Music of the monthSince the start of the holy month of Gunla on July 25 this year, hundreds of pairs of feet in Kathmandu Valley have got up early in the morning to walk to Swayambhu Maha Chaitya.
Since the start of the holy month of Gunla on July 25 this year, hundreds of pairs of feet in Kathmandu Valley have got up early in the morning to walk to Swayambhu Maha Chaitya. As I have classes in the morning, I reach the hilltop before 6 am only on Saturdays and other holidays. Waking up early and climbing hundreds of steps up Swayambhu hill, going around the magnificent stupa and historical temples, bringing the palms together, closing the eyes and praying deeply to the sound of hymns refreshes the mind.
Dozens of religious societies and groups from all around the Valley visit Swayambhu Maha Chaitya during the month of Gunla, chanting religious hymns and playing traditional drums. More than a hundred members of our Asan Bajan Guthi gather at Swayambhu and slowly walk around the sacred white dome chanting prayers. A priest leads the way holding a tray containing a lit butter lamp, flowers and rice grains. We start at the west side of the stupa and go around it and other temples and shrines and end the procession where we began. This process is repeated daily for a whole month. Men, women and even children sing the hymns.
After the hymn singing is over, we pick up our drums and walk in procession around the stupa playing devotional music. I have learnt to play the drum, and have continued playing it during festivals for eight years now. Every time I play it, a deep sense of respect emerges in my heart for the traditional instrument. A group of eight to 10 youths from each Guthi play their own rhythms along with flutes and small and large cymbals. Beating the drum on the left side with a short stick and on the right side with the palm of our hand, we walk around the Maha Chaitya in an act of worship.
Different rhythms need to be played at different times, like when walking around the stupa, walking down the steep staircase and walking down the street. The rhythm of the drums and the tune mesmerises a person whether playing the drum oneself or just listening to it. Legends claim that the Gunla drum has been inherited from centuries ago. It is said to be the instrument which was played during ancient times in the palace of Prince Siddhartha Gautam, who later became Lord Buddha. As per Newar culture, it is believed that this drum was the prince’s favorite, and people have continued to play it since then.
Whenever a piece of music is completed, the big drums fall silent and a lone drummer takes over by beating a small drum accompanied by a player on cymbals. The band and the solo drummer play alternately as the procession of devotees moves through various streets and courtyards while returning from Swayambhu to Asan. It is joyous to the participants who are playing the instruments, and even more to the viewers and listeners.