The Bisket Festival of Bhaktapur: Bhairava and Tantricism

The Bisket Festival of Bhaktapur: Bhairava and Tantricism 1

Kane derives from the Indra festival the annual raising of a bamboo staff in the Deccan and other places on the first day of Chaitra, which corresponds rather to the Bisket Jatra of Bhaktapur, where the pole is instead identified with Bhairava. Though this New year festival, based on the solar rather than the usual lunar calendar, takes place at the vernal equinox, it is clearly related to and partly modelled on the Indra Jâtrâ of Kathmandu. It is believed that the Bhaktapur festival is called Bisket in reference to the Newari words “bi” for “snake”, and “syako” for “slaughter”, forming the term which eventually became Bisket, a celebration to commemorate the death of two serpent demons. A king had a daughter who wanted every night a new lover who was found dead every morning. A foreign prince took the place of the next victim. Having satisfied the princess, the king knowing that he could not survive went to hide himself. Suddenly he saw two snakes escaping from the nostrils of this princess. He killed the snakes. On morning the father of the princess was very surprised and wanted to show to the whole population the snakes. Today the two banners of the pole represent the snakes. In a different version of this story, Bisket celebrates the marriage of this Bhadgaon princess to Prince Bhadra Malla, the first of many royal suitors to remain alive after spending the night in the room of the princess. When Bhadra became ruler, he and his descendants were known as the Naga Mallas in remembrance of his heroic extermination of the serpents.

Bisket Yâtrâ is essentially a fertility rite. The two chief ritual performances are the raising of a huge wooden pole in the mound near the Cyâsilum mandapa and the collision between the two temple chariots involved those of Bhadrakâlî and of Bhairava.

A few days prior to the start a group of men have to go to a forest in the hills to select two pine trees, one taller than the other. We will see that there are two poles erected in this festival. They select a tree for the largest pole by releasing a goat and waiting to see which tree its rubs its head against. The goat is then sacrificied to the tree and the tree is cut down. The trunk is cleared, except for selected branches at the top that will represent the pole God’s hair. A second smaller tree is also selected and its limbs are cut off. Then these poles are slowly dragged to Bhaktapur.

Prior to the start of the festival the goddess Bhadrakâlî is taken from the inner room of her god-house and brought to a front room where non-initiates may enter. The god-house of Bhadrakâlî is the house that also keep the goddess Vaisnavî. During this festival Vaisnavî became Bhadrakâlî. Long time ago the festival of Bisket Yâtra was only consecrated to this goddess but after sometimes Bhairava comes from Varanasi because he was curious to see this festival. About to go back to Varanasi, he starts to disappear underground but he was recognised by tantrik priests who decapitate him.

On first day, the chariots of Bhairava and Bhadrakâlî are moved towards the Taumadhi quarter, the main center of Bhaktapur. The Râjopâdhyâya (Brahman priest) of the Taleju temple goes to this temple to meet the representative of the central government’s Guthi Samsthân who presents to him the royal sword. Then The Râjopâdhyâya with his Guru Purohita walks towards the chariot of Bhairava. At this very time on the order of the Râjopâdhyâya, the mûrti of Bhairava from his temple is brought into the chariot. At that time also a person from Lâsku dhokâ a part of the town near the Bhairava temple arrives holding with him a mysterious small box in which, I was told, is the head of Bhairava. This person has no right to speak.

The Rajopadhyâya seats inside the chariot of Bhairava to the right of the Bhairava image and his Guru-purohita to the left. This priest represents the king for the remainder of the festival. It is said that in the past, when Malla kings still reigned, it was the Malla king himself who rode in the Bhairava chariot during Bisket Yâtrâ.

Before going on I have to explain briefly that Bhaktapur is divided into two halves, an upper half and an a lower half. We had already seen this division for Kathmandu during my talk on Pacali Bhairava (In Kathmandu, the kingdom is a single entity, but is divided into two parts, each managed by a different king… The two kings were united by kinship; they were two brothers, a father and a son, or a maternal uncle, and his nephew… This institution which is briefly mentioned in the Arthasâstra (VIII.2), is historically attested only in Nepal…). In Bhaktapur the upper half is interpreted as the part on the north or the part of the town that was first settled or the upper stream. Bhaktapur’s upper and lower cities are divided by a line perpendicular to the long (the southwest-northeast) axis of the city. “It is often said that the Malla kings encouraged the division and conflict between the two city halves, which they transcended, to strengthen their power and divide any potential opposition (LEVY 199O: 170).” “Although the lower city has the main concentration of Brahmans and high status Chathariyâ, and the upper city the main concentration of upper status Buddhists, for the most part each city half has a full representation of important social and occupational units.” (LEVY 1990: 174).

Men from the lower part city take the ropes of the Bhairava chariot at the front of the chariot, men from the upper city at the back. Each group try to push the chariot in his own part.

On the second an third days. The chariots are where they had been left on the previous night. They are quiet days with feast and drinking of alcohol. On the third day there is also a secret pûjâ in the Taleju temple.

On fourth day. On morning the pole (the small tree) of the potters is erected in front of the temple of Ganesa in the potter’s district. On the same day, on afternoon the pole of Bhairava is erected near the Cyasilum Mandapa. It should be noticed that the main pole of this festival is erected in the intouchables district and that this pole is not erected in the center of the town. Interestingly enough, these intouchables (pore) are not permitted to live inside the town but beyond the pale. (Only Kusle were authorized to live inside the boundary of the town). Before that the pole be erected, some lemon (tasi) leaves are put on the pole of Bhairava.

Some time later the chariot of Bhairava and Bhadrakâlî arrive, at that very time they try to erect the pole of Bhairava, the year during which I observe the festival they were not successful so they try again the following day and could do it. The two banners represent also the sun and the moon.

