Tag Archives: Nepal

Tantric Buddhist Dance in a palm-leaf Manuscript

In the Himalayan regions, there exist many kinds of popular Buddhist dance forms, usually performed during festivals or harvests. Some of these, like the one at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh or the ‘Lama Dances’ of Sikkim are known the world over. Specifically, they are forms of tantric dances, performative manifestations of the highly ritualised Vajrayana Buddhism.

Many lesser known forms of Tantric Buddhist dances exist, none more so than those recorded by the Newar Buddhists of the Kathmandu valley. Their’s is an unique culture: the Newars are the sole remaining Buddhists who follow the Sanskritic Indic Mahayana tradition of Bihar, Bengal and Kashmir, complete with an artistically complex system of Vajrayanic modes of worship whereby  tantric Vajracharya priests officiate over community rituals as well as devotional and life-cycle ceremonies.

As is evident with Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana lays great emphasis on the creativeness of religious ritual, incorporating vividly visual sadhanas or meditational techniques, as well as the use of theatrical gestures and the ritual art creation of mandalas and thangkas (‘paubha’ in Newari; ‘pata’ in Sanskrit). This mastery of religious art ties in perfectly with the Newars’  continued excellence in the plastic, decorative and performative arts, with master craftsmen producing stunning works of sculpture and painting for at least a thousand years now.

Professional artists, many of whom also double up as religious specialists, have, as a rule, assiduously maintained a corpus of sketchbooks, filled with line-drawings of models, annotated instructions, as well as their religious and spiritual interpretations.

Many of the historical ones have been collected and published, and recently I came across some stunning sketches of tantric Buddhist dances from the 18th century, in the scholar Gudrun Bühnemann’s book Buddhist Iconography and Ritual in Paintings and Line Drawings from Nepal.

These sketches were made on palm-leaf manuscripts, and they portray the Parikramavidhi, the ritual dance around a site to purify it before the construction of a mandala. Highly influential in Nepal, the Parikramavidhi was a detailed ritual manual written by a Newari Vajrayana monk named Kuladatta sometime in the 13th century, as a part of his book, the Kriyasamgraha-panjika, in which he outlines the rituals required to consencrate a vihara (monastery). The manual was in turn based on a older texts like the famous Mayajalatantra and the renowned Bengali tantric monk Abhayakaragupta’s ritual compendium, Vajravali, written in the early 12th century CE.

Making full use of forms from the Indian classical dance tradition of the Natyashastras, the sketchbook visually shows the various mudras (gestures), abhinayas (stances) which are to be performed with prescribed mantras, by the officiating monks/priests. Dressed in full ritual regalia, they are to assume the roles of various tantric deities, Bodhisattvas and directional guardians in order to purify the space.

Works of art like this manuscript, helps us get a deeper sense of the vibrant cultural and artistic lives of a people. So the next time you visit Patan, and see the wonderful Newari viharas like the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (popularly known as the Golden Temple), know that prior to the building of that monastery or the various three-dimentional mandalas in its courtyard, many hundred years ago, Buddhist tantric adepts had probably performed a beautiful dance like this, to consecrate the site. The  performance must have been as arresting a sight as the Cham dance of Hemis.

Here are some panels from this beautiful manuscript.

In this panel, we see eight of forty-two stances or abhinayas to be performed by the principal master (Mulacharya) of the ritual. These are:

9. Vajraghantabhinaya in the Kurmapada stance facing east (of the mandala), evoking the Buddha Vajrasattva.

10. Vajrotkarsanabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing south, evoking the Buddha Akshobhya.

11. Vajravilasabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing west, evoking the deity Vajrakarman.

12. Garvadvayabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing north, evoking the deity Krodhalasya.

13. Bhramarijalabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing the centre, evoking the Buddha Vairochana.

14. Simhapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Yamantaka.

15. Simhavijrambhitapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Takkiraja.

16. Vajrasphotabhinaya in the Samapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Vajrasphota.

Each of these stances are adapted from the Natyashastra, where they are specified as standing postures for male performers.

Here’s another panel showing one abhinaya performed by an assisting adept, and seven abhinayas that evoke seven goddesses of ritual puja offerings, performed by the Mulacharya, while sitting in the yogic lotus posture, or padmasana.

65. Abhayabhinaya performed by the officiating adept in the north of the mandala.

66. Vajralasyabhinaya, evoking the goddess of beauty, Vajralasya.

67. Vajramalabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the garland, Vajramala.

68. Vajragitabhinaya, evoking the goddess of song, Vajragita.

69. Vajranrityabhinaya, evoking the goddess of dance, Vajranritya.

70. Vajradhupabhinaya, evoking the goddess of incense, Vajradhupa.

71. Vajrapuspabhinaya, evoking the goddess of flowers, Vajrapuspa.

72. Vajradipabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the lamp, Vajradipa.

Many such  examples of the beautiful artistic traditions of the Newars exist. It’s a pity these aren’t better known.

