I myself don’t depart Nepal until the early morning hours of August 5th, 2019, but my daughter Julie left in the early morning hours today. We knew that July 31st would be her last full day here in Kathmandu. Here is how we spent the time.
I have spent a fair amount of time in Nepal over the last twelve years but this was the first time that one of my daughters visited me here. This one does a lot of international travel in her job that focuses on mitigation of mosquito-borne illnesses, so she is seasoned, but Kathmandu was going to be her “first Asian city,”with all that entails.
Julie is here from July 20th to August 2nd, not an ideal time for such things as trekking, but – no matter. There are lots of cultural things to do here.
I really wanted her to attend one of the festivals for which the Newari community of Kathmandu is so famous. I asked around and got the same reply from three different places: everything stops during monsoon.
There was going to be only one festival in our window. Guthamaga.
I did some reading up.
There was an excellent description of the rituals associated with this festival.
Gathamuga, a unique festival of Newars in the Kathmandu Valley
One of the most ancient festivals of the Newa community is ‘Gathamuga’ or ‘Gathemangal’. It is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of the month Shrawan. This year it will be celebrated on 30th July 2019.It also marks the beginning of celebration of other festivals.
There are many myths attached to this festival. One of them is that in ancient times the people in the Kathmandu valley faced shortage of labour during the monsoon season to work in the vast farmlands. So as a solution to this, with the help of tantric ceremonies, they invoked supernatural spirits in themselves that gave them superhuman physical strength and that helped them to work hard in the fields, solving the shortage of labour. At the end of the plantation season, the demons had to be chased away from homes, which had to be cleansed.
Another belief connected to this festival is that there was a demon named ‘Ghantakarna’ who wore a pair of bells on his ears, hence his name, wherein Ghanta means ‘bell’ and Karna means ‘ears’. People were terrified and tired of him as he used to steal children and women and demanded money from the villagers. They wanted to get rid of him so one day a large number of frogs came to rescue them. They started to croak together. This made the demon agitated and he ran after them. The frogs all jumped in the swamp and the demon jumped along with them. They came out of the swamp, but the demon drowned. Some say Gathamuga and Ghantakarna are two separate stories and what we celebrate on this day is only Gathamuga.
Yet another belief is that when people frequently suffered from gastrointestinal diseases during the summer and monsoon seasons, it was believed that these were caused by a demon. Hence, at the end of the season these demons were to be chased away.
Giant sculptures with paper masks, representing Gatha Muga or Ghantakarna, made of wheat straw are put up at crossroads of the main streets which are burnt in the evening. It is believed that crossroads are where the evil spirits rendezvous. Handmade dolls are hung up on these figures to burn the evil spirits. In the evening, a person who acts as Ghantakarna called ‘Aaju Jaya Ha’, applies paint all over his body till he looks monstrous. He is then served with beaten rice with curd under the sculpture. He roams around the streets with a burning torch of husk in his hands begging for donation. The man moves around the sculpture three times. Everyone drags the sculpture to the nearby river. n this process, Aaju Jaya Ha escapes on the way. Also from this very day, the Lakhe dance begins.
The women clean their homes to remove any traces of evil spirits left behind. In the evening ‘Bou Wayegu’ is performed. The eldest man of the house carries out a tantric ritual by driving three iron nails on top of the main door of the house chanting mantras. Then white and black mustard seeds sprinkled on coal fire in a small clay pot is taken in all rooms of the home which fills them with thick smoke which is believed to drive away any lingering evil spirit from the house. However, looking at it from a scientific point of view the mustard smoke actually acts as an insecticide to drive away any insects that roam around during the monsoon season. An offering of cooked rice or beaten rice, husk and pieces of raw buffalo lungs along with Gathamuga Swan which is a type of flower, known as ‘Dronapuspa’ is placed at the crossroads for the spirits thanking them for their services and assuring that it will be asked for again next year. Once these rituals are over, people close all doors and windows and no member of the family is allowed to go out that night. It is believed that sorcerers are very active that night and they visit funeral grounds and other places of worship to become more powerful.
Farmers on this day also offer rice and lentil soup to frogs in gratitude for a good rain and for killing Ghantakarna. This ceremony is known as Byan (frog) Ja (rice) Nakegu (feed) literally meaning feeding rice to the frog.
People wear wrought iron metal rings on this day which is believed to have the power to safeguard people from ills and evil spirits.
Beyond legends and significance, the people of Kathmandu Valley are going through a difficult period to give continuity to this festival these days. It is not a holiday. People do not have time to spend one entire day in the courtyard. It is also difficult to find reed and painted masks. The growing traffic flow does not allow locals to erect effigies in the crossroads. And the mass of immigrant population do not like this festival and raise unnecessary objections. It is difficult to find a boy who is ready to act as a beggar and then perform the final rituals. In all these circumstances, it is highly probable that this festival will turn into a mere story in future.
