Suraj Shakya
Artist, Purna and Sons Handicraft in Nepal

The mask—a mystery in itself and a disguise that gets many names and forms along with the circumstances, context, beliefs, values and practices that always carry a story to be told. Nepal stands as one of the culturally rich nations with more than 365 different festivals celebrated annually, many of which have mask dance performances representing a specific religious deity. Ga: Pyakhaan or Asthamatrika Naach is one of many mask dances performed annually in the city of Patan, Nepal. The word astha means eight; matrika means mother goddess and naach means dance, thus, literally implying “dance of eight motherly goddesses.” This dance is performed during the Dashain festival from Ghathasthapana to Vijaya Dashami (first to last day of the Dashain festival) in the royal courtyard of Mul-chowk inside Patan Durbar. It is believed that these eight tutelary deities help in protecting the city from eight specific fears: threat from outsiders (historically from other states and kingdoms), wind, water, fire, natural disasters, enemies, thieves, and evil spirits. Thus, it is an annual ritual performed for wellbeing, peace and prosperity of county and citizens to protect them from unforeseen fears that might be faced in days to come.
Ga:Pyakhaan of Patan is believed to date back to the seventeenth century, during the time of King Shree Nivas Malla who was a devotee and worshipped Asthamatrika. Once in his dream, he saw these eight goddesses entering his palace courtyard, Mul-Chowk, and dance. To understand the signs and significance of this dream, he consulted priests from Patan, and following their suggestions, he initiated the Asthamatrika dance to be performed during auspicious occasion of the Dashain festival and even composed “Charya Geet,” god’s songs for deities. With the change in political scenario of Kathmandu valley overtime, this ritual has been handed over to the citizens of Patan rather than being conducted by royals. Since 1963 CE (2020 BS), the entire responsibility of Ga:Pyakhaan has been by Fine Arts Society of Nakabahil, Patan. There had been times especially from 1952 to 1962 when this dance was not performed because of problems with logistics and management.

Kaumari and Brahamayani © Sanu Raja Maharjan

The Ga:Pyakhaan team, including dancers, musicians, and priests, has to follow strict rituals from the beginning of planning and nomination. Participants are selected from Bajracharya and Shakya families of Patan. Dancers worship Lord Shiva’s dancing avatar called Nrityeshvara or “Naa: shaa dyo” (in Newari language). Dancers are trained to perform Charya representing each deity by priests. On the new moon day, dancers fast the whole day, shave their head, cut their fingernails and toenails and take a bath as a process of purification. First, dancers visit Naa: shaa dyo temple located at Nyakhachowk, Patan, that night and dance as guided by tantric scripts. Next, they perform dance at Nakabahil and finally head to Mul-Chowk, where the chief priest from Taleju Bhawaani temple greets them at the palace door. The dance starts with paying homage to Avalokitesvara, also knows by local name “Karunamaya/ Rato Machhendra nath” using traditional melody called “Raag Bhairavi”, thus starting with the first performance by Bhairava. Subsequently, Ganesh, Kumar, Brahmayani, Maheshwori, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrayani, Chamunda, and Mahalaxmi make their appearances in turn and dance. These dances use lot of symbolic hand and figure gestures. Each performer is believed to be possessed by the spirit and power of respective deities and matrikas they are representing, thus, demonstrating nature and personality of them respectively. This dance continues for nine consecutive nights, and the tenth and last day, the Khadga Jatra festival of swords (also called Paayo by locals) also takes place in the town. Paayo completes its performance through a designated route and returns to Mul-chowk. However, The Asthamarika need to complete their performance and head out to their respective temples/locations before Paayo makes its entrance to Mul-chowk.
Although Ga: Pyakhaan revolves round eight matriks, there thirteen gods and goddesses in total who participate in this festival. Listed are the hierarchy and description of these god and goddesses:

Name of God / Goddesses Color of face Location of god/
goddess temple
1 Brahmayani Ash Western part of Sanepa, Patan
2 Rudrayani or Maheshwori White Bhajangal, Patan
3 Bal Kumari or Kaumari Red CEastern part of Patan-Balkumari
4 Vaishnavi Green South western part of Patan-Nakhu
5 Varahi Red Dhatil, Patan
6 Indrayani Yellow North western part of lagankhel, Patan
7 Chamunda or Mahakali Red Sankhamule, Patan
8 Mahalaxmi Yellow and Ash Mahalaxmisthan, near ring road, Patan
9 Simhini or Singhgini (lioness goddess) White Sankhamule, Patan
10 Bhaygrini (tigress goddess) Yellow Sokubahil, Patan
11 Ganesha (elephant headed god) White Jhamsikhel, Patan.
12 Bhairab Dark Blue Batuk Bhairav of Lagankhel, Patan.
 13 Kumar Red Kushanti, Patan

Centuries old mask dances like Astamatrika dances are not just a source of entertainment and religious activities but also a representation of deeply rooted history, identity of harmony between different ethnic and religious groups and also a harmony between humans and gods. However, these cultural assets are at the verge of discontinuing because of lack of sustainable financial sources, changing dynamics of society, and younger generations losing interest in continuing these religious rituals. These rituals are tough in performing as participants need to be disciplined to follow the guidelines. However, local governments and cultural entities need to come together in conserving and continuing our centuries-old
traditions that are part of the identity Patan.