I was so lucky as to visit the little town of Bhaktapur just when their new year festivities began. While new year celebrations im Switzerland usually consist of eating dinner with friends, drinking prosecco and watching some fireworks, new year “nepali style” is a little different – especially in Bhaktapur.
The new year celebration in Bhaktapur, once a kingdom rivalling Kathmandu, now a little town just a 30 minutes drive away from the capital, is called Bisket and it not only focuses on the founding myth of the town but also on the years old rivalery between the east and the west side of the town.
So when I arrived three days prior to the festivities, which started on April 9th this year, I did not only see the towns superb temples but also a giant (we are talking at least five meters in height)wooden chariot parked in Durbar square. “Will you be here on the ninth?”, my hostess from the beautiful Peacock Guesthouse asked as soon as I artived. “Because then they are gonna pull the chariot.” – “They are what?”, I asked, thinking of the at least 5 meters high wooden construction, that looked very very old and in no state to be moved – because it was too heavy and because it would fall apart. My hostess however was unconcerned: “They pull the chariot.”
My guide book explained: each side of the town was going to tug at one side of the chariot, trying to get it to their side of the town. Kind of like a tug of war. Just that there is a heavy, unflexible chariot in the middle. Of course I did not want to miss this.
On said date I went to the square early, secured myself a good view from the top of the temple, where also, if things got rough I would not be right in the middle of the crowd (and that they could get rough was confirmed by the huge police presence on the square. Apparently people have died in past years, getting crushed by the crowd. And also the losing side was known to throw stones at the one winning).
Soon the space around me filled up, with fellow tourists, local teenagers, families and some elderly couples. And then it began: the tug of war started accompanied by superloud cheers, the chariot swayed, seemed to fall even, rolled a little this way, a little that way, and then slowly made its way towards the east and up through the narrow alleys it disappeared from my sight.
I later met the owner of my guesthouse the guesthouse lobby. He proudly showed me the blisters on his hands. So was he proud his side, the eastern part of town, won? “Oh we didnt win yet – were gonna pull again tomorrow.” Happy new year!
Bhaktapur is well worth a visit even if there is no new year celebration going on. Even though many temples and buildings suffered some earthquake destruction, it is still a beautiful medieval town, with spectacular temples and a charming old town with narrow alleys and skillfull woodcarvings on all the buildings.
Entrance to the old town costs approx 15 Dollars for foreigners. If you want to stay more than one day, let the person at the ticket counter know: you only have to pay those 15 Dollars once! Staying overnight is worth it: In the evening when the day tourists are gone, the town becomes alive with locals buying and selling vegetables in the streets and doing their prayers in front of the temples.