The Music of Bhaktapur


15 Dic 2010, 16:51

The Newar town of Bhaktapur near the eastern rim of the Kathmandu Valley has preserved a number of musical traditions originating from the heyday of Newar culture during the rule of the Malla kings (13th - 18th centuries). A survey conducted in the 1980s identified 220 music and dance groups. Contemporary pressures are likely to mean that many of these orally transmitted traditions will be lost within the next generation. The people of Bhaktapur group themselves into 86 different castes - many of them performing on specific instruments and having specific musical functions during town rituals and auspicious lunar phases.

All music making is connected with the cult of the Lord of Music and Dance, Nåsa˙dya˙, who receives blood sacrifices during music apprenticeships and an invocation at the beginning and end of every music performance. These musical offerings are called 'dya˙lhåygu', 'calling the god'. By playing dya˙lhåygu, musicians activate the divine energy represented by the numerous gods and goddesses of Bhaktapur. Dya˙lhåygu is played either during elaborate musical processions or with group singing and ensemble music in front of temples and shrines. During processions, specially carved stones at street crossings, holy trees, a river, a temple or simply a framed hole in a brick wall (a flight lane for divine energy), may indicate a change of musical pattern. Thus, the urban landscape of the town can be perceived as a musical score.

Without actually seeing a procession, Newar people can tell from the sounds, which musician castes are involved, if they are going to or coming from an offering, what kinds of gods are involved, etc. During major rituals, the entire town becomes a stage vibrating with music and dance.


Dhimaybåjå is an ensemble of two to six cylindrical drums played together with two different pairs of cymbals, by farmers, brick-layers, carpenters and oil-pressers during ritual processions and private life-cycle events. The main function of this music - besides connecting the musicians with the source of inspiration - is, to create a joyous atmosphere where people are inspired to jump in front of the drums and dance. Large quantities of rice-beer tend to be consumed during such occasions. The repertoire is taught orally, with the help of drumming syllables meant to represent the sound of the drum. It is not uncommon for teachers to use spicy texts referring to sexual practices instead of neutral drumming syllables. With this in mind, young dhimay apprentices tend to learn the complex compositions in a short time. Newari language is rich in monosyllables, easily alluding to something else than the intended meaning: an endless source of fun!


Navabåjå is an ensemble of nine different drums which are played in succession by a solo drummer with the accompaniment of four different pairs of cymbals, shawms,fipple flutes and natural trumpets. The first navabåjå ensemble was founded by King Bhupatindra Malla of Bhaktapur (r. 1696-1722),who attempted to combine all possible sources of musical sound for the praise of his favourite goddess, Taleju. At the time, there already existed a large number of so-called dåphå groups which were attached to specific gods and their shrines. The dåphå-singers are people from the neighbourhood who gather near the shrine of their local deity during auspicious lunar phases, in order to sing in praise of the gods with the accompaniment of the double-headed drum lålåkh∞. Bhupatindra Malla himself composed and sang many dåphå songs which are still performed today by the farmers of Bhaktapur. The six most important among these dåphå groups were bestowed with an additional set of navabåjå instruments. They were also given land to finance performances, maintain the instruments, rewrite the song manuscripts and supply a regular salary in kind (grains) for the accompanying shawm-players, etc. These enlarged dåphå groups were named 'navadåphå‘. After the Malla kings were overthrown by an ancestor of the present ruling dynasty, the state of Nepal gradually disowned all these music groups. Without their financial basis, they are now unable to maintain their annual performance cycle. The younger generation lost interest in learning these demanding traditions. They turn to Indian film music and commercial Nepali popular genres.

Navadåphå performance usually includes an instrumental invocation and pairs of dåphå songs interspersed with three rounds of navabåjå drumming. At the conclusion a large decorative brass lamp stand is lit with mustard oil and cotton wicks in every little lamp, the flames representing the spiritual fire of devotion burning in the hearts of the musicians. It would take approximately four hours to play the entire navabåjå repertoire. In all these pieces, the solo drum plays the major and technically most demanding part and is accompanied by cymbals and melody instruments. The part of the solo drummer can be compared to that of a decathlon athlete, as he has to master all different playing techniques of the nine drums and know the entire repertoire by heart.

The nine drums are always played in the following succession: dh∆, kvatå˙, dh∆cå, dhimaycå, nåykh∞cå, pachimå, dhalak, kvakh∞cå, nagarå. Occasionally, two drums can share one of the pieces. This happens during the final navabåjå piece, where the pair of kettledrums nagarå alternates with the double-headed pachimå. During one piece, the rhythmic structure may change several times. There is little scope for improvisation: The drummer may alter the number of repetitions of a pattern and he sometimes invents so-called bvutå˙, decorative variants of existing patterns.

The accompanying shawms and fipple flutes are played almost in unison by two members of the tailor-musician caste (Jugi), with each player playing his embellished version of the melody - the total effect being a continuum rather than a precise melody. During the heyday of Newar culture, the navabåjå drummer used to be accompanied by four shawm-players. These tailor-Musicians are descendants of itinerant Kånphata Yogis who were allowed to settle in the Newar towns and live in public buildings attached to shrines as landless tailors and players of shawms. After confiscation of all land endowments to music groups, the Jugis stopped playing at shrines and this repertoire is now almost entirely lost. Nowadays Jugis make a living as part-time musicians playing marriage music in Indian style brass bands using Western instrumentsand wearing flashy uniforms. Their old shawms have left Nepal with the tourist trade. 

for musical examples visit Masterdrummers of Nepal

text written by Gert-Matthias Wegner


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