The sacred female singers of NepalThe unique tradition of devotional songs performed by women needs continuity
Today, it is normal for male priests to officiate at Hindu worship in Nepal, but there was a time when it was considered more auspicious for women to conduct such rituals.
While the tradition of female priesthood is waning, there is still a remnant of this tradition in Kathmandu’s Hanuman Dhoka with the Mangalini tradition of priestesses.
The Mangalini sing auspicious songs during important rituals, and used to be employed by Nepal's royals to sing at daily prayers, birthdays, weddings, thread ceremonies and marriages. After the abolition of the monarchy, Mangalini priestesses are on the payroll of Hanuman Dhoka Museum as guards.
The songs are now half-forgotten, although some in praise of the goddess Durga are still rendered during Dasain. Their repertoire is uniquely Nepali and represents the role of women as creators, but lives, songs, and roles of the Mangling are hardly documented.
Rohita Suwal and Dhan Kumari Dangol were recruited especially for the thread ceremony of Prince Dipendra in 1988. They saw an ad for the singers and applied for this job like any other government position.
"We had no prior experience in singing," admits Dangol. "We only found out that we had to sing, after we were handed the appointment letter."
The 16 Mangalini were then trained to sing sacred hymns to Ganesh and other deities by renowned classical musicians Nararaj Dhakal and Shambhu Prasad Mishra, with the lyrics revised by poet Nir Bikram Pyasi.
Legend has it that the Manglini tradition started with Lord Ram and continued in Nepal through the Lichhavi and Malla era. Some of its songs like the Malashri have been documented since Malla rule in Kathmandu Valley.
Apart from Kathmandu, Mangalini sang at the Gorkha and Nuwakot palaces of the Shah dynasty especially on the seventh day of Dasain when the Phulpati was ritually brought from Gorkha. Rana Bahadur Shah, the grandson of Nepal’s founding king Prithvi Narayan Shah, is said to have composed two songs to the tune of Malashri, and one of them actually mentions him.
In her 1993 article in the British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Carol Tingey writes of young girls called Malshrini at Lamjung Darbar who also sang the devotional Malashri songs.
Tingey writes in her article: 'Even if the tradition itself is of rather recent origin, still it must represent a strand of a much more ancient tradition of auspicious music. Throughout South Asia, there are many such traditions of female ritual and court singers, with the devadasi probably being the best known.'
The tradition is also widespread in rural Nepal. While it has declined in east Nepal and in Kathmandu, the tradition gets stronger the further westward. Women in many Tarai communities sing auspicious songs for life-cycle rites and worships.
Courtesans also sang romantic songs and danced in the palaces but were not a part of rituals. The Mangalini of Nepal are closer to the Nepali folk tradition of married women singing life-cycle songs rather than courtesan traditions, and are married women with children.
One point that sets singers of devotional songs apart from others is that the singers themselves are harnessing the auspiciousness inherent in women with their life-giving powers. In Nepal's Hindu society, a married woman with her fertility channeled into patriarchy is considered auspicious.
‘The auspicious state … is the quintessence of normal life in society. It is most fully realized in the state of marriage, and most clearly symbolised in the emblems which the married woman is allowed and expected to wear,’ Tingey writes, explaining the colour red and symbols like vermilion in the hair.
When singing, the Mangalini wear red depicting fertility, and during the Phagu festival in spring, vermilion powder (abir) symbolises the menstrual blood of the goddess, a potent symbol of fertility.
‘Thus, the mangalini become the Mother Goddess's handmaidens in a rite which bestows fertility and life during the coming year,' Tingey writes.
Menstrual blood is considered impure by Hindus, but it is a powerful symbol of the power of regeneration. Tingey further elaborates on this paradox, noting that what is 'auspicious' and what is 'pure' are not always the same in Hindu society. For example, Damai musicians are impure, but auspicious. In contrast, a Brahmin widow is pure, but inauspicious.
Virgin worship of kanya is sacred during most auspicious occasions, but women fall from the status of goddesses when they get married. For example, women are barred from worshipping the Goddess Durga in Nepal's Dasain rituals, women are not allowed to be priests and officiators of rituals, and several bhajan groups of Kathmandu restrict women.
Women of menstruating age were not always sidelined from religious roles and at one time, fertile women were the creators of auspiciousness, venerators of deities, and sanctifiers of religious rituals. The role of women who sing auspicious songs is therefore a unique one in Nepal's Hindu society, which gives religious roles to women of childbearing age.
But as patriarchy got more entrenched, women were replaced by male priests performing life cycle rites and worship. Patriarchy gradually gained a foothold and cemented its role as ‘pure', sidelining women whose fertility was at the centre of human life.
The Mangalinis' repertoire is unique in Nepal's folk tradition, says Tingey, describing it as a distinct genre of auspicious music, different from other folk songs in rhythm, pitch material and structure.
