Cultural Ornaments: The delightful dances of Nepal

Features Issue 118 Aug, 2011
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

In the mid 1970s, Gautam Ratna Tuladhar was a famous face in Nepali cinema. Tuladhar is also a painter and a dancer. In 2001, he had a solo exhibition at the Nepal Art Council Gallery titled, ‘Significant Dances of Nepal’. The accompanying brochure said, “Dance is a form of cultural ornament of any country…” He is an expert in traditional dance forms but it his performance as Lord Shiva in his famous ‘Bhairab Kali’ dance that he is best known for. “Bimala (Shrestha) Chettri (another renowned dancer) and I were the creators of this dance which is enacted often nowadays by others,” he says. His ‘Bhairab Kali’ has become a legend by now. However, there are numerous other dance forms in the country that are as captivating.

At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that Nepal as a whole has more than 100 different ethnic groups. With such a melting pot scenario, it is only natural that besides a multitude of languages and cultures, the country also became host to a fascinating variety of dances.

The question then, is why are Nepali dances not renowned the world over as a cultural asset such as say, the Salsa of Spain or the Bharatnatyam of India? Do we give any less importance to this vibrant aspect of our culture? Do we not think as highly of it as we do of other popular dance forms? Perhaps because it is such an intrinsic part of our culture, something so close to us that we fail to take notice of its unique attributes. Surely, creating interest amongst others will have to start by creating a semblance of the same interest amongst ourselves.
Let’s talk dance.

The dances of the Newars
According to Dr. Kumar P. Darshan, who has a doctorate in dance and has written several books on the subject, some Nepali dance forms have been traced back to the Lichhavi era (c. 450 – c. 750 AD). Kathmandu, with its plethora of festivals, was fertile ground for the development of various dance styles. It was during the Malla period (1200-1769 AD) that dance really flourished here. “We have to be especially thankful to King Pratap Malla (1641-1674 AD) during whose time, not only were many beautiful monuments built, but dance also received a big boost,” says Darshan. In fact, during the Malla era one would find raised platforms (dabalis) in many squares for the performance of dances and drama. Today these platforms serve the similar purpose.

One of the most popular dance forms performed in the Newar community is the Mahakali dance, which enacts the tale of goddesses Mahakali, Mahalaxmi, and Kumari who once descended from heaven to battle demons that were inflicting great despair among humans. The music begins with the distinctive sounds of the shehnai (a double reed tube- like instrument). A performance can range from two and a half to three hours. When can one catch a performance? The annual, weeklong Indra Jatra festival in Kathmandu offers such an opportunity.

Legend has it that King Pratap Malla had a dream one night in which he witnessed the three deities battle the demons. He wished his dream to be recorded for posterity through a dance recital to be held every year.
Various stages of this dance have been mentioned in Darshan’s book, “Nepalese System of Dance Education”

. The performance begins with the Mahakali dance wherein the goddess’s wrath subdues the demons. As the dance progresses to the specter dance in which the demons’ whereabouts are displayed, the sangram (battle) dance follows. The demons’ victory dance to celebrate the goddess’ presumed defeat follows, preceding the skeleton dance. This is followed by the Kumari dance, then the khyak (supernatural beings which frighten but are harmless otherwise) dance at the end of which, Mahalaxmi appears and is attacked by the demons. It ends with a victory dance. This dance portrays the ten days of Dashain, arguably the biggest Hindu festival. It is a mix of many dances, some of which are described in further detail below.
The Mahalaxmi dance sees the goddess Mahalaxmi dance around the dabali with a weapon in her hand before taking her asana (seat) in the centre. Then, to the beat of the madal (a two headed drum) she purifies the site where jamara (sacred barley leaves) is meant to be grown. The goddess then calls out to the khyaks and skeletons who accompany her in the dance, tempting them to feast on the yellow-green jamara. The Kumari dance follows, which involves dancers depicting 55 animals, a specter, two skeletons and two khyaks besides the Kumari. The Kumari performs a dance depicting shingar (self-beautification) after which she offers liquor to the specter, the khyaks and the skeletons and finally drinks it herself, trembling with wrath. After a serpentine dance and a war-like dance, the performance ends with a celebratory dance by the evil figures.

The Devi daitya sangram dance or the great battle between the goddesses and the demons sees the demons arrive, jumping up and down in the form of buffaloes. Stunned on seeing the goddess Mahalaxmi and attacked by her supporters, the devils fight back prompting the goddess herself to battle the demons. As the midnight hour – a time when the demonds are at their strongest - approaches, the goddess cautions her followers to make themselves invisible.

Seeing no one, the demons assume victory and dance around in joy. However, the next day, five of the goddess’ supporters arrive to reconnoiter the battlefield followed by the goddess herself. Victorious, the skies open up to shower flowers upon the goddess. All the other gods and goddesses arrive and pay homage to Mahalaxmi while Kumari dances deliriously with her followers.

Believed to be devoted to Mahalaxmi as the guardians of her wealth, khyaks, covered in black fur, accompany the dance of the goddesses in the Khyak dance. Also joining in, are the kawans (skeletons), who dance along with the goddesses and drink the blood of the corpses on the battlefield.