On fifth day. The inhabitants of Bhaktatpur are supposed to take a bath in the nearby river and the pole is taking down on evening. When the pole touch the floor, the new year starts. It is only after this that the Pore (untouchables) can push the chariot. They want to keep the god in their quarter. Finally the chariots reach again the boundary of the city. It is during that time that the two chariots are pushed toward each other. This is interpreted as a sexual intercourse. It is said that Bhadrakâlî gets angry and goes back to her temple. Bhairava for apaising her send presents.

On six day, seventh day, eight day. During these days there are different ceremonies consecrated to the mother-goddesses, (Mahâkâlî/ Mahâlaksmî yâtrâ, Brâhmanî/ Mahesvarî yâtrâ). These goddesses are carried on palanquin from their Dyache [their temple inside the town] till the pîtha [temple outside the town]. They are outcaste people who take care of these goddesses temples. Every mûrti has to be put in the pîtha. During these days people of Bhaktatpur visit the gods and the goddesses. There is also an important festival at Thimi a nearby village.

On ninth day, the pole of the potters is put down. It is the last fight between the people of the low town and the upper town. The fight is quite violent, exchange of stones etc… The year in which I observe the festival was won by the people of the down town.

The participants are many. They are the Naike or the guardian of the temple of Bhairava who take charge mainly of Bhairava and his chariot. Then there is the priest of Bhadrakâlî who takes charge of Bhadrakâlî as well as her chariot. The Citrakar (painters) have to paint the eyes of Bhairava on the wheels of the chariot. The Kusle (yogi) have to play some specific instruments. Finally the Râjopâdhyâya who is the main priest of Taleju temple must send before the Bisket yâtrâ some offerings to the Bhairava temple. But as we have seen the Râjopâdhyâya represents above all the Malla King.

The royal character of the Bisket cosmogony becomes explicit in the Indra Jâtrâ of Kathmandu where the pole is identified instead, as in the Vedic cosmogony, with Indra, the king of the gods. One would be justified in juxtaposing it to the offering of Kâla-Bhairava’s alias, Kâsî-Visvanâtha’s own head, during the Bisket Yâtrâ to Bhadra-kalî.

During the cosmogonic New Year festival of Bisket Yâtrâ at Bhaktapur, Bhairava is erected as the linga in the form of the cross-shaped pole bearing two long cloth-banners representing the two slaughetered serpents from which the festival derives its name. The copulation between the pole and supporting mound of earth is also enacted in the ritual collision of the chariots of Bhadrakâli and Akâsa-Bhairava who comes specially to witness the erection of the linga and the death of the snakes. Bhadrakâlî is probably not different from the lusty but deadly princess of the founding legend from whose nostrils the snakes emerged every night to slay her lovers until an unknown prince slew them instead through his exceptional vigilance and even married her. On the last day of the year (Caitra), a buffalo is sacrificed at the pîtha of Bhadra-Kâlî and the Untouchables (Pore) bring its head up to the central Taumadhi square where the Akâsa Bhairava temple is situated and destroy it as soon as the main pole is erected. From there a “death-procession” consisting of a traditional bier carrying a pot (bhâjâkhahca, the first term “bhâjâ” meaning not only “pot” but also the large “head” of a thin person), instead of a real corpse, returns to the pole late the same night. After being left beside the neighbouring Bhadrakâlî pîtha, the bier is then brought back to Taumadhi, when the pole is pulled down on the evening of the first day of Vaisâka. The bier, which was formely used to collect from the palace the suitors killed by the snakes, comes in vain for the corpse of the victorious prince and returns instead with the substituted “pot-head” to the pîtha beside the cremation-ghât. The elevation of the pole, often associated with a snake signifies above all the neutralization and annihilation of the opposing vital breaths (prâna/apâna) resulting in the raising of the serpentine kundalinî up the median channel (susumnâ) in the very act of sexual (and even incestuous) intercourse. Like Mahâkâla, the susumnâ is said to devour Kâla (death) represented by the alternating lateral breaths.
The sacrified buffalo ritually actualizes the initiatic death of not only the royal lover but also of Kâla-Bhairava who came from Kâsî out of curiosity to see the pole-festival, originally consecrated to Bhadra-kâlî, only to be discovered by the Tantric priests and to be decapitated before he could escape. Even now, a very secret, closely-guarded bundles accompagnies Akâsa Bhairava as he goes to regularly unite with his demanding consort, and it is understood that its contents are linked to the severed head. With the assimilation of the greenery at its extremity to fecundating semen eagerly sought by barren couples, the pole is no different from the imposing erect linga of the Unmatta Bhairava at the Pasupatinâtha temple, which newly married couples touch reverentially in order to be assured of offspring. The sexual identity of the victim and executioner is clearer in the founding myth of the festival of Indresvara Mahâdev at Panauti where, pursued by the insatiable Bhadra-Kâlî, Siva plunged into the confluence of two rivers defining the site of the temple only to emerge, like the invisible median river, as the perpetually ithyphallic Unmatta Bhairava. The phallic identity of the yûpa is especially evident in the buffalo sacrificied to Thampa (=Stambha) Bhairava, (TOFFIN) “just before the temple precincts of Indresvar. The animal is destined for Unmatta Bhairava, but as this god is situated within the pure sacred precincts of Indresvar, its throat is slit outside, before Thampa Bhairava conceived here to be his double”. At Pasupatinâtha, animal sacrifices are offered on particular occasions to Unmatta Bhairava himself, within the precincts, and the pure central Siva participates indirectly through a ritual cord linking him with Bhairava.

Source: Manifestations of Shiva-Bhairav by Elizabeth Chalier
Image Source : welcomenepal

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