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by Hamid Sardar
August 17, 2000
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A few miles south of Kathmandu, on a promontory of lush rice fields looking over the Bagmati River, lies the village of Harasiddhi, named after a Goddess of the same name. The inhabitants rarely venture beyond the village. White-robed priests pace the narrow cobblestone paths, women draw water from dark wells, and shy children peer at the rare visitors from behind carved wooden window panels depicting mythical creatures. In short, everything in this village gives the impression that it has been left behind by time. At the center of the village is a four-story pagoda temple housing the Goddess Harasiddhi.
Ancient Nepali chronicles agree that "no dramatic performance equals that of the Harasiddhi priests." The manifestations of the Mother Goddess and her retinue of deities possess the dancers, intoxicated on sacrificial blood and alcohol. A hypnotic musical score, punctuated by symbolic gestures accompanies the spectacle whose secret meanings remain closed to the non-initiate.
On the April full moon, I arrive before the village gates as the guest of Narayan, one of the senior priests, who instructs me to remove my leather shoes. We move onto a slippery cobblestone path behind a procession of torchbearers, and arrive before the temple. The wet courtyard is gleaming under the bright moon, excited woman hum devotional songs as they pour mustard oil into lamps, while children chase one another and blow whistles. The heavens are about to descend onto this little village.
At the temple door, Narayan sounds an enormous brass bell as we climb up to the principle shrine. On the second floor the priests sit murmuring prayers beneath the divine masks which hang with frozen expressions over their heads. "For a week the priests have taken only one meal at dawn," whispers Narayan. "They have not slept with their wives, and have purified their bodies to receive the Goddess." Inside the circle of priests sits a large clay pot filled with water and a silver headdress representing the Goddess.
In the manner of ancient wizards, the Harasiddhi priests still transfer the soul of their deities into water pots using magic spells. Soon after midnight two attendants carry the pot into the courtyard and the turbaned priests take their seats directly across from her. To the tune of double-headed drums, lutes, and cymbals, masked priests, embodying the ten directional kings, come crashing into the courtyard. Pounding their feet, they danced to tame the earth, swirling and flashing their hips, they hit and scratch the earth with their swords.
Led by the grandmaster playing a double-faced drum mounted by ram horns, the magical instruments began to weave their eerie tune, gradually increasing in tempo and suddenly scattering to announce the official transition to the dance drama.
One by one the god-priests emerge from the temple wearing large hypnotic masks weighing on average close to 20 pounds adorned with silver chains and ornaments. Each dance tells a story through iconography and mimicry. The performance is ritualized in order that the audience may enter the scene at any time and venerate the gods. The entranced audience moves through the stage, sprinkling the deities with rice, coins, and 'sindhura', a red ritual powder symbolizing the dried menstrual blood of the Mother Goddess. Before leaving the courtyard the spectators fall to their knees touching their heads to the dancer's feet and then bow to the grand master and touch the curved ram horns on his double-faced drum.
At high noon the priests stop for a break. The sun fiercely
illuminates the women who fast around the courtyard, feeding the lamps before them with
mustard oil. The old priest Narayan pulls me into the cool corridor of the temple and
pours me a bowl of 'ayla': powerful liquor made with local grain and secret
As Narayan begins to fulfill his priestly duties, his eyes bulge with melancholy. "Not long ago, our dances were seen by the entire population of the Valley," he recalls. "We walked on foot to dozens of villages and performed before the king himself, but today the clan chieftains of the surrounding villages do not take responsibility for the safe transport of the masks. Now we only dance in our own village. People still come and bring offerings to the Goddess, but their numbers are dwindling. One day I fear the dances will stop; not even a dog will come to watch. Then the gods they will leave and settle elsewhere."
Pausing to swallow more of the fiery elixir, Narayan continues, " In the old days there existed many dance groups like ours, but one by one they all disappeared. Each village housed a manifestation of the Goddess who was at the center of her own local pantheon. When the Kings established these dances they endowed the village temples with farmlands. This provided an independent source of revenue allowing the priests to permanently devote themselves to these ritual performances. In those days we were bound to the center."
