Bhaktapur, Nepal

The Nepalese Masks of Life

earthly boredom
A woman touches one of the masks worn by the troupe of dancers. To the side, its dancer and owner, reveals himself sleepy.
dances with gods
Masked gatha dancers perform during a kayta puja ceremony to admit young boys to caste and family lineage.
Tejit, the contemplated
Tejit, one of the brothers honored by the kayta puja ceremony we attended in Bhaktapur.
Tradition of the new generations
Gatha dancers during a rest period from their performance.
banquet time
Women prepare to place trays with food offerings that will feed masked dancers and other participants in the ceremony.
Some of the masks worn by the troupe that animated the kayta puja ceremony.
rest of the gods
Mask beside the gatha dancer who embodies his divine character.
Gatha dancers, with their meal trays at their feet, contemplate a woman in traditional costume who gives the ceremony participants a drink.
gods & men
Gatha masks coexist with participants in the ceremony, these wearing traditional Nepalese dakha topi caps.
The Newar Indigenous People of the Kathmandu Valley attach great importance to the Hindu and Buddhist religiosity that unites them with each other and with the Earth. Accordingly, he blesses their rites of passage with newar dances of men masked as deities. Even if repeated long ago from birth to reincarnation, these ancestral dances do not elude modernity and begin to see an end.

The Unexpected Bartaman Ritual of Bhaktapur

After almost an hour's journey from Kathmandu, we finally got off the old bus. all over the Nepal, Durbar squares mark the historic center of each village. The next step would always be to find the one in Bhaktapur, but we get into alleys and alleys and, luckily, we lose its meaning.

Five minutes of disorientation later, exotic music reaches our ears. In a pure discovery mode, we pursue the unexpected stimulus until we are faced with an esoteric celebration taking place in a square in the village.

a troupe of dancers cats, male as is supposed, and of all ages, he swirls worn but still gaudy costumes, according to a shared choreography.

Newar dance in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Masked gatha dancers perform during a kayta puja ceremony to admit young boys to caste and family lineage

Each one of them also rotates the mask they wear to the sound of Nepalese bamboo flutes basuri, of a violin, of a small traditional drum low and a kind of lap accordion, according to the additional rhythm marked by copper cymbals. Installed on the bank, on two steps at the base of a store, the band contrasts with the group of dancers.

These, agitate like possessed demons, while the musicians, play immobilized in their positions of remedied orchestra and in the costumes of everyday life. They are joined by a singer of a little more than middle age, determined to establish with his voice a bridge between the two worlds.

From Mystic Trance to Earthly Banquet

The masked people prolong the exhibition in the center of the square and the attention of the dozens of guests present. Until the communal trance stops watching them. Then, they surrender to a sweaty earthly rest, side by side with the masks they wore, crowned by the tall, grimy turbans that once supported their divine heads.

Meanwhile, the women present prepare trays with assorted meal offerings of rice, vegetables and meat, accompanied by chyang (a milky rice wine), for fruits, biscuits, pastries and other sweets. Even if the saris and glossy sashes are of little help, the ladies arrange the trays in a row and serve the dancers who recover their newly expended energy.

Newar Ceremony, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Women prepare to place trays with food offerings that will feed masked dancers and other participants in the ceremony.

The meal lasts what it lasts. Following, one of the cats he replaces the huge red mask that belongs to him over his shoulder, somewhere on the border between the sacred and the profane that the Newar people and their Nepalese descendants have become accustomed to adjusting. From its most exposed side, the divine; in the covert, the human.

Divided by both, it begins to bless the participants with a handful of cooked rice, augur of prosperity and consequent happiness.

The exuberant ritual we had encountered was itself a symptom of that prosperity. No matter how hard they try, not all Newar or Nepalese families can afford to hire a troupe of dancers and the necessary musicians, wear silky robes, or secure satisfying offerings.

