CHARYA DANCE – A moving meditation offered to deities

By Anuska Joshi | Image Nepal, Picture Courtesy: Vajra Kala Kunja

Nepal, although geographically small, has a diverse variety of landscape and people, and a lot of elements which make it an unforgettable experience for everyone who come here. While each alley and every turn has some temple, or stupa, or something to depict our history and our present culture, each community also has dance forms as a living heritage to showcase us, our country and our tradition. Each of the position the traditional dancers take and each hand gestures they show, reflects a meaning which brings alive and conjoins all the daily rituals with instilled tradition.

Bhairab Kali Dance Form

Diverse topography has made it possible for Nepal to embrace diverse ethnicity and culture and therefore has made us rich in traditional culture too. Every place has its own community, own language, attire, dances, songs, and this is what makes our country so vibrant. Every morning, we can see locals playing their traditional musical instruments, adding to the essence of the place, and every day, different traditional dancers add the senses to the street with their gestures and expressions.

The beautifully adorned dancers with colorful clothe and shimmering jewelries producing a mesmerizing sound with every turn and movement are the sight to see at many festivals and community functions and are in some places a daily ritual too. But what at surface seems a fun-filled community dance and music has a lot of essentials behind it. Each expression and each movement tells a story, and requires strict concentration from the dancers.

Charya is one of the most ancient dance forms in Nepal. It is a moving meditation tailored to specific deities. There are many popular dances like the Manjushree dance, Kumari dance and Lakhe Dance, among others, under Charya dance. As these entire dance forms are also a way of worshipping, they require the utmost devotion from dancers. ‘Bodhichitta’, the goodwill for all, is one of the core concepts of Buddhism, and is followed by all these dancers. The devotion, mind clearance all comes before practicing this dance form. Chandra Man Munikar, an expert in traditional dances, says that dancing is a way of embracing the concept of Bodhichitta and a way toward Nirvana.  Even when teaching this dance form, meditation is taught first.

Charya dance, which is said to have started from Bangladesh, is performed only in Kathmandu now. Since birth, a lot of rituals take place till death like Pasni, Bel Bibaha and marriage. In all these rituals, the gestures from dance take a major stance. The elements of all these dance forms, therefore, show our culture as well as our day to day life. These dance forms are also further differentiated into the secret and non-secret dances.

Amoghsiddhi Aryatar and Pancha Buddha Dance Forms

The non-secret dances are the dances that are shown to other people in the streets during various occasions or on a day to day basis. But there are other secret and sacred dances too, that take place inside closed rooms where only the dancer participates to come closer to the god. During this dancing ritual, gods and goddesses are awakened and the dancer can see and communicate with them. But this requires a lot of devotion and freedom from all the negative emotions like jealousy, anger, and any worldly attachment of any sort and is therefore not possible to be taken up by everyone. The strict and complete devotion and readiness to come face to face with the all powerful form of God is why this secret dance form cannot be handed down through generation like the other non secret dance forms.

The songs of these dance forms are also very authentic and original. The secret dancers write the songs once they come face to face with the gods and goddesses. The dancer, after communication with the deities, writes the songs, describing each and every attribute of the god. Most of these songs and dances are, therefore, a description of various deities and all of them have a history and devotion behind it.  There is a tale of a Charya dancer, Surat Vajracharya who went to Lhasa from Tasya Bahal in Ason.

Kumari and Kaal Bhairab Dance forms

While in Lhasa, he realized that his home back in Ason was on fire. He was drinking tea then, and spit the tea mimicking shower of water, which resulted in the formation of clouds over Kathmandu and extinguished the fire. Realizing the power of the Vajracharya, the local gurus of Lhasa tried to keep him there. After being refused, they even tried to kill him. While trying to flee Lhasa, he had to cross a huge river called Brahmaputra. He did the Charya mudra, or posture, calling upon Guyeshwori Goddess. He placed a thin shawl atop the river, sat on it, and while singing the Charya song of the Goddess, crossed the river without drowning. Such is the power associated with the Charya dance.

The Manjushree Dance depicts the story of how Manjushree came to Kathmandu, and after draining the lake that occupied Kathmandu, established human settlements. The Lakhe dance shows the story of Lakhe, a demon god, and how he would initially roam around Kathmandu Valley eating up the people, livestock and food and creating fear and havoc, and later after being tied up by Aakash Vairab, agreed to look after the people in Kathmandu. The stomping and running during Lakhe dance is a representation of the Lakhe scaring away any negative energies that threatens to enter Kathmandu. The Jayabageshwori dance showcases the worshipping of the source of life which is what sustains us. Kumari Dance is a dance telling the attributes of the Goddess, Ganesh Dance tells us about the Lord Ganesh. The dance steps, hand gesture, each have to perfectly symbolize the divine. The emotion of love, or anger, is also showcased accordingly with expression according to the story that is being presented.

Shiva Tandav and Devi Daitya dance forms.

Dance is so much more than movement and swaying here. It is a real representation of who we are, who our ancestors were, our beliefs, and our way of life. Munikar, who has been promoting and teaching the dance forms in Nepal and other countries, says that a lot can be done to prop up traditional dance in Nepal.  The government should establish a culture centre furnished with meditation, dance rooms and hostels, where locals and foreigners could practice the dance forms, and exchange culture, he says.

Munikar has been teaching traditional Nepali dances in his institution in Hanuman Dhoka. He also organizes a month-long free workshop in October to encourage younger generation. He has also published book on Charya dance form and continues to spread word about the significance of our dance.

Dance is intangible living heritage we have that displays our aspects with each melody of the song and each movement of the hands, and the dancers carry with them our culture.

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