The Navadurga of Bhaktapur

The Navadurga Tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal: An Ethnographic Account



The following paper is an ethnographic report that describes the Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal. All data collected was generated through qualitative research means relying mainly on the use of observations and interviews with the tradition’s practitioners and followers. I collected all the data used for the composition of this paper over the summer of 2014 in the months of June, July, and August. This paper will first provide a brief introduction to the geographical area of the study and the tradition itself. The paper will then proceed with a section discussing the collection of the information followed by a historical account of the tradition and finally the tradition as it is practiced today by discussing the tradition’s membership, activities, operations, and relations.


Nepal is a land locked county in South Asia bordered by India and China (specifically the region of Tibet). Nepal is a country rich in culture, language, landscape, history, and religion. Not only is Nepal home to the Himalayas and Mount Everest, but it is also the birthplace of the Buddha, and one of the only countries in South Asia (including Southeast Asia) to remain autonomous and free from colonial rule. Like India, Nepal’s most practiced religion is Hinduism, a complex religion that encompasses thousands of deities, thousands of ritual practices, and even competing and sometimes contradictory beliefs. The Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur, Nepal is an excellent example of a Hindu tradition that is contradictory in some of its practices from that of mainstream Hinduism.

The Kathmandu Valley of Nepal is made up of three major cities, Kathmandu (the nation’s capital), Patan, and Bhaktapur. Kathmandu and Patan have both experienced rapid modernization and development that has caused the cities to loose some of their traditional customs, culture, architecture, and beliefs. Lying on the outskirts of the valley, Bhaktapur has managed to preserve and retain more of its traditional customs, culture, architecture, and beliefs than the other cities have. Bhaktapur’s population is mainly comprised of Newars, an ethnic group that accounts for less than ten percent of the country’s population, and is indigenous to the Kathmandu Valley and the areas surrounding it. A tradition important to the Newar community of the greater Kathmandu Valley, and specifically the citizens of Bhaktapur, is the Navadurga tradition.

Image of Durga above the entrance to the temple with flowers and feathers from the sacrificed chicken at Gathemangal ceremon
Image of Durga above the entrance to the temple with flowers and feathers from the sacrificed chicken at Gathemangal ceremon

The Navadurga is translated as the nine Durgas, referring to nine different forms of the great goddess Durga. To most of the Indian subcontinent Durga is the divine mother, presider over the seasons of life, death, and birth, the liberator of the oppressed and marginalized, and warrior.[1] She is often depicted with eight to eighteen arms, each of which yields a different weapon. Most Hindu deities wield specific items that allow for them to be easily identified. Durga, however, holds the weapons of other deities, including Śiva’s trident and Visnu’s discus, reinforcing her characteristics as a warrior and liberator. Durga’s power is representative of the feminine principle of the cosmos known as Shakti.[2] The goddess Durga is said to have as many forms as there are beings on the planet. Her many forms come in a variety of dispositions and include many female deities from the Hindu pantheon. Such goddesses include Laksmi the goddess of prosperity; Saraswatī the goddess of creativity; Lalita the goddess of light; Vajrayoginī the goddess of power; and Kālī the goddess of transformation and death.[3] Durga is not mentioned in the Vedic scriptures, Hinduism’s earliest literature. The Vedas speak of the goddesses Vac and Ratri, but neither of these goddesses is associated with battle or blood sacrifices, both of which are important aspects of Durga today.[4] Although the Vedas do not portray the wrathful manifestations of Durga some aspects of the Great Goddess are portrayed. The goddess Vac is believed to be an early representation of the goddess Saraswatī, who as previously mentioned is one representation of the Great Goddess. Durga is specifically mentioned in the Puranic literature, which emerged after the Vedas. The Puranas attempted to assume status as the fifth Veda, however it was unsuccessful and is now considered secondary Hindu literature.[5] The Devī Mahatmya arises out of the Markandeya Purana and provides a narrative of Durga’s victory of the buffalo demon Mahishasura. The Devī Mahatmya is the most integral piece of literature on the goddess Durga. Although Durga was not mentioned in the Vedas she has become an important Hindu figure across the Indian subcontinent.

The most widely celebrated festival in Banaras, Indias is for the goddess Durga is Navarātra (Nine Nights)[6] this festival is celebrated over nine nights, each night marked by a journey to one of the nine different Durga temples. More than fifty thousand Hindus participate in the festival each year.[7] The traditions of Bhaktapur differ significantly than the traditions in Banāras. A major distinction is that the festival for the Navadurga lasts for several months rather than nine nights. Another distinction is the use of iconography; in Banāras full images are created and displayed for worship, whereas the tradition in Bhaktapur uses masks that are worshipped when they are stationary and on display, in addition to when they are worn and move around. The use of masks in Durga traditions is a unique practice to Bhaktapur. Mask use, however, is not a unique practice. The Balinese employ the use of masks in various traditions and rituals, specifically when portraying the Ramāyana, a great Hindu epic.[8] The masks used by the Balinese are sacred heirlooms that are treated as gods; when they are not in use they are placed inside the temple next to the main images of the deities to be worshiped and given daily offerings.[9] There are several parallels between the mask use in Bali and Bhaktapur, mainly the reverence and homage paid to them and their ceremonial use. Differences between the use of masks is that the Balinese masks are heirlooms passed down to the next generation whereas the tradition in Bhaktapur begins each year by constructing new masks and ends by cremating them. Bhaktapur’s use of masks is a unique practice within Hinduism and is deeply established within Bhaktapur’s community.

