Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is known as a city of temples dedicated to various gods and goddesses. Newārs are indigenous people who mostly reside in Kathmandu valley. They have a unique identity among Nepalese people as lovers and preservers of many Nepali cultures and traditions. Different NGOs, INGOs, government organizations, and other local bodies undoubtedly play vital roles in safeguarding the different cultures and traditions prevalent in society. But Newārs as a local community have a strong bond with those cultures and traditions. There are innumerable cultural practices that Newārs have been observing since time immemorable. Thus, Newār communities play very active roles in the preservation of unique Newāri cultural elements.
Among many, one of the cultural dances I am throwing light on is Di pyākhāṁ. In the Newāri language, Di means “goddess” and pyākhāṁ means “dance,” therefore the name can be translated as “Goddess Dance.” Di pyākhāṁ is a traditional mask dance with a glorious history. It is performed on the occasion of Indra Jātrā, one of the major festivals of Kathmandu. The Indra Jātrā festival honors Indra, the god of rain, and is held just before the harvest, at the end of the rainy season. The Di pyākhāṁ dance is not performed on any day other than Indra Jātrā. There is no written documentation to be found regarding the origin of this dance. However, a song sung during this dance mentions a king, Gunakar Raja, which some believe refers to King Gunakama Deva, who possibly founded this dance in the eighth century.
There are seven characters in this dance: bhairav, kumārī, chaṇḍī, daitya, kanwa, bētā, and khyā. The dance starts from Kilāgal Dabli (Kilāgal Junction) on the occasion of Bhadra Shukla Chauthi (the fourth full moon day that falls in the Nepali month of Bhadra) every year. On the day of Indra Jātrā, this dance can be performed at Jaisideval Dabli, then the next day at Bangemudha Dabli and Wangha. On the last day, again, the performance is delivered at Kilāgal Dabli, and the dance ceremony reaches a formal conclusion.
The dance itself is based on the victory of truth over untruth. Newārs believe that performing this dance every year protects the community from evil and brings harmony. Old performers even say that, “if the dance is not continued, god will get angry and curse us.” The dancers dance for two to three hours in a trance-like state, during which it is said they lose control over their bodies and only a tantric spell can release them and remove their masks.
The Devi Nāca Preservation and Conservation Committee is a group comprising forty members (including dancers and musicians as well as staff) in Kilāgal. The group has played a crucial role in practicing, performing, and transmitting the Goddess Dance for decades. Without any external support from the government, NGOs, or other institutions, this group continues with Di pyākhāṁ simply because it was handed to them from their forebears, or through their voluntary desire to preserve the culture. The group’s work is cross-generational, involving people ranging from four or five years old to middle-aged, as well as even older generations.
Dress of one of the goddesses © Amar Dangol
The younger generation takes part in the dancing while the senior performers who teach them play different music to accompany the dance.
Throughout the year, there are internal dance parties in which a lot of people are involved, with the youths of the group active in every aspect of the work. There is less interest today among the younger generation due to advancements in modern technologies, like the availability of the internet, computers, cell phones, and so on. But the group proactively involves youngsters, getting them to participate in dancing to prevent this ICH element from disappearing and giving it continuity.
Di pyākhāṁ is not easy to learn. Each dance has a different meaning and is supported by different songs, musical instruments, and rhythms. This means it takes a long time to become proficient in Di pyākhāṁ . Characters like bhairav, kumārī, and chandī can require between two and five years of practice before the dancer is ready to perform them in the street, while the other gods take two to three years of practice. However, the one who performs well and is drawn by the power of god is the one who is selected. After the tantric power has duly completed the tasks, he is made to participate in the dance. The extended period of practice also provides an opportunity for participants to learn to work together in social harmony. To this end, various tasks are assigned according to work required.
Not only does Di pyākhāṁ have religious significance but it is also culturally significant, touching on different artistic aspects. The musical accompaniment is provided by instruments like the khin, dhaa, naykhin, dangakhin, and bhushyaa. And the dance also maintains the traditional art of Newāri culture, and portrays Newāri culture to the world. Thus, this is a living heritage of Nepal.
Amar Dangol, one of the dance participants, says, “I have been involved in the Goddess Dance since 1997. I used to dance as a demon king (khyā), and I have continued as a member after handing it over to the next generation in the year 2013.” When asked how he had learned the dance, he responds, “Our original guru of Goddess Dance is Mr. Indra Maharjan who taught me this dance, and I was also taught by our senior brothers who used to dance as the monster before I did.”
Since local people have seen this dance since their childhood, it generates a special feeling among them. It is also a medium of fun for children—after Indra Jātrā, Newāri children dance with the same gestures, but using paper masks and swords, which develops a solid attachment to this dance among the younger generations. Amar adds, “This was one of the funniest moments of our game that indirectly helped to preserve and transfer this traditional mask dance to the next generation.”
One issue is the maintenance of the clothes and ornaments used by the goddesses in the dance, given they are only brought out once a year for Indra Jātrā. If they are not stored properly with good protection, there is a chance of damage to the fabric. These physical aspects need to be safeguarded quickly, and their importance recognized. It is vital to preserve antiquities. For that reason, the Devi Nāca Preservation and Conservation Committee also take care of all clothes and ornaments so that they will be in the best condition on the day of the festival.
Local community members who contribute to the culture are having a lot of issues sustaining it as they are not getting enough support from the government and relevant authorities. Despite the difficult situation and many hindrances, the Di Pyākhāṁ community are trying their best to preserve their cultural heritage. This demonstrates the vital role of community members in safeguarding, preserving, and protecting ICH.