Around 50 years ago, Dinesh Tuladhar’s father grabbed his hand and led him to a gathering at Ason.
The 13-year-old boy was the star of that day as representatives from every Ason household had gathered there to choose the next Kumar of the community, and he was the only candidate.
Thereafter, Tuladhar became the Kumar or Kumha (also called Kumho) for the next five years and performed Kumha Pyakhan (a dance form) during Dashain at Taleju and during other important events at other places too. He lived as one of the living gods respected and worshipped in Kathmandu.
Normally, many sons of age five to 14, from the community, were pushed forward for that position. But, Tuladhar’s uncontested selection that year foreshadowed the dire situation the Kumha Pyakhan–the folk dance tradition–would face one day, with its existence only on papers and memories now.
The dance of the unsung living god
“The five-year period is long and arduous. One has to follow a lot of rules starting from having to wake up in the wee hours to take a bath and go to Naasa Dya at Nasa Nani Chok near Ason to perform nitya puja (daily worship) and offer light to the deity in the evening, without miss no matter the circumstances,” explains Tuladhar, remembering his days.
“There were restrictions regarding food as well,” he narrates, “Shallots, spring garlic, onions, and tomatoes were a complete no and so was black lentils and chicken. I could not sit with others and eat on the same plate. In any cultural bhoj (feast), we had to be placed at the top with thakali (head of the community).”
Not just food but there were restrictions on them travelling as well. They could not sleep outside their own home and travel outside the Kathmandu valley.
Since the Kumhas are considered gods, they cannot be overstepped by anyone while walking up and down the stairs. “During Dashain, we could only take tika from the hands of our dance teachers. And, even if we lose parents, we cannot grieve or perform rituals,” former Kumha, Dinesh, says.
According to Prem Hira Tuladhar, a Nepal Bhasa professor at Padma Kanya Campus, the rules were taken seriously. “If the child did not follow the rules properly, they most likely got headache, body ache ot felt dizzy. There is even a history of a child dying while he was a Kumha because he did not follow the rules. It is said that in 1975, the child who was Kumha at the time, the guru who taught him dance and the head of the Kumha Pyakhan Khala that looked over the management of the dance, all died because the rules were not followed.”
Dinesh, at 70, remembers that the selection was equally challenging. “I was the only candidate that year, so I was chosen unanimously. But, I still had to go through other steps of selection.”
“They performed a puja and led me to the room [with face covered] and then left me in a dark room, alone. It was said if the child showed any form of hesitation or fear, they cannot be the living god. I came out victorious.”
For the next five years, he lived a normal life around the year. But during the Dashain festival, he used to come out as the living god and perform till midnight.
For him, two of the memorable moments during his time as the living god were an earthquake in January 1962 and his visit to Narayanhiti Palace to perform for the king. “I do not remember the occasion, but it was on the king’s request.”
Known, unknown details
Though it is not clear how and when exactly Kumha Pyakhan started, its role and characteristics suggest that the dance is about as old as the Taleju temple. The Kumha Pyakhan has two main components; Kumha and Daitya.
A Kumha (embodiment of Ratnaketu Bodhisattva) is chosen from among adolescent boys under 14 years of age in the Tuladhar clan of Ason and Kansakaar clan of Keltole while a Daitya (embodiment of Chandraketu Bodhisattva) is chosen from the Shakya clan from Om Bahal.
“Kumha is the deity responsible for the protection of Goddess Taleju from ‘maar’ or harm inflicted by beings coming from the sky. Likewise, the Daitya protects the goddess from beings coming from the earth and underworld with his khadga (a type of sword),” shares Prem Hira. It is said they draw their powers from Bajrayana Buddhism practices.
Together, they perform dance on the seventh day of Dashain when Goddess Taleju [in the form of kalash, a water container] comes down from the temple [Kwaaha Bijaayegu] and again on the morning of the tenth day [of Chhaalan] when Goddess Taleju goes back, up to the temple [Thaaha Bijaayegu]. The two deities flanked the goddess, Kumha on the right dabali and Daitya on the left dabali, at the bottom of Taleju temple.
