Kathmandu’s festival of the mysterious dancing goddess
The Tantric goddess has the face of a hog, and she moves slowly through the narrow streets of Bodey with 19 other masked dancers representing various other deities in attendance. The parade goes on all night for three nights as the dance turns into a trance.
Starting near midnight this Saturday, Bodey’s Nil Barahi festival will be held as it has for the last 500 years, a tradition that some believe goes back to the Lichhavi period, perpetuated by King Subarna Malla of Bhaktapur and later the Shah dynasty.
Turn north at Thimi on the road from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur to a quaint little Newar settlement called Bodey and the nearby dense forest of Tigini. At a raised clearing in the forest is the shrine of Nil Barahi. Legend has it that the goddess, disguised as an old man, abducted Bodey farmers and taught them a tantric dance that the locals have performed continuously every year since then.
The highlight of this annual festival known locally as the Nil Barahi Dyo Pyakhan is a slow-moving but animated masked dance procession, acted out by an ensemble of about 100 residents of Bodey: gurus, dancers, musicians and a supporting cast. The 19 dancers who represent Bhairav, Nil Barahi, Kumari, Singha, Dwarpal and Ganesh have taken on the responsibility for life.
Once the dancers don their masks they draw on a divine power and sway through the streets of Bodey all night long, moving their limbs and bodies languidly to the tune of dha (drums), ta and bhusya (cymbals), ponga and mwali (flutes).
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Once activated with tantric powers, the elaborately painted masks allow the humans behind them to endure physical hardship that they cannot even imagine bearing in ordinary circumstances. Once the procession begins, the dancers cannot eat, drink, sit, sleep, talk or relieve themselves for 15 hours every night for three nights.
People believe it is divine intervention from the gods that allow the dancers to take up this superhuman challenge. Some of the dancers, now in their late seventies, have been performing this role every year for the last 60 years.
Prem Chand Aduwa Shrestha is representing the lead Nil Barahi, and says all 19 gods adhere to strict moral discipline throughout the year. “That is why people know me more as Barahi, and less by my real name,” Shrestha explains. “Local people treat us as gods even when the festival is not on. I am now 68 but have never fallen sick, and have never taken medicine.”
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Most families in Bodey, and their visiting friends and relatives, line up the streets, staying awake till early morning to conduct special ritual worship as the gods dance past their neighborhood, offering food and money which goes to the guthi to organise the annual festival.
“The offerings fund the complicated and elaborate rituals, but it is not enough. So the Municipality has been helping out since 2017,” says Ward Chair Dev Krishna Moye Shrestha.
Though celebrated with much passion, the origins of the Nil Barahi festival is shrouded in mystery. Some say it is a victory ritual commemorating an ancient battle, but others reckon the subdued nature of the music and dance moves signify a desire for societal wellbeing.
“I think it is a protective dance, since most of the deities are in some way related to good fortune,” says researcher Sworup Adhikari.
Despite the vibrant atmosphere there is growing concern among the elderly that the tradition might not survive because of the strict rules governing the lives of the dancers.
Luman Dhon Shrestha, a 40-year-old ponga player, however, says Bodey’s youth are excited to be a part of the ritual: “They find it an honor to be chosen to represent a deity, and there is competition if one of the dancers passes away.”
In recent years, many young men and women come to Bodey for the festival and can be seen recording the dances on their phones. Youth-driven publicity over social media platforms have resulted in a marked increase in the number of visitors, raising the money collected as well.
Prem Nidar Shrestha of Bodey sums it up: “Money is vital in keeping the festival going, but with a growing number of devotees attending in recent years we are confident it will survive into the future.”
Nil Barahi Festival
Starts 11 pm on August 17 and every night till August 20