Masked dances of Nepal

Masked dancer in Nepal, Sankhu

At the heart of many Nepalese festivals are ritual dances: without the performance of those dances there is no festival. Historically dances in Nepal as well as festivals themselves were patronized by kings. Only the king could decide to introduce a new dance-drama or a new festival. Special masks are worn during such ritual dances. These masks are made of perishable materials such as papier mache, wood plastered with clay and linen, and are painted in lively colours. The masked dances tell intricate stories about the gods as well as great heroes.

Elephant dance during Indra Jatra festival in Nepal

During the festival of Indra Jatra the dance of the elephant is performed by two members of the farmer's caste. Elephant is the vehicle of god Indra what explains its presence at the festival. The lakhe dances are also a part of the Indra Jatra festival. The word lakhe means demon and the dance tells the story about a demon who used to kidnap children for his meals. The masks worn by the dancers during this dance are a bit different: they are of wood with a tail of yak hair. The dances take place during the day time and are always performed in a group accompanied by a band of musicians. These dances are a popular event, the participants fight with swords in the streets of the town.

Lakhe dancer performing during Indra Jatra festival in Nepal

The Mahakali dance is one of the most popular dances of the Newars. It is based on the story of goddesses Mahakali, Mahalaxmi and Kumari who once descended from heaven to battle demons that were causing great despair among humans. King Pratap Malla (1641–74 AD) had a dream one night in which he witnessed the three deities battle the demons. He wished his dream to be recorded for future generations in the form of a dance performance.


The Nava Durga dances begin at the time of the festival of Dasain or Dussera in October, are performed during eight and a half months and end in June before the rainy season starts. The dance was introduced by king Subarna Malla (c.1445AD) in honour of the nine manifestations of goddess Durga: Mahakali, Kumari, Barahi, Brahmayani, Maheswari, Vaishsnavi, Indrayani, Mahalaxmi and Tripura Sundari. On these only seven (the latter two being the exceptions) are represented in the dance. Mahalaxmi's silver idol in a small chariot leads the procession and the ninth goddess is represented by a small image which is never taken out of the temple.

Masked dancer in Bhaktapur, Nepal Photo source
What is interesting that during Dasain another group of dancers who belong to the high caste of Buddhist priests and former monks also dance throughout nine days of the festival in different parts of town Patan. They wear masks of the eight goddesses of Asta Matrika who are protectors of the town.
Another dance drama held every year in October-November is a presentation of legends about god Vishnu and his various incarnations. This dance drama is called Kartik naach, Kartik being the Nepali name for the month of the performance and naach meaning dance. It was first established by the King Siddhi Narsingh Malla in the 17th century.

Kartik Naach dancer, Nepal
Photo courtesy Bikash Khadge

All these dances take place on public squares and on the streets among large crowds of men and women. There are other masked dances in Nepal that are performed during Buddhist festivals at the Buddhist monasteries, so called ritual dances of lamas, cham.

Masked cham dancer during Gutor celebrations, Nepal

Masked cham dancer during Gutor celebrations

Masked cham dancer during Gutor celebrations, Nepal

All the dancers wear bright costumes and masks that represent different deities and animals. The masks are made of wood or papier-mache and painted. The masks' hair is traditionally made of yak tails. The mask is often two to three times the size of a human face, so the monks who perform dances, do not look through the eyes, but through the nostrils and mouth. Dancing is rather slow, performed to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals, and sometimes they are joined by trumpet and singing of the Lama.

Humla mani mask dancer
Photo source

During the Mani festival - spring season celebrations - in Humla, one of Nepal's highest and most inaccessible districts, one can see dancers wearing mani masks. This style of masks is very distinctive and is probably one of the most readily recognizable types of Nepal masks.

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