Mahakali leaving the Navadurga temple on Sirja
Mahakali leaving the Navadurga temple on Sirja

Having introduced the region, topic of this study, and provided a brief contextual account of similar traditions this paper will now begin to present a full account of the Navadurga tradition of Bhaktapur. It begins by explaining the methods used in the research to generate the information for this paper. This is followed by a historical account of the tradition’s origins, and then outlines the tradition as it is practiced today. Specific aspects of the tradition to be discussed include its membership, operations, activities, and relations.

Information Collection

The information gathered for this paper was mainly collected directly from Bhaktapur, Nepal over a three-month period (June, July, and August) in the summer of 2014. Visits were made to Bhaktapur on a weekly, or biweekly basis to conduct interviews or observe various aspects of the religion such as rituals or ceremonies, preparation for such activities, or the daily actions of the members of the Navadurga community. The following section will discuss and reflect on the methods utilized to gather the information in addition to my personal experiences in conducting the research.

Prior to arriving in Nepal preliminary research was conducted to familiarize myself with Durga, the Navadurga, the use of masks in Hinduism, and Bhaktapur. This was beneficial in building an initial base of knowledge that became useful when talking with members of the Navadurga community, observing the various activities, and conducting interviews. The research in the field would have benefitted had I done more preliminary research on a wider range of topics. This will be discussed at more length in the end of this section. Once in Nepal research was done directly with the locals through interviews and observations.

Interviews serve as the main source of information for this study. A total of twenty-two (22) individuals were interviewed. Of the twenty-two individuals interviewed seventeen belong to the Navadurga community and the remaining five are citizens of Bhaktapur. The five informants outside of the Navadurga community consisted of a one local historian, two tourist guides, and two individuals who pay homage to the Navadurga at their various festivals and ceremonies. The seventeen interviewed from within the Navadurga community consist of performers (both dancers and musicians), priests, community leaders known as Nayas, and various other individuals who participate in the tradition through some other capacity. All but two of the individuals have asked to remain anonymous. Of the twenty-two individuals interviewed only eight individuals will be frequently cited. That is because these eight individuals were able to give additional insight into the topic that the other individuals were either not able to share due to a lack of knowledge or because they were not comfortable sharing. Included in the eight individuals who will be frequently cited are the two individuals who did not ask to remain anonymous, leaving six individuals who will be provided with pseudonyms. Table 1 presents information regarding the individuals’ experiences and base of knowledge of those who have been assigned pseudonyms. Information that was widely agreed upon will not be cited in this paper.

Pseudonym Gender Age Range Extra Information
Bibek Banmala Male 25-35 Naya in training, learning from his father and the other Nayas
Yogendra Banmala Male 50-70 A senior Naya
Dipesh Banmala Male 25-35 A young Naya
Roshan Banmala* Male 20-25 Performed as Duma when a child, comes from a family line of temple priests
Rabindra Banmala Male 20-25 A performer
Keshab Banmala Male 35-50 Priest and performer

* note: Roshan was also a translator

Interviews were conducted with the use of a translator and were recorded using an audio recorder. The interviews were initially based of a basic questionnaire and then evolved along with the conversations as they progressed. Interviews were conducted with either one individual or in groups of two or three. Due to the nature of the topic being studied individuals were hesitant to answer some of the questions or felt as though they were not educated enough to answer properly. Those interviewed were very concerned that they might misrepresent something or share the wrong information, making conducting the interviews very difficult. In fact, a month into my research I found that the information I was collecting from the individuals not to be consistent. After some time I had realized that when I asked certain questions that pertained to information that the Navadurga community regards as sacred and secret they would fabricate their answers. This was a reoccurring theme in many of the interviews, so much so that I decided to start my research again having modified how I approach certain questions and the interviews in general. For this reason you will notice that there are rarely any citations from interviews held in June, except for the interviews held with the two individuals familiar with the interview process; these individuals are Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha (a historian) and Kedar Raj Upadhyay.

One adjustment made to the way interviews were conducted was a change in the translator I used. Originally I had hired a translator recommended to me from a colleague that was not familiar with Navadurga. I believe this had a detrimental effect on the work I was doing, as the translator knew less about the tradition than I had. Following the restart of the interviewing process I was introduced to a young individual named Roshan [pseud.], a son of one the Navadurga temple’s priests. Roshan had recently graduated from with bachelors of tourism, was proficient in English and was very knowledgeable on the Navadurga tradition. He was also eager to secure experience working with tourists (although I consistently claimed not to be a tourist). Hiring Roshan had a very positive impact on my research by opening new doors and creating a more comfortable and familiar environment for the interviewing process; all of the members of the Navadurga community either knew him or were related to him. Not only was Roshan excellent as a translator, but he also proved to be a very valuable informant himself. The more time I spent with Roshan the more inclusive the community became of me and the more I was able to learn.


Observing the community in action and witnessing specific events provided an excellent source for gaining new information as well as to confirm information received from informants. During my time there this summer I was able to observe the rituals and ceremonies of Sirja, Gathemangal, and Ganesh Chaturthi. I was also able to witness the preparations being made for Dashain and the daily puja performed at the temple, except for the puja done in the sacred room that I was not permitted to enter. I was also able to capture images from all of the events I attended, some of which will be shared in Appendix A.


Reflecting back on my experiences collecting information and researching in Bhaktapur I can think of modifications that would have benefitted the information collection process. First and foremost this research would have benefitted from more additional preliminary research. Having only taken one university course on Hinduism the knowledge I poses is basic at best. Had I been more familiar with topics such as Tantra, gender roles, puja, and Hinduism in general I would have been better able to pick up on certain aspects that I had otherwise missed. The most beneficial alteration made to my approach was using someone like Roshan, someone knowledgeable about the Navadurga, as my translator. While I was conducting research in Nepal I was also working an internship with a local environmental non-governmental organization. It was because of this position I was only able to visit Bhaktapur on a weekly or biweekly basis. Spending time with Roshan made connections grow faster and provided new opportunities that helped make the most out of the time I was able to spend in Bhaktapur. If I were to repeat a similar situation in the future I would hope to find an individual as resourceful as Roshan.


