At least one person dies each year at the Bisket Jatra Festival (Nepali New Year) in Bhaktapur, Nepal. This year, I was nearly one of them.
Last year, I had planned to attend Bisket Jatra for two reasons: it is the most elaborate celebration of Nepali New Year in the entire country; more importantly it was the only one of the seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley that I had not yet visited. But the gods conspired against me. By the time I had been embarrassed at Boudhanath Temple and forcibly ejected from Pashupatinath Temple, I cut my losses and fled to Pokhara, leaving Bhaktapur for another time. This year, nothing was going to stop me.
Bisket Jatra is celebrated over nine days in mid-April in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, center of the Newaris who were early inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. For two weeks prior to the holiday, crews decorate an enormous wooden chariot in the center of Taumadhi Square in preparation for carrying the sacred image of the God Bhairav. Considered to be a dangerous deity, Bhairav is symbolically tied to his seat with scores of lengths of reed, which are painstakingly woven around the prow of the chariot where he is seated.
Upon completion of the chariot, thick ropes are unfurled from both ends and sent hand over hand into the ecstatic revelers. Men, young and old, grab hold of the ropes and attempt to drag the chariot from the neutral square to their respective sides of town; an ancient tug-of-war that is believed to bestow good luck the following year to the side that is successful.
Knowing that the event always results in casualties due to the massive number of spectators it attracts and the historically poor crowd control, I had scoped out the site a day earlier to identify a safe spot from which I could film and take photos. On the appointed day, I climbed up on a small stone platform in the center of the square, raised about two feet higher than the surrounding plaza, where I would be front and center yet safe from the crowd. As the finishing touches were being applied to the chariot, thousands of Newaris surged into the square and fought their way toward the center. Shoulder-to-shoulder spectators, many carrying young children on their shoulders, jockeyed for position as a police riot squad tried to maintain space between crowd and chariot.
A moment later a roar went up from the crowd as the ropes were deployed and any semblance of order evaporated. The rope-pullers shifted toward my platform, pushing the crowd in my direction. Spectators crushed between the tug-of-war and the platform had no choice but to jump up. Too late, I realized that there was nowhere for me to go.
Trapped and inexorably being pushed backward by the advancing crowd, I frantically looked for the edge of the platform but the crush of bodies blocked my view. One step more and the ground dropped out from under me. For a split second, I was suspended in mid-air by the mass of bodies before tumbling backward. I now know the meaning of the phrase “time stood still.” Everything happened in slow motion, as if my brain was recording it frame by frame. What seemed an eternity later but was in reality only seconds, my back hit the sharp stones of the pavement and I snapped back to real time. Dozens of feet trampled me as I screamed, “Help me up!”
Half a dozen men reached down, plucked me from the ground, and stood me upright. They passed me, hand over hand, to the edge of the square, where I would be safe. Once I stopped shaking, I checked my camera. I had never stopped filming, not even as I pitched off the platform. One person died and several were injured this year at Bisket Jatra. I am decidedly grateful not to have been one of them.