On the days when the two boys would come out as living gods, they would first perform their nitya puja, go to their respective gurus’ houses, dress in the traditional attires, perform another ceremonial puja and go from places to places, performing the dance.
Starting from the Ason Dabali, Kumha Dinesh used to perform about a half-an-hour-long dance in the tunes of pyaetaa (long horns), taa (cymbals) and kutaa (three-headed drum) that told the story of his role as the protector of Taleju Bhawani. From there, he used to go to his guru’s house [at Ason], receive tika, and go in front of Janabahal Dyo and perform in the Dabali outside, then in front of Aakash Bhairav and then at Taleju temple.
“Together with Daitya, we would wait for Goddess Taleju to come down and perform the dance again. Once the ritual was completed, we would take the same route back and perform till we reached our house,” explains Dinesh.
Prem Hira Tuladhar, who has researched a lot on Kumha Pyakhan, says the history of the tradition, however, remains unknown, and there are not known folktales or stories on why it started. And now, she believes efforts should be made to know the details.
Given that Kumha (Kumar) and ongoing, much-celebrated living goddess Kumari have some similarities including their connection with Goddess Taleju, no concrete connection has been confirmed yet.
Prem Hira explains, “Surendra Tuladhar, the then head of the Kumha Pyakhan Khala, once said that there was a paper about Kumha Pyakhan drafted during the reign of King Prithvi Bir Bikram Shah. There, it was written that the tradition was closely related to the king and should not be stopped under any condition.”
The paper, reportedly, had also promised that the state would give money for the dance. But the paper’s existence today is unknown.
Extinct despite efforts
Nonetheless, there were five other Kumhas after Dinesh Tuladhar. As he observed, choosing a Kumha, however, was getting tougher and tougher every time.
“Given the hardship to maintain the rules and the money needed to organise the bhoj, it got tougher to convince people to bring their sons to perform as Kumhas. People just put the money instead and backed out,” he says.
Prem Hira Tuladhar adds, “Dibesh Ratna Tuladhar, the last of the Kumhas, started his reign in 1990 for five years. After his reign ended, the community searched for another Kumha, but they could not.”
Then, he acted as Kumha for another year, and another. But, when even after two years no one came up, Dibesh Ratna also backed out and it marked the end of the dance tradition [in 1997].
The management group had even tried to openly call for applications for new Kumha for the whole Udaaya community, a group of nine Newa castes, and the whole Newa community. But, the efforts went in vain as no one responded to the call. Also, the elders and the dance gurus objected to the new proposal.
When one Kumha finishes his five-year term, he also leaves his position with his performance. In a function, the child as the living god performs one last time. Then, the one among those playing musical instruments leads him towards the edge of the dabali (the platform). Here, the child has to fall down from the stage while his maternal uncle catches him, wraps him in a white cloth and takes him home.
“In the Kumha Pyakhan tradition, it only meant that the god left the stage although generally, we wrap people in white cloth only after one is dead,” Prem Hira explains, “Hence, for parents to wrap their living boy in a white cloth was not favourable. So, it also became one of the reasons why parents were hesitant.”
Despite that, the Khala tried to convince people that the dance was an intangible form of the community’s heritage that one had to protect. It even promised the family Rs 100,000 per annum to cover the expense, a scholarship for the boy to study, and incentives during Dashain to hold the bhoj. “They advertised this on papers as well but could not get anyone to come,” the scholar adds.
Today, the physical existence of the Kumha Pyakhan is at the Udaaya Museum in Ason only, where one can see the mannequin wearing the traditional clothes and read about the tradition and former Kumhas in brief. The museum says it is trying to revive the dance.
Although the Kumha Pyakhan tradition is ‘extinct’ now, one can hope that when the Udaaya Museum’s dream does come true, Kumhas and Daityas will be dancing on the streets of Kathmandu Valley again.