Lokabaja in Newar Buddhist Culture


- Madansen Vajracharya


(This is the summary of the paper presented in Newari during the 'Conference on the Buddhist Heritage of Nepal Mandal' in 1998.)

  1. Introduction

  2. Classification of folk musical instruments

  3. Importance of Lokbajan in religious, cultural and social field

  4. Musical importance of Lokbajan

  5. Conclusion


1. Introduction :

Newars are the indigenous people of Nepal. Newars belong to the Kirati family of Mongolian stock. In course of time, the people of other clan, caste, community merged into the Newar stock. The ancient and original religion of  Newars is Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism. This  religion was introduced  in the Nepal Valley (the Kathmandu Valley in ancient times) by Bodhisattva Mahamanjushri at the time when the valley, then a lake, was made inhabited by draining out the water of the lake. Shantikaracharya  constructed Swayambhu Jyotirupa with a view to  perpetuating this religion for a long time in an organised manner. He also constructed Guhya Agamchhen (tantric altars) at Panchapur and  Shantipur following a tantric ritual to establish the area as the centre of Vajrayana.


As a result of indefatigable labour, sacrifice and Sadhana (transcedental meditation) of Shantikaracharya who was the very embodiment of Vajrasattva Nirmankaya,  the Vajrayana ritual and culture is surviving  to this day.


Along with other evidences of the popularity of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in Nepal around 2000 years ago, Buddhist text Dasabhumisvar dated 2000 years ago now available in the Nepal Archives is also a strong proof of this Historically speaking, both king Jayavarma (184 A.D.) and king Vrs deva (283 A.D.) of the Licchavi period were followers of Buddhism. They were also called Buddhist kings. Other kings in this lineage were Shivadeva and Harshadeva, etc. Manadeva and Amsuvarma also were illustrious kings of Nepal of the Licchavi period who had great faith and devotion in Buddhism.


The Nepal Valley was the place where Mahayana Buddhism originated. This religion may be called one of the ancient religions and cultures of the world. This religion   containing as it does the philosophic aspect of  Sunyata is continuing till now  making adjustment with the existing social circumstances by  perfecting its rituals and cultural patterns. But, because of the change in economic conditions and the trend of modernisation, Buddhism has suffered a change. Even then, it has been moving ahead becoming an integral part of the life and culture of Newar population. The Vajracharya Gurus (preceptors) have a great role to play in sustaining and invigorating this culture. The main goal of this culture is to make all sentient beings happy through welfare and good  works.


The main reasons of the decline of Buddhism in Nepal is the occupation of Nepal by the Licchavis of India. Shankaracharya and Ilias Shamshuddin, the Muslim conqueror, were responsible for the destruction of Buddhism. There were also other  cultural invasion and intrusion at many times which resulted in the destruction of numerous Buddhist texts. The time came when it was said that Panchapandavas incarnated themselves as Panchabuddhas in Kaliyaga (the iron age) to save Buddhism from foreign invasion. The glaring examples of this are Panchabuddhas in Thathu Bahi, Kwathu Bahi, etc. in Bhaktapur. In such gloomy scene, Lokbajan (folk musical instrument) and traditional musical instrument came to the rescue to revive Buddhism and its culture in Nepal. Even though the musical instruments used by the Newars  are of the  classical genre, the entire speech and tune of the art of playing musical instruments as well as most of the songs is unwritten in conformity with the local folk tradition. Therefore, all musical instruments used by the Newars of Nepal are folk musical instruments. In spite of this, these folk musical instruments confirm close identity with traditional religion and culture of Nepal.  The folk musical instruments have a great deal to do with the social life of the Newars. They are closely connected with the seasonal festive activities, festivals, occasional festivals and jatras, fairs, occasions, worship activities. It is because of all  these activities that the folk musical instruments have cordial affinity with the life of the Newars since centuries ago. According to evidential sources, among the  oldest musical instruments are Paintaie folk musical experiment. This musical instrument with three mouths is called  Bhairvadya Trinukhancha  by Khadshastri  Nagarjuna in the stotra of Shri Vajayeswari Devi. Therefore, it is learnt that this musical instrument was already in use nearly 1000 years ago. An attempt is made here to highlight this traditional musical instrument and its various aspects.