The largest hindrance to my research was certainly the internship. I lived and worked in Patan and had to take the local bus out to Bhaktapur, travel time would amount to somewhere between three to four hours each day I travelled. The next time I conduct field research I will certainly ensure that it is my only project and that I immerse myself in the environment of my study. I missed many opportunities because of my internship, whether having to miss an event for work or having to schedule interviews. Although a common practice in the West, setting up meeting times is not a frequent practice of the citizens of Bhaktapur. Often I would meet an individual and have a brief conversation with them to find out that they would make an excellent informant, however, I would be on my way somewhere so I would have to set a time to come back and talk with them. More often than not, the potential informants would not show up to the meeting place, or they would come along at a leisurely pace while I waited for the afternoon. Had I lived in Bhaktapur and was able to focus solely on this research I know it would have had yielded significant benefits.


The Origin of the Navadurga

Few people in Bhaktapur know the story of the origin of the Navadurga tradition. Having spoken with the locals many are familiar with the Navadurga, their processions through the streets of Bhaktapur, and their use of masks and dance. However, not many are acquainted with the story behind the tradition; except for the Navadurga community and citizens who have sought education on the topic. Robert I. Levy is the leading scholar on the city of Bhaktapur and provides an account of the origin story in his book Mesocosm. This section of the paper will present the story as told by Levy followed by key differences and distinctions made by informants from Bhaktapur. The following is a summary of the origin story as presented by Levy[10]:


The Navadurga inhabited the forest Jwala, which was located Northeast of Bhaktapur. As people passed by, the Navadurga would capture them, kill them, and then drink their blood as a sacrifice to themselves. One day the Navadurga captured a man by the name of Sunanda, who was a Ācāju (a priest of farmer origin).[11] Unlike most Ācāju, Sunanda was an expert in Tantric knowledge and mantras (a sacred utterance) and was able to bind the Navadurga, restricting their movement with the use of a mantra. Embarrassed, the Navadurga pleaded to Sunanda to forgive them, and in exchange they would not sacrifice him. Rather than releasing them, Sunanda shrunk them, placed them in his basket and brought them back to his home in Bhaktapur where they were placed in a chest and received periodical worship.

Time passed, the amount is unknown, until one-day Sunanda’s guru, Somarā Rājopādhyāya (a Brahmin) came for a visit. Somarā Rājopādhyāya had a deep and intricate understanding of Tantra and had conveyed to Sunanda that he had not been worshiping the Navadurga properly. Therefore, Somarā Rājopādhyāya took the chest containing the Nine Durgās back to his own house in the Palisāche neighborhood, where he hid them. Somarā Rājopādhyāya worshiped the Navadurga in secrecy using Tantric bidyā (secret arts) and made sacrifices to them. The Navadurga were forced to dance and tell stories using the movements of their hands. Sometime prior, the Navadurga had informed Sunanda and Somarā that should anyone else see them they would be released from the spell. This made Somarā Rājopādhyāya act very surreptitiously; he told his wife to never look into the room where the Navadurga were kept locked up. One day Somarā Rājopādhyāya had left the house and his wife peeked into the room and saw the Navadurgas dancing. The stories differ in what happened to Somarā’s wife; some say that the Navadurga killed her as a sacrificial offering, others say that she was simply severely scolded by her husband. Regardless, the Navadurga, now released from their Tantric binds, escaped from the Brahmin’s home.

 Upon their escape, the band of deities captured, sacrificed, and ate a pig at the place known as “Bha: Dwākhā.” Upon his arrival home, Somarā Rājopādhyāya was informed that the Navadurga have escaped. He immediately began pursuing them and with the beating of a small drum and the use of mantras he was able to freeze the Navadurga in their flight in the upper part of the city known as “Swaga Lwaha.” Somarā pleaded with the Navadurga to return to his house. However, this was not possible since the Navadurga had consumed a pig, making them ritually impure and thus impossible for them to reenter the Brahmin’s home. Since the Navadurga could not return to the Brahmin’s house they made the suggestion that a pyākha (dance drama) be arranged where the Navadurga would enter into the performers, allowing for the whole city to be able to see and worship them. Somarā established a god-house for the Navadurga and commissioned to the Gāthā community the authority and responsibility of performing each year as the Navadurga.

An alternative ending to the story is given where Somarā Rājopādhyāya instructed one of his students, an Ācāju to capture the Navadurga in a spell. After some difficulty the student was able to capture them, he then placed them into a god-house in the district of the city where the Gāthā reside. At the request of Somarā the Gāthā cared for the Navadurga and learned their dances. Somarā taught both the Ācāju and the Gāthā all the necessary Tantric procedures they would need. And thus, still following Somarā’s instructions, the Ācāju and the Gāthā still perform their duties for the Navadurga today.

