Nepal scales back Hindu chariot festival amid virus surge

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — A drastically truncated version of a Hindu chariot festival took place Saturday in Nepal’s capital amid strict COVID-19 restrictions, following an agreement by organizers and authorities that prevented a repeat of violent confrontations between police and protesters last year.

Typically, a five-story-high wooden chariot of the deity Rato Machindranath — whose statue is made from clay and covered in red paint with wide-open eyes — is pulled by devotees around a suburb of the capital, Kathmandu. The annual festival lasts about a month and draws tens of thousands of people.

But this year, only around a hundred hand-picked devotees were allowed to pull the chariot for just a few meters (yards), as riot police sealed off the neighborhood to prevent any spectators from entering.

The Himalayan nation is experiencing a coronavirus surge, with record numbers of new infections and deaths. Authorities imposed a lockdown across most of the country last month, and extended it in recent days by another two weeks.

The agreement to drastically scale back the festival came after consultations among local politicians, officials, security forces, priests and organizers. Many devotees stayed home and celebrated with feasts and rituals with their families.

Last spring, the statue was built but remained parked because of virus restrictions until September, when thousands of protesters defied a lockdown to take part in the festival. Several people were injured as police in riot gear blocked protesters as they moved the chariot, dousing them with water cannons and firing tear gar. The protesters threw stones at the police.

The festival is held in the belief that it will to please gods so they can provide for a generous rainfall, a good harvest and prosperity. It’s thought to have been held for more than 1,350 years.

Nepal, with a population of around 30 million, has reported 447,704 confirmed coronavirus cases and 4,856 deaths.

On Friday, China canceled attempts to climb Mount Everest from its side of the world’s highest peak because of fears of importing COVID-19 cases from neighboring Nepal.

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