2. Classification of folk musical instruments

The folk musical instruments which have continued to exist from the ancient times to the present day is keeping up their own special characteristics in keeping with the traditional culture have been classified as follows :


            2.1. Aerophones

            1. Neku,

            2. Kaha,

            3. Painta or Poga,

            4. Bansuri (flute),

            5. Bayde,         

            6. Mwahali,

            7. Shankha,

            8. Mahasankha

            9. Hitimmanga


            2.2. String instruments

            1. Bina,

            2. Piwancha,

            3. Yakwamuko


            2.3 Idiophones

            1.  Ta, 

            2. Gan, Jwanyan and Phahya Gau,

            3. Ghau and Kainpuncha,   

            4. Tinimuni or Tinkune,

            5. Babhucha (Jhyali), Chhusya  and Bhusya,  

            6. Chimtajhyali,

            7. Dharmajandi, and

            8. Ghanghala.


            2.4. Membrancephones

            1. Dhime,

            2. Dha,

            3. Nayakhin,

            4. Nagara,

            5. Dabadaba,

            6. Dhwondhwoncha,

            7. Da (Daha or Pakdumcha), and

            8. Damokhin  or Dangakhin.


            2.5 Memberancephones with  tuning paste

            1. Mridanga or Pachhima (also called Pachima)

            2. Kotakhin,

            3. Magakhin,

            4. Khin,  

                        4 (a) Yakakhin,

                        4 (b) Jwakhin,

                        4 (c) Dhyakhin

                        4 (d) Dapakhin

                        4 (e) Lalakhin  

                        4 (f) Ponkhin,

                        4 (g) Deshikhin,

            5. Konchakhin

                        5 (a) Khichakhwakhin.


There are 10 aerophones, 3 string  instruments, 13  idiophones, 8 membrancephones and 5 membrancephones with tuning paste. They are  altogether 39  folk musical instruments used in the Newar Buddhist cultural tradition. Each set  has their  typical value as well as importance. Its importance will be discussed in a separate heading.


3. Importance of Lokbajan in religious, cultural and social field

The folk musical instrument used by the Newars of Nepal are not simply for the  sake of entertainment. They are also used in religious, cultural and social activities. Thus, the sound  of the folk musical instruments as well as the art of playing them have brought religion,  culture and society closer together. One of the examples is charya dance. If charya dance done in the presence of gods and goddesses inspires religious feelings, its music displays the cultural aspect. Both the cultural and religious aspects arouse social feelings thereby giving the time for entertainment. These values of folk musical instruments give strength to make social life happy and delightful. Similar is the case with Dhime  and Neku folk musical instruments.


Neku is probably the oldest folk musical instrument. This instrument is connected with chaitya and service of Tri Ratna Dharma  (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), since satyayaga  (the golden age), according to the Mahayana tradition. It is said that because of the  virtues of chaitya puja  accompanied  by the playing of Neku, dead souls can get salvation and  people will be freed from diseases and physical tortures. The name of Neku dharma has nowadays been  transformed into Gunladharma.  


During the Gunla festival for a month, the jatra of Neku bajan gets prominence. After that Dha  bajan is also called Gunla bajan as it  is especially played during Gunla. In fact, during Gunla  jatra, other folk  musical instruments like Dhime, Nayakhin Konchakhin, Maaethin, Damokhin, Kotakhin  (Panyatakhin, or Pastabajan), Nagara, Dholak, Mridanga, Dhwondhwoncha (Jhakri bajan), Jwanagera, Da (Daha), Khandari (Khanjari), Jwa Dabadaba (Kantandabadaba), Bya Bajan, Bhusya, Chhusya, Mwahali and Neku, ie, altogether 20 musical instruments are used. Gunla  dharma is  observed in Kathmandu, Lalitpur, Bhaktapur, Thimi, Banepa, Kirtipur, Bungamati, Sankhu, etc by circumambulating Swayambhu Chaitya, other chaityas, stupas, chiva (small chaityas), baha, bahi, and images of Lord Buddha in the morning. This is the most lengthy festival   requiring the play of musical instruments.


