The Public Life of a Royal Scribe: Displaying Indra’s Flag in 18th Century Kathmandu
Though celebrated virtually nowhere in India today, the presence of the festival of Indra in Sanskrit texts of many different genre signals the prevalence of its annual performance throughout India at the turn of the first millennium. Celebrated widely at a popular level, this festival also served official ends, as royal authors employed this lofty festival as a literary trope in their astronomical, architectural, and ritual texts for the establishment and maintenance of empire. The content of these texts reinforces the identity of the beneficiaries of the festival’s performance through their consistent attention to the king, his family, his officials, his capital city, and his kingdom as a whole.
The sole surviving contemporary performance of the classical Indra festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, also focuses on the royal object of Indra’s pole/flag, though its use there is of a rather modern provenance. The Shah dynasty established its empire through its three-part deployment of the festival in the 18th century. First, the 1768 Indra festival provided the setting for the successful Shah invasion of the Kathmandu Valley, after which they moved the capital city from Bhaktapur to Kathmandu. Second, the priests of the Shah dynasty introduced this festival to their new capital city of Kathmandu in the 18th century and made it correspond to, and cover over, an extant local Newar festival that possessed its own powerful royal deity, Bhairav. Finally, they commissioned the composition of texts prescribing the festival’s performance and describing its immense and royal benefits.
This paper will detail how one of these texts, Indradhvajotsava Kathana, composed by Śakti Vallabha Bhaṭṭācārya Arjyala, the poet of the Shah court in the early 19th century, epitomizes the tension between these two festivals, which continue to be celebrated simultaneously every autumn in Kathmandu. Though this text clearly draws on elements of both the local Newar and universal Indra festivals, Arjyala’s strategic reproduction of classical Sanskrit texts in the Kathana assists in the Shah court’s re-construction of the performance of the Indra festival as Sanskritic and classically Hindu and serves as a strategy for re-constructing the Indra festival as a means for the establishment of the nascent Shah empire.