 The origin story as told by Levy provides a very thorough overview; only a few distinctions need to be made. The alternate ending to the story is reflective of the Navadurga community’s (Gāthā) perspective, whereas the first ending is reflective of the Brahmin’s perspective, minus a point or two. An informant of mine, Kedar Raj Upadhyay, claims to be the descendent of Somarā, the Brahmin priest from the story. Kedar makes the key distinction that the reason the Brahmin had to pass on the tradition, that is the responsibility and the authority of the Navadurga practices, to the Gāthā, a low ranking caste, was a form of punishment for breaking the oath of secrecy.[12] Another key distinction made is that Somarā had two wives, one Brahmin wife and another low caste wife, and some believe that it was because the lower caste wife saw the Navadurga that the tantric bond was broken releasing the deities.[13] As mentioned previously, the alternate ending provides the account believed by the Navadurga community (also known as Gāthā). The only difference in the story believed by the Gāthās is an element of predestination. The Gāthās say that while Somarā taught the Ācāju a Gāthā brought a delivery of flowers to Somarā, this Gāthā happened to have as many sons as men were needed to carry out the tradition’s practices, providing an easy solution as to who should assume the responsibilities and leadership of the tradition.[14] The Ācāju, or priest, is now called Karmacharya, a role that will be elaborated upon later in this paper.


Some additional points can be made about the history of the tradition that is not included within the origin story. The Navadurga tradition began in the twelfth century of the Common Era under the Malla dynasty, who reigned over Nepal for six hundred years.[15] The Malla were followers of Shakti gods (female), because they believed that the gentleness of the male deities could not protect their nation, king, and countrymen, whereas the dangerous Tantric goddesses could protect all three.[16] Bhaktapur had temples built in cardinal points throughout the city for each of the Navadurga, replicating the Navadurga yantra thereby increasing the tantric power as a means to protect the city.[17] Figure 1 presents a drawing done by Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha of the layout of the Navadurga’s individual god houses with that of the Navadurga yantra. Each point on the periphery is a god-house as well as the point in the center. During the period of Malla rule over Nepal tantric practitioners knew that divinity could transfer itself into wood, stone, and


metal so they began running experiments to see if the divine could transfer into the human body.[18] These experiments happened in the twelfth century and were found to be very successful. It is from this point that the Navadurga tradition as it is known today began.[19] Furthermore, an interesting component of the Navadurga traditions is the use of pigs in sacrifice. Pig sacrifice is not a common practice in Hinduism, animals typically sacrificed include, sheep, goats, chickens, and buffalo. The central use of the pig in the tradition and from the origin story also began in the twelfth century. During that period the Muslim Turks established a powerful kingdom in northern India around Delhi and began to expand their control over the area. In an effort to preserve their culture and traditions the Newars of Bhaktapur adopted the use of pig sacrifice since the Muslims think poorly of pigs and avoid them.[20] The efforts made by the Newars of Bhaktapur successfully preserved the beliefs and traditions of the Malla dynasty so that they could still practiced today.


Sacrificed sheep head placed in the temple of Nasadyo on Ganesh Chaturthi
Sacrificed sheep head placed in the temple of Nasadyo on Ganesh Chaturthi

The Navadurga Today

The Navadurga tradition as practiced today is an intricate tradition that relies solely on the tradition’s keepers, who have been referred to as the Navadurga community throughout this paper, and from the local patrons who provide their support. The Navadurga festival is the longest festival in the area, spanning over nine months and including many specific rituals and ceremonies, and encompassing several other festivals. This section of the paper will present the tradition as it is found today, first by identifying the traditions membership, then its activities such as ceremonies, rituals, and preparations, in addition to its relations and operations.



The first group of membership to be elaborated upon will be that of the Navadurga themselves. The name Navadurga refers to the nine Durgas who are Mahālaksmī ,Mahākālī, Kumārī, Vārāhī, Brāhmanī, Bhadrakālī (also known as Vaisnavī), Indrānī, Maheśvarī, and Tripurasundarī. Each of these goddesses has a dyo-chen (god house) located in a specific area in the city of Bhaktapur that together form the shape of the Navadurga yantra (figure 1). Of these goddesses Mahālaksmī is the paramount deity; she draws power from Taleju and gives it to the Navadurga. Mahālaksmī does not have a mask; instead she is represented as a silver repoussé that is carried in the lead of the Navadurga processions to showcase her superior position. The Navadurga tradition involves an additional six deities who are Bhairav, Sweto Bhairav, Śiva, Ganesh, Sima and Duma. Bhairav is the leader of the Navadurga and assumes that role in the performances. Sima (tigeress) and Duma (lioness) are the protectors of the Navadurga and accompany them everywhere. All of the deities aforementioned are represented in the Navadurga tradition in some fashion. There are thirteen masks who represent all but Mahālaksmī and Tripurasundarī. As mentioned previously Mahālaksmī is represented in a silver repoussé that is carried in front of the processions. Tripurasundarī’s representation is disagreed upon. Some informants say that Tripurasundarī is represented in the three musical instruments played, while others insist that she is represented by the Kolachen (human skull cap used a cup).

Kumari during Sirja
Kumari during Sirja


As mentioned earlier there is a specific community who acts as the sole authority and keeper of the Navadurga tradition. This community prefers to be called Banmala. Other names used for them include Gāthā, as used by Levy, and Gunkā. These names provided are the surnames used by the community. While a majority of them identify themselves as Banmala, you may also find some of the other variations, dependent upon how the individual’s forefathers decided to identify themselves.[21] The Banmala are a low caste group that traditionally farmed and sold flowers to the greater community. Today some still occupy this traditional role, however others have began to farm other crops such as rice and barley. The Banmalas are the tradition’s keepers; they alone fulfill the requirements of the tradition as well as occupy an overwhelming majority of the positions in the tradition. Other individuals or communities assist and will be elaborated upon shortly. The Banmalas provide all of the performers, known as Gana, for the tradition. The Gana includes twelve dancers and three musicians. In addition to the Gana, the Banmala also occupy the roles of temple priests (additional priests from other communities come to perform specific rituals), temple caretaker (known as the Nakin, also to be elaborated upon shortly), the tradition’s leaders (the Naya), as well all other roles needed to upkeep the tradition. The roles of Gana, Naya, and Nakin are restricted to Banmalas only. Should a Banmala marry someone from outside of their community both they and their offspring will not be allowed to assume a position within the Navadurga tradition.[22] As previously mentioned there are other groups or individuals from outside of the Banmala who assist in the tradition. Table 2 presents the various other groups or individuals who assist along with their respective role. These groups either assist as a whole or there is a specific individual from the group that is responsible for completing the tasks (those who are individuals are marked with an asterisk). Some of the groups fill very minor roles, specifically the Shakya, who interestingly enough are the highest caste in the Newar community but assume the least important role within the tradition. This is an interesting contradiction to mainstream Hinduism. The Shakyas are the highest caste in the Newar community, however, they assume a very minor role in the city’s dominant tradition. All of these roles listed in Table 2, regardless of how small they may seem, are important aspects of the tradition.