As elsewhere, the most sumptuous rituals of faith are those for which the Gods have already gifted them with a fortune. O Nepal no exception to the rule.

Buddhist and Hindu Beliefs and Rituals

Nestled between the Buddhist vastness of Tibet and the kingdom of Bhutan and the largely Hindu Indian subcontinent, the Newar and their Nepalese descendants are one thing and the other. In theory, 85% are Hindus. Most of the rest are Buddhists.

In practice and in the Kathmandu Valley, however, the two religions have intertwined in such a way that separating them proves complicated. The Newar have no qualms about admitting it. In fact, they are proud of one of their most popular jokes, which says that, in a personal context, any newar is 60% Hindu and 60% Buddhist.

This duplicity justifies, for example, that the ten rituals konkyu karma successive stages of its life cycle can be carried out by both Hindu and Buddhist priests, foreseeing, of course, certain differences in philosophy and worship.

Newar celebration, Bhaktapur, Nepal

A woman touches one of the masks worn by the troupe of dancers. At the side, its dancer and owner reveals himself sleepy

Newar Rituals for All Occasions

In chronological order, the first of the main rituals, the Machabu Beakegu, is performed at eleven days of life. Bless and greet the newborns. The second, janko samskara celebrates the first solid food (usually rice) eaten by newborns.

It takes place at five months for babies and at seven months for babies. It generates a feast that lasts at least an entire day, fueled by successive interventions by a priestess and her family, with a visit to the nearest Ganesh temple in between.

On that surgical visit to Bhaktapur, we had stumbled upon a ceremony bartamanAlso known as kaita puja, the ritual of the definitive passage of boys to the social sphere of their caste, performed between the ages of four and thirteen.

Kayta Puja or Bartaman, the Spiritual Exit from Dependent Life

Originally, and if all religious precepts are respected, this ceremony represents the departure of boys from dependent family life and a transformed return. According to these ancient precepts, the offspring of the family were to shave their hair and penetrate the religious component of their existence, leaving the families to a period of asceticism or to become monks in a monastery.

The tradition is no longer so austere, but a maternal uncle still has the symbolic task of luring boys back into the family with a generous offer of money.

A kaita puja the one we saw was held in honor of two brothers, Tejit and Sushant, aged five and nine. None had retired to the forest or entered a monastery. Still, the families on the father's and mother's side took the kids' ritual with seriousness and commitment.

Tejit, child honored by the newar ceremony, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Tejit, one of the brothers honored by the kayta puja ceremony we attended in Bhaktapur

They were both heirs to their names. Not that one or the other was aware of this, but later, in the most painful of life cycles, they will be responsible for lighting the funeral pyres of the ancestors.

Celebration of Menstruation, Marriage and Old Age

Complementary rituals follow the earthly existence of the newar. In the case of women, the barah is the female equivalent of kaita puja. Celebrates the beginning of menstruation. In the correct sequence, after the kaita puja and the barah, the ceremony will arrive swayamvar who praises the sacred moment of marriage.

Many years later, it will come to Bura Janko, religious celebration that enshrines the transformation of people – whether alone or still married – from mere humans into divine elders. As might be expected, death is suffered. It does not count with the presence of masked people and their newar dances.

From a stable commemoration, the ritual we witness evolves into a procession. The masked men replace their masks and dance down the street. Following us are the musicians and, soon, the entourage of family and guests that we joined.

Dancers and masks for kayta puja ceremony in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Some of the masks worn by the troupe that animated the kayta puja ceremony.

The stop moves only two hundred meters, along the extension of the alley bordered by old buildings made of worn brick. It stops again in a square below. There, the show is still and always resumed with the cats in the spotlight.

A Complex Coexistence of Troupes and Genres

In the Kathmandu Valley, two primary types of newar dances we witnessed have long contrasted and rivaled, the Nava Durga native to Bhaktapur and the Devi Pyakhas associated with the Ashta cults (manifestations of the Hindu goddess Devi Lakshmi of Prosperity) from another village, Panauti .