Finally, these dance forms remain a vital part of Newar cultural life, as can be seen in this recent video of the dancer Raj Sakya performing the tantric text Manjusri-Nama-Samgiti in a Buddhist courtyard in Patan.

Nepal Trek Part 2: Up The Dudh Kosi

Continued from Nepal Trek Part 1

Although it is now the most visited region in the entire Himalaya, until 1949, Nepal and by extension the Khumbu region was closed to the outside world. Whatever little information existed about this wonderful land enclosed by some of the highest peaks in the world came from the prolific Sherpas. From the turn of the twentieth century, the Sherpas had been arriving at Darjeeling in search for work. At first as labourers and then increasingly as high altitude porters working under successive British Everest expeditions, by the 1930s they had distinguished themselves as climbers of real skill. Naturally acclimatised and used to the rigours of harsh terrain, the people soon became synonymous with the elite of Himalayan mountaineering. If you take a look at the significant early milestones of Himalayan mountaineering- the ascent of Kamet in 1933, the German attempt on Nanga Parbat in 1934, the ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936, the ascent of Annapurna in 1950 or the ascent of Everest itself in 1953- and you will find a bunch of renowned Sherpas at the heart of it all.

Mani walls on the trail out of Lukla. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Mani walls on the trail out of Lukla. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Sherpa people follow Tibetan Buddhism and soon after we start our walk there’s ample evidence of this in the intricately carved mani walls and chortens that litter the trail. Taking care to pass them on the left, we leave the upper ridges and start descending to the valley, passing through fields of wheat and barley, with the young river flowing swiftly to our left.

The Dudh Kosi valley. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
The Dudh Kosi valley. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

Crossing a subsidiary stream coming down from a deep valley to the east, we passed under the soaring Kusum Kankharu towering some nine and a half thousand feet over us.

The spire of Kusum Kankharu in the early morning sun-haze. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
The spire of Kusum Kankharu in the early morning sun-haze. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

Phakding is a short, two-hour walk from Lukla. We arrive a little before eleven, after a slow walk in the blazing sun, with much of the rest of the day remaining. And a good thing that was too. The first day’s walk is always the hardest. My legs feel like lead, and my much-abused sea level lungs gasp for breath at every little rise. Usually by the next day the situation improves. So I feel extremely glad when the red roofs of the Phakding Yeti Mountain Home swing into view under a rocky outcrop beside the river. Two smiling Sherpanis welcome us with warm glasses of lemonade and unending mugs of coffee and tea. Well, one could get used to this sort of thing.

The Mountain Home at Phakding
The Mountain Home at Phakding. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Mountain Homes certainly are lavish. In Phakding, the buildings are clustered around a wide courtyard. Inside the cosy drawing room, the walls are adorned with lovely portraits of Sherpa families and pretty decent paintings of some of Nepal’s famous peaks. Our room overlooking the river offers more luxury. Not least of which are a top-notch bathroom with a glass shower cubicle running hot water! I think the gratuitous bath and shampoo I enjoyed here has to be the first I’ve ever had on a trek. The electrically heated bed with its generous pile of blankets were beckoning, but we decide to go for a little acclimatisation walk instead in the forests on the other side of the river. But first lunch. And what a spread that is! Chicken sweet corn soup followed by spaghetti and fries and then a lovely buckwheat cake and coffee. If this is how one eats here, I might actually return fatter from the trek.

An hour’s happy scramble past a lower secondary school guarded by the eyes of all-seeing Buddhahood and Rimijung village’s potato farms brought us to Pemachoeling monastery, one of the oldest in the region. Surrounded by an old growth pine and birch forest, I hear the monastery before I see it.

Monks offer evening prayers at the Phakding monastery. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Monks offer evening prayers at the Phakding monastery. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

A prayer meeting was in progress and the deep thud of drums reverberated through the hillside. Inside, a young trainee abbot conducted the rituals under the watchful eyes of the head lama of the village of Nurning in front of a huge stern statue of Padmasambhava (the patron saint and guru of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism). Around the prayer hall lit up by lamps and surrounded by bright vivid murals of Bodhisattvas, local deities and row upon row of old manuscripts, monks chanted in rising and falling cadences, every now and then pausing to blow on the sandung and gyaling, or clash large hand cymbals, while a crumpled, ancient nun blew powerfully on a huge conch shell. The old couple from Rimijung who had requested the prayer were also present, sipping glasses of tea with their eyes fixed on the Buddha.

Giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava occupies pride of place at the altar. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava occupies pride of place at the altar. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

We wandered around for another hour in the forest under lowering skies, while far to the north floated the temple-like spire of Tawecho. Later that evening as we sit around the wood fired oven in the lounge and sip our ‘happy hour’ drinks of hot rum toddy and leaf through mountaineering books, Sonam explains out how camping has died a painful death in the Khumbu region. If the Yeti Mountain Home is on the upper end even for the wealthy Europeans who make up the bulk of the tourists in this area, lodges with perfectly good facilities now stretch all the way up to Gorakshep, the last settlement of any kind on the Everest trail at a height of 16,942ft. No one wants the rough and tumble of camping any more, certainly not the guides. And since the trekking establishment of the region only promotes lodges, camping has actually become a more expensive option. Retiring to my electrically heated furnace of a bed, later that night, I shed a quiet tear.

To be continued…

Nepal Trek Part 1: Plane to Lukla

I’ve made a bit of a habit of going for treks in the off-season. I never planned to do so, but that’s the way it seems to work every year. One of the advantages of doing so is that it’s cheap. Guides and porters come at half the rates, the trails aren’t cluttered with trekking flotsam, and you feel like you’re ‘out there’ somewhere, with just your wits to help you in a harsh terrain.

That’s an idle fantasy of course. In this day and age, there isn’t anything really life-threatening about walks in the Himalayan wilderness, as long as you watch your step and don’t take foolish risks. You might suffer with slippery rocks on a high pass, or spend days waterlogged but you certainly won’t have to fight off the bears for a dinner of boiled bamboo shoots.

Even then, when I get an offer to trek in the Khumbu region of Nepal ‘in style’, and what’s more, ‘in season’, I jump at the chance. After all, who doesn’t want to take a look at Everest, that menacing, squat pyramid of black rock that towers over all the other mountains of the world? And that’s not all. Apart from Everest and its sister eight thousanders Lhotse and Cho Oyu, even a casual stroll in Khumbu brings you face to face with some classic mountain scenery. And it’s home to the Sherpas, probably the most legendary mountain people in the world.

Flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla, high in the Dudh Kosi valley, somehow the idea of a comfort trek doesn’t seem so outlandish. The very fact that I am covering in a forty-minute flight a distance that not so long ago took a week, and that almost all my co-passengers seem to be retired Europeans, makes me feel many worlds removed from the modest joys of trekking in the Indian Himalaya. But what a flight! We take off from Kathmandu one cold morning, with me nervously glancing at the propellers of the rickety Twin Otter aircraft and wondering if it’ll hold up. I don’t like flying, and I’d foolishly watched far too many YouTube videos of wobbly landings on the airstrip for my comfort. But once the die is cast and we are airborne, there is little to do but trust in the nous of the pilots and enjoy the ride. My friend Puneet and I manoeuvre to the front of the plane so we end up with the much coveted left hand seats. We fly with the sunrise, towards a blood red dawn, over the tiny houses and streams of the Kathmandu valley.

Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Soon after taking off, the aircraft banks slightly to the left and the shadowy wall of the Great Himalayan Range falls into step. Soon we are swooping over high kharkas (grazing grounds) and higher aiguilles while the main range looms in the haze of the angled sunbeams. A little while later a deep valley appears bathed in a thick golden mist, and the plane begins a rapid descent towards a little sticking plaster at the bottom of an onrushing mountain, the Lukla airstrip. We have arrived at the Dudh Kosi valley.

Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

A smooth landing and cries of “Bravo” from assorted passengers later, we are found in the melee of porters and baggage by our guide for the trip, Sonam Tenzing Sherpa, a young, affable man in his late twenties. We are guests of Yeti Holidays, one of Nepal’s biggest travel groups, and Sonam is to take us to our day’s stop at a luxury lodge on the outskirts of the small village of Phakding on the edge of the Dudh Kosi river.

Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Lukla’s airstrip stands on a long artificial clearing above the village of Chaurikharka, one of the largest Sherpa villages of the Khumbu region. The sun hadn’t yet escaped the shackles of the high ridges to the east, but across the Dudh Kosi, Numdur, a 22,000foot peak of the Rolwaling Himal was glistening in the sunshine. Further north, cloaked in cloud banners stood the southern face of Kwangde. Talk about arriving bang in the middle of the Himalaya. The mountains of the Khumbu Himal form an extensive elevated region. Not only does the main range extend in it’s normal North West to South East axis, here gigantic subsidiary ridges run down in a north south direction as well, enclosing the deep valley of the Dudh Kosi and it’s tributary rivers.