The folk musical  instrument such as Kotakhin (Mridanga and Khin), Ta, Babhucha and Payenta are especially used by Vajracharyas and Tuladhars during the sacred days and worship such as Guhyapuja, Nasapuja, Janku (tonsure ceremony), Bhahapuja, Swayambhu Naran, Bunga and Janmahaadyo Jatra, 12–year Paladyo Jatra, Ahoratri puja, Chhatisamata, and every Full Moon Day. It is said that a musical instrument with five mouths was discovered in Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha. Therefore, it must be an instrument connected with Buddhism.


The musical instruments such as Gan, Jwayangan, Sankha, Mahasankha, Dabadaba, etc are used for daily worship, or during special occasions or tantric worship with a  view to getting away from troubles, sufferings, and bad luck.


Like Dhabajan, musical instruments Nayakhin and Bansuri are used during Gunla jatra and also everyday. Even then, they are not called Gunlabajan. If Chhusyacha is played along with Nayakhin, Pachima, Ta, Jhyali, are played along with Bansuri.  


Naykhin Bajan is the  most popular musical instrument in Newar Buddhist culture. It is played  in every important religious occasion. In the important ritual activities such as Chudakarma,  Ihi, Janku, Balipuja, Ganedyo Jatra, Pahanchare Jatra, Bungadyo Jatra, funeral procession, etc of social, religious and cultural importance, Nayakhin Bajan is used. It is also used in the government’s judicial as well as administrative activities. Yet, it is disappearing in several places. 


Dapa Bhajan is especially played in temples or prayer halls to offer prayers by singing or reciting. Musical instruments such as Khin, Konchaakhin, Baye, Ta, Babhicha, are played in special tunes, raga, etc. Pachima, Dhalaka, kantandabadaba are also played sometimes.


In matters of using folk musical instrument, the Jyapus are in the forefront. They are carrying the ritual of teaching how to play folk musical instrument during the occasion of Ola (a ritual observed by Jyapus to initiate their children into their community). Most of the culture and ritualistic  activities which inspire the knowledge of sunyata of Prajnaparamita are disappearing. The playing of  Dhime bajan along with Dhunyamunya bajan is confined to Jyapus only. Along with Dhime bajan, Bhusya,  Ghan, Kainpuncha, Tinmuni, Pouga, Chhusya,Ta, Bansuri, Jhyali, khin, Magakhin, Daha, etc are played as required. Jyapus connected with Ajudyo of Asan, Kathmandu, have the practice of playing the musical  instrument called Lun Pwanga which is pregnant with meanings  and is therefore, significant. Although the Dhime bajan is used by the people of castes other than Jyapu, this may be a later development. Even though Madhimenya has  its importance among the Dhime class of instruments, Dhacha Dhime and Yelpo Dhime have their own history. The territory of Dhime musical instruments is not confined to Newar Buddhist culture but has become a part of national culture. For, these folk musical instruments are given top priority in important festivals and occasions. This bajan is also used at the time of  dancing for the sake of entertainment. It is believed that this bajan was used to welcome Lord Buddha when he came to Lumbini after  attaining Supreme Enlightenment. 


Nepalese artists have used   Deshikhin or  Kashibajan in the form of Khin bajan suitable to their taste and interest. Khin bajan is used in many places. Even in the present time it has been given  different names. Play of one drum is called Yaka (single) Khin. If two drums are played, it is called jwa (Joint or pair) khin. Khin that is played during Dapa bhajan is  called Dapakhin. As actors sing songs in  ancient plays, stage plays in the tune of khin, it is called Pwankhin.  It’s use in  Buddhist culture is not less.


The  use of Magakhin, the Madal of Magars, and  naming in  Newari and rendering of   the same in keeping with the Newar culture is creativity of the Newar artists. This bajan, Jyapu dance, Dhintamuni, Sinhajya, and Neku jatra are employed in social and religions functions.


