Culture & Lifestyle
Preserving vanishing culturesThe women in Dolakha have formed an all-women’s panche baja group and organised festivals to preserve Sunuwar, Thami, Tamang and Sherpa traditions.
A particular sight has recently gained popularity in Dolakha. In the forefront, two women play the narsingha (long, C-shaped trumpet) and karnaal (smaller trumpet). Others follow suit with damaha (large kettledrum), jhyali (cymbals) and tyamko (small kettledrum) in their hands. The lively music emerging from the panche baja has everyone in awe.
It is a rare sight to see women play the panche baja. In the past, women playing the Panche baja would come off as strange and unusual. But the women of Bhimeshwar Municipality, Ward 5, Dolakha aren’t letting archaic norms affect what they want to do. Twenty women have come together and formed a panche baja group. This all-women team includes both Dalits and non-Dalit women. And from what the villagers say, they bring much joy to the local weddings, fairs, and festivities. There always is a huge crowd gathered to appreciate their performance.
Traditionally, the panche baja was played by the Damai and Gaine castes. And that, too, only by men. But the men who play panche baja in the village are migrating to cities and abroad for employment. Even the younger generation of the panche baja playing community is abandoning this profession due to a lack of interest.
As a result, the beautiful melodies of panche baja's music were rarely heard in the village. “We wanted to protect the local musical instruments and their legacy. That’s why I decided to learn how to play,” says Amrita Thapa, a group member.
Thapa reflects on the grim reality that no young people in the village can play the panche baja. “Those born here intend to flee the town as soon as they grow up. We felt the need to protect these local instruments,” she says. Initially, there were people who weren’t too receptive of an all-women team playing the panche baja. In fact, Thapa reveals that some even went as far as to say that women should not be playing instruments at all. However, the women of Bhimeshwar Municipality revealed that they aren’t going to stop anytime soon. The group plans to work tirelessly to preserve the panche baja culture.
Despite mixed reception, a large crowd gathers to take photos and watch the women whenever they perform. “Traditionally, the panche baja was played by Dalit people. However, our group includes both Dalit and non-Dalit women,” says Babita Nepali, another group member, revealing that the discriminatory boundaries of caste don’t affect their purpose. “We are sisters who are using these instruments to advocate for preserving our cultural heritage.”
According to Nepali, the local municipality assisted the group by providing the necessary training to play the five-instrument ensemble. “We charge a certain fee whenever we are invited to play,” she says. Along with the preservation aspect, these women have embraced the panche baja because it also provides employment.
Whenever they perform, their outfits are coordinated. Everyone is clad in a black choli (type of traditional blouse) and a red fariya (type of traditional skirt). The members don’t just stick to playing the instruments; they also sing. The group is known for incorporating folk songs into the rhythm of panche baja.
“When we started, we were ridiculed for playing the instruments,” Nepali says. “We ignored them and continued to learn, and now we are lauded all over,” she adds.
The culture reflected in these traditional musical instruments and costumes has been lost as young people are losing faith in local culture and focused on searching for work in cities or abroad. “Our cultural identity is under threat due to young people becoming disconnected from their roots,” concludes Nepali.
Rejuvenation of lost cultures
The cultural doors were reopened during the Dolakha Festival in Charikot. From March 3 to 12, a cultural renaissance revitalised the entire district. The participation of women in these traditionally masculine cultural events has piqued a lot of interest within the community.
In particular, the costumes and dances of the Sunuwar caste, which were at risk of disappearing, are being brought back, thanks to the festival. The Tamakoshi village in Dolakha is also known as Sunuwarharuko Gaun (Sunuwar’s village). In the festival, women could be heard singing, “Tamakoshi salala, Sunuwar nachyo jhalala.” (Tamakoshi river flows freely, and Sunuwar dances excitedly).
“As many people are unaware of the Sunuwar caste, it is important to reawaken the fading Sunuwar culture,” says Kawita Sunuwar. Though the Sunuwar caste has its own distinct characteristic, identity, language, and costume, the lack of generational transmission of Sunuwar culture is causing the obsoletion. “But the women are stepping up to revitalise interest in the Sunuwar way of life,” she says.
“We are running a campaign to draw the attention of young people to Sunuwar culture. Even the Sunuwar community has lost touch with their own heritage,” says Bina Sunuwar, adding that the responsibility of protection has fallen on the shoulders of the women. She believes that women’s participation is essential in preserving Sunuwar costumes and language.
As there are no susbtanstial employment opportunities in the village, most of Sunuwar men have gone abroad or to cities to earn money. She believes that as women are the ones who stay back in the village, it falls on them to take up ways to preserve the cultural identity and language.
During the Dolakha festival, Charikot echoed with traditional folk songs from different communities. The festival celebrated communities such as Surel, Jirel, Sherpa, Thami, and Tamang. Dances were performed by the Sherpa women of Gaurishankar village. Young children dressed in traditional attire highlighted the Jirel community’s dance and costumes.
The women are also working hard to save the Thami caste's Dhyangro Naach (indigenous form of dance) as well as the indigenous Gaine Geet (form of song). They have taken up the mantle of preserving Tamang culture, singing and dancing to the rhythm of Damphu (handheld percussion instrument) while performing the Tamang Selo (Tamang folk song).
The women of Dolakha are an exemplary example of community members taking a stand to preserve their own culture and heritage. They have found different ways to come to terms with several societal changes—namely the migration of villagers (mostly men) to cities and abroad as well as the disillusionment of young people towards their own traditions. They came up with effective solutions that have brought back the charm of local traditions and festivities.