To be continued…

Studies in Form: The Hiranyavarna Mahavihar, Patan

Ah, Patan. The glories of this magical Newari city are too numerous to do justice. I could only spend a few hours when I visited earlier this year, but even after all these months, thinking about the place and its gorgeous Durbar Square sends a shiver up my spine.

It isn’t often that you get to visit a place this old and this richly decorated which is also a part of a living city. Under the shadows of the deliciously carved eaves and under the magnificent spires of its splendid medieval architecture, people sit and pass the time of day; children on the way back from school spend a few truant minutes, old men chat and lovers whisper. Although, historical sources suggest that Patan (or Lalitpur as it was previously known) had been a bustling town anteceding even the Kirata dynasty of the early 1st millennium AD, as well as the Lichchavi dynasty of the 3rd to 9th centuries AD (when it was called Yala); it was only under the Malla dynasty of the 13th to 18th centuries that the city saw an efflorescence in art and architecture, that remains even today. The historical part of the town, with its centre at the Durbar Square is a marvellous warren of medieval wooden houses and linked courtyards, punctuated by intricately carved water reservoirs called hiti.

Too numerous are the wonders of Patan, so I will restrict myself to just one, the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara, or the Kwa Baha- a Buddhist monastery more commonly known as the Golden Temple. It is one of the older extant temples in the city, dating back to the 11th century AD. One of the most ornate monasteries that I’ve ever seen, it is a temple of Vajrayana Buddhism or the ‘Diamond Way’, the great Tantric Buddhist tradition that began in India, especially in Kashmir and Bengal, but died out along with the great Buddhist universities of Bengal and Bihar in the 13th century. Some of its teachings and worldview survived in the mother country in the works of Saiva and Sakta Tantrics, along with the Vaisnav Sahajiyas and the Bengali Sufi tradition. However, as a living tradition, it continues to this day in Newari Buddhism.

Like in all Vajrayanic temples, the priests here are called Vajracharyas, householder monks who are the last Buddhist community whose liturgical texts are in Sanskrit. Echoing the final development in Indian Buddhism between the 9th and 12th centuries, the ideal Vajracharya is a Siddha or a Realised One. Like most of the main Newari temples, both Hindu and Buddhist, it is built around a courtyard.  Again like all Vajrayanic shrines, it has multiple deities representing Buddhist history at it’s three main stages of philosophical and religious development. There is the Sakyamuni, representing the oldest Theravadic origins, the Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana and Vajrasattva and the other Tantric deities of the Vajrayana.

The principle and non-Tantric deity, called the kwabaju, is Sakyamuni Buddha, is housed in the main shrine across the courtyard from the beautifully carved doorway. Before it is the ceremonial caitya arguably the most important object in the courtyard, probably older than Kwa Baha itself, with its own elaborate temple. This is a thing of beauty, with carved images of the five Buddhas as well 12 amazing metal-cast sculptures of various Lokeshvaras, some of them distinctly Tantric ones. The main Tantric shrine, this one to Vajrasattva is on the first floor of the monastery. He is identified with the Adibuddha representing the Absolute, but also as the ideal Siddha or Vajracharya. He holds the bell and the vajra or thunderbolt of wisdom, the chief symbol of the Vajrayana.

In Kwa Baha, there is also a Tibetan shrine modeled on a classic gompa on the first floor devoted to the eight-armed Amoghapasha Lokeshvara, one of the 360 forms of Avalokiteshvaras (or Lord of the World)  popular in Nepal and Tibet. Indeed, all around the courtyard, you can see sequences of the Tibetan prayer wheels, very recent in origin, which speaks of the growing importance of these Newari shrines to the Tibetan population, who first came to Nepal as refugees following the Chinese invasion. Standing in the courtyard, surrounded by Tibetans, as well as Newaris worshipping these Buddhist deities who first came into being in northern India, I felt strangely ecstatic in the middle of this modern confluence of a flow of traditions that has been going on between India, Nepal and Tibet for over a thousand years!

The other object of reverence at the Kwa Bahah is an old Sanskrit manuscript of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, properly called the Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita or the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines. Probably the greatest Mahayanic sutra, composed in India around the 2nd century AD, the Perfection of Wisdom is often ceremoniously read at the monastery for merit as well as for worldly gain. The earliest historical record is that of a monk called Ananda Bhikshu who first copied the manuscript to preserve it in 1225 AD. Legend has it that it was brought to Nepal from India by a Brahmin widow sometime towards the end of the 1st millennium AD. The goddess Prajnaparamita, a form of Tara, is worshipped here.

The entire courtyard is like a public art gallery, full of beautiful things which stand testimony to the highly advanced aesthetics of the Newars, from metal cast sculptures to ones made of gold and stone. Here’s a slideshow of the courtyard. (Press Pause to see it at your convenience)

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