The first became famous for its performances, which were once untamed and wild: imbued with the demonic incarnation of the gods, the dancers even killed chickens, goats and other animals and sucked their blood, something that truly and forever impressed generations of viewers.

Already represented by the Devi Pyakhas, the deities are much more calm and orderly. Of course, in recent times, faced with the growing scarcity of requests from families, even the Nava Durga troupes have moderated their behavior and adjusted them to the environments in which they operate.

Gatha dancers in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Gatha dancers during a rest period from their performance

Nava Durga and the like

The Nava Durga troupe of Bhaktapur is one of four that roam the Kathmandu Valley from October to June, a month that marks the beginning of the rains brought by the Subcontinent's monsoon, the end of rice planting and the Gathamuga celebration in which the natives drive out the demons from their homes and lands.

During this period, the Nava Durga troupes invade and terrorize the communities they visit. All have been active since the remote XNUMXth century. These days, elements of the Gathu caste compose it.

They are gardeners used to making their own masks using clay, paper and jute, unlike other dancers who prefer to associate with families of the Citrakar caste of painters so that they can create them according to standard images from semi-books. -sacred.

The masks used in both Nava Durga and Devi Pyakhas performances can represent male or female gods or even with divine animal profiles, such as the deified elephant Ganesh; or others considered mere “vehicles” of the deities such as the peacock and the lion.

Or finally… animals only and only animals: monkeys, dogs, deer, pigs, elephants. They can also incarnate demons, evil spirits and human characters such as priests, clowns, merchants and hunters. Each entity has a corresponding color.

Newar traditional mask with dancers in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Mask beside the gatha dancer who embodies his divine character.

Masks, Colors and Deities

White is used for the purest characters. The black in the demonic. Red and black represent power and strength. They are synonymous with untimely behavior, while green is associated with nobility of character. But the chromatic code goes further. As we have seen, each deity has its predominant tone. Brahmayani is yellow. Vaishnavi (another shakti of Vishnu), green. Kaumari, Hindu goddess of war is red or brown. Ganesh is white and so on.

Meanwhile, the masked dancers we follow are once again interrupting their dances. They focus on charging us and foreigners who had gathered as generous donations as possible. As we have seen, the divine Newar dancers belong to castes of low status and low income.

At a time when the tradition of masked Newar dances is proving increasingly difficult to preserve, their financial concern has, in wealthy outsiders, a foundation to match.

However, in the wake of the great earthquake in April 2015 that devastated much of the Kathmandu Valley, the government imposed exorbitant entrance fees on its historic squares on tourists. We had already contributed, on a daily basis, with the exorbitant payment for these tickets.

Newar Ceremony, Bhaktapur, Nepal

Gatha masks coexist with participants in the ceremony, these wearing traditional Nepalese dakha topi caps.

The New Troupes Struggle for Survival

Unsurprisingly and somewhat unfairly, we weren't as inclined as we were supposed to reward that Newari expression of art to which – let's not forget – no one had invited us. We contribute. But the amount left the dancers cat to mumble and, to us, to fear the retaliations of the gods and spirits who incarnated.

The Kathmandu Valley is no longer remote as it once was. Modernity takes it day after day and annihilates the troupes' reason for being secular. One study found that in 2013, the Nava Durga troupe only visited six places, as opposed to dozens of them in previous decades.

As if that wasn't enough, that year, in Panauti, a dancer who portrayed a clown broke his leg due to a disorder in the audience. From then on, the troupes started to demand worlds and funds to return to work in that village, which, in turn, demobilized the popular will to renew the tradition there.

Newar dancers and women in Bhaktapur, Nepal

Gatha dancers, with their meal trays at their feet, contemplate a woman in traditional costume who gives ceremony participants a drink.

For all this and for so many other whims of fate, the future of newar dances remains at the mercy of the gods.

More tourist information about Nepal on the website Welcome Nepal

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