On the road with the red god

By Sushma Joshi

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 2 May 2004 (Nation Weekly) — The sight of a priest proudly displaying a tiny vest at the bhoto-display festival has been etched into our national consciousness. Why this little vest became of cardinal importance for our national imaginary is beyond the scope of this article - there are probably a dozen anthropologists who can explain this much better. What this article can do is speculate on "On the road with the Red God: Macchendranath", a new film recently made by Kesang Tseten, where he takes a hundred and ten hours of footage of various acts of human ingenuity and devotion to what seems like a lost cause — namely, the construction of an unwieldy hundred foot chariot that gets tangled up in the electric wires of the city of Patan and tilts drunkenly as it is dragged and pushed and pulled by enthusiasts across flood-washed roads every twelve years, and where men get roaring drunk and get into fights all the way from Bungmati to Patan, and then repeat the process all the way back.

Behind the vest rests a red god, known as the Red Macchendranath. This is the divinity worthy of all that work — painters, artisans, rope-makers and carpenters donate days of their time to build him that sky-high vehicle. Thought to be a manifestation of Avalokiteswor, the Buddha of Compassion by some, and Shiva by others, the Red Macchendranath (and his shiny vest) enjoy a popular cult following. While we have all seen this god in one form or another — postcard, photograph, television appearance, or real-life presence — what is not clear to most Valley residents is why this god in general, and his festival in particular, took on such national significance.

Tseten's film, by carefully documenting the entire process from the beginning, brings us a rare behind-the-scene glimpse of a production involving uncountable actors and decision-makers, from the guthis of Bungmati and Patan to the hundreds of people who materialize to drag the chariot back and forth between the two cities. "You can't coax people to come out for the other festivals, but during the Rato Macchendranath festival, all these people just appear out of the woodworks," one man says wonderingly in the documentary.

The festival can appear, on first sight, to be a classic excuse to get drunk and get into a good fight. Buff young men fight each other to get on the prow-shaped steering brake (yoke or beam). The ousted men are unceremoniously pulled off. Acrimonious exchanges involving everything from the division of meat to the dogs (another form of Bhairav) at one aspect of the festival, to the assigned blame for the tilting of the chariot in another, is apparent. Scenes of conflict abound, and after a while you begin to wonder how people even manage to get that goddamn chariot upright, let alone drag it all the way from Bungmati to Patan.

If the chariot falls down and touches the ground, bad things happens. Kings can die, royal families can get massacred, and the guthi people can mysteriously sicken and die in mass numbers. It also has to be rebuild anew in the event of such a calamity. So there rests a level of national responsibility amongst all the people involved in the venture. Some measure of co-operation amongst all the different people — from the men who run alongside and swiftly put a piece of wood in-between the wooden wheels to brake their impact, to the men perched on top who give the navigational directions, to the buff young men doing the steering, to the hundreds of volunteers who pull the ropes — has to exist. And don't forget the women who brew all that potent alcohol.

After a while, the seeming chaos and loose organisation takes on a logic of its own. In spite of the overt conflict, while gets hashed out at every level, it is apparent that the co-operative nature of Newar society remains the core spirit that guides the enterprise. While it started out as a local Newari festival, the discourse makes it clear that all Nepalis think of the festival as their own. When the chariot finally makes it into Durbar Square in Hanuman Dhoka, the level of mass participation and work involved in the process comes to fruition. When the priest takes out that tiny vest and displays it so proudly to the country, he is not just taking out a medieval garment — he is also taking out the symbol of a process in which, inspite of the conflict that exists at every level of society, the spirit of co-operation again triumphed over small differences and created a structure in which such a mind-bogglingly complicated event could take place.

In both a literal and a symbolic level, the festival is an analogy of any large structure — i.e.; our nation-state. Conflict exists at all levels in every organisation. The trick is to find a way to resolve it without major calamity. Tseten, by actively editing footage to show the reality of conflict and its day to day resolution, follows more than a chariot. He is following the god behind that vest — the god of compassion that can allow society made up of a diverse and heterogeneous group of people to come together and work on a national project without getting crushed.

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