While the Harasiddhi dances are considered to be the most spectacular in ancient chronicles, medeival kings of Nepal established other important dance traditions around the cult of the Goddess in other villages in the Valley like Khokana and Theco. The dependence of Nepali kings on these dance cults was not only symbolic but also political. Each village housed a different manifestation of the Goddess who was at the center of her own local cult. When the Kings established these dance traditions they endowed the village temples with farming estates, and provided an independent source of revenue which allowed the priests to permanently devote themselves to these ritual performances. In this way the villages were bound to the center. At the end of every twelve year cycle the dancers toured the entire valley and performed before the royal court, and thus universalized the king's ritual identity at the center of the cosmos.
While the fame of the dances at Harasiddhi, Khokana, and Theco spread primarily in the South of Patan, in the Northern rim of the Valley the priests of the ancient royal city of Bhaktapur deliver their own spectacular performances. The cult of the Navadurga in Bhaktapur seems to have been developed during the reign of King Anandadeva in the 12th century, when royal priests consecrated the rock shrines dedicated to the aboriginal 'mothers' and 'grandmothers' as the manifestations of the Mother Goddess Durga scattered outside the cities.
A ring of temples was subsequently built inside the cities to house the different iconic images of the Mother Goddess. The royal preceptors then formed secret priest-hoods out of low-caste peasants, teaching them to perform terrifying trance dances, invoking into their bodies the manifestations of the Mother Goddess and carrying them into the city precincts.
The priests moved according to prescribed routes through different neighborhoods exacting local offerings and homage, before ending their procession in front of the royal palace. In this manner they bound the allegiance of the outlying villages to the authority of the king, and confirmed his position at the pivot of a ritual universe. Graduating from rock, to icon, to possessed dancer, the Goddess became an omnipresent feature of the Valley's religion and politics.
Today the priests still dance at forty different locations throughout the year. Twenty-one times they dance in the different old quarters of Bhaktapur itself, the rest of the time they tour the various villages in the North-Eastern rim of the Katmandu Valley. Afterwards they return to Bhaktapur where the goddesses ceremonially die and the masks are burnt before the annual rains. In the fall they are resurrected and the masks built anew for another cycle.
The most memorable sequence of the dances in Bhaktapur, is the ritual chase called 'fishing'. In between the stage performances the man impersonating the White Bhairava begins to run after screaming kids, reminiscent of the days when the priests used to hunt for live sacrificial victims. The chase today amounts to a spectacular athletic performance. Wearing large masks weighing on average close to 25 kilos, adorned with silver chains and ornaments, the barefooted priests are required to run after the teasing children on cobble stone paths for hours. The priests admit that it is only possession by the deity that makes such a feat possible.
The rituals festivals of mother goddess symbolize the divine war between the forces of light and of darkness. The participants ensure the stability of their universe by enacting the drama that the gods play out in a larger sphere, making the essential link between the microcosmic reality of village life and the macrocosmic reality of the elemental forces of the universe.
While the Mother Goddess is seen primarily as a protector, she must be propitiated in order to quell her wrathful aspects. Just as water is sometimes nourishing, like a gentle rain, or destructive, like torrential flood, She can be a beautiful young maiden, as embodied in Katmandu's Living Goddess, the Kumari, or she can be a frightening hag, like the Sow-headed Varahi, or the multi-armed Black Kali. While some may doubt the validity of her creed, none can doubt the beauty of her dance.
For the kings of Nepal the dance drama of Harasiddhi was not only a source of court entertainment, but also a secret Tantric ritual securing the blessings of the Mother Goddess for the protection of the dynasty. Princes obtained the throne through the intercession of the Mother Goddess. They donated gold and estates for the upkeep of her temple, and put her image on their coins. The Mother Goddess nevertheless has a reputation of being highly volatile. "During one of the performances," recalls Narayan, " King Pratap Malla made improper advances on a young girl alleged to be the Goddess in disguise. His reward was instant death."
The sound of a bell suddenly brings Narayan to his feet. He motions me to follow. Before us an epic hero leaps out of the temple performing a sword dance, confronting a man-eating demon. Shaking his red mane, the demon casts a burning torch into the excited audience. The flame misses my head by an inch and scatters among the screaming woman behind me, whose new saris catch fire. The hero charges the demon as the tempo of the music increases, banishing him from sight.
