Religious masks are cultural heritage of Nepal. They can be seen at shops near religious places or at every tourist destinations. Shops donning these masks show us how rich a culture is and the significance of its traditions which has been passed down from generation to generation. These traditional masks belonging to various ethnic groups in Nepal have been in use for hundreds of years now. Different ethnic groups have their own set of masks identifying and separating them from other communities and even the world. These unique masks play a pivotal role in various kinds of ceremonies held every year in the community. Almost all ethnic community has developed their own set of religious and traditional masks.
Traditional masks are made from different materials like wood, brass, copper, bronze, paper and clay. There are different types of masks depicting gods and goddesses, demons, animals, birds and mythical creatures. For gods and goddesses it’s mostly Shiva, Bhairav, Ganesh, Durga while for animals its elephants, lions and tigers that these masks represent. They come in different shapes and sizes and are very colorful in most cases. They can also be found colored in just one color like black or red. These masks are decorated with defined features like big eyes, ears, mouth and some cases fangs.
Masks representing gods and goddesses in Newar and Buddhist communities often are bejeweled with diamonds and other precious stones and some are even completely made of silver or gold. These one of a kind masks are always locked up at the temples’ custody under rigid control and protection from theft and damage. They are only brought out for much special occasions to be worshipped by thousands of devotees who came to get a glimpse of rare mask believed to hold the power of the said deity.
The masks that are used only for religious ceremonial purposes are built by select few with great skill following strict rituals and rites. Nothing can be amiss on these special masks whether it is not getting features and expressions right, a small damage, theft etc or else it is believed that will provoke the deity’s anger and disaster will fall upon the community. Communities such as Newar, Buddhist, Rai, Gurung, Magar, Lama and Tharu use these masks for celebration during festivals and for performing religious rituals and dances or performances.
Not only you can see and buy these from the shops here, if you happen to visit Nepal during festival seasons like Dashain and Tihar or any other festivals like Shivaratri, Indra Jatra and Krishna Janmastami (There is always some kind of festivals going on all year round in Nepal!), you can see these masks being used during performances and dances in the street. You can watch dancers adorned with these masks portraying the stories of gods and goddesses related to the particular festival. Most loved among these has to be that of the Lakhe Dance! You cannot help but be mesmerized by their acts.
Lakhes are mostly mythical creatures of the forest and can sometimes be regarded as a form of various gods and protector of the people. These are the dancers wearing bright colorful clothes accompanied by thick and long mane of white, black or red hair and masks with big eyes and mouth with large fangs which sort of makes them look like demons from another dimension!
The masks of deities are usually used in peoples’ home to ward of evil and to bring peace in home. They can be hanged on walls, doors and windows. With their ever growing popularity, they are now being used for decorations in households as well as in local businesses. One can also take them as a souvenir from trip to Nepal, providing a glimpse of what you have experienced and exuding the essence of the place you have been to!