Nepal in the Mahabharata Period, Part 30


Performance of Charya Nritya in Nepal
[ Photo: Core of Culture ]

Mar 11, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — The Yadava dynasty's presence in Nepal, and the events that preceded and followed.

The history of Visnu/Krsna worship in Nepal has been dated to the early centuries A.D. with respect to various temples and ruins previously mentioned in this series. At the furthest end of the timeline, we've discussed Sri Krsna's pastimes defeating Banasura and killing the Mura demon and Narakasura, and the subsequent return of the Yadhava dynasty to power. This places Krsna worship in Nepal as far back as the 30th Century B.C., some 3,000 years ago.

Outside of the Indian epics like Mahabharata and Ramayan, modern historians seem to have relatively few markers by which to chart the course of historical Visnu worship in Nepal. We have found few references that pre-date the Battle of Kurukshetra, although they might certainly exist, e.g., in the early Puranas. Following the Appearance of Gautama Buddha in the 5th to 6th Centuries B.C., the concentration of historical markers increases dramatically due to the prevalence of Buddhism in Nepal.

We do find some mention of Nepal in books on the ancient history of Bengal. For example, the anti-brahmin and anti-sacrificial ideas of Buddhists and Jains that manifested among the Bengalis evidence the fact that other strong traditions were established before the Brahmins came. Some historians suggest that for centuries, there was an open revolt against Hindu orthodoxy in Bengal. Buddhist and Jain influences proliferated to such an extent in Bengal that the codes of Manu, in their iteration at that time, prohibited the devout from having any contact with the land of Bengal. When Brahminism could no longer thrive there, many Sanskrit pundits took their sacred manuscripts and stole away to Nepal and Burma to enjoy religious freedom.

Left to right: Bhrikuti Devi, Songtsän Gampo, and Princess Wencheng
[ Click for large version ]

Around 625 A.D., Songtsän Gampo founded a powerful kingdom in Tibet. From his stronghold there, he led a victorious campaign into India, and this history is commemorated in both Bengali and Assamese histories. By the influence of his Buddhist queen from Nepal, Songtsän Gampo is said to have became favourable to both Buddhist and Vaisnava teachers, and invited the pandits to Tibet. Their historical footprint is found in various Tibetan manuscripts with Bengali alphabets.

Songtsän Gampo's Buddhist queen from Nepal, the first of five wives, was named Princess Bhrikuti Devi. Nepal and Tibet shared a close relationship during that time. According to Tibetan tradition, Bhrikuti was said to be a devout Buddhist. As part of her dowry, she brought many sacred images and expert Newari craftsmen with her to Tibet.

Among the many great structures these Nepali craftsmen built in 7th Century Tibet, Songtsän Gampo and Bhrikuti built a great temple known as Tsulag Khang (or 'House of Wisdom'). Now known as the Jokhang ('House of the Lord') in Lhasa, it is considered to be the most sacred temple in Tibet. Housed there are many of the sacred images Bhrikuti brought with her from Nepal.

As the inclusion of the Newari craftsmen in Bhrikuti Devi's dowry entourage indicate, Tibet was clearly influenced by Nepal art and culture. And as we have already established in this series, the Newari were clearly and strongly influenced by Vedic culture during the Mahabharata Period. Therefore, through Bhrikuti Devi, we see the Vedic influence going straight to the heart of ancient Tibet.

By the 11th Century A.D., according to the Tibetan book, Pag Sham Jon Zang, Bengal was a world leader in the arts at that time, and also influenced Tibetan culture. Traces of Bengali spiritual tradition are found in Tibetan opera, an old dramatic form combining song and dance that is reminiscent of Charya Nritya, a spiritual dramatic are still performed in Nepal and Bhutan today.

While considered a Buddhist form, traces of Vedic culture are fully present in Charya Nritya, not only in hand and body postures and scriptural references used in the performance, but in the very essence of this sacred art.

Charya Nritya, a Sanskrit term for 'dance as spiritual discipline', has been performed for more than 1,000 years by the Newar priests of Katmandu Valley. The art form is described as follows:

    "The deities are described in esoteric Sanskrit songs known as charya-giti ,which are sung as accompaniment to the dance. Charya-giti are sung in a variety of raga (melodies) and tala (meters) and are accompanied by small cymbals known as ta and sometimes by a two-headed hourglass drum, or damaru. The songs begin with a flowing raga, followed by a more metrical section that includes description and praise of the deity and usually consists of changing verses and a fixed, repeating refrain. Sometimes a dharani praise invocation, or mantra, is inserted near the beginning or end.

    Each dance embodies and brings forth a different Buddhist diety. The central purpose of the dance is to support the Vajrayana practice of deity yoga, or visualizing oneself as a deity. This practice involves a mental process of seeing oneself as having the appearance, ornaments, inner qualities, and awareness of the deity one is envisioning.

    The song and dance praise the transcendental qualities of a particular divinity while affirming the presence of those qualities in the dancer's body as it becomes an empty vessel for the revelation of the deity within."


Although Charya Nritya is said to have been performed for over 1,000 years in Nepal, there is apparently no record of when it first appeared there. The dispersion of Vedic tradition that was transformed into Charya Nritya may well have traveled from Bengal to Tibet and Nepal, carried there by the brahmin pandits who immigrated northward as early as 600 A.D.

In our next segment, we will look at a Nepali 'purana' circa 14th Century that shows the re-emergence of Vaisnavism, being written back into Nepali Buddhist tradition.


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