Preserving the Tradition of Patan:

The Astamatrika Dance


Min Bahadur Shakya


1.      Introduction

              Patan the ancient city is also called Lalitpur - The city of Fine Arts. The indigenous people are mainly Newars living in by clusters of Buddhist Viharas which stand jostling with many Hindu temples but it is the Buddhist premises which are predominantly in the City. Patan is also famous for its temple architecture, Buddhist monuments and its magnificent represents of various deities, most of the statues engraved in stone, wood and bronzes are created by unknown Newar artists during the Lichhavi (c. 400-880 AD) and Malla (c. 1400-1825 AD) Period. Almost all the authors who wrote on Newar Society found it difficulties to identifying Buddhists and Hindus among Newar populations. Newar people are fond of observing various festivals both Hindu and Buddhist alike. In observance of these festivals their spirituals motivation is distinctly visible. Blending of Hindu and Buddhist features can be seen in these cultures scenario. We can cite many features such as: Avalokiteshvara/ Matsyendranath, Manjushree/ Saraswati, and many other events which throw light on Hindu- Buddhist syncretic or integrative behavior among Newar population. This cultural harmony of syncretism is the life and cultural identity of Nepal. This cultural heritage has been a matter of national pride.

         Unlike Rama Janma Bhumi and Baba Mosque issues in India, Nepalese people never manifested conflicts among these two religious believers. Although most of the rulers in the Malla period were Hindus, with some exceptions, they never remained indifferent for the upliftment of Buddhist as well. Among the several events or festivals the dance of Astamatrika is one of the unique cultural events in Patan. The uniqueness lies not in the dance itself but in its integrative character and its impact on multifacet aspects of Newari cultural. People may raise the question as to how this cultural harmony which has often been the subject of interest among intellectual circle possible? What is the reason behind this? Casual visitors will be surprisingly confused to see the dance of Astamatrika i. e. Eight mother goddesses, tutelary deities of Hindus performed by Buddhist Bajracharyas and laymen (sorry no woman). Through this outward behavior of Buddhist many Hindu elates even began to propagate that Buddhism is an upshot of Hinduism. It is regrettable that this is a gross mistake. It is to be noted that the Newar people here profess in that of Vajrayana Buddhism which is the path of skillful Means of Wisdom. Use of mantras, sadhanas, yogas and various disciplines which are used in Hindu Tantric methods are although apparently similar to Buddhism yet in terms of their view or ground, path and fruit, they are dissimilar in nature. Apart from Deity Yoga, there are innumerable skillful means in Vajrayana Buddhism which are practices or used for the attainment of perfect enlightenment or Buddhahood. Amalgamation of Hindu deities in Buddhist pantheons is said to be one of the skill in means of Buddhist practice. Because in Vajrayana Buddhism one aims to attain perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Because of that motivation excluding any sentient being from one's domain of meditation is ridiculous for the Sadhaka. Buddhist practitioner utilizes these Astamatrika deities in meditation for averting obstacles and for the attainment of eight kinds of mundane Siddhis or perfections. In the Buddhist texts like Abhidhanottara Tantra, Kalachakra Tantra. The Worship, meditation and practice at length.


II. Origin and History of Astamatrika dance

           The dance of Astamatrika was introduced by King Sri Nivash Malla (1627- 1687 AD) who was said to be an emanation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Once he saw in his dream the congregation of mother goddess dancing in his royal court Mulachowk. To know the significance of his dream, he consulted one Brahmin priest Madhusudan of Gabahal Tole and Sri Kulapad Acharya of Nyakhachowk near Patan Gate. The King patronized the dance of Astamatrika by donating some land assets (skt. Guthi) for the sustenance of the dance to be performed every year. The king being himself a scholar and tantric, composed charyagita or song of various deities. And Bajracharya Kulapada arranged all the ceremonial procedures for those composed song and the dance in his Buddhist Tantric tradition. The musical instruments used for the dance is called Ponga and Pancabaja (fivefold instruments). According to Kulapada, these instruments were used by divine Kinnaras and Gandharvas in the heaven of Indra. These were perceived by Lord Manjudeva, an emanation of Bodhisattva Manjushree. He then narrated these events to his famous disciple Santikar Acharya who founded the Stupa of Swayambhu. Later Santikar Acharya instructed his disciple Bandhudatta Acharya who brought Lord Karunamaya Avalokiteshvara from Kamarupa (Assam) to Kathmandu in 7th century during the period of Lichhavi King Narendradeva. Kulapada Acharya being in the lineage of Bandhudatta Acharya had heard all about these. In the concluding ceremony of Astamatrika dance, Acharya Kulapada appended a dharma called "Belakha Huyekegu". In the dharma, Guru Kulapada Acharya tried to show the importance of Sadhana of Astamatrika for the attainment of eight mundane Siddhis which facilitates for the accumulation of merit for the attainment of Buddhahood. Sadhana of Astamatrika is described in great detail in Bhairabha chakra mandala and also in Buddhist Tantric Texts viz. Ahidhanottara, Kalacakra etc. For a tantric Buddhist, Kathmandu valley is said to be a mandala of Heruka Cakra Samvara surrounded by Eight Matrika goddesses and eight cemeteries. That is why Mme Mary Slusser chooses the name of her book on "Cultural History of the Kathmandu Valley" as " Nepal Mandala."


