Why is Amrit Ratna Shakya Taking Machhendranath to Dubai?

Heritage Issue 224 Jan, 2022

Nepal is a country endowed with a rich cultural heritage and this is a fact known to all of us. But Amrit Ratna Shakya, wants the whole world to know about it. He is a cultural expert and the chairman of Implementing Expert Group (IEG), which is representing Nepal at the World Expo 2020 that is being held in Dubai. The expo is an opportunity for Nepal to showcase its culture and heritage in an international platform and Shakya is the man who has envisioned how Nepal should be represented.

“The World Expo is like the Olympic Games,” says Binayak Shah, National Coordinator of IEG and Vice President of Hotels Association Nepal. “This event is held every five years.

It is an exhibition to showcase what the world has achieved in science, technology, sports and culture. It's important to understand that this is not a trade fair,” he adds. The World Expo provides a pavilion for each country to showcase itself in the best possible light. IEG has been representing Nepal at the World Expo since 1983. It won the best pavilion in the year 2000 and came fifth in China in 2015.

The year’s World Expo started on 1st October 2021 after a long delay due to the Covid pandemic and will continue till 31st March 2022. Every World Expo has a theme and this year’s theme is “Connectivity” since Dubai lies in between the East and the West. There are 192 countries taking part. Nepal is a veteran when it comes to World Expos and has already won various positions including first.

During this World Expo, Nepal is bringing its tangible and intangible cultural heritage to Dubai to share with the world. Many cultural artifacts are also being showcased during the Expo. A gold plated mandala, smaller replicas of chariots pulled in different jatras, paintings and replicas of festivals and deities of Nepal are also being showcased. The original plan for the expo was to build a replica of Kasthamandap in Dubai but the idea was scrapped due to the pandemic. This replica however, has also been created and is being showcased in the Nepal pavilion.

Every Friday, cultural music and dances are played and performed at the Nepal Pavilion and people enjoying it include foreigners as well as Nepalis living in Dubai. There are more than five lakh Nepalis working in Dubai. Binayak Shah and Amrit Shakya believe that visiting the pavilion also gives Nepalis living there a sense of pride.

While these exhibitions showcase the cultural heritage of Nepal, the showstopper, however, is the pulling of chariots of famous jatras of Nepal at the World Expo.

“There are five festivals in Nepal dedicated to praying for rain,” reveals Shakya. They are the festivals of Rato Machhendranath and Min Nath in Patan, Seto Machhendranath in Kathmandu, Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur and Dolakha Bhimsen Jatra in Dolakha. “Legend has it that there was a twelve year drought in Kathmandu valley a long time ago. In order to bring rain, the king of Bhaktapur, a Jyapu from Patan and a vaidhya (traditional healer) from Kathmandu worked together to bring the deity Karunamaya to the valley so that he would bring rain,” says Amrit. Karunamaya, also known as Machhendranath or Avalokiteshvara, is a god who grants prosperity and rain. Once the deity was brought to Kathmandu, rain began to fall again and the drought was over. Even today, every year during the pre-monsoon season, festivals are held in honor of the god in the hope that he’ll bring rain.

For Dubai, IEG has created ten foot replicas of each of the five chariots used during these jatras. The chariots consist of many elements. “The curved main axis of the chariot, known as “Dhungba '' is created from a single tree,” says Shakya. The dungba in the replicas follow the same model as in the original chariot. A mask of Bhairav is placed at the front of this Dhungba. “According to legend, the mask of Bhairav used in the original chariot was sent by the Karkat Naag, a serpent king from Bungamati in Lalitpur. The Karkat Naag is the strongest Naag and because of his influence, it rained again in Kathmandu valley after the Karunamaya was brought to Kathmandu,” explains Shakya. This mask has also been recreated in detail by IEG and has been gold plated for display at the World Expo pavilion.

The four wheels of the chariot represent four Bhairavs - hence there are five Bhairavs in the chariot. No nail is ever used in the creation of the chariot. The tip of the Machhendranath chariot has the Bajrasattva, a Buddhist deity. During the festivals, this tip is brought from the Hiranya Mahavihar, also known as the Golden temple in Patan before the festival begins. All of these elements have a religious significance when it comes to praying for rain and they have all been included in the replicas that are being sent to Dubai. 

Rain is an important natural phenomenon and the bringer of greenery and life. Dubai is a city located in the Arabian Desert and receives very little to no rain at all. Being in the middle of the desert, rain is very important to this city, so much so that the president of UAE, Sheikh Khalifa has called on his countrymen to pray for rain every week during their weekly Friday Prayers. The prayer, known as Salaat Al Istisqaa, is done to pray to Allah to bless the nation with rain in accordance with the Prophet Mohammed’s sunnah. The prayers are done 10 minutes before the Friday prayers. Keeping this in mind, and in the spirit of friendship and camaraderie, Amrit Shakya decided to take the jatras of Nepal, which help to bring rain.

During the World Expo, each country is granted a National Day when they become the main attraction and get to exhibit what they have brought from their country. Nepal’s National Day is on 2nd January and on this day, fifty Nepalis wearing different traditional Nepali dresses from different communities - Newar, Rai, Gurung, Madhesi, Sherpa and more - will pull these five chariots through the main streets of the World Expo.  As they pull these chariots through the Expo, the participants will pray for rain in Dubai.

Through the World Expo, Amrit Shakya and IEG are helping Nepal bring its cultural heritage to Dubai. And in a gesture of friendship, Nepal will share its rain gods with Dubai and join in with its people to pray for rain - thus connecting the two countries and its people with love and good will.