Ghatu dance of Lamjung

Devotees lined up inside the Tashi Chhyoling Gumba of Nalma village, Lamjung, recently on Buddha Jayanti to prepare the Ghatu dance. Interestingly, although the day begins with offerings and lamps for the Buddha, the dance begins by invoking Hindu gods.

Ghatu seems to bring many cultures and languages together across the mountains of Central Nepal. In Nalma village, a two-hour ride from the district headquarter of Besishahar, four young girls are dressing up in traditional Gurung costumes to prepare for the dance. The rituals actually begin in January on the festival of Shree Panchami, when the dancers are selected. They are then trained until the performance starts on Buddha Jayanti, and goes on for up to a week.

On full moon day the dancers line up in a community building at the center of the village, and begin swaying slowly to the music as village elders sing to the beat of the madal. Ghatu tells the tragic story of King Pashramu and Queen Yambawati: Pashramu goes on a hunt, meets and marries Yambawati, and they have a child. Pashramu is killed in action, Yambawati self-immolates on her husband's pyre. The dance climaxes with Yambawati's grief as she gives up her kingdom, says goodbye to her little son, and embraces death. The dancers go into a trembling trance as they perform for hours.

Ghatu dance is performed all over central Nepal by Gurung, Magar, Dura, Balami and Kumal communities. But no one is sure how it originated. "It was passed down to us by our ancestors, but they did not tell us where they learnt it or how it began," says Jung Bahadur Gurung, dance teacher in Nalma. "People believe it's based on a local story, and that Pashramu and Yambawati were a local Gurung king and queen."

Gurung knows the songs, but says he does not know what language they are in. It sounds like Tharu or Bhojpuri, languages spoken in southern Nepal. Since Pashramu meets Yambawati when he is out hunting and far away from his mountain homeland, some people speculate that queen Yambawati was a woman from the Tarai and brought the songs with her.


The Gurungs also do not have the practice of sati depicted in the dance. Considering this and other factors, folk music expert Kishor Gurung concludes that Ghatu was actually brought to Nepal by Lahures who went to India. "Nepali soldiers who joined the British Indian armies must have brought it back with them 150-200 years ago."

Professor Yubaraj Gurung thinks the dance is essentially a way for the community to comes to terms with pain and relate it to Yambawati's grief. But there is agreement on what makes the dancers go into a trance as they dance with their eyes closed, swaying slowly to the music.

"The dancers sometimes don't even know the story, but go with the flow and where the music takes them," says folk music researcher Jhuma Limbu who is making a documentary about Ghatu. "It is a matter of great pride that music which explores the depths of human psychology is still alive in Nepal. We must do our best to preserve it."

As with most folk art, this music has been passed down and preserved orally, and it is known to affect the dancers anytime it is played. Grown women who were former dancers sometimes fall into a trance when they hear the music. Villagers here forbid recording the music, and the performances only happen at designated times.

With the march of time, interest is waning in such lengthy dances when other means of entertainment are easily available, says musician Raju Gurung: "It is a very sad that people are losing interest in the ritual part of the dance and it is becoming more and more commercialised. We love our dance very much and would like to preserve it, but it is a losing battle."