Another popular dance form is the Bhairab dance of which there are three types: the Swet (white) Bhairab dance, the Nilo (blue) Bhairab dance and the Bhairab Kali dance. The first is performed at the end of the Mahakali dance while the second is an independent dance form performed during Indra Jatra.

The Bhairab Kali is an erotic dance form depicting various asanas (positions) as described in the Kama Sutra. In its entity, the dance between Bhairab and Kali deities lasts for over an hour and portrays 84 asanas. As mentioned above, Gautam Ratna Tuladhar claims to be its originator. According to him, during its maiden performance at the Rastriya Naach Ghar in Kathmandu’s Rani Pokhari, queues would start from early morning for tickets to the show.
Any observer should be able to notice a glaring, common denominator in a conversation on dances in Nepal. As with much else in Nepal, dance too is inextricably tied to religion and with people’s beliefs. This can also be owed to similar practices by former royal dynasties, who themselves were regarded as avatars of Hindu deities.
The Nava Durga dance is another dance form, which like the Mahakali dance, has religious connotations. King Subarna Malla (c. 1445 AD) of Bhaktapur introduced this dance in honour of the nine manifestations of Durga i.e. Mahakali, Kumari, Barahi, Brahmayani, Maheswari, Vaishsnavi, Indrayani, Mahalaxmi and Tripura Sundari. Of these, only seven (the latter two being the exceptions) are represented through dancers wearing different clay masks. Mahalaxmi’s silver idol, in a small chariot, leads the procession. The dancers, members of Bhaktapur’s Gatha community, move to the beats of dyokhin and kanhe-baja (traditional percussion instruments) and the ta (cymbal). Every 12 years, in October, the town of Hadigaun sees this dance performed.

The Lakhey dance, performed on the capital’s streets during Indra Jatra and Krishna Asthami, is perhaps the most commonly known dance form amongst the capital’s population owing to its seemingly rowdy nature. According to Dr. Darshan, the story of the lakhey is that of a demon who kidnapped children for his meals. The king finally sent his men after the lakhey when it kidnapped the prince, to escape whom the lakhey absconded to Kathmandu. Caught and kept in the Tundikhel grounds, the lakhey was was provided with meat and rice everyday and ordered to dance around the grounds once every year. Similarly, the heroic deeds of the monkey god Hanumaan are portrayed in the monkey dance, during the weeklong Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur and during Indra Jatra in Kathmandu.

The dance of the Buddhists
Charya Nritya (dance as a spiritual discipline) is a Buddhist ritual dance that was once practiced in secret. Newar Buddhist priests (Bajracharyas and Shakyas) perform the dance accompanied by Charya Giti (devotional songs) in praise of the Buddhist pantheon. The dance has been performed all over the world by expert dancers like the husband-wife duo of Radhey Shyam and Narayan Devi Pradhan. Charya Nritya includes a variety of styles wherein each dance depicts a different Buddhist deity, such as Manjushree, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrayogini and Vajrapani. These dances are performed as part of the Vajrayana practice of deity yoga (visualizing oneself as a deity figure) in which the dancer reflects the appearance, ornaments, inner qualities, and awareness of the deity being portrayed.

Similarly, the Manjushree dance tells the story of how Manjushree, when on a visit to Swayambhunath, drained out the water from the Kathmandu valley, which was once a giant lake, thus making it inhabitable.
One of the four tantric goddesses of the Kathmandu valley, Vajrayogini is revered as the goddess of yogic practices and a temple dedicated to her is located in Sankhu. The dance sees dancers move languidly at times to depict tranquility and at others, vigorously to convey anger. The main ritual dance of the native Shakya clan of Kathmandu, dancers don distinctive colours as they depict the particular postures of the Pancha (five) Buddhas, i.e. Vairochana, Aksobhaya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi.

Besides dances based on religion and mythology, the valley also has some interesting folk dances among which the popular ones are the Jyapu Jyapuni (dhimey) dance – which celebrates the season’s harvest, the Indra Apsara (nymph) dance of Thimi – supposedly with dead family members watching as spectators and the Lusi (pestle) dance - a satirical street performance based on social and political issues. Other classical dances are Harisiddhi dance, Tandav dance, Devi dance, Bhadrakali dance; Pachali Bhairabh dance, Swetkali dance, Rudrayani dance, White Elephant dance, Chandi dance (in Lalitpur), Baraha Narsingha dance, Neel Barahi dance, Manamaiju dance, and so on.

The dances of the hills
Any traveler to Nepal with a bit of wanderlust in him will attest to both extremes of the lush green hills of Nepal. While the country’s hills are rich in flora and fauna, it is also home to a hardy lifestyle. Life in the hills, like the dances of its people, strikes a delicate balance between such extremes. While the Newar dances have a religious element to them, the dances of the hills reflect the many stories that echo in its valleys.

