Prem Chandra Aduwa Shrestha, 67, is gearing up for hectic five days.
Every year after the Gaijatra festival, the small Newari settlement of Bode in Bhaktapur district, east of Kathmandu, gets ready for the annual Nilbarahi Nach in which Shrestha is one of the primary dancers and is referred to by the locals as ‘deuta’ (god).
“I have been the Barahi since 1958,” shares Shrestha, who became a part of the Nilbarahi Nach when he was seven-years-old.
Centuries old tradition
There are no written records about when the Nilbarahi Nach started, but the locals believe that it was in the 17th century. “We believe that it was started by our ancestors to make sure our country would be prosperous,” he shares.
The reason why they guess it is over 400-year-old is because they have found about seven courtyards belonging to different gans (groups/communities). “Every gan has one courtyard from where the procession started. This one is over six decades old and we have found around seven till now,” shares Shrestha.
The gans are responsible for hosting the festival. A gan has around 100 members that include various gods, gurus and people who play the instruments during the festival. “Along with me, there are a total of 19 gods and a band which has around 30 members,” he says.
The making of deuta
For the past 60 years, Shrestha has been dressing up as the Barahi. He dons the mask and heads to the procession. “It’s a part of life now,” he shares. “Wherever I go, people call me ‘deuta’ and after this long, I feel like one too.”
Shrestha shares that his early years were very different. “Life was different then. It was very strict. Our gurus were not like what they are now.”
Initially, his days were spent learning how to act like a god. “Along with the dance training, we were taught how to behave. Our gurus taught us how to conduct ourselves in public and told us that people looked up to us and we shouldn’t do anything that would question our integrity,” he shares.
But it is not easy being a god revered to by the locals. During the dance, he cannot eat anything, nor speak to anyone. Every year for four days, he is lost in a different world in which he dances for 12 hours a day. “I don’t even get to sit down. If I am tired, one of my family members gives me support though.”
The invisible power
Shrestha dances on an empty stomach during those days. But where does that energy come from? “Well, I’ve been doing this for 60 years. And if you are told you are a god for that long, you start getting powers,” he laughs.
“Before the festival starts, I get a certain energy. I feel like the god within me is awakening. It gives me the power to do what I do. People might feel it is fake but that is the truth. The Barahi gives me power and that helps me during the festival. That faith gives me energy and this is a reason why I still do this every single year.”
Challenges against continuity
Shrestha’s experience being the Bahari has been a good one, but he does feel that once he and the other 18 gods decide to end their time, it will be hard to replace them. “We did this because we had faith and belief. The kids today don’t have either,” he adds.
They had a hard time replacing a god a few years ago. “No one wants to become one or make their kids one. People don’t have the same faith and they think being a god is a waste of time because you are stuck here for life.”
Like everyone, the residents of Bode want their children to become something in life. Parents often feel that there is no progress when one becomes a god as their life is confined to religious practices and simple activities like farming.
“A part of me understands that because being a god means that your personal life is over. My life isn’t similar to the normal people of Bode. I have to act differently because people treat me differently and sometimes that is hard as I can’t enjoy life like some of the people I know do.”
He also feels that continuing this tradition is a big challenge because the mindset of people has changed.
Hoping against hope
But still, Shrestha is upbeat that this practice will not go away that quickly because after years of doing the dance, now he also feels that there is a need to document it. And, there will be someone to do it.
“Our ancestors didn’t do enough to document this dance and now I think it’s up to us to do so. In the early years even we didn’t bother, but slowly we are realising the need for documentation. We need to leave this behind for our future generation so that they can continue this practice,” he shares.
The Madhyapur Municipality is trying to help them in that regard. The Mayor last year established a trust where he has donated Rs 250,000 so that this festival can go on for years. He has also planned to do a documentary which they are shooting. But the documentation needs to be both written and in video, according to Shrestha.
Shrestha feels that being the Barahi is a part of his life now. He has been doing that since he was seven and believes the god chose him to do this. “If I look back, I have no regrets. This has given me everything in life. I was chosen to do this. That is why nothing bad has ever happened to me. Being the Barahi gives me strength, a power that I cannot explain.”