Article by : Reshu Pradhan
Source: “PAU” – Newa Literary Magazine by SNGYA, 1st issue as cited by: https://www.facebook.com/SNG.YOUTHAFFAIRS/posts/gathamuga-a-unique-festival-of-newars-in-the-kathmandu-valleyone-of-the-most-anc/2130838617206239/
There were some videos. Here is one that shows a local celebration, during the daytime. Listen to the children laugh and squeal with delight.
also this one from a couple of years ago:
You will note that the male demon is, ahem, anatomically correct.
Here’s the translated time table:
12 pm- making GathaMuga
2 pm – begin demonstrating for all
4 pm – closing ceremony
7:30 pm – wrapping off GathaMuga by putting fire! Mayor will be presented to observe the event but no specific time given.
Now, the “directions” – this was all we had to go by, which is the first part of our adventure tale.
Location: Go to Bhimsen temple first in mangal bazaar. Take the road to North towards Swotha where quite few newly opened restaurants and homestay types there… Take right turn and follow the road you will get Pillachhen where the events happening!! It about 10 min or less walk to Pillachhen from Bhimsen temple. You can ask shop keepers for the direction to Pillachhen when you get Swotha. You won’t miss it!!
Our day was divided into three parts.
First, we took our time in Indra Chowk picking up the Kurtha Jangrawal we ordered last week, so we knew we were missing the afternoon programme in Pilachhen where they made the effigy and decorated it. ( see video above to get the idea, these were taken by others at other locations but you get the idea).
But with the flyer on my smartphone, we set out from Bimsen temple. This is not a part of Lalitpur I visit much.
It was an odd pathfinding adventure, because the directions turned out to be wildly inaccurate and most people did not seem to know where Pilachhen was. I had the flyer on my smartphone. We were wending our way through a series of narrow streets with twists and turns and every few blocks we would show the flyer to somebody for directions. This was a sort of urban navigation like “blindman’s buff” in USA. Some people helped us using their English, others knew nothing, and at least two people sent us off in the wrong direction.
At one point I said “we are walking to Gwarko!” which was actually not so farfetched.
We eventually found the place, partly because the last guy walked a few blocks with us. Now, it turns out that it was a short distance from the main road that goes from Gwarko to Mangal Durbar, and if we had just taken that road and known where to turn, we would have gotten there in half the time.
But no matter.
So that was the first part.
We arrived to see a group of guys posing for a group photo and hanging out. Here it was an older crowd and they had already burned the effigy there in the afternoon when the mayor was present. They were pleasant to us and we were the only bideshis in the crowd of maybe a hundred people. well, next thing you know we were given some rice wine, then they invited us up into their community hall for supper.
The menu was a very traditional Newari feast with chiura and various dishes including a meat dish that featured reconstituted dried buff that was simply delicious.
Along with the white beans etc.
And people talked with us. nearby was a location where they had rebuilt after the earthquake, constructing a small “home stay hotel” with traditional decor yet up to international building codes. so we got the tour of that place. After the meal, there was a concert of Newari devotional hymns and people sang along and danced and clapped. so that was part two.
Now for part three of the experience, we decided to walk home and originally somebody was trying to send us down the convoluted way we had arrived. ( no way in hell I muttered under my breath). But I knew there had to be an easier way because the Gwarko road simply had to be nearby; and a guy sent us off in that direction. One block and there we were. I don’t go on the Gwarko road a lot, but – enough to recognize it. So, we walked confidently toward Mangal Durbar from there. There was a huge traffic snarl at one point and when we got the other side we could see why. A torchlight procession! With drums and cymbals! With a person in the fantastical costume of the Gathamuga demon, complete with mask and wildly shaggy hair! Dancing!
Two hundred people in this group, mostly teenagers and young families, walked along. I suppose you would say they were more “hip” than the group we had just eaten with. Small boys underfoot acting afraid of the demon (!) who danced and spun.
Not my video but this gives you the idea:
To accompany them we backtracked in the direction from which we had just come, for a few blocks. the procession stopped at a platform outside a temple and did some sort of trick where the demon threw something (what I don’t know) at the torches, creating a small fireball into the air, very impressive though I was worried the guy in the costume would catch fire (the festival is about burning the demon after all). Then the ringleaders of this procession brought the demon through the gates into the courtyard of this temple and it was over.