The Maruni dance has its origins in the country’s eastern hills. Originally performed during Tihar, men would dress up to play the roles of the women in the dance. Thankfully, with time, the dance now includes female performers. The dance form has a central joker-like character (dhatu waray or liar) to inject humor into the routine. Nine instruments called the Naumati baja provide the music comprising of the distinctive beats of the madal and the lilting tune of the bansuri (flute). Based on the shingar ras or beautiful expression, the western hills too have a Maruni dance but one with their own subtle changes incorporated.

A group dance of the Gurungs of western Nepal, the Sorathi is enacted over a period of 16 days between Dashain and Tihar. It re-enacts the legend of a king who was childless despite having seven wives. When finally the youngest queen bears a daughter, the other queens, jealous and insecure, throw the child into a river. A passing fisherman saves the princess and raises her as his own. The dance depicts the unraveling of this story as the parents and the child are finally united.

Another traditional dance of the Gurungs, the Ghanto dance is performed by pre-pubertal girls called ghansaris or ghatonis. It takes place during Magh Panchami (end of January) and ends on Baisakh Purnima (April-May) with just the final episode lasting for three days. Clad in a unique ghanto dress and distinct headgear, the dancers perform in a trance with closed eyes. Their movements involve twisting, rising, sinking and then turning in squatting positions with hands just touching the ground. The dance tells the life story of king Parsuram and his queen including his death and her immolation (sati) and subsequent reincarnation. Dancing to the rhythmic beat of the damphu (a hand held drum), the Tamang Selo dance is also known as the damphu dance. Performed by Tamangs, inhabitants of the country’s middle hills, during various rituals and communal ceremonies, the performance demands vigorous movements.

The Shebru dance, shybru meaning feet (shybru) and ru meaning rhythm is performed by Sherpa communities living in the Himalayan regions.

The Dhan and Chyabrung dances are performed by the Limbus, while the Khyali dance by the Magars and Gurungs in which young men display their talents so as to win a wife. The same community has a number of other dances such as the Jhayure dance, the exuberant Kauda dance of the Magars, based on the perennial theme of love, and the Rodhi dance, a once popular Gurung dance performed in the rodhi ghar (a communal home to facilitate interaction between young folks). The Tappa dance is a group dance most popular in Dang in far western Nepal, (Dang district) that begins slowly and picks the tempo towards the end. The Chudka dance is also a group dance of both the eastern and western hills, performed during the colorful water festival of Phagu Purnima in March. The Sangini dance is performed in groups during the three-day long Teej festival (August) by women as they fast to pray for the wellbeing of their husbands.

The dances of the Terai
The Terai plains of Nepal are home to people of various ethnicities and different cultures. While many Hindu festivals are common and similar to other regions of the country, the Terai people also have festivals and subsequently, a number of dances that are unique to their community and the region.

The Horiya dance is performed by members of the Tharu community during the festival of Holi (March). This popular and boisterous dance with steps that expresses the amorous sentiments of young boys and girls sees the dancers throw colors on each other. Mungrahawa dance has its origins in the Tharu community of western Nepal. In it, young boys carrying wooden sticks (mungros) dance energetically to the beat of their own wooden sticks and drums. This dance saw a revival after Chitwan’s Machan Wildlife Resort promoted it as a fitting entertainment routine to make otherwise idle evenings more exciting for tourists at their resort.

A professional dance of western Terai, the Kaharba dance sees dancers move from door to door, and even from one village to another, singing and dancing in small groups. The donations they receive after each performance feeds these wandering troupes. While the Chanchar routine is a Tharu dance that is devoted to Lord Krishna, Jhinjhia dance honors Goddess Durga and takes place during Dashain in the Terai. Performed at night, by young girls who dance with burning lamps on top of water vessels balanced on their heads, it requires a lots of practice on the part of the dancers.

A testament to a history that shares a lot of cultural traits with its Southern neighbor India, the Jat-Jatin dance is actually a popular dance in India’s North Bihar. Moonlit nights during the monsoon rains see the same dance performed in Nepal’s Mithila region (Janakpur). Two groups of girls, each led by a leader, stand on opposite sides, and express various sentiments through dance movements along with a dancer representing Jat and another representing Jatin at the same time telling a story of two lovers and the trials they undergo before living happily ever after. Other dances from the region are the Sama-Chakwa, Sakhiya, Jhumare, Kirtaniya, Bhagata and Dhimal.

Nepal has China to its North, behind the high Himalayas and India to its South, beyond the colorful plains of the Tarai. Trade with both countries, through high passes on the Nepal - China border used for barter trade by the Lhasa Newars (Newar traders working with Lhasa’s traders) and across the free borders with India, has been crucial to Nepal’s struggling economy. However, it is clear from our cultural ties with both countries that trade is but one of many things that permeated these borders. Over the years, Nepal’s location itself, strategically nestled between India and China, has made it a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Nepal’s cultural heritage itself, dance being an important part of it, is strong enough to have a distinct identity; painstakingly preserved over the years. There are volumes written about dance; that said, in a fast-changing world where everything is hurling through time, at least one tradition seems to have poetry in its motion.