Chitraker* Artisan who creates the masks each year. This role is passed down from generation to generation
Prajapati The clay workers who provide the clay for the masks
Karmacharya* Sacred priest of the Navadurga who performs specific rituals. Such rituals include the puja at Ganesh Chaturthi and Dashain
Chaturthi * Also performs rituals and puja, such as the cremation of the masks
Ranjitkar Colour the sacred thread
Manndhar Musicians who perform at some events. Different from the musician members of the Gana
Joshi Newar priests who perform special puja
Sahi Kill the buffalo during Dashain
Shakya Repair damaged jewelry

* Note: the names marked refer to a specific individual from their respective community.

The involvement of the Banmala in the tradition can be broken down into four positions or roles. There are the Gana (fifteen individuals), the Naya (eight individuals), the Nakin (one individual), and periodical roles of assistance (number of individuals varies dependent upon the event). The periodic roles are filled according to availability and vary in their responsibilities. These positions are not dictated in the same fashion as the other roles of the Naya, Nakin, and the Gana. The Gana is made up of twelve dancers and three musicians. The musicians are responsible for playing the traditional instruments known as the khin (a large drum played on both sides), ta (small cymbals), and kya (large cymbals). The remaining twelve

The khin, ta, and kya (in order from left to right)
The khin, ta, and kya (in order from left to right)

members of the Gana are performers who dance and wear the masks throughout the festival. These twelve members wear the masks of Bhairav, Mahākālī, Vārāhī, Kumārī, Bhadrakālī, Brāhminī, Indrānī, Sweto Bhairav, Maheśvarī, Ganesh, Sima and Duma. Young Banmalas between the ages of five to twelve wear the masks of Sima and Duma.[23] The Gana occupy their roles on a yearly basis, although they may be chosen to perform back to back in either the same position or another one; the rotation cycle comes from a sacred book that will be discussed later in this section. Gana members have to follow specific rules while in their position; such rules include not sharing food from the plates of others except for from fellow Gana. They can not wear their costume or ornaments outside of the specified performance areas, they must always act in a respectful manner; they are restricted to only one meal on performance days, they must be barefoot whenever they are in their ceremonial costume, and finally they may not participate in funeral rights during performance or ritual periods.[24] When the Gana are learning their roles during the off months of the Navadurga tradition they are restricted from coming in contact with women, and must visit their respected god’s/goddess’ dyo-chen (god house) everyday to worship and pray.[25] The Gana positions are restricted to men only. The only position occupied by a woman is the role of Nakin.

The Nakin pouring water so the Gana may cleanse/purify themselves
The Nakin pouring water so the Gana may cleanse/purify themselves

The Nakin is a specific role that takes care of the Navadurga temple and performs the daily puja.[26] The daily puja is known as Nitya puja and the Nakin performs it twice a day, once after sunset and again before sunrise.[27] The Nakin position operates an annual cycle, each year a new woman will assume the position. The Nakin must live on the temple grounds and act as a guard to protect the images, keep the temple clean, perform daily puja, and take on additional responsibilities during various ceremonies and rituals. [28] Such responsibilities include purifying the Gana before performances and preparing for feasts that are held at the temple. The Nakin must be married. If she is widowed during her time as Nakin she will be replaced. The Nakin has more specific responsibilities over the course of the year than any other member of the Navadurga tradition.[29] The Nakin’s role is another contradiction to mainstream Hinduism. Women are typically not the caretakers of temples as they are not able to become as ritual pure as their male cohorts.

The Naya are the leaders of the tradition. There are eight Nayas in total who work collectively as the managers of the tradition. [30] The Naya are experts and knowledgeable about all aspects and roles of the tradition. They ensure that the temple has all of the supplies it needs to perform all of their required rituals, events, and ceremonies of the tradition as well as care for the ornaments and clothes and manage all of the performances. Such supplies include oil, food, animals for sacrifice, and all essential items for offerings.[31] The role of Naya is a family position that is passed from father to son. If a Naya does not have a son he will instruct his oldest nephew from among his own siblings.[32] It is unknown how the linage of the Nayas was chosen. Like the other positions, the role of Naya operates on an annual cycle; the number of Nayas who are active in their position changes each year.[33] Also like other positions, the Nayas selected each year is predetermined in a book that is kept secret. The Nayas are the sole caretakers of the unnamed book that provides some sort of mechanism for selecting the people who will fill the various roles of the tradition each year. The name and origin of the book are kept secret; interestingly though they are comfortable revealing its existence.

