Some journeys are prompted by a wish to see pageantry, the most surprising of which is to be found in theatrical recreation of astronomical or mythic events. In many cultures, the winter solstice is celebrated as the birth of the Sun, for the days begin getting longer with it. Indeed, one theory is that Christmas was originally the festival of the birth of Mithra or Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun). It was a popular festival in Rome, so the Roman Church moved the birthday of Jesus to this day, the proof of which comes from the fact that the Orthodox Church continues to celebrate this day on January 7.

One of the most astonishing festivals anywhere in the world is the 12-yearly Nanda Devi Raj Jat (Jat is short for Skt. Yatra) in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas that recreates the return of the local princess Nanda, who is now Shiva’s wife, to the mountainous abode of her husband. Nanda is carried in a litter together with other gifts and offerings. The 12-year period appears to be from the cycle for Brihaspati (the planet Jupiter), who is the priest of the gods.

The foundational basis of the festival is astronomical for Shiva is the Sun. But Shiva is also Universal Consciousness and, therefore, the originators of this festival thought of a way to connect it to one of the most moving ceremonies in village life that makes one confront eternal questions of love, compassion, and meaning.

In traditional India, the hardest hearts melted and relatives wept when the family bid goodbye to the newlywed daughter before she set out to go with her husband to some far village. Remember the daughter was very young, and she had seen her husband for the first time at the just-concluded wedding ceremony, and she knew no one at her new village. For part of the journey the natal family walked with her until the final goodbyes were spoken.

She did return to her natal home from time to time and at the end of the visit that could last a few days or longer, she was sent off ceremoniously just as after the wedding, although with each successive visit the pain of the parting got lesser. In these subsequent sendoffs also she was given new gifts and things she would need at her home.

The Uttarakhandis believe that the goddess Nanda is their princess. Nanda is another name for Parvati, the daughter of the King of the Himalayas, who resolved to marry Shiva, the Yogi, although he lived alone on the Kailash Mountain. In order to attract the notice of Shiva, she performs yogic austerities and lives without food which earns her the nickname Aparna, one who doesn’t even eat the leaves of trees. Shiva hears of her and comes in disguise to dissuade her, telling her of how difficult her life would be as Shiva’s wife. Nanda remains unmoved and finally Shiva accepts her and they get married. The residents of the Mountain Kingdom are happy that she will be the wife to the Great God but they are also sad that she is going to be very lonely at Shiva’s place where most of the time he is absorbed in his meditation.
Every twelve years, Nanda is back with her people and now is the time for her to return to Kailash. The processional starts from a village near Karnaprayag with a four-horned sheep in the front. Thousands take part in the procession singing and dancing and carrying the dola (litter) of Nanda. The processionists walk nearly 150 miles in three weeks through mountain villages and fastnesses to the 16,500 ft. Roopkund (a glacial lake) where goodbyes to the beloved princess Nanda are made and the four-horned sheep is set free and imagined to accompany the princess to the higher mountains beyond.

Some believe that the Nanda Devi processions and fairs started in Kumaon during the reign of the King Kalyan Chand in the 16th century; others think that the tradition is much older and it goes back to the 9th century. A smaller annual Nanda Jat is also celebrated.


Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak is Regents Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Born in Srinagar and educated in Kashmir and Delhi, he has lived in the United States since 1979. He has has written six volumes of poetry in English and Hindi and another fourteen books on a wide variety of subjects that include history of science and art. He was the anchor in Raga Unveiled, which is a four-hour long documentary on Hindustani classical music.