Already, in the late 1980s, Tingey wrote that the Mangalini tradition was in decline, so much so that a new cohort had to be hired, the lyrics had to be revised and the women retrained by classical musicians for an important function.
From the cohort of 16 Mangalini active in the 1980s, only six survive today. Three new singers have been hired on contract basis to supplement the singing on Dasain and on other days the Mangalini serve as palace guards at Hanuman Dhoka museum.
"We used to sing for daily worships and all rituals. We met the royals up close, and that was an unforgettable experience," recalls Rohita Suwal, as she becomes emotional.
Dhankumari Dangol tears up at the memory of the royals. "They were always so kind, asking us to eat, rest, while we were singing. We feel like we lost a guardian," she says between sobs.
Outside of this Shah palace, Tingey knew of only two Mangalini, in the household of General Aditya Shumsher Rana, one in her 40s and her aunt in the 60s. It is doubtful that the tradition survives in any former royal household today.
The Narayanhiti Mangalini are a living, but endangered, legacy of a unique intangible Nepali heritage that involved women in the religious sphere.
The song of Mangalini
On Phulpati, the seventh day of Dasain, the Hanuman Dhoka courtyard is a hive of activity. Although Nepal's erstwhile royal family lived at Narayanhiti palace, rituals involving the royal family were held at here, the seat of Prithvi Narayan Shah after his defeat of the Malla kingdom.
On Phulpati, a military band in white coats plays western horn and drums, and another group wearing black daura suruwal plays traditional Nepali musical instruments. Upstairs, the Mangalini sing a hymn to Ganesh to mark the beginning of the ceremony, later descending into the courtyard, dressed in red and gold saris.
Dhan Kumari Dangol leads the group of nine women, dressed in a gold brocade top and skirt and with a big gold and red velvet umbrella held over her head.
As the bands leave the courtyard one by one in a procession to Jamal, the Mangalini join them. The bands play different kinds of music, some western and some traditional Nepali, with rifles firing salutes along the way. At Jamal, the Mangalini first honour the goddess Durga with a devotional song.
Because they are not using instruments, the Mangalini songs are often drowned out by the other bands. But their presence is central to the Dashain rituals. Only when they create an auspicious ambience with their voices will the men take up the Phulpati palanquin, and head back to Hanuman Dhoka for the Vedic rituals.
When the worship of the goddess Durga commences in the next phase, the Mangalinis sing hymns to her in the popular Malashri tune that depicts Durga as a warrior. A goat is sacrificed to the background of the chanting and music.
Versions of the songs exist in other parts of South Asia, but these have Nepali lyrics revised by poet Nir Bikram Pyasi. The language of classical songs in the court changed drastically after King Mahendra implemented a one-language policy in the 1960s, and directed that all classical songs be sung in Nepali. The pure Nepali language of the Mangalini songs is obviously in keeping with this edict.
It is possible that there were more songs in the Mangalini repertoire which are forgotten today. One such song was recorded by Carol Tingey at the home of Aditya Shumsher Rana, which the Mangalini of Hanuman Dhoka do not sing:
O goddess Bhairavi, Gorkhanath, give us darshan
The first goddess was born in Kailash
Light shines in all four directions, sixty four yoginis accompany the goddess
Gorkhanath gave a dream, to worship Bhairavi
He conquered his penance and appeared, and Nepal became his royal seat
On his head the sindur and crown shine, on his ear the earring shines
The divine complexioned Rana Bahadur, performed many penances
It tells the story of the Shah family's relationship with Gorakhnath and goddess Durga. The song contains the essence of the folktale that a Shah king conquered Nepal after receiving boons from Gorkhnath and Bhairavi. The song also mentions Shah king Rana Bahadur, believed to be the creator of the song.
The Mangalini repertoire is thus also a valuable historical record. While the Mangalinis at Hanumandhoka remember ten of these songs, it is possible that more of these songs have been lost as the tradition declined elsewhere.
The sound of music
Ethnomusicologist Carol Tingey came to Nepal in the 1980s and researched the Panchai Baja from Gorkha to Jumla, publishing Heartbeat of Nepal: The Pancai Baja. She accidentally came across the Mangalini during her research, and Tingey's papers are the only in-depth study of the tradition. Tingey recorded over 100 hours of music in Nepal, which have been digitised by the British Library. The collection is the largest ethno-musicological collection of Nepali music available online, containing over 900 tracks including genres like Panchai Baja, Nagara Bana, Mangalini, Ratyauli, Bisket Jatra, Ghintang Ghisi, Ghatu, and many others.
Tingey has been absent from Nepal's ethnomusicology scene, but Sewa Bhattarai recently interviewed over zoom. Excerpts:
Sewa Bhattarai: How did you come to be interested in Nepal’s ethnomusicology?
