As Kathmandu got ready to celebrate Yenya Punhi (Indra Jatra) with its Kumari chariot procession last week, the masked dancers were also getting ready for their popular street performances.
Laxman Ranjit was inside the Lakhey House in the Basantapur Square in Kathmandu, preparing for the ritual. The dancers do not just don masks, leg bells, and colourful flowing skirts, they have to actually go into a divine trance where they become the embodiment of the gods and demons they represent.
Whoever wears the mask gets energy from it, and is consumed by its holy aura. As other devotees help Laxman Ranjit get dressed up, his demeanour changes. It looks like the spirit is already entering his body.
Finally, a white turban is wrapped on his head which will hold the mask on his head. Four men hold Ranjit on either side to restrain him as the red lakhey mask is put on.
As he is led to the door, there are some rituals to perform: an oil lamp is waved in front of his face as Ranjit’s body starts to shake – at first imperceptibly, but with more and more energy. Outside on the street, hundreds of people are waiting eagerly for the first lakheys to emerge, as they have for centuries before.
Once out of the Lakhey House Laxman Ranjit’s energy explodes like a volcano. The shouts and screams of the crowd seems to energise him even more as he leaps, and spins like a dervish.
Masked dancers are ordinary people going about their daily jobs the rest of the year, but at Indra Jatra, designated masked dancers are possessed by the divine spirit and can change into powerful demons or gods just by putting on the holy mask.
It is the power of faith, devotion and a responsibility to carry on the culture of their forebears that keeps this festival of the Kathmandu Valley Civilisation alive.