A dance for the country

Kathmandu

The main chowk (square) of Na Gaun, Kirtipur was jam-packed on June 28. Women, men and children of different age groups flocked Na Gaun without caring about the scorching mid-day sun. People didn’t care about all the jostling and the locals didn’t restrict anyone, even strangers from entering their houses, to witness the last day of Barabarse Shree Bagha Bhairab Devgan Naach, also called Sija Nakegu Wo Holegu (death, rice feeding and scattering ritual).

According to the Lunar calendar, the festival ends on Valavala Astami with the performance of death rites of the gods, who are believed to have blessed the country through their dance performances for several months.

This year it was on June 28, when the musical procession of gana (people who dance as gods and goddesses) with the members of Guthi began from Dyo Chhen at Satakwo Tole that circled Kirtipur. From Satakwo Tole, they headed to Panga and reached Na Gaun.

At Na Gaun, the gods were welcomed by hanging new broom, choli, karuwa, sinamu and jwolanyakha at locals’ houses, forming the shape of a gate. Laxmi Maharjan, a resident of Na Gaun shared, “We don’t exactly know the meaning of the items hung but they must be hung at the entrance of Na Gaun, symbolising the welcoming of the gods.”

At Na Gaun, the 11 gana were given the sija (rice fed to gods during the death ritual) to eat. While 10 gana ate sija, the 11th gana Ganesh didn’t eat it. Once 10 different gana crossed Na Gaun and reached the gate of Bahiri Gaun, the death of the gods began. One of the gana fell down at the junction (of Na Gaun and Bahiri Gaun), symbolising the death of a particular god/goddess. The process (death of gana) continued at different junctions up to Kirtipur Durbar Square when all 10 gana died.

The scene of gods dying was dramatic where over 250 volunteers circled the gana joining hands together to form a chain, to avoid disturbance on their way. As the gana collapsed, the volunteers carried them and covered their bodies with white clothes. Once they reached the Kirtipur Durbar Square, Ganesha let other gana drink water from Laxmi Ga (a kuwa). The water from Laxmi Ga is believed to be elixir and the gana came back to life while their masks including the Ganesha’s mask were burnt — symbolising the death ritual according to Newari tradition.

For prosperity and happiness

Like every other festival, there are several myths and legends associated with this festival. One of them is about Kathitiya Mahadev (Mahadev hung on the stick of sugarcane). Beside the gana’s performances wearing masks and colourful attires, a small mask of Kathitiya Mahadev is also the part of the procession of this festival.

It is believed that during Mahabharata War, Mahadev came to watch the war in Kurukshetra. When Krishna asked him whose side he would take, Mahadev answered that he would support the one about to lose the battle (Kauravas). But Krishna tricked him, cut his head and hung it on a tree, from where he was able to witness the war, but could not use his power to support Kauravas, Mali explained. And  Kathitiya Mahadev is the representation of this Mahadev.

Likewise, different items like Mohani Sinha (black tika) and ghungroo have important roles in the festival. About Mohani Sinha, 73 year-old Dil Bhadur Mali shared, “Mohani Sinha is put on by gana to get rid of worldly delusion like family, love, et cetera and let the power of gods enter their body to win the battle against the evil.”

To this, Rajkumar added, “During the Nawami of Dashain, the smoke from the butter lamp burnt at temple of Goddess Indrayani is collected and that is used as Mohani Sinha and we (gana and guru) have to put the tika — that denotes we are in bond with the gods. Once we put tika for the performances, we are not allowed to wear shoes or even wash our faces. And we have to stay in dhya chhen (god’s home) during the time of performances.” They prepared for the festival for three months — teaching and learning dance and music.

Lord Shiva is the central character of this mask dance festival having numerous stories related to him. One important association is about him being Natyashwor or Nasha Dyo. Rajkumar illustrated the story, “When Lord Shiva was pleased with the devotion of a demon called Vashmashur, he asked the demon for his wish. Vashmashur asked for the power to turn anyone to ashes once he put his hands on their heads. Lord Shiva granted his wish and Vashmashur wanted to try it on Lord Shiva. The god, out of fear, went into hiding in a small hole. Then he incarnated as Nasha Dyo, also known as god of music and dance, to save the world. So, only after worshipping the Natyashwor, this festival begins.”

Talking about the importance of the ghungroo he added, “The gana have to wear ghungroo, as it is believed that god’s soul is in it. Thus, once a gana wears ghungroo, he is not allowed to wear shoes or talk to anyone, and ghungroo gives them the needed energy during the rituals and performances.”

Seventy-nine-year-old Ishwor Lal Maharjan, a resident of Na Gaun, has witnessed the jatra seven times in his lifetime. And he believes in all the legends and power of gods. “You should not disrespect the god or even cross their roads while they are walking or performing. You will fall ill and have to do chhyama puja to recover,” he shared.