A dark temple and an oil press

Dubby Bhagat


Thecho, sat astride the old trade route to India, wears a well-to-do-look of prosperous farmers living in prosperous houses but conservative enough to have so far shunned concrete. The stout brick houses that line each side of the road are built one against the other, their windows carved of wood, their eaves hung with garlands of vegetables and chillies. The buildings stand respectfully back from the road, or perhaps they keep the bustle and dust at arm’s length. But no Newari farmer will waste good land, so between road and houses are a continuous line of small temples and shrines, mostly Buddhist. There are some incredibly filthy water tanks in which women wash clothes and cooking utensils that look remarkably clean after the ordeal. I asked my driver if his wife used the likes of these village ponds to wash his belongings. He replied abruptly that he would beat her up.

Thecho was founded in the 16th century by a Malla king of nearby Patan who designed it as a convenient shield for his city. At first, stout farmers resisted invaders or gangs of dacoits using the road from India. But it was not long before the village, almost large enough to be a town, prospered and developed a character of its own. How it began noone knows and even legends are a variance, but Thecho became renowned for its dance troupe. At one of their earliest performances, a great tantric sage caused the many manifestations of the Goddess Durga to possess the dancers. Then leaping and swirling, these bodies possessed, danced through the fields to Patan and the very palace itself. The king a great patron of the dance, was so awed, so deeply moved, he invited the dancers into the most sacred courtyard of

the palace and there for one holy, unforgettable night the Goddesses danced. Ever after, the dancers of Thecho perform once a year at Dashain in the Mul Chowk of Patan’s

old palace.

In search of these famous dancers, I was unexpectedly shown into a house which, I had been told, was closed to all visitors. We mounted a narrow dark stairway and entered a room heavy with the scent of incense, wax, decay and damp. There, by guttering candlelight, I was shown a collection of masks hung on a smoke-blackened wall. They were smeared with saffron and vermilion and I believed blood, and imagination-on-edge gave them life, so that sightless eyes and painted mouths looked stern, pathetically sad, angry, demanding and lustful. The goriest was the mask of Durga herself, like a decapitated head washed in its own blood, its eyes still seeing, its mouth gaping open.

An old drum hung from the rafters. I was told it was the drum of the death of 10 generations. When I asked what exactly that meant, my question hung unanswered as if my informant had been mesmerised. But after a while he told me in a harsh whisper that the dancers who wear these masks become so possessed by the Goddesses they represent, they drink the blood of sacrificial animals. Once in ages past, they consumed the blood of human sacrifice.

Was it then that the drum sounded? The women of Thecho apparently still threaten their children by saying that the Nava Durga will get them if they are naughty.

Near the temple of the Nava Durga is a dilapidated oil press filled with a luminous gloom and the smell of freshly ground mustard. The machinery is primitive and much of it I suspect, once belonged to an antiquated car whose shell still hangs in a corner. The press once belonged to a single family but is now owned by a commune. Thecho today has some 20 oil presses and oil goes mostly to Patan. So mustard oil, pressed from the gloriously yellow fields that reach in terraces about the village, replaces the riches that once flowed up and down the old trade route. And there are, of course, the dancers.