When masked deities and demons danced

Lachaku Wheka Samyabaji Wola Wola Pulukisi  (Give me Samyabaji with a piece of meat, the elephant is coming)

The rhythmic chanting of onlookers resounds around the Basantapur Durbar Square for nearly a week with the erection of lingo (wooden pole) marking the beginning of Indra Jatra.

The chant is accompanied by sharp tong-tong music of ghanta (bell) along with energetic fast beats of traditional musical instruments — tago dhime and bhushya. And Pulukisi (a white elephant, the bahan of Lord Indra, the King of Heaven) dances to these beats.

Though you don’t get to see a real elephant, two dancers (forming the shape of an elephant) move here and there among the crowd as if the elephant is dancing or trying to look for someone.

Known as Pulukisi dance, it is an integral part of the Indra Jatra that took place from September 13 to 20 this year.

Along with Pulukisi, other demon and deities — Lakhey, Halchowk Akash Bhairab with Sab and Bhaku, also perform during the festival. These colourful masked dances of demons and deities are an integral part of the Indra Jatra as well as the Kumari Rath Jatra, that coincides with the Indra Jatra.

Kumari Rath Jatra begins with the dance performances of Pulukisi, Lakhey, Halchwok Akash Bhairab with Sab and Bhaku, in front of the Kumari the Living Goddess, and takes place for three days.

The procession Kumari’s chariot took place on September 15, 16 and 20 this year.

Meaningful masked dances

Five diverse masked dances are performed during Indra Jatra and they represent different places of Kathmandu Valley.

Four dances from different toles of Kathmandu — Lakhey dance of Majipat Tole, Pulukisi dance and Dee/Devi dance from Kilaghal Tole and Halchowk Bhairab dance from Halchowk along with Mahakali dance from Bhaktapur are performed during Indra Jatra.

These dances are performed in various areas of Kathmandu during the festival.

“These dances are performed with a belief that gods will protect the nation from evil spirits, diseases, and that with their blessings the nation will prosper,” Rajan Maharjan, Coordinator of Jatra Management Committee, Ward No 25 (Kathmandu) shares about the significance of the masked dances.

Usually most of these masked dances are group performances, where the dancers (also called dev gana) enact roles of various deities. Bhairab or Kumari are common in these group dances performed during Indra Jatra.

Stating the significance of Kumari and Bhairab in the dances, cultural expert Yagya Manpati Bajracharya elaborates, “Lord Bhairab and Goddess Kumari are believed to be the protectors of the country.”

Maharjan adds, “Lord Bhairab loves the Full Moon of Indra Jatra, that is why different forms of Bhairab come out during this festival to witness this full moon, and the dances represent the same.”

These five masked dances can be divided into two categories, as per Bajracharya — official and unofficial. The Mahakali dance from Bhaktapur is “unofficial” as the Mahakali dance groups were invited during Indra Jatra by the then kings to add more fun to the festival and it became a tradition, as per Bajracharya.

But the other four “official” dances must be performed during Indra Jatra as they have their own significance.

“Indra Jatra is also known as Yenya Punhi  — where Ye is another name of Indra and Nya means Jatra while Punhi means full moon,” Bajracharya explains the meaning of Indra Jatra and relates it to the dances performed, as “Pulukisi, means a white elephant, is related to Lord Indra as his bahan (vehicle).

So, the dance is performed in honour of Indra.”

“Lakhey is a demon because of his demon-like appearance, but as he is a peace loving demon he is worshipped as a god. It is believed that his dance performance can ward off all evil from humans, and the Halchowk Bhairab is believed to be the protector of the country and is respected by Kumari as her father,” Bajracharya explains about the other dance forms.

Devi Naach with a difference

One among four official dances performed during Indra Jatra, Devi dance is different from the rest — be it in terms of attire or the performance.

Forty-five-year-old Badri Dongal, who has been dancing as Bhairab in the Devi Naach for the last 20 years, explains the difference, “The Lakhey, Pulukisi and Halchowk Bhairab masked dances are performed in front of Kumari before the Kumari Rath Jatra beings from Basantapur Durbar Square. But the Devi dance, featuring 11 different dance performances, are showcased in five different places namely Hanumandhoka, Jaisidewal dabali, Bangemudha dabali, Indrachowk and Kilaghal.”

The Devi dance is performed on all those three days of Kumari Rath Jatra. “As the chariot of the Kumari reaches the aforementioned areas where we are performing, we showcase the dance for Kumari and our performance for the day ends,” Dongal clarifies.

While showcasing their dance moves, the dancers wear metal masks that are the size of their face. The crown of the mask is embellished with a special kind of flower Sinha Shwan that blossoms only for a month during the time of

Indra Jatra.

“But the dancers of other masked dances wear masks made of clay,” Dongal points out more differences between the various types of dances.

Talking about another unique aspect of this dance, Dongal mentions, “In other masked dances, the dev gana kills the demon and ends his performance. However, the demon escapes and avoids being killed in this dance.

The last part of the Devi dance thus is also called ‘The Dance for Peace’ as it shows peace being maintained between demons and gods.”

Baburaja Maharjan, another dev gana, who became Chandi for the Devi dance shares, “The dance performances can continue for several hours — at times we have continuously danced for around eight hours a day.”

Interestingly, the history of Indra Jatra celebration dates back to the time of Lichhavi king Gunakamadev as his name and other kings’ names are mentioned in a song that is sung during Devi Naach, as per Surendra Maharjan, member of Devi Naach Group Kilaghal.

Unique festivity

Hundreds of people gathered to witness Indra Jatra as it kicked off on September 13 this year. The eight-day festival was celebrated with much fanfare and excitement in the Basantapur Durbar Square area despite the quake ravaged structures everywhere.

Twenty-nine-year-old Shreeja Bajracharya from Yangal was busy taking video of Kumari Rath, Lakhey and Pulukisi on September 16.

“I have been watching this festival since my childhood but I am still interested in watching the Jatra. I like the dances showcased during the Jatra and looking at the mass of people is also exciting.However, it saddens me that even after 18 months of earthquake, nothing has been done to rebuild or renovate the structures around here,” she shared.

Like her, there were many other spectators eagerly watching the performances, processions and even taking part in the festival despite the damaged monuments and shrines posing threat.

Ram Prasad Dumaru, a dancer of Mushyakho Group of Mahakali dance, Bhaktapur expressed, “We have faith in God that we won’t get hurt during the performance and we don’t hesitate to dance even in front of damaged structures but we should use precautions before dancing in such places.”

Bina Shrestha from Yatkha, who was standing in the crowd to watch the Mahakali dance and Kumari chariot procession at Hanumandhoka expressed, “Mahakali dance is my favourite and I have never missed watching it.

Though I am somewhat afraid of the ruined structures, I do not care because I am not alone and if something happens then let it be.”

Along with an occasion to have fun and savour the Newari delight Samyabaji, a set of food items with beaten rice, garlic, ginger, chhoyala (buff meat) and edamame, Indra Jatra is also an opportunity to unite people.

Baburaja Maharjan, member of Kilaghal Twah Khala and secretary of Indra Jatra Management Committee shared, “Indra Jatra festival is the symbol of unity among people as people from different castes are involved in different activities during Indra Jatra. And even the head of the state participates in the festival making it unique in the world and showing unity among the people.”