Nepal: spotlight on traditional dance and music

Few facets of the Nepalese culture are as fascinating to watch as the country’s Buddhist ritual dancing. If a spotlight shines at all on this traditional Buddhist dance, the country can thank one man in particular: Prajwal Vajracharya. One of the premier Buddhist ritual dancers of Nepal, Prajwal has worked tirelessly to keep alive the traditional arts and dance of Nepal, now seriously endangered due to the impacts of industry, economic and political hardships, and tourism.

Prajwal performs the Charya Nritya, a Sanskrit term meaning “dance as a spiritual discipline.” Not only an ancient classical art, but one of the religious disciplines practiced by the Tantric Buddhist priests (“Vajracharya”) of the Kathmandu Valley. The Vajracharyas of Nepal have performed the dance secretly as part of their meditation, ritual, and celebration for over a thousand years. Each Charya Nritya features a Tantric Buddhist deity, and the dancer himself becomes an embodiment of the deity in question.

When we speak of Buddhist ritual dancing, it’s important to realize that we are not referring to dancing the typical “entertainment” sense. Rather, it’s a part of a powerful ritual and yogic meditation. It is a vehicle of bodily and spiritual transformation and a sacred opportunity for the audience to witness a vision of divine beauty.

Buddhist dance is deeply spiritual, symbolic, and colorful. Tantric Buddhist deities both serene and wrathful are ritually invoked and actually personified in the dance through “mudras” (hand postures), dance postures, and elaborate costumes and masks. The meditation/dance is performed to lead the participant to the realization of emptiness or Shunyata, the true nature of existence.

Prajwal Vajracharya has taken the ritual dance of his homeland and has taken it abroad. In 2005, he had an extremely successful International Buddhist Ritual Dance tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy, to raise awareness and share the power and spirit of the dance. He returned to the United States to perform in New York, San Francisco, Colorado, and Seattle.

Prajwal Vajracharya is now based in Portland, Oregon, and regularly offers sacred movement workshops, classes, performances, and traditional initiations and rituals throughout the United States. He founded Dance Mandal: Foundation for Sacred Buddhist Arts of Nepal to preserve and expand this rare art form and its related traditions. With the survival of this sacred ritual dance threatened by modernization, Prajwal, at his father’s wishes, has dedicated his life to bringing this unique Buddhist heritage from the temples of Nepal to the world, while adhering to its original purpose as a profound spiritual practice.