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Diwali shines a rare spotlight on Nepal’s untouchables

As modern times sweep Nepal, members of the ancient musician caste find themselves grasping at an old way of life — or racing to catch up.

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s musician caste, which is considered among the untouchables, is used to being relegated to the sidelines of society. But on this year’s Diwali, or the Hindu festival of lights, a group of 10 Gardharbas found themselves at center stage.

This year, Diwali, which is known in Nepal as Tihar, was celebrated around Oct. 17. That day and night, a group of 10 musicians, referred to as Gandharba or Gaaine, wandered through Kathmandu’s neighborhoods plying their minstrel trade at the houses of both rich and poor.

Long after dark the group entertained their hosts with music and song — a pastiche of traditional and improvised lyrics that elicited laughter, catcalls and even tears from audiences and performers. The musicians were rewarded with offerings of rice, bread, fruit, liquor and money. It was a return to an old tradition that is rapidly dwindling in a modern Nepal.

“Ever since I was a young child we only go wandering on Tihar. We can make money on Tihar, but we don’t do it only for money, we also do it for our old culture,” said Kishwor Gandharba, 20, a recent high school graduate whose father works in Kathmandu’s tourist district of Thamel.

The Gandharbas are a small caste virtually unknown beyond the borders of the Himalayan nation. They roam from town to town, playing music on their sarangees — the rough equivalent to fiddles — to make money where they can.

A 2001 census found that there were almost 6,000 Gandharbas in Nepal, accounting for only 0.03 percent of Nepal's population of more than 22.7 million. Though, many in the caste claim their population now hovers around 10,000.

Despite their relatively small numbers, Gandharbas hold a unique place in Nepali society, said Stephanie Spray, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and film, who began studying Gandharbas in 2001.

For centuries, they have been oral historians and conduits for information across Nepal’s famously rugged terrain. They were dispatched by king Prithivi Narayan Shah to spread the news of Nepal’s unification 240 years ago and the sarangee has emerged as an iconic symbol of Nepali culture. Even 20 years ago it was common to see Gandharbas wandering from town to town as their primary source of income.

Today, wandering represents not only a way to make ends meet, but also a means by which to ensure the survival of Gandharba traditions.

“We have to save our own culture. Playing the sarangee, playing the arwaaj [a traditional stringed instrument] is a blessing for our culture,” said Purna Bahadur Ghandari, 52.

Despite its rich pedigree, Gandharba culture has been shaken by the influx of modern media, according to Jacob Penchansky, director of the Mountain Music Project, an organization aimed at preserving traditional music and culture.

“As radio, TV, internet and recorded music become more ubiquitous, [the Gandharbas’] role is no longer so important,” he said. “Because of this, you see many Gandharbas moving to the city to find a life dependent on the tourist industry, which offers little guarantees.”