Nasah Dyah: A cult of music and mystery

A painting of Nasah Dyah

With the advent of summer, Kathmandu valley commences its series of religious festivals with tremendous devotion and participation from the people. One can see a myriad of Gods and Goddesses belonging to different creed, philosophy and denomination worshipped and celebrated in a distinctive fashion. The pulling of the chariots, the masked dances and the towering tea trunks are characteristic features of proclaiming the beloved deities among the Newars, the valley dwellers. Music is also seen as a fundamental aspect of life in the Newar community. Be it a religious or social ceremony, a common sight effortlessly seen is a group of boys, or even girls, strapped with a big barrel-shaped drum parading down the streets beating their instruments. Some might even chance to see a group of men, mostly elders, sitting in a roadside shelter, singing devotional songs to their gods. Such sights are quite common in a Newar neighborhood and it wouldn’t be absurd to say that music is almost ubiquitously present in the day-to-day life of the Newars. But beyond the conspicuous sentiments and sounds of music, there is also the latent presence of a deity that one might not notice readily. He is neither pulled in a chariot nor worshipped as an idol, but is implicitly venerated by notes and rhythm of the music. Known by many names, he is most popular by the name of Nasah Dyah.

Nasah Dyah, also known as Nrityanath and Nateshwara is primarily regarded as the god of music, dance and performing arts. Many people also perceive him to be the god of charm as suggested by the literal meaning of the word Nasah. Hence, he is also revered as the one who blesses people with attributes of being charming, elegant or charismatic; traits that are reasonably worthwhile for anyone, and certainly imperative to those involved in performing arts. Apart from these, there is also an enigmatic and mysterious side to him.  Unlike the prevalent culture of idol worshipping, he is venerated in the form of triangular slits, one or three in number, made in the walls of houses or temples. Strangely, these slits are rarely found in a sumptuous temple as is expected of a celebrated deity. Most of these small shrines are found in dark and incapacious corners among the narrow alleys of the traditional neighborhoods. Another peculiarity concerning Nasah Dyah is the tradition of animal sacrifice and offering of alcohol. Considering the fact that many people accept him as Shiva himself, it is radical and surprising to find such rites associated with him.

With gods and goddesses, there are a number of tales associated, and Nasah Dyah is not an exception either. It is believed that Nasah Dyah first manifested in the hill of Kavilasa at Nuwakot district of Nepal. Once, a ‘Jyapu’, Newari term for a peasant, went there as he heard that a powerful deity was residing there who could grant some siddhis or supernatural powers. But when he reached the hilltop, he found the place deserted except for some animals and ghosts prowling around.  He then offered some liquor and Samay Baji, a Newari cuisine, to the supposed deity and asked to come dancing if he wants to eat, but no one answered his call. On a second attempt, he offered some Sya Baji and invoked the god as before but his offerings only attracted a grazing sheep. Seeing the sheep, the ghosts came dancing thinking that they were the ones being invited. The ghosts told the peasant that they don’t eat anything else but flesh and blood. The peasant took it as an order thinking that the ghosts themselves were incapable of slaying the animal. He grabbed the sheep, cut a blood vessel in the neck and squirted the blood unto a piece of cloth. As soon as the blood was offered, Nasah Dyah manifested himself and came dancing in front of the peasant.

This tale is famous among the Newars and the hill of Kabilasa is still regarded as the original abode of the god attracting many people on pilgrimages throughout the year. There is another tale describing how Nasah Dyah was accidentally brought to Kathmandu in the form of a rooster and later established as a deity in a temple after realizing his divinity. This particular temple is identified as the present one of Galkopakha, Kathmandu, and is regarded as the first temple dedicated to Nasah Dyah within the valley. Later, many temples or simply a space on a wall was dedicated to Nasah Dyah and can be found profusely in the alleys of Newar neighborhood of the valley. These temples may be different in structure, architecture or in other aspects, but the one thing of commonality is the representation of Nasah Dyah in the form of triangular holes. Apart from this, other peculiar features like the skull of a buffalo or the paintings of ghosts can be seen in the shrines of Nasah Dyah.   

In spite of being worshiped in an unconventional way, Nasah Dyah has never been regarded as an absolutely formless deity. There are quite a number of old illustrations and songs dedicated to him which piously portray the physical features that help to identify him as Shiva of the Hindu trinity. In almost all the extant songs, he is always mentioned together with characters like Nandi, Bhringi, and Gauri who are no other than Shiva’s entourage. In the illustrations, he is mostly portrayed as having three eyes and eighteen hands holding different articles like trident, skull and damaru. He has been shown wearing a garland of skulls standing with his left leg on a bull or a dwarf demon while the other leg is folded resting on the thigh of the other or grabbed by the left hand. The potent Sanskrit hymns used in incantations and invocations also describe him as Shiva. These hymns are considered to be the most important and pristine depiction above all by both Hindus and Buddhists. 

Despite having such substantial pieces of evidence, it is not uncommon to find some people who advocate Nasah Dyah to be a local god having no relation with any other deities. Most of the proponents of such theory generally have two premises, the unwonted slit worshipping culture and the conspicuous difference in the physical form with that of the Indian dancing Shiva, namely the famous Nataraja of India. Of the two ideas, the former is undoubtedly strong and self-evident but the latter requires some meticulous study before imparting a conclusive justification. Regarding the iconographic comparison, there are actually some striking similarities if noted deliberately like the standing on one leg, though the opposite, or the dwarf demon upon which the god stands. Likewise, the arch of fire considered as a fundamental characteristic of the four-handed Nataraja can also be seen in some Nepalese illustrations. The major and most apparent difference between these two iconographies is the number of hands which might be presented as a compelling evidence to segregate the two deities, however, there are other things to be considered as well. 

Statue of Nateshwara at Bhaktapur Art Museum.

The four-handed Nataraja from the late Chola period is indeed the most popular adaptation of dancing Shiva, yet, it is not the only Indian iconography of the matter at hand. Some notable examples of such dancing Shivas include the ten-handed one of Melakadambur, Tamil Nadu and the eighteen-handed one of Badami caves, Karnataka. As a matter of fact, we may not have to travel that far; the Nateshwar at  Pashupatinath temple, Kathmandu believed to be installed by the Suryavanshi King Sivadeva Barma as mentioned in ‘The History of Nepal’ by Daniel Wright is depicted having twelve hands and standing on two legs. Similarly, the statue of Nateshwara exhibited at the Bhaktapur Art Museum has fourteen hands with other features quite similar to the other dancing Shivas. One can find a copious amount of both similarities and differences in all of the dancing Shivas from both India and Nepal but the truth is that we may never hope to find exhaustive resemblance, especially in cultures separated by distance and communication. By and large, the cult of the venerating slits as the god of music and performing arts is truly an uncommon and mystical practice with conundrums that might not be unraveled easily. The only plausible explanation is to believe that Shiva, ‘the lord of occult’,  is depicted in accordance to the idiosyncrasy of the society and culture that revere him; and what better form would he take than Nasah Dyah in a place which was considered a Tantric stronghold not so far back in history?