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Walah, Walah, Walah!

At a time when modern living is challenging traditions, the 12-year Swet Kali Ajima Jatra, which is more than 700 years old, is revived after a hiatus of 35 years. 

Walah, walah, walah!” (They are here! They are here! ) the crowd would roar now and then, and the spectators would immediately straighten themselves up to stand on their tiptoes to gape at the Kartik daboo, where the 19 deities, including  Swet Ajima and devgan would perform for the celebration of the 12-year Swet Kali Ajima Jatra this time in Patan. (Every year, only 12 deities perform in the Jatra, but in the interval of every 12 years – like this year, 19 deities including Swet Ajima go around the Valley to perform their mask dance.)But, soon, they sigh and sit down, realizing the ‘walah, walah!’ was just a tease to excite the buoyant crowd. 

The story of the Swet Kali Ajima Jatra begins in a jungle; a king, apparently, had hidden himself under a tree (Chawas ko rukh) after a herd of elephants of Kilagal had chased him wildly. Wishing to be saved somehow, the king had prayed to the gods to come to his rescue, and miraculously enough, he is saved, even when the elephants are close to finding him. The king then worships the tree, and asks the god who had saved him to present themselves in front of him so that he could show his gratitude. This god was Nyata Bhulu Ajima, a.k.a. Swet Kali Ajima, who still remains as the protective deity of Nardevi, and the whole of Kathmandu Valley.  

This story was later enacted in dance performances in the Lichhavi period. And, for a larger-than-life celebration, the Jatra included dance performances by other deities: Shiva, Kumari, Karunamaya, Mahadev, Chandeshwori, Kumar, Bhairav, Barahi, Ganesh, Mahalaxmi, Narayani, Indrayani, Bramhayani, Singhajini, Byangjini, Dhwo, Daitya, and Khichha. Each of these dances holds meaning to a separate story. These folk dancers are believed to be possessed by the goddesses themselves when enacting the sacred mantras and dance steps. It is also said that, when these deities dance, it helps people of the community to overcome their problems.  

This may sound a little confusing; while the Swet Kali Ajima Jatra is celebrated in Nardevi, Kathmandu, every year, it is also held once in 12 years around the major cities of Kathmandu Valley, that too when the main deity ‘Swet Kali Ajima’ visits his devotee. This year, however, the Jatra went only around Patan and Kirtipur after a hiatus of 35 years, marking their supposed ‘12-year celebration’ that they had forsaken for so long. 

The Nardevi Guthi had worshipped and performed rituals to get the festival underway after realizing that the sojourn their Jatra had taken was pushing their tradition further into oblivion, just like everything else when it is forgotten. 

Laxmi Narayan Maharjan who was performing as the main deity in the Jatra, seemed almost like he had consecrated supernatural powers; in his 90s, he danced fervently to the beats of the Jatra, forgetting all of his aged soreness. People were amazed to see him dance like he was still full of life. Even laden with heavy jewelry, the deity held on to the spirited crowd that was cheering all the while. 

The dance performances of these deities lasted 36 hours each, in Patan and Kiritipur. The volunteers who were part of the Swet Kali Ajima Guthi (Nardevi Guthi) were fasting the whole time during the Jatra, taking in only sugar
and liquid.

It is amazing to see the unfaltering credence of this Jatra, even after such a long hiatus. The government’s’ negligence to allot a budget for this kind of festival has not discouraged the residents of Nardevi to come together to continue their traditions; instead, in the long interval, they have understood the importance of their culture and tradition. And, hence, they have devoted themselves dedicatedly in the rituals and celebrations of the Jatra. 

“There are a lot you can achieve in life, but this time, when I finally took the avatar of the Kumari, I felt inner peace; it might sound insane to many who still don’t believe in the power of God, but I believe I have met my God. The sense of satisfaction that I have received after performing as a deity in the festival has taught me that there is nothing comparable to the satisfaction you achieve through spirituality. There was a time when I doubted the possibility of feeling like a different person altogether behind the mask, but now I believe in a different truth,” says Machha Raja Dangol, who performed as Kumari in the Jatra. Previously, when his father used to perform in front of him, he never fully believed that such surrealness was attainable.

And, therefore, I guess it was natural for the crowd to get thrilled to the hailing of “Walah, walah, walah!” because it is these excitements that provide context to our traditions to bring alive our
spirituality.