The village pantheon represents several historical strands, where deities of Indian and Nepali tribal origin have unified around a central Goddess. Each historical layer operates on a different emotional level. The audience is religiously inspired by stories drawn from both local and the greater Hindu epic tradition. But as day proceeds into night, the dances move into the hazy depths of our psyche, releasing atavistic and primitive emotions suppressed by the thin veneer of Hindu civilization.
In the dark courtyard the crowd becomes intoxicated on wine and emotion. Palpable energy races through the courtyard as scores of animals are led before the shrine housing the Goddess in the clay pot. Three priests possessed by the principle emanations of the Mother Goddess begin to shake violently as they are offered the blood sacrifice.
"The Mother Goddess must be appeased by blood," Narayan says apologetically. " Once when the world was suppressed by the Buffalo-demon 'Mahisha', the male gods were powerless. The gods each emanated a light from their foreheads, which combined into one and assumed the form of the Mother Goddess. She in turn was able to vanquish the armies of the Buffalo-demon by multiplying herself into various forms. But in their lust for battle the emanations of the Mother Goddess forgot to stop their rampage and in turn threatened to destroy the entire world. So it was Shiva, the principle male god, who threw himself at their feet, and restored their awareness. The Mother Goddess is a protector, but she sometimes cannot discriminate in her destructive powers. She must be regularly propitiated by male blood so her wrath does not turn against us."
Outside in the night the revelry continues. With the effects of the 'ayla' wearing off, and the buffalo blood drying on my clothes, I begin to question my participation in this dark feast. To become sober at this point however, I realize would be a mistake. So does Narayan who grasps my arm and pulls me inside the temple, for another serving of raw spiced buffalo meat and 'ayla'.
"Your gods confuse me," I tell Narayan." they have no set boundary. They relate to one another through emanations and condensations. Your goddess is both your protector and your blackmailer, she sometimes appears as the beautiful young maiden, or she is seen as a frightening sow-faced hag, or the multi-armed black witch flicking her blood-stained tongue." Narayan gives me an incredulous look and pours more drink. "The Goddess is just like water, she is sometimes nourishing, like a gentle rain, or destructive, like torrential flood." Leaning forward Narayan's breath projects the fire of ayla onto my face. " Our gods have no set boundaries; they are connected to the human world, they behave like us, they live amongst us."
To talk about Narayan's gods simplistically, I realize, is to misrepresent not only the gods but also his world. My desire to simplify the Newar pantheon brought me face to face with my own monotheistic conditioning. The belief in an overarching principle, which governs both the universe and psyche, may be simple and economical but it sometimes results in a static and limited sense of ourselves, and the mysteries that surround us.
In distinction to the monotheistic God, Narayan's gods and goddesses are not simple, but a reflection of man's own complexity. They drink blood, fight, make love, tease one another, in fact when Narayan sees these gods, he seems to see his own reflection, the reflection of all humanity. Ultimately, for him, there is no boundary between the human and the divine. In his little village the gods still live amongst men.
Narayan shoves me into the melee of excited villagers, as the sun's first rays begin to illuminate the glittering brass pots and pans affixed on the temple roof. When a priest dies his utensils are affixed on top of the temple where they receive the first and last and first rays of the sun. His son or grandson, who is inducted into the priesthood at the beginning of the next twelve-year cycle, inherits the mask. The novice is taken on a pilgrimage to the ancient power sites of the Valley. At these secluded spots he is taught the secret meanings of the dances and the knowledge of secret spells associated with the deities.
The master communicates this knowledge to him in dya bhay, the secret language of the gods that no one may understand without the proper empowerment. After initiation the priest never leaves the Kathmandu Valley, he must wear white robes and grow his hair. He abstains from smoking, garlic, and the defiling meats of pork and chicken. For the rest of his life the priest enjoys a status above the rest, he becomes a god.
I bid Narayan farewell and leave the village, pedaling my bicycle through the mist-shrouded mustard fields outside Harasiddhi. With traditional values eroding among the younger generation, I wonder how long this priesthood can survive. These dances are not just an art form; the performance is based on an entire devotional attitude, which focuses on the priests as gods. To perform these dances without this underlying conception would be meaningless. The gods would surely leave and settle down elsewhere.