The Traditional Music and Dance of Nepal

The Musical Instrument Museum Nepal in Kathmandu invited Rolf Killius to film and study traditional Nepalese music and dance. The work focused on the cultures within the Kathmandu Valley.

It is fascinating to fly into the bowl-shaped Kathmandu Valley: below green fertile fields, small villages and hamlets. Towards the right and left the slopes of the hills. From far beckon the snow-peaked Himalaya mountains; nearly at the same height as the aircraft. Suddenly the valley opens up: the outskirts of the mega city of Kathmandu and its twin-towns appear. Despite being a mega city it seems rather like an endless village with vegetable and paddy fields, sometimes with three-story buildings in the middle of a field. While one watches, everything is getting blurred by the smog of Kathmandu, and there already is the runway. With its cities, towns and villages the Kathmandu Valley is the political, economic, and cultural centre of Nepal.  Nowhere are there so many Buddhist and Hindu temples and all of the many communities in Nepal have settled here.

The first impression is that the musical instruments and music are quite similar to various parts of India or Tibet. It seems that the variety of musical and dance cultures of the relatively small Nepal are even bigger than India. There are however some striking differences to Indian music, such as the bent oboe used in the Panchai Baja ensemble, the fact that women also play instruments and that men and women dance together freely. Generally Nepalese music can be regarded as being at an intersection where Indian, Tibetan and Chinese cultures meet, though with a specific Nepalese twist. Important also is that Shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the local religions are manifold and interrelated and have a huge impact on music and dance. Possibly the geographically different regions, the southern plains, the formerly culturally independent Himalayan valleys and the various mountain ranges have enabled all these diverse cultures to develop.

Following these thoughts Nepalese music can be roughly divided according to the geographical areas and religious preferences: the pre-Himalayan plains, the slopes of the Himalayas and the inhabited upper mountain ranges. In a simplified way Hinduism dominates in the plains, Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism the highlands, and a mixture of all prevails in the Midlands. The large Kathmandu valley is part of the latter. Nepal has created a bewildering variety of music and dance genres and styles. There is music and dance for everything: for each annual season and life-cycle event, to heal, to remember the ancestors, to celebrate the numerous Buddhist and Hindu festivals, and as a means of connecting the living with the dead.

As in other South Asian countries Nepal has experienced deteriorating conditions for traditional music and dance. The influence of the almighty Bollywood music from neighbouring India and difficult economic conditions for traditional musicians are some reasons for this. These conditions have had the result that the traditional repertoire is being reduced, musicians seek employment elsewhere, a diminishing musical quality occurs and many genres could now be regarded as endangered.

Although finally in 2008 a democratic republic has replaced the oppressive Hindu monarchy, the socio-economic conditions for most of the people have not yet improved. In a way the difficult living circumstances coincide with the descending movements of the traditional music and dance.

The valuable work of the Musical Instrument Museum of Nepal in Kathmandu and the Music Department within the Kathmandu University in Bhaktapur is slightly more than a drop in the ocean to protect and support traditional music and dance. To support traditional music and dance the Museum organises an annual International Folk Music Film Festival in Kathmandu.


Nepal Music Museum