Once again we walked to Mangal Durbar and took in the scene. I don’t usually go there after dark, it was hopping with lots of people and the Bimsen temple was all lit up. Then we returned “home.”
the bottom line is, it was every bit as fun as I had hoped, total strangers in the Newari community were completely friendly to us ( as I have come to expect) and my daughter got some insight as to the culture. There was one other videshi present, from Germany, but one of the fun parts was how local this was.
We did see evidence on our way back, that many other groups had done the ritual with the burning straw and this morning I could see that a similar ceremony took place two hundred meters from our flat. But this was fine. I enjoy exploring the alley ways of Lalitpur and this was a fine excuse to go ghum-gam. I live one kilometer from Mangal Durbar and my favorite way to go from Shalom to Mangal Durbar is to go through Kumaripati anyway, another neighborhood with twisting alleyways.
I plan to add some of the photos and videos Julie took, so that future people looking for this festival will have a better idea. On one hand, these things are more fun when you just come across them….
On the map
Finally, looking for Pilachhen on Google maps, it seems we were just about *in* Gwarko. ( I confess, i wish I looked it up before we started…) We used the directions we were given, but as I suspected we would have saved time with sticking to the main road. Part One was a sort of crazy fun though, like urban orienteering… When we started out I had no idea that it was as far from Mangal Durbar as it was.
Postscript Aug 1st 2019
Two days later, At supper. The clanging and banging in our neighborhood took a moment to register, then we realized it was more than just the guys in the metalworking shop nearby, so we rushed out. And, a terrible demon with bells in his ears tried to steal Julie away and do terrible horrible things.
But then, a frog came by and saved her by pushing the demon into the water! So Julie was wondering maybe she should kiss the frog and find out if he would turn into a – prince! But then somebody quietly whispered in Julie’s ear: “wrong folk tale.”
UPDATE: I linked to this on a FaceBook group named “Kathmandu Expats” and the first few replies came from Nepali guys who said they didn’t like this style, panch baja was better. I am writing for the videshi audience, not the Nepali guys. Also, if somebody wants a blog on panch baja music, they should write one. I am not stopping anybody.
This blog is mainly to focus on my second book, The Sacrament of the Goddess. It’s a novel, written to bring to life the issues and challenges of medical care in a Low Income Country. The medical side of the novel directly reflects the medical reality of Nepal. For narrative purposes, it is set in a small hospital run by Missionaries in the rural Hill Country, which is why so many other blog entries here are devoted to Beni, Nepal.
But today let’s look at a different side of Nepali culture. Brass bands.
I didn’t get the name of this band, and the photo omits the percussion section. At the wedding of a friend. The guy in the middle exhibits “Gillespie’s Pouches.”
Everyone wants a wedding to go like this:
The song is a sentimental one that covers the feelings of the dad as he watches his daughter grow; any father who has ever given a daughter in marriage is guaranteed to get teary-eyed. But the band in the video? Everest Band Baja. Of course.
The above is one I took in 2011 at the wedding of a Nepali friend, featuring the Nepali Police Band. They are more “military” than the usual band in my opinion; most of their members have degrees in music.
You see these wedding parades in Kathmandu, especially in winter during the auspicious season for weddings. It is customary to hire a brass band to serenade the groom at the house the morning of the wedding, then to lead a parade from there to the venue for the wedding ceremony, playing background music while the puja takes place, and finally to play at the feast.
Traffic in Kathmandu is chaotic even on a good day, but there is a rule that not even the King could stop a wedding parade (they still follow the rule even though the last king abdicated a few years back).
Everest Band Baja
There are dozens of bands, but I want to focus on The Everest Band Baja, based in Patan, possibly the grand-daddy of all such bands. They have been in business for about fifty years. They run two 16-person groups to handle the demand.
This tells how to hire the band and a bit about the history.
I have put together a playlist of bands. Everest Brass Baja is well represented but the list includes others. I was told by Everest Band Baja they prefer not to be video’d because then the other bands steal their arrangements.
Here is a tease:
About six years ago I worked with Everest Band Baja to make a FaceBook page. They were the very first Kathmandu wedding band to have one. I am not a fan of FaceBook these days, but we all found out one thing: FaceBook seems to have helped them get gigs.
If you think about it, the young people getting married are the generation that uses FaceBook every day in Nepal (everyone has it) so it is natural for them to search for a band there.
There are many styles of music in South Asia, and in Nepal there is also such a thing as a “paunch baja” which features the Shennai. The Everest Band Baja guys always ascertain whether the employer wants Nepali, Newari or Bollywood tunes.
The key to the clarinet? it is always mimicking a woman’s voice, and the better players are able to add the melisma the way Shreya Ghoshal would do. ( on that link, be sure to focus on the last fifteen luscious seconds!)
