The biggest festival of KiratsSakela is not just a performance but a depiction of civilisation, identity and history
Today is Sakela, the biggest festival of Kirats. The main celebration consists of a performance by participants standing in a circle in front of the Sakela shrine. The divine and the human, and the myth and the reality come together in the performance which is a perfect blend of art and work in a celebration of life. Every ritual has its own distinct history. Similarly, the Sakela ritual has a hidden history. Why is the Sakela dance performed at Tundikhel in Kathmandu? There are three historical reasons and many myths behind the performance of the Sakela dance at Tundikhel Yalakhom.
First, as historian GP Singh has written in his book The Kiratas in Ancient India, the Kirat dynasty “ruled over the valley of Nepal from 3102 BC, the beginning of the Kaliyuga, to the seventh century AD”. After the establishment of the Kirat dynasty, the Sakela dance emerged as a ritual which is performed till this day. Yalamber is a Kirat ancestor who worshipped nature. Based on the name of this king, Kathmandu is called Yalakhom. Sakela is said to have been performed in Yalakhom since the Kirat dynasty. So Sakela represents the historical identity and civilisation of the Kirat Rai.
The second reason behind the performance of the Sakela dance in Yalakhom is given in Chemjong’s essay entitled ‘Kirat Tirthasthal Sano Hattiban’. “Sano Hattiban is a pilgrimage or holy place of the Kirats who live in Kathmandu. The Kirat community of Kathmandu, like the Rai, Limbu, Sunuwar and Yakkha, have been traditionally worshipping at Sano Hattiban since 1905.” These lines show that Sano Hattiban is a holy place of the Kirat people where they congregate and perform the cultural dance Sakela using indigenous instruments.
The third reason why the dance is performed at Tundikhel is given by Kirat Rai anthropologist and Sakela expert Tirtharaj Mukaram Rai: “At Sano Hattiban, there is not enough space, so we moved to Tundikhel”. The reason why the ritual is performed at Tundikhel (Yalakhom) is the history of the Kirat dynasty and the inadequate space at Sano Hattiban and Nakhipot. Kirat people from different countries of the world come here to celebrate the festival, and there isn’t enough room for so many participants.
The Sakela ritual was first performed in Kathmandu in 1963. King Mahendra had visited Bhojpur during a tour of the eastern part of the country, and the people welcomed him by showing the Sakela dance. He was so impressed by the mesmerising performance that he invited them to show it in Kathmandu too.
Likewise, according to writer and Sakela expert Prof Chatur Bhakta Rai, he and his friends first performed the dance at Tundikhel and then at Tribhuvan University and Shankar Dev Campus. Kirats living in Kathmandu became aware of the ritual, and gradually it became a tradition to perform it twice annually to expose the historical relation with Yalakhom. Now we can see swarms of Kirati people at Tundikhel to perform the Sakela during Udhauli and Ubhauli.
The Kirat people are animists who worship nature, their ancestors and the universe. During Ubhauli, they worship nature for a good harvest. During Udhauli, they worship their ancestors and deities to teach us civilisation. As Nepali litterateur Rajan Mukarung says, “Sakela is a cultural performance. It represents the history, culture, civilisation, identity and philosophical life of the Kirat indigenous people. It is performed in various sillis (steps). These sillis are an imitation of the ancestors’ tasks.”
The dancers re-enact actions like cutting the trees, ploughing the fields, sowing the seeds and harvesting the crops. Sakela means admiration of the main stream which helps to irrigate the land. As our ancestors were an agrarian people, they performed Sakela twice a year to express gratitude. The first event is Ubhauli which occurs in April. During Ubhauli we worship the mother land and the universe for the protection of the crops from disasters. The second event Udhauli happens in December when we worship our ancestors to teach us civilisation.
So, Sakela is not just a performance but a depiction of civilisation, identity and history. The participants imitate the movements of birds, animals, nature and the work done by our ancestors. The movements are shown during the Sakela ritual in front of the Sakela shrine in an artistic way.
Rai is pursuing a master’s degree in English at Tribhuwan University