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Buddhist Music of Nepal*

The kingdom of Nepal is situated in the Himalayas, with India to the south and west, Tibet to the north, and Sikkim to the east.  Some of the world's most rugged mountain ranges are found in Nepal, where nearly 75 percent of the land is mountainous.  The name of the country is identical in origin to the name of the Newar people. The terms "Nepāl", "Newār", "Newāl" and "Nepār" are phonetically different forms of the same word, and instances of the various forms appear in texts in different times in history. Nepal is the learned Sanskrit form and Newar is the colloquial Prakrit form.  A Sanskrit inscription dated 512 AD found in Tistung, a valley to the west of Kathmandu, contains the phrase "greetings to the Nepals" indicating that the term "Nepal" was used to refer to both the country and the people.

Around 500 BC, small kingdoms and confederations of clans arose in the southern regions of Nepal. From one of these, the Shakya polity, arose
Siddhartha Gautama (traditionally dated 563–483 BC), an Indian prince who, in his twenties, chose to renounce his aristocratic life of luxury and seek enlightenment.  Buddha was born in Lumbini; according to the Tripitaka, he visited his father's kingdom and converted his family and clan to Buddhism. The Shakya clans later moved to Kathmandu valley and helped establish Buddhism there. Moreover, it is believed that Shakya is one the clans of Tharu tribe. Tharu and Newar are similar in appearance, behavior and many other aspects. Due to these Shakya clans, there formed a bridge between these two tribes.

Consequently, Buddhism in Nepal dates from the birth of Siddharta Gautama himself. Legend has it that many bodhisattvas and previous Buddhas also visited the land. Monuments to these Buddhas can still be seen. Early Buddhist history is difficult to document, but we know that Nepal became a great meeting point for Indian and Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Nagarjuna, the great Madhyamika master, and many other great practitioners visited, lived, and taught in Nepal. Stone inscriptions and colophons provide clear evidence that a strong lineage of Mahasanghika Bhiksunis existed in the seventh century. The country became a repository of Buddhist Sanskrit literature and famous for its production of fine Buddhist art..

Emperor Ashoka of India put up a pillar at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in the 2nd century BC.  After the third Buddhist Council, king Ashoka sent dhamma missionaries to Nepal.  It is also believed that Ashoka went to Patan and had four stupas built there. It is believed that his daughter Charumati established the village of Chabahi, which is located between Kathmandu and Bodhnath (khasti in Newari language). There is a stupa and monastery in Chabahi (left) that are said to date back to her time.  It is said that upon the expansion of the Mauryan dynasty into the Terai plains in Nepal, Buddhism was adopted by the ancestors of the Tharu and flourished until the resurgent Licchavi repelled its adherents in AD 200.

Many famous temples have been erected throughout Nepal. Although many ancient temples were destroyed by earthquakes in 1355 and 1934, many important religious structures still survive. The ancient stupas of Swayambhu and Bodhnath are regarded as most sacred. Buddhism in Nepal includes Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. The rulers of Nepal have primarily been Hindu, but have supported the development of Buddhism over the centuries. The Tibetan Mahayana tradition is the most popular in northern Nepal, with approximately 3000 monasteries.

Newar Vajrayana Buddhism is a widespread religious system in the Kathmandu Valley with an elaborate tradition of ritual. Since the early 40s some Nepalese have turned to Theravada practice based on the Pali canon, stressing the rational aspects of Buddhism over ritual. Most Theravada monasteries are located in the Kathmandu Valley. There are approximately 100 monks and 150 nuns, mostly belonging to the Newar community. Newars with the Shakya surname trace their lineage to the family of Shakyamuni Buddha.

The Great Stupa of Svayambhunath (right) stands on a hill to the west of Kathmandu. Its name means "The self created, Self-existent Buddha." The myth of its origin is also the myth of the valley's origin. It tells the story of the primordial Buddha's enlightenment and the spread of Buddhism in Nepal.  This most sacred site has always been the most important power place for local Buddhists and for pilgrims from all over the world. It is considered to be the most powerful shrine in the Himalayas.

Indian Buddhism began to penetrate the mountain passes into Nepal in perhaps the 4th or 5th century AD, although its influence has always been mainly confined to the Kathmandu Valley and the western part of the country. With the destruction of Buddhism in India in the 13th century, Tibet, Nepal's powerful neighbour to the north, began to influence the country's religious development. However, the Tantric Buddhism that resulted became increasingly corrupt and fused with Hinduism, the predominant religion, and the two became and remain even today almost indistinguishable.

Over the centuries, massive migrations of Mongol groups from Tibet, and Indo-Aryans from India, have produced considerable ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity.  By the 16th Century, Nepal was ruled by high-caste Hindus who favored an isolationist stance.  Gradually, however, local nobles gathered influence and power, and in the 1950s the monarchy established a cabinet system of government; the accompanying religious tolerance, political conservatism, and cultural accommodation are reflected in Nepal's theatrical traditions.

