Standing on street corners amidst clamorous horns and revving engines in Kathmandu and Pokhara, young musicians play sarangis, a traditional handmade wooden Nepali folk instrument that resembles a small fiddle. Although the sarangi is today used by many, it was traditionally played only by people of Gandarva, or Gaine caste, as they are commonly known. The most famous of sarangi musicians, Jhalakman Gandarva, in 1962 produced the song, “Amale Sodlin, Khoi, Chhora Bhanlin (My Mother Will Ask Where Her Boy Is),” a narrative folk song about a Gurkha soldier’s final words of remembrance to his family as he lies dying of a wound to his head in World War II. Jhalakman is the first singer to record Gaine song and bring the voice of his indigenous people to the masses.
Today, Gaine caste members like brothers-in-law Sandu Kancha Gandarva and Bukun Gandarva are are working to preserve the culture of the sarangi. Hailing from Tanahun, the two were born and raised in a family where the sarangi was a way of life. Sanu Kancha, who is a founding member of the Gandarva Culture and Art Organization, left his village at the age of 12 and came to Kathmandu to seek his fortune. He made and played sarangi on the streets in those early days, selling the instruments to tourists for three and four times what it cost to make them. Fifteen years ago, Bukun came to Kathmandu to begin working with his brother-in-law ; today he performs nightly at Bhojan Griha Restaurant in Thamel, the backpacker area of the city, and gives sarangi lessons during the day. Continue reading
Crimson and saffron robed Tibetan monks shuffled into Shree Gaden Dhargay Ling Monastery and sat cross-legged on brocade cushions stretched in a double row down the center of the hall. Adolescent monks-in-training slid giant drums down the polished parquet floor to their older counterparts, while others took up ancient-looking metal horns that telescoped out to take up half the width of the room. As the monks tuned up their instruments I sat in half-lotus position with my back against the wall, arms stretched out with wrists resting on my knees and thumbs touching forefingers, marveling at the dissonant din.
A split second later, on some silent cue, the cacophony ceased and the monks began throat-singing, a specialized form of chanting that allows them to produce multiple pitches simultaneously. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as their guttural chants, accented by synchronous drumming, ah-ooga horns, crashing cymbals and tinkling bells, swelled to fill the small room. From the tips of my toes to the crown of my head, my entire body vibrated.
During a previous visit to the monastery I had been invited to return for this lama puja, a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony of honor, worship and devotional attention that attempts to replicate the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment (insight into reality). Many items of a symbolic nature sat upon the altar and were scattered around the monastery, including intricate yak butter sculptures that take months to carve. As water is a necessity of life, seven brass bowls of water were placed on the shrine directly in front of the Buddha to show respect and reverence for life. Because of their short life span, flowers symbolized impermanence and Samsara (the cycle of birth, death and rebirth), candles symbolized enlightenment and the sense of sight, while incense was used to show that Buddhist teachings can be spread across the world just like the fragrance of incense. To show gratitude and the interdependence of all things, fruit was offered. Bells indicated when to begin and end puja but also demonstrated the beliefs of cause and effect and karma. Continue reading