Who Sees the Sacred Vest? Ritual, Politics, and the Recasting Bhoto Jatra during Nepal’s Interim Period
For 240 years, Nepal was ruled as a Hindu kingdom under a Hindu king from the Shah dynasty. The government was administered under widely divergent political configurations across this time, and the country was administered alternately by the king himself, by successions of prime ministers, by Shah family regents, or by Rana hereditary rulers. What varied much less was how the government was performed in the contexts of state-level ritual. In these contexts, regardless of who held the lal mohar or administered the tax structure, the king was annually performed to be the center of power and the pinnacle of the state.
The ritual identity of the king rested on a variety of annual events, from Indra Jatra to Dasai to Basanta Shrawan to Shiva Ratri to Bhoto Jatra. Bhoto Jatra is the annual conclusion of the chariot festival of Rato Machhindranath in Patan. Bhoto Jatra (like Indra Jatra) formed part of the Shahs’ ceremonial inheritance from the conquered Malla rulers of the Kathmandu Valley, and annually involved the king and major representatives of the government congregating in Jawalakhel to witness the displaying of the spangled vest (bhoto) from the four corners of Rato Machhindranath’s chariot.
In 2006, however, the second Janandolan brought down the direct government of King Gyanendra, and the Interim Government put in to replace it began targeting all the practices that had sustained the monarchy for generations. For the two years of the Interim Period, from the Janandolan in April 2006 through the legal dissolution of the monarchy in May 2008, the Interim Government progressively detached the king from the practices of kingship—ranging from the right to convene parliament and appoint diplomats, to the right to lead the army, to the appearance on all national currency, to the performance of royal ritual. In 2007, the Interim Government redefined the prime minister’s role to encompass both head of government and head of state, and started sending the prime minister to perform the king’s roles at all public ritual events.
This new strategy was first implemented at Bhoto Jatra, the first major public ritual of the king’s annual calendar. Because of the experimental nature of this move in 2007, the negotiations were unusually complex and important, and succeeded in setting the administration’s procedures and strategies for the remainder of the Interim Period.
This paper lays out the history of Bhoto Jatra, and explains the performance of royal ideology through monarchy’s involvement with the god Rato Machhindranath. It then traces the ways Bhoto Jatra was performed during the Interim Period in 2006 and 2007, paying particular attention to the ways Bhoto Jatra intersected with other major events in the demotion of the king and the ways that the Interim Government negotiated and implemented the ritual’s ‘recasting’ in 2007. It then concludes by explaining the ways Bhoto Jatra has settled, since 2008, into post-royal realities.