The following fairs and festivals (jatra) associated with various deities exemplify typical Nepalese theatrical elements that blur the borders between primitive, folk, and religious expressions.  The Bhairav jatra, a buffalo sacrifice and dance; the Macchindra jatra, a procession of the idol with celebrations; the Indra jatra, the setting up of a tall wooden column with maked dancing and a procession of virgins; and the Holi festival, complete with the eretion of a pillar, color throwing, and revelry.  Sherpa Music is based on Tibetan Buddhism. This is identical to music of tibet around the trans-Himalayan region. First and foremost Tibetan music is religious music, reflecting the influence of Tibetan Buddhism on the culture.  The Sherpa dance drama mani-rimdu is another example of a religious/folk presentation.  Lasting over three days, this outdoor spectacle is designed to assert the superiority of Buddhism over other religions.  the ritualistic setting up of a flagpole, group dances, improvised comic skits, masked dances, and singing are the main features.  Modern theatrical activities are confined to Kathmandu, the political and cultural nerve center of Nepal.

In recent years, Nepal's singing nun Ani Choying Dolma has been appointed UNICEF Nepals first ever National Ambassador.  Ani will help UNICEFs clarion call to protect Nepali children and adolescents from violence and create a happy and safe environment as an Ambassador where they can grow up to become functional adult, good parents and responsible citizens later in life.  Through their popularity and celebrity-status, UNICEF ambassador lend their voices to send a loud and clear message that children and their well-being are a priority. Ani has demonstrated a genuine commitment to communicating clear message of healing and peace through her music. She is a testament to the power music can have when it is associated with a cause. On the occasion, Ani promised to use her experience and popularity to bring the issues of children and adolescents to the forefront. "Though my songs, I seek to reach all the nooks and crannies of Nepal in an effort to improve the lives of children and adolescents."

Ani was first teamed up with UNICEF in 2013, when she appeared in a video unveiled during the launch of UNICEFs end violence against children initiatives. She is also already a champion for children and womens rights with her efforts in advocating for women and girls education, including a school for nun.  Around 1.6 million children are working as child labours while 5,000 children live on the street, according to UNICEF. Similarly, 11,500 women and children were trafficked or were attempted to be trafficked in the year 2010.

Namo Ratna Trayaya,
Namo Arya Jnana
Sagara, Vairochana,
Byuhara Jara Tathagataya,
Arahate, Samyaksam Buddhaya,
Namo Sarwa Tathagate Bhyay,
Arhata Bhyah,
Samyaksam Buddhe Bhyah,
Namo Arya Avalokite
shoraya Bodhisattvaya,
Maha Sattvaya,
Maha Karunikaya,
Tadyata, Om Dara Dara,
Diri Diri, Duru Duru
Itte We, Itte Chale Chale,
Purachale Purachale,
Kusume Kusuma Wa Re,
Ili Milli, Chiti Jvalam, Apanaye Shoha

Homage to the Three Jewels,
Homage to the Ocean of that Superior,
Exalted Transcendental Wisdom,
The Appointed King, Vairocana,
The Tathagata, the Arhat,
the Pure and Complete Buddha,
Homage to All the Tathagatas,
the Arhats,

the Pure and Complete Buddhas,
Homage to the Supreme Avalokiteshvara,
the Bodhisattva,
the Great Being,

that Great Compassion,
Thus, Om, Apprehending
the Deity of Sound,

Apprehending the Deity of Form,
Apprehending the Deity of Sign,
and the Surrounding Entourage.

Ani Choying Drolma
Ani Choying Drolma 2

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Further reading (compiled from Paul D. Greene, Keith Howard, Terry E. Miller, Phong T. Nguyen and Hwee-San Tan, "Buddhism and the Musical Cultures of Asia: A Critical Literature Survey," in The World of Music,Vol. 44, No. 2, Body and Ritual in Buddhist Musical Cultures (2002), 135-175 (VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2002).
  • Gellner, David.  Introduction to David Gellner and Declan Quigley, eds., Contested Hierarchies: A Collaborative Ethnography of Caste Among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.  Oxford: Oxford University (1999) 1-37.
  • Greene, Paul D.  "Mixed Messages: Unsettled Cosmopolitanisms in Nepali Pop." Popular Music 20(2; 2001): 169-87.
  • Greene, Paul D.  "Sounding the Body in Buddhist Nepal: Neku Horns, Himalayan Shamanism, and theTransmigration of the Disembodied Spirit." The world of music 44(2; 2002).
  • Hoerburger, Felix.  Studien zur Musik in Nepal. Regensburg: Gustav Bosse, 1975.