III. Ritual Procedure

        To began with, the participant dancers must go to the temple of Vajrasattva and take Refuge on Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. They bow to their Guru's feet and offer some offerings. Then with the elaborated music, the guru instructs them in the art of dancing in front of the temple of Nrityeshvara, the Lord of Dancing. Then on the New Moon Day, the participants must observe Upasadha- fasting ceremony for full day and treating them as eight mother goddesses and other deities numbering thirteen, the guru performs his Sadhana and rituals in the temple. Each participant must visualize themselves as one of the deities of Astamatrika and engage themselves in meditation. According to Kulapada Acharya the participants who play the role of Astamatrika must purify their body, speech and mind and must refrain from talking impure foods and the rituals should contain cereals and vegetarian items. So there should be no killing of animals for sacrifice.


IV. Purpose of Astamatrika Dance

           The dance of Astamatrika is for the removal of obstacles in the city caused by unknown evil spirits, ghosts and eight great fears. Besides, a tantric practitioner worships the Astamatrika for the attainment of eight great Siddhis, well being, peace, prosperity of the country and the people.


V. Need for Preserving Astamatrika

          As we have discussed earlier the religious integrity or cooperation, and tolerance among these people is the main thrust of our cultural heritage. The preservation of Astamatrika dance not only enhances the value of this cultural integrity but also its multi-faceted aspects of Nepalese society viz. music, environment, art and cultural.


a.       Musical instruments and Charyagita

          Charyagita is one of the unique features of this dance. Unlike other secular songs, Charyagita has a spiritual significance which is esoteric in nature and can not be fully comprehended by uninitiated mass. The charya dance and charyagita have to be performed and sung simultaneously and is considered in action. As stated earlier, the musical instruments used in this dance are  called "Ponga" and are supposed to be heavenly instrument, and the sound produced thus, has a spiritual significance. Visitors are simply astounded and delighted to see such a spiritual heritage in living form. But unfortunately these heritages in these days are really endangered.


b.      Mask Creation

                Astamatrika dance is also a ceremony that is ritually marked by a set of masks, which on this occasion, are worn and danced with. These masks have a continual life tone or energy. They are focal points of the Astamatrika dance ceremonies performed during Dashain festival.

             During these Astamatrika dances 13 deities are represented. They are as follow:

1.      Simhini    - White

2.      Bhairava  - Blue

3.      Ganesh     - White

4.      Kumara    - Red

5.      Brahmayani - Ash Color

6.      Varahi          - Red

7.      Indrayani      - Yellow + Ash

8.      Mahalaxmi    - Yellow + Ash

9.      Kaumari         - Red

10.  Vaishanavi     - Green

11.  Mahakali/ Chamunda  -Red

12.  Rudrayani - White

13.  Vhyagrihi - Yellow


             It is to be noted that each if these Astamatrika deities has a special temple in Patan dedicated to each of them and has  long relationship with local people who worship them regularly on different occasions. The Astamatrika performances render visible impact in an active and dramatic form loaded with spiritual significance which brings a sense of order and meaning to the Newar's culture in their socio- religious life. In Newar Buddhist Society, all the Chitrakars are Hindu Buddhists who are the makers of the masks and paintings of Hindu- Buddhist themes. They are artists who work within a relatively strict iconography tradition. They can not manipulate or change the canonical iconography details. It is to be noted that with the preservation of the dance the artistic tradition of making masks and paintings are also conserved.


Decline of Astamatrika dance

1.      We have already stated that the Astamatrika dance had continued to function since the days of commencement with the grants or Trust made by Sri Nivas Malla himself. It is known from local sources that there are as many as 39 guthis = 13* 3 in each of these locality viz. Nakabahil, Bubahal and Okubahal who supported in those days to take the responsibility of Astamatrika Dance to be performed every year. In course of time, Guthi Sansthan a government undertaking, usurped all these Guthis making Astamatrika dance paralyzed, Bubahal and Okubahal Tole ceased to take responsibility and only one locality 'Nakabahil' Tole is taking this heavy responsibility. It is our solomn request to the concerned authorities of Guthi Sansthan that if they can locate some of the existing guthis or lands it would be a great source for the sustenance of Astamatrika dance financially.

2.      Although Astamatrika dance has a profound spiritual significance and unique cultural heritage of Nepal which emphasis " Religious integration" of Nepalese people the concerned authorities have little interest to foster in its development. The change of government has brought no change in the attitude on preserving our glorious religious heritage. No one seems to be sincerely interested in these precious heritage. Who is going to take care of them? Of course, our cultural heritage is not only the property of Nepal but it's of the whole world. So it is not necessary to take some responsibility by spiritual tradition?



       The purpose of this paper is to present and diffuse the theme of religious integrity of Newar society. Besides, Astamatrika dance has special properties that distinguish it from other dances. Now a days in our changing modern society people are losing faith in these Astamatrika deities and even in the practice of their religion. Lack of interest in the study and practice of religion is one of the major hindrance. Besides, there seems to be no authority to take serious interest in preserving our heritage irrespective of Hindu or Buddhism. Another objective of this paper is to communicate the idea that by preserving these religious heritage many facets of this heritage viz. music, environment or artists tradition will also be preserved. These days, due to the advancement of Science and Technology, our world has become small. Heritage and ideology are not confined to one particular locality or country. It is not Nepalese or Indian cultural but world cultural. So it is the duty of all the concerned once whether national or foreign body to take care of these heritage to enhance our spiritual value for the betterment of humanity.

       For the preservation of these heritage three suggestions are made here:

i)                    One should explore the essential features of Newar cultural heritage historically and conduct a thorough research which should be presented to the public to create awareness through the mass media.

ii)                   One should analyze the basic conditions of the present structure of these vanishing cultural heritage.

iii)                 Concrete steps to preserve these heritage is a must for the future. The cultural heritage is not only important for Nepal but it should be the same for the whole world too.

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