism. Craft schools are being opened to systematically train youth in niche artisanal trades associated with the intangible heritage festival to ensure sufficient skilled resources. Homestays are also promoted to provide tourists immersive cultural experience.

Furthermore, the chariot pullers are mobilized into teams to streamline crowd management and prevent untoward incidents through coordination with police and venue volunteers. Such efforts foreground civic collaboration allowing prudent adaptation of ancient rituals into modern contexts through mindful intervention rather than weakening the living culture.


In conclusion, the illustrious Rato Machindranath Jatra stands distinguished as one of the most spectacular testaments to Nepal’s shared spiritual heritage and enduring medieval arts continuing to pulverize the public imagination through elaborate rituals.

More than just the phantasmagoric sight of the crimson deity parading local alleys aboard the towering chariot creation, the event underscores the zealous creative spirit binding diverse communities over centuries while transforming agrarian aspirations into an iconic cultural phenomenon through unique symbols and imagery.

By providing tourists with opportunities for empathetic participation, the festival also fosters intercultural exchange and universal brotherhood ideals crucial for social integration. As globalization impacts traditional ecologies, sensible efforts to sustain Nepal's intangible heritage like Rato Machindranath Jatra which showcases the many facets of Kathmandu civilization deserve due acknowledgment and support.