Other Brass Bands
You would think that FaceBook would never intrude on such a traditional activity. But though Everest Band Baja was the first to get their own FaceBook page for purposes of publicity ( and is still the best band, in my opinion), it seems that everybody else has now followed suit:
https://www.facebook.com/Band-Baja-Golfutar-402186263582275/ here is video of them playing “Chumma Chumma”
I will add more
The above list was easy to gather. I’m sure there are more out there and when I get them I will add them. Some of these guys are new at this – their FB pages do not always give actual contact information as to how to hire them!
Directory of Brass Baja in Nepal
I was delighted to see that somebody else began a directory. Click here.
In Western consciousness
This is a genre that remains on the edges of western consciousness. I suppose two items need to be mentioned. The first is the Jaipur Kawa Brass Band of India, which put out a CD of Hindu wedding music in 1997, Fanfare Du Rajasthan This was an enlightenment for many interested in world music. The second is a bit older and more obscure: Frozen Brass, a musical anthology released in 1993. At the time, Smithsonian Magazine ran a feature on the musical anthropologist who collected the tunes.
This will be brief.
As described in The Sacrament of the Goddess, Amanita Phalloides is a mushroom that is found in damp forests of Nepal, and I had the experience of meeting victims of this poison – all of whom died.
(If you must know: it was a family of five. Three boys, their mom and their grandfather. It was lingering and unsettling.)
The incident is described in detail in the book.
In The Atlantic magazine, a well-written piece describes mushroom ecology.
Very well done.
Here is a picture of Amanita:
These exist in Maine, my adopted home state: https://bangordailynews.com/2012/10/03/outdoors/foraging-for-fungi-from-maine-to-mario-land-2/
There is no antidote.
Here is an unusual gift idea. Especially if you like to sew.
A friend in USA asked me to buy a saree that had those sewn-on decorative brocades. You know the ones I mean. She said she was thinking of displaying it in her home as a form of wall art, but maybe cannibalizing it by cutting out the medallions and using them as accents on some other clothes she wore.
I told her don’t cut such a beautiful thing into pieces. I have got just the thing!
Indra Chowk of course!
Go to Indra Chowk, and to the right of the temple, is a small street with a dozen or so shops that sell these. I learned a new textile term today – “applique” – for this sort of ornament.
Here is a photo collage of the sort of piece they sell:
Tourist tip: When you get to Kathmandu, take time to explore this area general known as “Ason Tole”, it’s just as amazing as the monuments and heritage sites.
April 18th update: The stats tell me of a sudden surge of readers from – (drum roll please) – Canada. Yes, Canada.
Would somebody from there please let me in as to why such a burst of interest from there? send email to email@example.com
On March 5th 2018 the New York Times published a piece exploring the issue of violence in Myanmar, where the Buddhist majority has committed genocide against the Muslim minority, the Rohingya.
Most adherents of the world’s religions claim that their traditions place a premium on virtues like love, compassion and forgiveness, and that the state toward which they aim is one of universal peace. History has shown us, however, that religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.
While few sophisticated observers are shocked, then, by the occurrence of religious violence, there is one notable exception in this regard; there remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really are peaceful and harmonious. This presumption is evident in the reactions of astonishment many people have to events like those taking place in Myanmar. How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society — especially Buddhist monks! — have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist?
The link is: https://nyti.ms/2FUOFvF
Thich Nhat Han
It was under the bodhi tree in India twenty-five centuries ago that Buddha achieved the insight that three states of mind were the source of all our unhappiness: wrong knowing, obsessive desire, and anger. All are difficult, but in one instant of anger—one of the most powerful emotions—lives can be ruined, and health and spiritual development can be destroyed. With exquisite simplicity, Buddhist monk and Vietnam refugee Thich Nhat Hanh gives tools and advice for transforming relationships, focusing energy, and rejuvenating those parts of ourselves that have been laid waste by anger. His extraordinary wisdom can transform your life and the lives of the people you love, and in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, can give each reader the power to “change everything.” ( from the book blurb to “Anger” by Thich Nhat Han
One wonders whether the people in Myanmar have read Thich Nhat Han’s book. I tend to think they did not. I have, it’s a good read, and it does address the community response to anger expressed by individuals.
The Sacrament of the Goddess
This issue is central to my second book, The Sacrament of the Goddess. I wrote the book to explore the issue of anger and injustice in Buddhist culture. Buddhist philosophy devotes attention to calming the anger within each person, but it is not enough for a Buddhist to reject anger and violence and stop at the personal level.
My book is my humble offering to those wishing to look at this issue as it affects communal violence. You can order it on Amazon.
just a short entry.
The novel takes place in Beni, Nepal, a pretty town in the hills of Nepal.