By Gopal Sharma
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Thousands of Nepalis threw coins and marigolds at a giant chariot over the weekend in a centuries-old ritual to appease the rain god and assure a good harvest, as well as guaranteeing good omens for the country's rulers.
The annual two-month chariot festival for Rato Machhindranath, revered as the god of rain, has for countless generations been presided over by Nepal's kings.
The monarchy was abolished in the Himalayan country in 2008 but that hasn't stopped the festival. These days, the president stands in.
The centerpiece of the ritual in the old town of Pathan, 10 km (6 miles) south of the capital of Kathmandu, came with the display of a jeweled vest said to have been given to a farmer by a serpent king more than 1,000 years ago.
Lost by the farmer and claimed by a demon, legend has it that the vest has since been held by Rato Machhindranath for its rightful owner to claim in the presence of the king, or president.
"Whoever watches the displaying of the vest becomes free from troubles, disease and hunger," said 49-year-old Hindu priest Kamal Raj Bajracharya.
For the days of the festival, an idol of Rato Machhindranath is mounted on a chariot with large wheels that groan as devotees haul it through the streets. On the chariot is a 20-metre (60-foot) tower festooned with fir twigs.
"It is our heritage and we must protect it," said Narayan Devi, dressed in a red sari as she stood by the chariot.
"The god will protect the country and us, its entire people, if we perform the ritual."
Satya Mohan Joshi, an expert on Nepali culture, said while the chariot stood for prosperity, if its tower collapses that would signify bad times for the country and its rulers.
He said the tower had tumbled in 2001, the year popular King Birendra and most of the royal family members were gunned down by the crown prince who later turned the gun on himself.
That compounded turmoil in the Himalayan country that was already battling a communist insurgency. Eventually, the centuries-old monarchy was abolished.
The tower also collapsed during a procession in 1971, months before then-King Mahendra, father of Nepal's last King Gyanendra, suddenly died.
Though the tower leaned a bit during this year's procession, thankfully for Nepal, which has endured chronic political turmoil, it remained standing.
(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Elaine Lies and Robert Birsel)