One faithful starry night in the seventeenth century, King Srinivasa Malla of Patan was trying to sleep. He twisted and turned on his royal bed and tried with all his might to drift away to the land of slumber but to no avail. Finally, convinced that sleep would elude him that night, Malla got up and sat by the window of his palace looking out into what is today the Patan Durbar Square.
The cool night breeze started working its magic and the King began to feel drowsy. But his tiredness was cut by the sound of anklets. “Who could it have been? Who would be out at such a late hour?” he wondered. So, he poked his head out the window he was sitting by and off in the distance, he saw a group of people dancing. They were approaching the palace and as they came closer, he could make out that there were eight of them. They came even closer and he saw that the dancers were the eight mother goddesses (Astamatrika) of the Kathmandu Valley.
The goddesses entered the palace and danced their way into the Mul Chowk. Seeing this, Malla hurried down, wishing to witness them up close but by the time he reached the Chowk, the Matrikas had left.
The next morning, Malla described what had happened and decreed that the citizens of Patan be able to see the divine dance that he got to see.
This is what started the tradition of Ga: Pyakha, a masked dance staged in Mulchowk, Kartik Dabali and Nakabahil for 11 days, beginning from the day of Ghatasthapana. Earlier, the dance used to be staged at Okubahal as well but that part has since been discontinued.
Malla’s decree was to stage Ga: Pyakha every year featuring the Astamatrikas – Brahmayani, Maheshwori, Kumari, Vaishnavi, Barahi, Indrayani, Mahakali and Mahalaxmi. But his priests advised incorporating traditional Newa patron gods in the dance too lest they get offended. So, the dance also includes Bhairav, Simhini, Vyagrihi, Vaishnavi and Kumar.
This dance stands out from the other folk dances of Kathmandu because it is the only dance performed by Shakyas and Bajracharyas. The dance is handed down through the generations and children begin learning it from the age of eight. They first learn by observing their elders and are later initiated by the chief priest and taught through tantric means to visualise themselves as the deity when they have the mask on.
The auspicious dance, that has come to be known in Nepali as the Astamatrika Naach, is believed to protect people from the eight great threats, namely outsiders (perhaps meaning spies and soldiers of other states), wind, water, fire, natural disasters, enemies, thieves and evil spirits. This is the general function of the eight tutelary deities as well. The annual Pyakha is also believed to bring peace and prosperity to the county.
But waning government support and weak Guthis are making it harder and harder to continue such ancient cultures of Kathmandu. A surge in public awareness and interest has seen a revival of sorts for Ga: Pyakha and people are researching more aspects of the dance and trying to bring them back to life. However, this Dashain, with the pandemic, the dance might probably be cancelled or significantly toned down. Let’s hope no outsiders, enemies, thieves or evil spirits use it as an opportunity and no natural disasters wreak havoc!