Nepal in the Mahabharata Period, Part 47


BY: SUN STAFF - 3.1 2019

Tharu Barka Naach, Nepali Mahabharata


The Yadava dynasty's presence in Nepal, and the events that preceded and followed.


Barka Naach - Nepal's Tribal Mahabharata

Many regional Indian cultures over the years have produced their own version of the Vedic epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana, and other highly popular texts like Jayadev's Gita-govinda. This is also true in the case of Nepal's own tribal version of Mahabharata, known as the Barka Naach of the Dangaura Tharu. The book was written by Nepali tribals called the Tharu, who live in the foothills of Nepal, in the Dang Valley.

Often referred to as the 'Cultivators of the Tarai', or foothill region, the Dangaura is a subgroup of the Tharu tribe. The Terai is the belt of marshy grasslands, savannas, and forests sitting along the southern edge of the Himalaya's outer foothills, north of the Plain of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and their tributaries.

Largely unknown outside of Nepal, the Barka Naach version of Mahabharata only recently became known to the wider world when the first English translation was published by Himal Books of Lalitpur, in 1998.

Long before the written version was gathered together into a complete manuscript, the Barka Naach was regularly performed in the Tharu village of Narayanpur, whose people have kept it alive over long years. About the book, author Dinesh Chamling Rai has written:

"For generations, the Tharu farmers of Dang Valley Nepal performed their version of the Mahabharata to win the blessings of the gods. The songs were handed down from father to son only through oral tradition until one farmer taught himself to read and write his Tharu dialect so that he could preserve the tradition. I came upon his manuscript in 1993 but learned that the dances had ceased in the 1960's. The publication of this translation (from Tharu dialect into Nepali into English) coincides with the revival of the performance of the Tharu Mahabharata in the autumn of 1998. In the spirit of the folk art tradition, this book is illustrated with Tharu folk art."

A Krishna astimski, created by the Dangaura village headman,
depicts the highlights of Lord Krishna's life 

A nice history of Barka Naach was also provided in a review of the book, written by Rama Parajuli and Pratyoush Onta:

"It is not known when the Barka Naach, the Dangaura Tharu version of the Mahabharata, was first performed in Dang Valley," write editors Meyer and Deuel.

Early in this century a village leader named Mahatawa Rul Lal Tharu of Jhalaura collected scattered manuscripts that contained parts of the text of the orally rendered Barka Naach, which literally means "big dance". After teaching himself to read and write, Rup Lal produced a single version of it in Tharu language in 1922 and with the help of some Tharu priests, and organized its performances in five-year intervals until the early 1960s. Funds necessary to support a complete production of the Barka Naach, the editors report, then dried up. When he died in 1970, Rup Lal's manuscript was passed on to his son, Chandra Prasad Tharu.

During their pan-Tarai study of Tharu material culture and architectural designs, Meyer and Deuel met Chadra Prasad in 1993. Impressed by his knowledge of Tharu songs, they provided financial support for the production of an abridged version of the Barka Naach in February 1994."

"The editors claim that the Barka Naach is culturally unique to the Dang-based Dangaura Tharu and constitutes a part of their larger legend of the Barkimer ("the Big war"). Its performance, they write, "is closer in form to the classic Greek drama: the story is told through the dancing of performers and the singing of the traditional Tharu text by a chorus." They also describe, in brief, how the Tharu version of the story differs from that of the classic Sanskrit Mahabharata.

The Barka Naach consists of an opening prayer, ten songs and the closing prayer. The opening and the closing prayers, it is reported, are mandatory in each performance while selections can be made from the main body of dance songs to suit the circumstances of the performing groups. These dance songs are, as the editors note, action stories, largely devoid of the "philosophical teachings that pervade the Mahabharata." They are also very much Pandavas-oriented. In particular, the second brother, Bhim receives attention.

Many of the heroics of the third brother Arjuna in the classic version is attributed to Bhim here, he being a particularly popular folk deity of the Dangaura Tharu. [Bhim is a great hero of the Tharu's, having sheltered their king, Dangi Sharan against Krishna's wrath when Duryodhana had turned him away.]

The ten dance songs describe the following episodes of the Mahabharata: the conspiracy of the Kauravas to kill the Pandavas by burning them inside a wax house; Bhim's killing of Raksasa Danu; Draupadi's swayamvara; the dice contest in which the Pandavas lose everything; Pandavas in a 12-year exile; their 13th year of exile (living incognito) in the house of King Bairath (Virat); Bhim's fight with King Bairath's elephant; Bhim's killing of Kichaka who had harrassed Draupadi; attack on King Bairath by Duryodhan's company (longest song); and the decimation of the Kauravas at the end of the battle in Kurukshetra.

The epilogue describes the Pandavas' journey to heaven. Each song contains a refrain. While only those who are familiar with the original Tharu version can say how authentic the English one is, the translation reads well.

The chief intended audience of the book is clearly the lay western reader who is only sparingly familiar with the classic version of the Mahabharata. The glossary is mostly helpful even as it does not contain the word paidhar which forms a part of the title of each song. The family tree of the Kauravas-Pandavas provided at the end is useful even as it does not contain all the characters encounted in the songs."

Stylized Peacocks with Lotus 
Tharu Folkart 

Author Pradip Bhattacharya further explains the Tharu's close relationship with the Mahabharata Period, and characters:

"Their Barka Atwari festival celebrates Mahadeva's marriage to the goddess, daughter of the First Tharu, in which the Pandavas are invited, the 1st Sunday of the bright fortnight of August. Tharu men fast in honour of the Pandavas who they regard as the first farmers of their land and its protectors.

The Tharu cleared forests of Nawalparasi for cultivation, ignoring god Kumarvarti's injunction not to become farmers by abandoning the sacred thread. The forest was the god's garden. To punish them, he ordered Bhim to flood the valley by damming the Narayani River flowing through it. So, the Tharu king began to worship Kumarvarti and started Kantari Puja that is celebrated every five years by Tharus of Nawalparasi.

The Pandavas visited here after defeating the Kauravas and feasted at Sat Gaun (7 villages) southwest of Nawalpur, cooking in seven ovens that are still celebrated here. The excess water drained from the rice became a river. The Pandavas ate all the food, leaving nothing for their cooks, who went away in anger to live in Ruslahari (rusalmeans 'anger'). "

In the next segment, we will look at the content of Barka Naach, and see how the storyline compares with the original Sanskrit version of Mahabharata.