Each of Bhaktapur town’s 200 or so music groups has its own rituals and functions. This is an account of how the members of one such music group tap the divine energy of the music deity Nasadyo.
It is almost midnight. The goat has been locked in the potting shed and we are waiting for our drumming students to sneak into the garden and steal the animal for the music God Nasadyo. Ganesh Bahadur and I have been training die six students for the past four months. They are young farmers from our neighbourhood who have almost passed their apprenticeships in dhimay drumming. As with all other forms of traditional Newari music and dance, musical apprenticeship requires die students to be initiated into the cult of Nasadyo, the source of musical knowledge and inspiration. In Bhaktapur, Nasadyo has a destructive counterpart called Haimadyo which is responsible for the mistakes in music. Haimadyo needs to be pacified with regular blood sacrifices lest the music degenerates into cacophony. During the learning period, both Gods reside in a niche in the practising room where they receive daily worship and offerings. Ideally, sacrificial animals are supposed to be stolen by the music students. Nasadyo has a weakness for thieves, it appears. Thus, a good drummer needs to be not only naughty but courageous as well.
It is a peaceful night, everybody is asleep. From the verandah overlooking the quiet garden, Ganesh Bahadur and I pass die time, sipping rice beer from clay bowls. Our dhimay students were too scared to really steal an animal, so we decided to stage it. The goat was purchased in the morning and carefully tied to one of the trees in the garden below our lookout. The students plan 10 use a small tractor parked by the garden wall as their staircase. It all seems too easy. After our third cup of rice beer, Ganesh Bahadur and I climb down, untie the goat and lock it in the potting shed. Just to make it a little more real.
While refilling our bowls for the sixth —-or was it the eighth? — time, things begin to stir below. The tractor emits a creak and shadows seem to flow over die garden wall. Then, a stunned silence. Eager whispers indicate a crisis conference. Where is the goat? Scouts swarm out to investigate the darker nooks of the garden. Then the bleating of the goat from inside the potting shed. Conspiring with the thieves, silly beast! The door is broken and muffled cries of triumph follow.
Here we interfere. I shout, “Kune su?”, Who’s down there? and Ganesh Bahadur, at the top of his voice, “Khun valaa!”, There’s a thief! Hectic activity in the garden. The goat scales the wall rather rapidly and lands on someone´s head. Neighbours open their windows and join us with stentorian cries. The goat has gone. A final giggle accompanies disappearing footsteps. It will take another two hours before discussions among the neighbours die down and Bhaktapur resumes its slumber.
Flight Paths of Energy
Early next morning, we gather in the practice room. A colourful procession is under preparation. There is to be a band of drummers to announce the event, teachers and students carrying puja plates with various offerings and last, but certainly notleast, the goatled by arope to its final destination, the shrine of Nasadyo.
Every shrine of the music God has at least one hole as the centre of worship, through which divine energy passes invisibly and freely, like music. Strangely enough, there are similar holes in the buildings behind and in front of die shrine, such that flight paths are maintained through several buildings, in some cases even beyond Bhaktapur’s boundaries. It is considered most inauspicious to block one of these Nasa holes.
But today, while decorating the shrine with offerings in the prescribed order, Ganesh Bahadur and I block the divine passage with a sticky mixture of yoghurt and beaten rice. Then I paint the face of Nasadyo on it with red powder and insert three tiny silver eyes. Now Nasadyo is ready to receive his sacrifice. A large knife is placed on the altar and I perform a brief puja, sprinkling water and red powder on the blade. Meanwhile, the goat receives rice grains, powder and water on its head. Everybody is waiting for it to signal its consent to being sacrificed. It has to shake its head and hair in a particular manner before we can touch it. But it doesn’t! Ganesh Bahadur sprinkles some more water. There! It worked.
Immediately, the beast is grabbed, lifted and cut. The blood splashes all over the shrine and our feet. The students carry the body around the shrine, leaving a bloody trail behind them. Finally, the goat is decapitated and the head placed on the altar, a burning wick on its forehead.
The time has come for the musical offering and the students squat in a row, facing the covered drums. Ganesh Bahadur and I offer them each their instrument, while they pay their respects to us and do a small puja for the drums resting on their laps. Some of the students have kept a raw egg ready for this moment. In order to overcome their stage fright, they throw the eggs against the Nasa hole, where its contents cover the offering, upsetting armies of flies which had made themselves comfortable.
The music starts with an invocation, called dyolhoygu, of the music God. Played correctly, the dyolhaygu works like a telephone number, connecting the musicians with their source of inspiration, focusing their energies on its divine flow and uniting them in ecstasy and delight.
The students play the complete repertoire without a mistake while their relatives and neighbours watch and listen with pride. When the music is finished, we are all decorated with great white turbans, red powder and flowers. We begin to resemble happy apparitions.
Meanwhile, plenty of divine power has accumulated in the yoghurt paste which blocks the Nasa hole. It is plucked off and distributed among all as prasad an edible blessing). Everybody feels hungry and thirsty and a preliminary picnic is consumed on the spot before proceeding home in triumph, where a real Newari feast awaits us.
It is the students’ turn to lead the procession. They play — still a bit tense, as everything is new to them — but with increasing joy. Their “coming out” is observed with keen eyes from the upper windows, wherever we pass. The girls of Bhaktapur have a weakness for drummers, and this will no doubt ensure a continuation of this tradition.
The formal apprenticeship ends here, although much remains to be learned, from experience rather than verbal instruction. How to convey joy to a vast crowd during festivals? How to make them all dance? How to untie a bunch of half-drunken drummers and make them play like fire? How to recognise when it is time to pass on your own drum to one of the extras walking with the group and waiting their turn? How to remain in tune with the spirit of the occasion, and how to tap the divine flow of energy that permeates all creative activity?
Of course, there is much more to tell about Bhaktapur and its various music traditions. What joy, what a blessing to participate in all this! Let us hope these marvellous traditions continue to inspire coming generations. It needs understanding, work and love on everybody’s part, but the rewards are unlimited.
G.M. Wegner is a German ethnomusicologist, presently helping establish a music department for Tribhuvan University in Bhaktapur.