The Tradition’s Activities

The Navadurga tradition is unique in its use of masks, its mobility, and in its social roles. While wearing the masks, it is believed that the gods who are represented come to manifest themselves in the humans. This instance is an excellent example of an aspect of the Navadurga tradition that contradicts mainstream Hinduism. While wearing the masks the Banmala, a low ranking social group, becomes regarded as divine and assumes a position on the top of the social hierarchy. While wearing the masks the Banmala are believed to transcend the normal social order as well as normal human capabilities. During this time the beings are able to do things not normally done by humans, such as drinking liters of alcohol and eating hundreds of eggs.[34] While wearing the masks the Gana also drink blood from sacrificed animals. Most sacrifices to the Navadurga are pigs, however, buffalo, goat, sheep, chicken, and ducks are also sacrificed.[35] The concept of sacrifice and blood offerings can be found in the tradition’s origin story in addition to being a common practice in Durga worship. Of the Navadurga, Bhairav is the member mainly responsible for conducting the sacrifices. Some instances require Mahakālī to perform the sacrifice, and if neither Bhairav nor Mahakālī are able to perform the sacrifice than Varahi is responsible for it. This order is reflective of the order of importance of the deities and is also reflected in the order of dance performances. The Gana perform their dances in the following order: Bhairav, Mahakālī, Vārāhī, Badrakālī, Kumārī, Maheśvarī, Brāhmanī, Ganesh, Indrānī, Sima, Duma, and finally Sweto Bhairav.[36] The Navadurga tradition follows an annual cyclical pattern that begins with Gathemangal.

Dance performance during Ganesh Chaturthi
Dance performance during Ganesh Chaturthi

Gathemangal is a Newar festival that is dedicated to cleansing away demons. Constructing figures built from straw, to represent the demons, and then burning them removes the demons. The festival is marked with loud music and processions of people carrying torches through the streets to light the straw built demons at each cross-road. For the Banmalas this day marks the beginning of the new Navadurga cycle. Every year new masks are made at the beginning of the Navadurga cycle and then cremated at the end. When the masks are cremated the city of Bhaktapur believes that the Navadurga has left their city to go into the countryside to ensure that the agricultural cycle begins.[37] During this time while the Navadurga are away the city becomes occupied with demons. On Gathemangal the Prajapati provide the Banmala with the clay that is used to build the masks.[38] In turn the Banmala take this clay to the Chitraker’s home to be worshiped as Śiva and sacrifice a chicken as an offering.[39] This marks the beginning of the construction of the new masks and the return of the Navadurga to Bhaktapur, which is why the city is being cleansed from demons. The masks need to be completed by Dashain, which is less than two months away. Gathemangal happens in accordance with the lunar calendar and marks the start of a rigorous training period for the Gana.[40] During this training period the Gana have to adhere to the rules listed above under membership and must perform puja at their respective god’s house each day.[41]

Image A - The Karmacharya and one of the Naya performing a ritual before the performance during Ganesh Chaturthi
The Karmacharya and one of the Naya performing a ritual before the performance during Ganesh Chaturthi

The next annual event is Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival dedicated to Ganesh. The Navadurga have their own event that coincides with this festival. At this time the Gana make a procession from the Navadurga temple to the Nasadyo temple where the Karmacharya will perform the ritual and sacrifice a sheep. Nasadyo is a tantric god of wisdom and knowledge that is worshiped by the Gana everyday from the period of Gathemangal to Dashain so that they may be granted the knowledge necessary to perform their roles.[42] Following the sacrifice of the sheep all Gana members eat a piece of the raw flesh combined with beaten rice. The Gana who performs as Brāhmanī takes a piece of the sacrificed sheep to the Brāhmanī temple to performs a specific puja ritual. After these rites have been completed all of the Gana members return to the Navadurga temple where a feast is being prepared. The sacrificed sheep is butchered and cooked for the feast and the sheep’s hide is removed, stretched, and framed and placed in the sun to dry. The temple will use the sheep hide for some task, such as to repair a damaged drum.[43] Following the feast the Gana perform their first dance of the season. This is the only dance that the Gana perform in public that they do not use their masks for, since the masks have not yet been completed. These dances are not expected to be perfect, since it is some Gana’s very first public performance. Each performer will perform an independent dance, except for Indrānī, Sima, and Duma who all perform together. Following these dances a group number is performed in honour of Ganesh, with the Ganesh Gana in the center.[44]

The next event in the annual cycle is Dashain, the largest Durga festival. By this time the Chitraker will have completed the masks and they are placed on display on the ninth day of Dashain where the citizens of Bhaktapur come to give them offerings and puja.[45]Offerings typically consist of egg, fish, meat, wine, and set Newar food dishes (beaten rice, dal, and spicy potatoes).[46] Before the masks are displayed they are taken to the Taleju temple in the palace compound (Durbar Square) of Bhaktapur where they receive initiation rituals.[47] These rituals are unknown as the members of the Banmala would not share this information; they did however say that the masks received similar initiation rituals as Hindu people. Following their initiation the masks are then regarded as divine and set out to be worshipped by the public.[48] On the tenth day of Dashain Brāhmanī is worshiped in the morning and then a buffalo is sacrificed at the Brāhmanī temple.[49] Following the sacrifice the Navadurga make a procession towards the Taleju temple in Durbar Square. Prior to making the procession the Karmacharya hands each performer their masks, symbolic of the Karmacharya’s, or Ācāju’s, role in capturing and placing the Navadurga into the care of the Banmala.[50] The Taleju image is removed from the temple and placed at the front gate to greet the Navadurga.[51] Having greeted the Navadurga the Taleju image is then taken on procession with them throughout Bhaktapur; this is the only time that the Taleju image is removed from the temple.[52]

Following Dashain the Navadurga Gana journey around the Kathmandu Valley where they perform specific rituals in each community they pass through in addition to being commissioned by patrons to come perform private rituals.[53] The Navadurga travel to the following destinations:

Bhaktapur District: Suryamadhi, Dattatraya, Kwathandu, Gacchen, Golmadhi, Taumadhi, Barahisthan, Yacchen, Talako, Itachhen, Durbar Square, Khauma, Changu Narayan, Sanga, and Thimi.

