Eastern melodies in Kathmandu

A long time ago in the beginning

There was no vast cosmos,

And there was no beautiful earth

Later the omnipotent Ningwaphuma arrived

And she created the earth

It is rare to hear folk songs in the Limbu language in Kathmandu, but this was Manu Nembang, Jhuma Limbu and Deepa Suhang (pictured) singing a traditional song from their community at Shilpee Theatre this week. The event was organised by Raithane Music to promote true folk melodies that people live by, and which are endangered by assimilation.

This was Raithane Music’s first performance and started off with Hakpare, a melody popular among the Limbus from eastern Nepal. It is a kind of Mundhum, songs passed down orally from one generation of Limbus to another, with information about the community’s traditions, beliefs and worldview. Sung by priests, healers and shamans, the Mundhum is also called the ‘Veda’ of the Limbus, since they contain instructions for life. 

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Mundhums contain age-old lyrics that trace the history of the Limbu community. Hakpare is believed to be the oldest melody or style of Limbu music tradition sung during important occasions like weddings, births, and even deaths. 

“When one person starts singing a Hakpare, another person may contradict him, and yet another may add information to clarify it. And so Hakpare progresses as a form of dialogue,” says sociologist Chaitanya Subba who thinks that since Hakpare contained references to people living in caves, the songs could be from the period the Limbus first settled in what is now eastern Nepal 10,000 years ago.

Hakpares can be sung during weddings and about what life was like before people started getting married, and how a young couple’s courtship proceeds. The ones sung during pregnancy wish for the baby’s safe birth, and the songs of death wish for the departed soul’s safe passage. And then there are the dense songs that sing of the history of the earth, and how human civilisation came about. 

“There is a saying we find in these Hakpares. When the wind blows too chilly, or the weather grows gloomy, a human heart becomes full of feelings. That is when we sing these songs, to console the heart,” said Lokman Wanem from Taplejung. 

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Senior poet and Mundhum expert Bairagi Kainla added: “Youngsters are holding hands and singing to each other. One would imagine their songs would be joyful. But no, Hakpares are sorrowful. That is because they are aware that we are mortal. No matter what we achieve, it is gone. This awareness of the core nature of human existence is what makes the songs melancholy. We need these sorrowful melodies,” says Kainla who has collected and documented Mundhums.

These songs were orally passed down from one generation to the next, and were barely documented until modern times, but today, their usage is fading as people do not need these songs for entertainment or for social guidelines. 

“Our ancestors thought that if they sung and memorised the lessons from their lives, it would be easier for the following generations to live their lives. It is not just music but an entire community’s history and tradition,” said Kainla. 

The melody is popular in eastern Nepal and other communities sing their own lyrics, including in Nepali. There are even modern and pop songs based on the melody, but the thousands of years of knowledge and wisdom that Limbus collected can only be found in the original Limbu Hakpare. 

We the siblings of human genesis
We the wisest animals on earth
Let this Mundhum remain forever
And let this continue even after life

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