Pachali Bhairav Jatra

This is one of the major religious celebrations in Dolkha, an historic town in north-eastern Nepal (133 km from Kathmandu off the highway to Tibet). The festival falls on early August; and consists of masked dances that go on non-stop for five days. Escorted by musical bands, dancers representing the deities Bhairav and Kumari and other gods and goddesses swirl and sway through Dolkha, visiting its many temples. On the occasion, devotees also undergo fasting and worship Bhairav and Kumari. The ceremony has a history going back more than five centuries.


Despite his supreme position in a number of tantric schools of Shaivism, Bhairav seems at first sight to have a modest place beside the other gods of the Hindu pantheon. But in Nepal, where the tribal substratum is still very visible in the social organization of the Newars, this savage god is probably the most popular and omnipresent of the pantheon. Among his unique manifestations, Pachali Bhairav is not only the most important but also the one which best illustrates the indigenous character of his worship and his penetration into Nepali culture. His temple, beside a cremation ground on the Bagmati River, is frequented most by twelve families of Hindu farmers (and earlier by Buddhist oil-pressers) living in the southern part of Kathmandu, for whom he serves as the clan deity. The annual Bhairav festival, celebrated during Dashain, provides the occasion for the transfer of the vessel of Pachali Bhairav (which he has been invoked to inhabit) from one farmer family to the next, and also requires the specialized participation of members of several Buddhist castes.

The first reference to Pachali Bhairav is an inscription from 1333 A.D. that was discovered in the Maru Sattal or Kashthamandap at the center of Kathmandu. This wooden building, which marked the northern boundary of Yangal, seems to have been the royal council chamber and the temple of Pachali Bhairav. In the inscription, the god is invoked as witness to a political treaty and as the guardian of certain funds deposited as a pledge to this temple. Towards the beginning of the twelfth century, this entire section of the city was also called Kashthamandap, from which is derived the modern name of the city, Kathmandu. In 1379, King Jayasthiti Malla gave this Sattal to the Nath ascetics connected with the worship of Bhairav. Their descendants, the Kapalikas or Kusle Yogins, continued to live there until recently (1966), when they were turned out so that restoration of the building could be begun. The Kashthamandap still provides shelter today for a statue of Gorakthnath and is still associated with the worship of Pachali Bhairav. Current customs among the Buddhist Newars of Kathmandu indicate that the building had also probably previously had Buddhist associations.
Jyapu farmers in Kathmandu, who still represent a third of the population of the old town, are spatially distributed in four sectors, each associated to a particular temple: Swayambunath (Simbu) and Lutimaru Ajima at the north and west, Bhadrakali at the south-east and Pachali at the south. The principal devotees of Pachali Bhairav are farmers and oil-pressers who live in the southern part of Kathmandu. At the daily level, the farmers are the most involved because they maintain the open-air temple. The tantric priest (Achaju) who performs the daily rituals is none other than the eldest male member (Thakali) of the family currently in charge of the open-air temple. The daily rituals are performed morning and evening by the farmer guardians and by a Newari Buddhist “brahman” Vajracharya priest. They offer, among other things, eggs, goats, and above all poultry to Pachali Bhairav, but the animals are never sacrificed on the altar itself but only on the betal. Special rituals are also celebrated on the eighth day of Dashain (Maha-Ashtami) and on Pachare or Pishacha-chaturdashi, a three-day festival beginning on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of the month of Chaitra (March-April).