Kathmandu District: Deupata (Pashupati Nath), Tokha, Gokarna, Hadiguan (every twelve years), and Sakhu.

Kavre District: Nala, Banepa, Dhulikhel, Panauti, and Shreekhandapur.

The Navadurga are prohibited from using vehicles. Instead they walk everywhere; they go with bare feet. It is believed that they cleanse the areas they walk through from disease, which is why they must walk everywhere.[54]

After visiting the surrounding areas and performing their rituals at each one the Navadurga season begins to come to an end. Sirja and De-chā-mukego, the last supper and last ceremony, mark the conclusion of the Navadurga season. The De-chā-mukego is the final procession of the Navadurga through Bhaktapur that ends at the Taleju temple.[55] Within the temple compound the Navadurga have their last supper (Sirja) and then return to each of their own respective god house.[56] The next day the masks are cremated at the Brāhmanī temple funeral pyres. The cremation marks the end of the annual Navadurga cycle and it is believed that the goddesses have left Bhaktapur to attend to the fields, crops, and farmers.[57] After the Navadurga have left the city compound a sacred room in the Navadurga temple is sealed off until the Navadurga return, in the next two to three months.[58] After this point the Banmala community begins to train the new Gana and prepare for the next annual cycle.

Relations Between the Locals and the Navadurga

The Navadurga of Bhaktapur are the city’s protectors from violence, disasters, disease, and illness in addition to ensuring agricultural prosperity.[59] The Navadurga dance is a symbolic representation of the struggles, responsibilities, and discipline of the society in which it is based. A common belief in Bhaktapur is that the ringing sounds of the music played by the Navadurga Gana not only give the rhythmic signals to the dancers but also removes all obstacles caused by evil beings.[60] It is for this reason that the Navadurga perform in so many communal areas throughout the Kathmandu Valley. The local people not only believe that the Navadurga remove obstacles and illness, but also that they answer wishes and provide blessings for those who worship them and give them offerings.[61] Those who give the Navadurga money receive Prasad, a gift, in the form of flowers, plants, sacred thread, or food. The sacred thread is tied around the wrist and/or the neck using a specific knot according to tantric beliefs to grant the individual purity in their life.[62] One informant’s grandmother stated that the Navadurga also assist in the digestive system. She recommended that you be careful about what and how much you eat during the months when the Navadurga have left the city. The relationship with the Navadurga and the local populations is of reciprocal nature. While the locals rely on the Navadurga for protection and as removers of obstacles and illnesses, the Navadurga rely on the locals for financial, social, and physical support. The local community donates the clothes worn by the Gana and the Gana must keep and use these clothes until new ones are donated.[63] It is believed that the clothes hold Shakti power which would be lost if the clothes were washed, therefore the clothes remain unwashed and unchanged until the community provides new ones. It is typical for the outfits to be worn for years before they are replaced.[64] While the Navadurga protects the locals they in turn are also in need of protection. Although the Navadurga are gods, they posses the bodies of humans during the Navadurga rituals and become vulnerable. On several instances the Navadurga Gana have been attacked or stolen from while wearing the masks, resulting in broken bones, lost artifacts, and offended deities.[65] The Navadurga rely on the local people and authorities to ensure that the spaces they occupy for their rituals remain safe and sacred.[66] The Navadurga tradition as operated by the Banmala relies heavily on the local community for financial support in order to maintain the traditions as it is practiced today.

Challenges Experienced

The Navadurga tradition relies heavily on its patrons for financial support. The tradition costs approximately 900,000 NRS (Nepali Rupees) per year, without accounting for inflation, which is equal to $10, 537.41 CAD (at an exchange rate of $1 CAD to 85.41 NRS).[67] While this amount seems small from a western perspective, it is a large sum for the people of Nepal. Most of the community members are labourers and a labourer’s salary may range from $80-$250 CAD per month. This total covers the maintenance of the temple, the daily necessities (such as oil for the lamps), the supplies for specific rituals, and animals for sacrifice.[68] The Navadurga make a small earning by renting a few small pieces of property either for farming or in the city to be used for small storage spaces or stores.[69] The remainder amount of the costs is collected throughout the Navadurga festivals from either privately commissioned rituals or from the crowds of people at Navadurga ceremonies and events. The members of the Navadurga tradition do not receive any monetary compensation for their roles.[70] This places a huge strain on the members of the tradition since the various roles last for a whole year when one includes training periods. Members are permitted to work when they are not training or performing. However, the type of work they can do is limited due to the demanding schedule of the tradition and the odd hours it requires. These strains cause a lot of Banmala to remove themselves from the tradition and focus on earning a living and providing for their families.[71] Modernization and westernization are challenges and obstacles faced by the Navadurga tradition. In years past the tradition had the patronage of the royal family, which secured the tradition and brought with it ample support. However, today the government of Nepal does not provide any subsidies or support for religious traditions.[72] Modernization also has effects on the individual and collective values. In past periods the sacred was closely aligned with people’s values, and the positions in the Navadurga tradition would have carried prestigious value. However, today values are beginning to be reflective of the western practice of materialism, which lures the Banmala towards jobs, and positions that do not allow for them to commit the time necessary for being an active member of the tradition.


This paper has presented a report of the Navadurga, a Hindu tradition from Bhaktapur, Nepal. The Navadurga employ interesting and unique practices not present in other traditions. Such practices include mobile deities, the use of masks, an integral female position, and a unique inversion of social roles. It is interesting how interdependent the Navadurga and Newar community of the Kathmandu Valley are. The Navadurga are just as much reliant on the community as the community relies on them. The Banmala have managed to preserve the ancient Navadurga practices due to their rigorous dedication. Although they face many strains I am hopeful that the tradition will remain for many more generations in to the future.