There are people who say that Damokhin and Dangakirn are not one. But, some say that these two bajans are one and the same thing. Damokhin is played during  the Neku jatra in Patan, especially during the installation of Kali, Bhairab and Kumari in chariots. Local musicians play Danga Khinlaya at the time of the festival of Jaladyo, Sikalidyo of Khonna, Netamaru Ajimadyo of Kathmandu. It appears that these bajans have some connection with tantric energy. It will make little difference if these bajans are taken as Devabadya (divine musical instruments).


The special character of Konchakhin is that it can employ both Tabla and Bama bajans. This bajan played by Jyapus and Manandhars is the original or indigenous bajan of Nepal. This bajan must be played during the marriage or Vratabandha (loincloth worship) ceremonies of Jyapus. When Khin is played, dogs  (Khicha) cry, this musical instrument is called  Khichakhwa Khin.


Even though Bina is not used along with Ta bajan, it is used as a musical instrument in the spirit of Mahayana Buddhist culture. Puwacha bajan is not prevalent in the  society of Jyapus. Yakhwamuko and Chimta  Jhyali bajans are used as supporting instruments of other major bajans. The use of this bajan is also declining. Ghanghala, (sound creating bell) is used during dances like Dyapyakhan,  Lakhepyakhan Charya phyakhan, Jyapu pyakhan, by  tying it in the leg, arms, waist. Two bajans Mahasankha and Dharmagandi which are made of wood  are used in tantric worship and  Nityapuja (daily worship) in bahas and bahis.


4. Musical importance of Lokbajan

Although the Buddhist population is declining in Nepal, Newars are rich in the field of music. The bajan, song, dancing, tune, etc which have a lot to do with music are also an expression of the people’s faith and denotion in the spirit of Mahayana tradition. It is because of the inseparable link of the bajan with the life of Newars that  various organs of music are used in various activities of Newars such as festivals, jatra, religious fairs, worship, planting and harvesting reasons and other seasonal activities accompanied by Raga, Tala, etc. Music has its potential impact on human brain, heart and the environment of human beings. That music influences  not only human beings but also animal and plant world has been proved by science.


Music inspires man to be good, and to work for the welfare of human beings. Music has its healing effect. As such it can make sick mind healthy. Sweet and melodious music helps transfuse blood and makes man healthy and strong thereby making him able to fight diseases. It may be because of the healing effect of music that Gunla dharma is observed for a month during cold and unfavourable season by playing Neku bajan in the pretext of Buddhist pilgrimage.


The power and energy of musical instruments can soften one’s heart, change mind, calm the mind and can also frighten people. The play of two pairs of Dhime bajan and one pair of Bhusya can give the impression of the presence of hundreds of people.


Thus, the creation of Lokbajan by Newars is inspired by the wish of doing good to mankind and to create a healthy environment by elimination of undue influences.


The musicians of this art have been brought up in the rituals and culture of Mahayana Buddhism. It is said that the lineage deity of Jyapus and Nayas is the god which is none other than the knowledge of Sunyata. These are many Shresthas who are Buddhists. The proof is that they use the service of Vajracharyas. That is why, all these folk musical instruments have to be called Buddhist Lokbajan.


5. Conclusion

The culture aspect is showing the richness of the culture heritage of the Newar community. The art which identifies the Newars is declining in the present circumstances. It is a matter of pity for not only the Newars and the  country as a whole but also for all the lovers of music. This is an irreparable loss. Therefore, the work of preserving and promoting the traditional music sustained by folk musical instruments id very much delayed. In order to do this, protection has to be given to the guthis of Dhime bajan by individuals, associations and the government. The cultural and religious importance of such guthis must be highlighted. The government should take initiative such as creating an academy of the art of folk musical instruments in order to encourage the artists in this  field. There is a great possibility of awakening the feeling of nationality through the folk musical instruments.


This working paper intends to throw light on the historic importance of Loka bajan in the Newars’ Mahayana tradition. The Lokbajan is getting popular nowadays. It is necessary that steps are taken for popularising the same. All these folk musical instruments are only a part  of national musical instruments. The term national musical instruments includes the musical instruments used by 35 linguistic   communities of Nepal excluding, however, the Khasa people and the Khasa language. At present, there is a wrong precedent to name people as Khasa who speak Nepali language. This feeling has to be discouraged in time.