Kathmandu, Mar. 27: It was March 19, Saturday, 11 in the morning and the entire locality of Nyatapacho, Kathmandu Metropolitan City–18, was alive with music. Drums were beating, cymbals exploding and bells ringing. A crowd was gathered in front of the red-bricked Devi Chhén or house of the goddess, curiously looking into the courtyard where an around 37-foot wooden pole brought from Swoyambhu was being pulled to the cries of Haste and Haiste. Finally, after a few effortful tugs, the pole was up, standing erect. The 12-year iteration of the Naradevi Dance festival formally began.
As the name suggests, the dance is dedicated to Goddess Naradevi, established in its current location – eponymously named Naradevi – by the Licchavi ruler Gunakamadev, founder of the city of Kantipur. The dance, though, was started later in the 16th century by King Amar Malla.
According to Satya Narayan Dongol, joint coordinator of the Naradevi Shree Swet Kali 12 Year Dance Organisation Committee, Amar Malla held the goddess in high regard and credited several of his military victories against the neighbouring kingdoms to her. Thus, to show his gratitude and ensure that Naradevi would remain celebrated by generations to come, he started a grand dance festival in her name to be performed on Pahan Charhe – the day when she supposedly appeared in the form of maternal energy to protect the state.
Amar Malla’s name is associated with many religious dances of Kathmandu Valley including the Harisiddhi Dance of Lalitpur which he helped revive. Naradevi Dance is organised every year by the local Maharjan and Tuladhar community and managed by the Naradevi Shree Swet Kali Conservation and Management Society. The Rising Nepal caught up with members of the Society this week to learn about the festival and the first thing Treasurer Macha Raja Dongol clarified was, “It is not that the dance is performed once in 12 years. It is performed every year but every 12 years, we begin a new cycle.”
“We sew new costumes, repair the masks, jewels and musical instruments and take stock of all our items,” Dongol, who also performs the dance in the role of either Kumari or Chandeshwori, said. Raj Prakash Tuladhar, one of the musicians of the festival, added that the 12-year cycle was also a time for the dance to be taken outside Kathmandu city and be staged in the surrounding Malla kingdoms of Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Kirtipur and Banepa. “Over the next 12 years, the Naradevi Dance will be performed at 12 places,” he said, naming the Nyatapacho Devi Chhén, Naradevi, Taleju Bhawani, Kumari Ghar, Swet Bhairav, Kal Bhairav, Indra Chowk and Nasal Chowk of Kathmandu and the palace complexes of Lalitpur, Kirtipur, Bhaktapur and Banepa. “The latest cycle has begun in the Bikram year of 2078 so the dance will need to be staged at these places before 2090.”
It is also a time when new deities and characters are added to the dance, Treasurer Dongol informed. 12 gods including Naradevi, Kumari, Bhairav, Barahi, Ganesh, Mahalaxmi, Narayani, Indrayani, Rudrayani, Brahmayani, Singhini and Byaghini feature in the annual version of the dance. But every 12 years, Sutha: Maju (Sukhawati Lokeshwor/Karunamaya), Mahadev, Chandeshwori, Kumar, Daitya, Dhwon and Khicha also come out.
The divinities present in the dance also reflect the religious and social harmony present in Nepal Mandal, say people of the Swet Kali Devi Naach Guthi. Tuladhar said that the dance represented unity among Vajrayana Buddhism and the Shaiva and Shakta sects of Hinduism. “Lokeshwor represents Buddhism, Shiva represents Shaivism and the Devi comes from the Shakta tradition,” he said. “No one part is greater than the other. All are worshipped, all are respected and all have a place in our dance; just as they do in our community.”
63 people (46 Maharjan and 17 Tuladhar) from more than 130 families are directly involved in the Guthi and fulfil designated responsibilities for the annual and 12-year dances. They invest their time, money and effort – and stress that they are happy to do so – but get little assistance from the government. “Nearly all money we spend comes from our own pockets or the donations of community members and devotees,” Dongol shared. “The local government provides some financial support but it is far from enough.”
For instance, the Naradevi Society needs Rs. 8.8 million for this year’s Naradevi Dance but has only received Rs. 2.8 million from the Kathmandu Metropolitan City. Meanwhile, the money Guthi Sansthan gives is “embarrassingly low”. “It is 2022 but the Sansthan still follows the rates from the 1960s,” Tuladhar said. It gives less than one rupee, 85 paisa to be exact, to conduct the daily worship at Naradevi. For context, the smallest packet of vermillion one can purchase at the nearby Ason market costs Rs. 20.
The locals of Nyatapacho feel that this apathy is because those controlling the finances do not understand and appreciate the scope of the festival. “It’s not just a few nights of dancing. There are months of preparations involved,” Dongol said. “We have to train the dancers, arrange the materials and perform multiple special Pujas.”
Guthi members went to Swoyambhu to get the ritual wooden pole on March 16. The preparatory puja, of sorts, was performed on the day of Chyanui Munegu on Thursday. The dancers, dressed as the respective gods, will circumambulate the city, from Nardevi via Tengal, Bangemuda, Ason, Janabahal, Indra Chowk, Hanumandhoka, Chikanmugal, Jaisidewal, Kwohiti, Bhimsensthan, Kasthamandap, Yetka and back to Nardevi, on Sunday and the main dance will begin from Thursday Pisach Chaturdashi and lasts for more than 24 hours.
“There is nothing in it for us. We are doing this solely to preserve our nation’s culture and identity. We wish the authorities would realise that,” musician Tuladhar hoped. During monarchy times, the festival received some funds from the royal palace but that patronage disappeared after the royals left. As per the Guthi, the Naradevi festival is also one of the few surviving dances where the holy melody that invokes the gods and calls them to inhabit the mortal vessels of the performers is played in its original form.
But take note of the word “surviving” here because this festival almost did not. For about 30 years in the middle, it faded into oblivion. However, worried that it might go extinct forever, the Guthi revived it in 2009. Protector of the realm One of the eight mother goddesses of Kathmandu, Naradevi is worshipped as the protector of Kathmandu city and its residents; hence her name Nara (meaning humans) and Devi (meaning goddess).
The native Newa inhabitants of the valley call her Nyatabhulu Ajima. While the meaning of this name is not evident, Devi Naach Guthiyars take it to mean the protector at the centre. As per the Devmala Chronicles, after Gunakamadev established Kantipur in the shape of Manjushree’s sword, he consecrated the guardian goddess Nyatabhulu at its centre. Nyata presumably means centre and Bhulu protector, Tuladhar shared.