KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) – Tens of thousands of devotees packed the old palace courtyard in the heart of Nepal’s capital on Sunday to celebrate the Indra Jatra holiday, marking the return of the Himalayan festival season after being scaled down due to the pandemic.
The week-long Indra Jatra precedes months of other festivals in the predominantly Hindu nation.
Kumari, a young girl revered by both Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal as the living goddess, left her temple palace for the first time in two years and was driven around the center of Kathmandu in a wooden cart pulled by devotees.
President Bidhya Devi Bhandari and the country’s top officials also lined up to receive her blessing, along with tens of thousands of others along the short path from her temple palace and around the heart of the city.
The festival season in Nepal falls around September and October. The 2020 festivals were scaled down after the government introduced restrictions to limit an increase in coronavirus cases.
Security was strengthened and the organizers announced plans to control the number of participants.
The Indra Jatra Festival marks the end of monsoon rains and the beginning of autumn. It also celebrates the end of the rice growing season.
Armed police guarded the alleys and roads to the main courtyard while volunteers sprayed disinfectants and distributed masks to the devotees.
Officials, priests, religious leaders and organizers held several meetings before deciding to proceed with the public festival.
“If we continue to stop the festival every year because of COVID-19, there is a good chance that our tradition and rituals can just disappear. We want to save our tradition and our heritage but at the same time keep everyone safe from the virus, says Gautam Shakya, the priest and caretaker of Kumari.
Gautam said they have appealed publicly to stay away from the festivals’ main venues as far as possible, for fear of spreading the coronavirus.
“We ask people to understand that in order to save the tradition, the rituals and the heritage, they should stay away from the arena this year and if you are sure you can watch these festivals for many years to come,” he said.
Kiran Shakya of the government’s Trust Corporation, which is in charge of the festivals, said special security arrangements were made to control the crowds and follow health records.
“We want to give an example of how a popular festival can be held safely,” he said.
Bishnu Lal shrestha, who was among the crowds of jubilant devotees waiting along the narrow streets to receive Kumari’s blessing, said he was happy the festivals are back after two years.
“We pray that the gathering of devotees will not be a reason for another spread of the coronavirus but the gods will protect us,” Shrestha said.
Nepal has imposed several suspensions and other restrictions since the pandemic hit. According to the Ministry of Health, there have been 784,000 confirmed cases with more than 11,000 deaths. Only 19% of the population has been fully vaccinated.