Death ritual music of the Gurungs

By Mannu Shahi

 Among the Gurungs residing in Klinu village in west Nepal, the death rites contain a great deal of music performed by religious specialists: khlevris and lamas. Though some of the pieces included in these rituals are also occasionally performed by the locals, the main motive of such music is to serve the after death rites.

The essential role of music in such ceremonies is reflected in the Gurung manner of distinguishing the ritual of the Gurung shamans from the ceremony conducted by Hindu or Buddhist priests. The shamans of the Gurungs use drums to conduct funerals unlike the Hindu or Buddhist priests who only employ chants in the procession. 

Soon after a death has occurred, the village men gather at the house of the deceased and perform a Serga dance that is believed to welcome the soul of the dead person. It is mandatory to invite a khlevri for the cremation of the corpse, which is labelled as the Mi Sibar rite in the local vernacular.

The Gurungs believe that the presence of the khlevri protects the soul of the deceased from evil spirits as the priest and his apprentices recite the book of Pe for the well-being of the departed soul.

The Pe is a sacred book of the Gurungs, which is transmitted as a shamanistic tradition through oral narratives, and it is believed that once the recitation of the chants in the book are started, it must be completed. The complete recitation of the book lasts from ten to eleven uninterrupted hours.

The language of the Pe is called tso, which differs from the common Gurung dialect, thus only the shamans can explain and understand the verses of the holy text. The recitation of the Pe is initiated in the house of the deceased beside the corpse.

It is accompanied by the jhyali and dhyangro instruments, and a shanka (conch) is blown each time the body is moved. As the corpse is wrapped in a white cloth to carry it out into the yard, the shamans then start the Saljyo dance. This dance is performed in dedication to the deities of the four directions.    

After the dance, the body is carried to the place of the cremation while the shamans continue the chant recitation leading the procession. The dynamic range of instruments now amplifies as the locals believe that the louder the sound the easier it is to scare the evil spirits away. At this point, the shamans stop their dances but continue to recite the chants.

As the corpse is lifted onto the pyre, the intensity of the situation is increased as well as the tempo and dynamics of the ritual music. The cremation rites, including the recitation of the Pe, thus exceed 20 hours, during which a total of 24 rhythmic patterns are performed. And thus the function of music in this ritual procession is believed to be an invitation to the deities, while at the same time serving as a warning to the evil spirits and protection to the local villagers.  


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