Young Kathmandu girl

Young Kathmandu girl in Kumari costume. During the Kumari festival "all young girls are goddesses."

Dance Mandal Visits Nepal

Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya, founder and master teacher of Portland’s Dance Mandal, has traveled the world over performing and teaching Charya Nritya, a Sanskrit term meaning "dance as a spiritual discipline." This fall he and Dance Mandal member Helen Appell visited Kathmandu, Nepal, Prajwal's hometown.

Kumari Jatra attracts large crowds

The week-long Kumari Jatra attracts large crowds.

Prajwal and Helen spent a month in Nepal teaching and visiting family, friends, and students. While in Kathmandu, they taught young nuns from the school of Ani Choying Dolma. Ani is a renowned Tibetan Buddhist singing nun whose CDs fund her school for the young girls. Prajwal's students in Nepal will continue with their Charya instruction in his absence.

Prajwal and Helen

Prajwal and Helen, as Green Tara and Amoghasiddhi, perform a dance of harmony and respect. Photo by Steve Neighorn.

Prajwal also helped his friend and scholar, Miranda Shaw, with translation and introductions. Miranda was working on interviews for her next book, Buddhist Goddesses of Tibet and Nepal. Prajwal reports, "Of particular interest was the very young Living Goddess, the Kumari. We were there for the annual week-long Kumari festival, with streets packed and many ceremonial dances and heightened energy!"

Yogic practitioners traditionally dance in a meditative state in order to embody the living presence of the divinities of the Vajrayana Buddhist pantheon. The deities are described in esoteric Sanskrit songs known as charya-giti, which are sung as accompaniment to the dance.

Yogini's skull ornaments

The Yogini's skull ornaments are symbols of impermanence.

Prajwal was particularly pleased that he and his students were asked by local Vajracharya youth and elders to perform and lecture at the end of their stay. Prajwal said, "Surprisingly, after years of resistance or lack of interest, there was excitement over what was heard about the significance, and what was seen, and also over a Westerner performing this traditionally Vajracharya dance."

Prajwal and Helen return to Portland with excited interest in teaching children in the future at Dance Mandal. Other plans for the future include a new building, perhaps the first vihara (temple) in the U.S. based on Prajwal's tradition. "As a Newar priest, I am particularly happy to bring Charya Dance back to its temple roots, and also welcome all traditions of sacred arts and spiritual practice to share the space. This is my wish."

Newar master carver

Newar master carver, a distant relative of Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya, works on Buddha statue for Dance Mandal's Portland temple.

Dance Mandal commissioned traditional Newar woodcarvers for architectural elements of the forthcoming temple. The travelers discovered later that the carvers happened to be distant relatives of Prajwal. The temple construction is a community process and they welcome expertise, helping hands, and resources.

Helen Appell appreciated performing for the first time with singers in Kathmandu. She is now seeking dedicated singers who would like to learn the sacred songs as a sadhana, or spiritual practice.

Newar master carver

Detail of ornamental struts being carved for the Portland vihara.


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Contributor: Heidi Enji Hoogstra

Photos: Courtesy of Dance Mandal and Steve Neighorn