On full moon day the dancers line up in a community building at the center of the village, and begin swaying slowly to the music as village elders sing to the beat of the madal. Ghatu tells the tragic story of King Pashramu and Queen Yambawati: Pashramu goes on a hunt, meets and marries Yambawati, and they have a child. Pashramu is killed in action, Yambawati self-immolates on her husband’s pyre. The dance climaxes with Yambawati’s grief as she gives up her kingdom, says goodbye to her little son, and embraces death. The dancers go into a trembling trance as they perform for hours.
Ghatu dance is performed all over central Nepal by Gurung, Magar, Dura, Balami and Kumal communities. But no one is sure how it originated. “It was passed down to us by our ancestors, but they did not tell us where they learnt it or how it began,” says Jung Bahadur Gurung, dance teacher in Nalma. “People believe it’s based on a local story, and that Pashramu and Yambawati were a local Gurung king and queen.”
Gurung knows the songs, but says he does not know what language they are in. It sounds like Tharu or Bhojpuri, languages spoken in southern Nepal. Since Pashramu meets Yambawati when he is out hunting and far away from his mountain homeland, some people speculate that queen Yambawati was a woman from the Tarai and brought the songs with her.