Kathmandu Valley’s Nil Barahi Dyo Pyakhan

A dancer impersonating Goddess Nil Barahi at the festival. All photo: SAURAV THAPA SHRESTHA

More than 500 years after they were first performed, Kathmandu Valley’s tantric dance festivals are seeing something of a revival.

The Lichhavi and Malla era Nil Barahi Dyo Pyakhan (निलबाराही द्यो प्याखँ), a mystical ancient dance, is a part of Kathmandu Valley’s rich intangible heritage that is staging a comeback.

Residents of Bodey, a quaint Newa settlement north of Thimi, have been performing the tantric dance consisting of different deities including Bhairav, Barahi, Kumari, Simha, Dwarpal and Ganesh.

All the deities line up with the Bhairab at centre during a special ritual called Kha Tyeligu that takes place every 12 years.

An offering of Kisli (prepared with rice, coins and betel nuts) to the deity

Devotees wait for their turn to provide offerings to the deities.

A musician playing mwali

Dwarpal at Nilbarahi Naach

Simha jump (Simha ti nwoigu) is one of the most spectacular shows during the festival. Here it is being performed at Nil Barahi Temple premises in Bodey.

Legend has it that a Bodey farmer with the surname Dhon (धों) was abducted by the Nil Barahi herself in her deer form and carried into the nearby dense forest of Tigini. The deity taught him a tantric dance, which the locals would go on to perform every year ever since.

Some believe that the ritual dates back to an even earlier Lichhavi era, 1,000 years ago. But the first record of the dances being performed are from 1514 (Nepal Sambat 633) when King Subarna Malla commissioned the performance of the Navadurga Naach (नवदुर्गा नाच) in the drought-hit Bhaktapur.

He also organised Layaku Bhaila (लायकु भैलः) in Thimi and Nil Barahi Naach in Bode. Later in 1718, King Bhupatindra Malla offered ‘Chhati Kathi’, the Royal Sceptre (राजदण्ड) and land for the ritual. The sceptre is intact, and still has the date inscribed on it.

Ganesh deities during one of the performances.

Ganesh deities take a short rest in between the performances.

A participant holding the Sukunda of Bhairab in Nilbarahi Naach Festival.

Others state that the dance is the celebration of a peaceful victory in an ancient battle. According to local folklore, three dances took place at the time. Mahakali Naach at Nagadesh portrayed preparation for the war, Navadurga Naach represented the war itself, and Nil Barahi was the celebration.

The four days preceding Gaijatra, mark the beginning of the festival which this year is held 24-27 August. On these days, the Bodey locals representing the deities are taught the dance in the process called Pyakha Syenegu (प्याखं स्यनेगु), which translates into ‘teaching the dance’. As patrons of the dance, the attendance of Bhairav, Barahi and Ganesh is mandatory.

The individuals representing deities draw on heavenly power once they put on their masks. With tantric ability, they dance for four nights and three days despite all hardships. The entire time they dance, the deities and their families cannot consume anything, cannot talk, and only use hand gestures.

Various accessories adorned by the deities.

Each deity is accompanied by Jwokalu (ज्वकालु, a helper) to help them with their needs. If the performers need to rest, they can do so only for a few minutes. If a dancer dies before the ritual or during it, one of the family members must step in.

The animated dance procession has 19 masked dancers but it is acted out by an ensemble of some 100 residents of Bodey. This includes deities, gurus, dancers, musicians and helpers.

A variety of musical instruments accompanies the dance. An individual carries a ‘Sukunda’, which has to be aflame throughout the festival. In the past when the lamp had turned off, deities had gotten sick.

As soon as every member arrives at Dyo Chhen, the parade begins. But before that, all the masks are brought to Naskuti (नासःकुथि), inside the Dyo Chenn where Jwokalu carries them. An accompanying musical tune is played during the mask-wearing procession.

The crowd gathered to watch the masked dance.

The gathering of all the deities.

The pwonga musical team at the festival.

The procession has a sequenced lined up: flag (ध्वाय्), sword and shield (सँय्), Chilakh (flames), sceptre (rajdanda), Bhairab, Barahi, Kumari, Simha, Dwarpal, Ganesh and musical team at the back.

From the Dyo Chhen, the parade takes you to Lachhi (लाछी), Lyaku (लाय्कु), Bishnughat (विष्णुघाट), Bhangu (भाँगु), Khansi (खाँसी) and back to Akha through Lachhi. The deities’ march through the gallis is accompanied by traditional musical instruments like dhaa baja (two-headed drums), ta and bhusyah (cymbals), ponga and mwali (flutes).

A variety of rhythmic music is played based on four different dance styles: Nhyakhin Taal (न्ह्याखीं), Dhaa: Taal (द्यःताल), Lisa: Nyosa: (लिसाः न्ह्यसाः ताल) and Simha ti nwoigu Taal (सिंद्य तिं न्वइगु ताल). Deities receive offerings from the locals and relatives as part of the ritual.

Those who can't make it to the procession can still worship the deities with offering at Dyo Chhen at nights during the festival.

The enthusiasm and passion of the inhabitants in Bodey is the key to preserving this ancient tradition, which is why the ritual has continued to this day for the past five centuries. For viewers, it is a unique taste of our culture, for the performers, it is a life-long commitment.

The 19 dancers who represent Bhairav, Nil Barahi, Kumari, Singha, Dwarpal and Ganesh take the responsibility for life until a new group is appointed in what is called Dyo Gan Hilegu (द्यःगं हिलिगु; where the deities are changed). The current group has been performing the ritual since 1958 and most of them are in their 70s and 80s.

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