I would like to thank the University of Lethbridge for providing me with the opportunity to travel to Nepal and experience this amazing tradition. I have learned and grown from this experience in countless ways and know that this growth will benefit me in my future endeavors. I would also like to thank my Professor Dr. Hillary Rodrigues for believing in my capabilities and helping me make this all possible. Finally I owe a lot of gratitude to the Banmala for allowing me to conduct this research and for welcoming me into their community and sharing their stories with me. I will cherish the memories built throughout this experience for the rest of my life. Thank you.

End Notes

[1] Laura Amazzone, Goddess Durgā and Sacred Female Power (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2010), 3.

[2] Amazzone, Durgā and Sacred Female, 4.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Nilima Chitgopekar, The Book of Durga (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2003), 59.

[5] Chitgopekar, Boof of Durga, 63.

[6] Hillary Rodrigues, “Divine Times: Goddess worship in Banāras,” in Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed Hillary P Rodrigues (New York: Routledge, 2011), 131.

[7] Rodrigues, Divine Times, 133.

[8] Hildred Geertz, The Life of a Balinese Temple (Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press. 2004), 57.

[9] Geertz, Balinese, 56.

[10] Robert I. Levy, Mesocosm (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 503-505.

[11] Niels Gutschow, “The Astamātrkā and Navadurgā of Bhaktapur.” In Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal, ed. Axel Michaels, Cornelia Vogelsanger, and Annette Wilke (Berlin: Peter Lang, 1994) 194.

[12] Kedar Raj Upadhyay (Brahmin priest, descendant of Somarā), in discussion with the author, June 18, 2014.

[13] Dipesh Banmala [pseud.], in discussion with the author, July 6, 2014.

[14] Bibek Banmala [pseud.], in discussion with the author, July 16, 2014.

[15] Dr. Purushottam Lochan Shrestha (a historian), in discussion with the author, June 11, 2014.

[16] Dr. Shrestha, June 11, 2014.

[17] Information from multiple sources

[18] Dr. Shrestha, June 11, 2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Bibek Banmala [pseud.], July 16, 2014.

[22] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], July 29, 2014.

[23] During my time in Bhaktapur these roles were played by the youngest boys anyone could remember, they were aged five and seven.

[24] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], August 29, 2014.

[25] Ibid., July 29, 2014.

[26] Kedar Raj Upadhyay, July 27, 2014.

[27] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], August 8, 2014.

[28] Ibid., July 9, 2014.

[29] Keshab Banmala [pseud.], in discussion with the author, July 9, 2014.

[30] Yogendra Banmala [pseud.], in discussion with the author, July 15, 2014.

[31] Yogendra Banmala [pseud.], July 15, 2014.

[32] Yogendra Banmala, July 15, 2014.

[33] Dipesh Banmala [pseud.], July 6, 2014.

[34] Dr. Shrestha, June 11, 2014.

[35] Kedar Raj Upadhyay, June 18, 2014.

[36] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], August 29, 2014.

[37] Consensus from multiple informants.

[38] Dr. Shrestha, June 11, 2014.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Yogendra Banmala [pseud.], July 27, 2014.

[41] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], August 29, 2014.

[42] Keshab Banmala [pseud.], August 6, 2014.

[43] Keshab Banmala [pseud.], August 9, 2014.

[44] Rabindra Banmala [pseud.], August 2, 2014.

[45] Kedar Raj Upadhyay, June 18, 2014.

[46] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], August 29, 2014.

[47] Dr. Shrestha, June 11, 2014.

[48] Dr. Shrestha, June 11, 2014.

[49] Kedar Raj Upadhyay, June 18, 2014.

[50] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], August 29, 2014.

[51] Kedar Raj Upadhyay, June 18, 2014.

[52] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], August 29, 2014.

[53] Dipesh Banmala [pseud.], July 6, 2014.

[54] Rabindra Banmala [pseud.], August 2, 2014.

[55] Dr. Shrestha, June 18, 2014.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Keshab Banmala, August 6, 2014.

[58] Yogendra Banmala [pseud.], July 27, 2014.

[59] Yogendra Banmala [pseud.], July 27, 2014.

[60] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], August 29, 2014.

[61] Dipesh Banmala [pseud.], July 6, 2014.

[62] Keshab Banmala [pseud.], August 6, 2014.

[63] Bibek Banmala [pseud.], July 16. 2014.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Rabindra Banmala [pseud.], August 2, 2014.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Bibek Banmala [pseud.], July 16, 2014.

[68] Yogendra Banmala [pseud.], July 15, 2014.

[69] Keshab Banmala [pseud.], July 9, 2014.

[70] Roshan Banmala [pseud.], July 29, 2014.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Keshab Banmala [pseud.], July 9, 2014.


Amazzone, Laura. Goddess Durgā and Sacred Female Power. Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2010.

Chitgopekar, Nilima. The Book of Durga. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2003.

Geertz, Hildred. The Life of a Balinese Temple. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.

Gutschow, Niels. “The Astamātrkā and Navadurgā of Bhaktapur.” In Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal, edited by Axel Michaels, Cornelia Vogelsanger, and Annette Wilke, 191-216. Vol. 2. Berlin: Peter Lang, 1994.

Levy, Robert I. Mesocosm. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. “Divine Times: Goddess worship in Banāras.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 131-45. New York: Routledge, 2011.

[Article written by: Brandon McNally (December 2010) who is solely responsible for its written content and pictures.]