Carol Tingey: It began after I completed my Bachelor of music, which was focused on western classical music. And then I started travelling for the first time outside Europe, and realised that there was a whole world of other musics out there. So that piqued my interest. I travelled overland to Kathmandu, just fell in love with the place, and decided that that would be the focus for research for my Master's degree in ethnomusicology. I came across recordings of Nepali music made by Arnold Bake in the 1930s.
And Panche Baja?
I found out about it from an article written by Mireille Helffer. This was at a time when I was exploring the possibility of looking at Nepali music but had no idea what genres there were, or anything about it. I found that there was so little research done. Panche Baja was the only type of music that anything very substantial had been written. So initially, that pointed me in that direction for my Master's.
Why did you choose to go to Gorkha?
Gorkha was an ideal base for the bulk of my research because there was still a very strong tradition of Panche Baja for the community, for weddings and so on, but also, the Nagara Bana tradition of Gorkha Durbar was still fully operational at that time. So I had a wonderful opportunity of hearing all the temple music, as well as the general repertoire throughout the seasons.
I was very fortunate when I started my PhD research to meet Ramsharan Darnal of the Royal Nepal Academy. And he pointed me to apply for funding for a research fellowship. This gave me a small stipend, but more importantly, gave me a one year visa to stay in the country and freedom to travel where I wanted to. And that was absolutely amazing because it enabled me not only to base myself in Gorkha for the majority of the research, but to travel far and wide out to Jumla and Kalikot, and to east Nepal. It was just a wonderful opportunity to hear Panche Baja from a whole range of different regions and to compare regional variations in the tradition.
Then I met Gopal Pariyar at one of the weddings, the first one I went to. He became my research assistant and was just worth his weight in gold. He introduced me to so many people, took me to various festivals, and was the perfect assistant. Just the local knowledge on the ground, so that worked really well. I found out about the amazing repertoire that Panchai Baja musicians have. I also found that like musicians elsewhere around the world, the musicians are not well paid, and occupy a low status in society. Their level of expertise and dedication to the music is not recognised.
How did you come across the Mangalini?
I had no knowledge at all of the Mangalini tradition until I was involved in the Dasain celebrations in Gorkha. During the Phulpati procession, there were three Mangalini accompanying the Kalash, they were singing at intervals along the route, with the Panchai Baja and the Nagara Bana all playing as well. I found out what their role was, and was minded then to find out more and carry out some post doc research into that tradition.
I couldn't find any recent resources relating to the Nepali tradition, but read around parallel traditions in India. And then I went to Nuwakot for Dasain, and spent my time with five Mangalini. They were very willing to share their knowledge and their beautiful singing, and I made some lovely recordings.
What was your experience of working in Nepal?
I learnt Nepali and in Gorkha, my language gradually improved so that I was able to communicate more and more effectively, and understand more of my specialist area. But when I went back to Kathmandu, I couldn't then have intellectual conversations about politics or literature or anything else, I didn’t have the vocabulary for that sort of Nepali conversation. But for everything else, my vocabulary was sufficient.
I found it much harder to settle back into western life than to take up a Nepali lifestyle. That took me by surprise. But there are still things that I've learnt. Like how valuable water is. And we mustn’t take it for granted to just turn on the tap and get fresh clean drinking water. That lesson has remained with me even till today.
I used to take a bus from Kathmandu to Khairenitar. It would be full, and there would be goats on the roof. I changed buses to go to Gorkha, where I rented a little two-room flat. That included the delivery of a jar of water every day. There was a toilet out at the back that I shared with the other occupants of the building. I had my little paraffin stove, and went to the market every day, and cooked dal bhat.
I often walked to the weddings to record the Panche Baja, carrying a big and heavy tape recorder and a Sony Walkman. The reel to reel tapes recorded 90 minutes on each side. I used up maybe 8 sets of cassettes in Dasain and 3-4 in a wedding.
Back then, Gorkha was not on a tourist route and I was a novelty there. People were curious, and I was never on my own. I'd have people dropping in for a chat, and children on their way to school. People just took me to their heart, and it was lovely, a very very nice time. It was a simple and very happy existence there because I was made to feel so welcome by all the local people.
You sort of disappeared from Nepal's ethnomusicology scene, what have you been up to?
When I was working on the Mangalini research, I was already pregnant with my daughter. And that, then, gave me a new direction in life. I completed the post-doctoral research that I was involved in, but then thought it wasn’t viable to be travelling back and forth to Nepal with a small child. I re-trained and became a teacher and stayed in Britain. My life took a new direction. I always intended to pick up the research again, but other things happened and I haven't done so.
How do you look back on your work today?
I look back on my research with fondness. It continues to add to my life even today. For years my recordings sat in a box in my room. Then they were digitised and uploaded by the British Library, where they found new audiences. Even today, people continue to find me and tell me about the work they are doing around my research. That is a very fulfilling feeling.
Sewa Bhattarai is a freelance journalist. Her series, On The Margins, will focus on folk music, folklore, and mythology of Nepal's marginalised communities.