| Pratibha Tuladhar |
KATHMANDU (dpa) – Each year during the festival of Indra Jatra, Nepalese police officer Laxman Ranjit takes a week-long leave of absence.
It is time for him to don the mask of the demon known as a Lakhey, or Lakhe, and perform the dancing ritual at the annual September festival in the Kathmandu Valley.
“I’ve been doing this for the last 16 years now,” says Ranjit, who is considered the strongest and most popular of the demon portrayers. He is one of half a dozen men who take turns donning the 15-kilogramme headgear complete with red mask and hair. A long brocade gown is tapered at the waist with a belt of leather and metallic bells, weighing around 10 kilogrammes, that holds in place a 20-metre white cloth waistband.
The 34-year-old national weightlifting competitor is known for his ability to perform for hours on end, hoisting his limbs into the air, showing off his tattooed arms that allow those familiar with him to identify the one behind the mask. Traditionally, the Lakhey came from the Ranjitkar clan. According to mythology, the demon was being chased by the people of Kathmandu for creating havoc in the city. As he fled, Lakhey slipped on paint and fell, but the Ranjitkars gave him refuge from his pursuers.
“The first time you perform, you’re nervous because you’re under pressure to prove that you are among the chosen ones,” says Ram Ranjit, who is Laxman’s twin brother and understudy.
“But unlike most of us, the first time Laxman became a Lakhey, he performed all seven days of the festival without taking a break.” He explains that the role is a responsibility that not everyone can take on.
The Lakhey ritual is tied to the annual chariot ride of the Kumari, the living deity of Nepal, the highlight of the Indra Jatra festival. The deity is a child from the Shakya clan, and can be as young as three years old.
The deity is removed from her revered position once she reaches puberty or loses a baby tooth. Due to its traditional link to monarchs, the institution of Kumari is somewhat controversial since the monarchy was abolished in 2006. But the festival continues to be held and during it, the deity is taken around the old city in a chariot dragged by men.
“A Lakhey’s job is to lead the path for the Kumari’s chariot,” Laxman explains. “You run for hours as a lakhey, barefoot, dancing, and you never feel tired. That’s my faith. You can’t see it, but what is protecting you from within is faith.” There is no formal training to prepare the men for it.
“We grow up with it, watching our elders do this every year,” says Ram. “And when the day of the performance arrives, you just know that it’s time to perform and you do it.”