On Top of a Mountain


The Beaten Path

Bhaktapur at 5:15 AM is dark. And cold. No streetlights to illuminate the cobblestone streets and ancient wood carvings on the buildings, only the occasional headlights from a truck or motorbike. The young man at the Nyatopola Guest House was not happy that I needed to leave at that hour. Getting up and waiting in the cold and dark was worth every minute for my experience that followed.

During our day together on Thursday, Shankar invited me to attend a puja (ceremony) for the 45th day after his mother’s passing. For the puja, we needed to travel to his village high on mountain a little over 65 km from Kathmandu by car plus a 2.5 hour hike. His daughter, Swastika, skipped school that day to join us and to be my guide/interpreter during the ceremony. Picking me up at 5:30 AM we were off on our adventure.

We left the car at a small collection of shops at the base of the mountain, parked in front of the shop of someone from the village. Crossing the road, we began our trek up the mountain. Walking up and down the mountain is a part of life for most people who live in the villages dotting the lush green terraced slopes. Jeeps can make it up the steep dirt road, but the price is high and the ride is not any easier than walking. So if you want to get up or down, you walk.

The well beaten path gives testament to the thousands of feet that have traveled over it. As sure-footed as a mountain goat and as if his feet remembered the path from traveling it many times before, Shankar led the way for the beginning part of the hike. Carefully watching his foot placement in some areas, I followed closely in his footsteps. I’m not sure how many of the rests we took were for the sake of Swastika or if they were out of concern for me. Several places the path went up the side of the hill at a steep grade, other areas were a little more gentle, like the portion of the dirt road we walked along for a bit.

As we walked we talked about a variety of topics, mostly about his mother and life in the village. He talked some about his mother. How after she had passed, he and his younger brother carried her all the way down the mountain on a bamboo stretcher resting on their shoulders and barefoot. (I can scarcely imagine how difficult that must have been, especially having climbed up and down the steep slope.) And how when she was sick, he drove her up to the house in his car and at one point the whole village came to help push the car up a particularly steep part of the road. Sometimes you could see the sadness in his eyes as he talked about his mother. Even though the process of mourning is surrounded by celebration of life to ensure good things for the soul in their next life, it doesn’t change the sadness a child feels at the loss of their parent.

Along the way we encountered some kids on their way to school in their uniforms of dark blue pants and light blue striped shirts worn over warmer clothes. Some feigned disinterest me, others eyed me with suspicion or curiosity (I’m never quite sure which it is.) After awhile we had gained a very large following. Every time we stopped, they would also stop. Eventually there was some discussion about me. I told them (in Nepali) that my name was MJ. Shankar also provided some of the answers or interpreted what they were saying.

Almost 2.5 hours after we started our climb, we reach the village, left the kids at the school and made the final short climb up to Shankar’s home. As we approached the top of the road we were greeted by a welcoming party that had been eagerly awaiting our arrival. Two malas (garlands) of gold and maroon marigold flowers were placed around my neck and I was given some red flowers and some more marigolds as everyone said “namaste” to me in greeting. Everyone was extremely happy that we were there.

Shankar's village

Shankar’s village

Honoring a Mother

The particular puja Shankar and his brothers were performing is a means to offer devotion and respect for a relative, typically for a parent. Performed on the 15th, 30th, 45th and 60th day after the passing of the person and then monthly until the one year anniversary of the death, the ritual is seen as a way to alleviate any sufferings the person’s soul might be experiencing as it wanders the world for the year.

Cows are viewed as holy by the Hindus and therefore the dung is considered pure. Using a softball sized pile of dung, the ground where the puja is to be performed is purified. Shankar’s youngest brother mixed the cow dung with water and carefully spread a thin layer over the entire area. The selected area was where their mother’s body was placed when she was brought out of the house after she died. Once the area was purified, only Shankar, his brothers and the priest were allowed to step there. When the ground was dry, mats for the priest and the brothers were placed accordingly and the trays of banana leaf bowls containing rice, sugar, salt, turmeric and ghee were readied.

Amidst the flurry of ceremony preparation, food preparation, daily work and preparation for the larger fire puja set for the next day, I was introduced to the family and given the basic tour of who lives where. A tin cup containing hot milk was produced, followed by a plate of food. Everyone was very curious about me and wanted to know my history. After the 10th time and her sharp memory from Thursday evening, Swastika was very effective in providing the answers (my age, America, single, no children). And following the answers, while the men of the family chatted, I leaned over to Swastika and said “they are trying to find me a Nepali boyfriend, aren’t they?” With the Nepali side-to-side head shake, she smiled and said “yes.”

As time grew closer for the puja, the brothers readied themselves. Dressed only in a white cloth around their waist, the first step was to change the strings they wore across their chest. Following a specific pattern, the new yellow string was placed across the chest and the faded white one was removed. The old string had to be broken, because the spirit in the string is so strong that if another person tried to wear it they would have a burn left on their skin, and tossed somewhere. When they were ready, they took their places in front of the priest. Shankar sat in the middle with his younger brother to his right and his youngest brother to his left.

This puja was clearly for the sons to honor their mother and not a large family ordeal. A few of the family members gathered around for the ceremony, although most kept on with the work at hand. People were sent to gather missing items, extra small bowls and a container of water. Cell phones rang and were answered a couple of times. All while the priest continued with the ceremony I tried unobtrusively as possible to take a few pictures (with permission). Mostly I just sat and watched tying to make sense of what was transpiring and wishing I knew more about the symbolism of the ritual.

In the center of the area, three bowls made of banana leaves filled with rice were placed, the center one with a lit piece of special grass and a puri (fried bread), another with just a puri and the third with a copper bowl of turmeric. Mantras were spoken as offerings were made of the sugar, salt, turmeric and ghee. In synchronized movements, the strings around their chests were moved from the right shoulder to the left and back to the right. Tikka paste was prepared in a tin plate that looks like an artist’s paint tray.

Performing the puja to honor their mother.

Performing the puja to honor their mother.

At the end, everyone received a tikka blessing using the yellow tikka powder. The priest first gave Shankar and his brothers the tikka blessing. After all of them had their blessing, then Shankar gave the priest the blessing followed by the wives, the uncles, the sisters, and the children. When all the others had been blessed, Shankar came up to me and said that he thought it would be best for me to have one too. And with that, the ritual was done.

The brothers changed back into their all white clothing and covered their heads. Food was served in the house where the youngest brother lives. The metal plates were piled full with rice, curry, dal and pickle. The elder males had the place of respect on the slightly raised platform, a seemingly continuous flow as one would finish and another would come sit down in their place. Shankar’s youngest brother is a cook as well as my personal photographer, taking my camera and making sure there were pictures of myself and all the family eating. Shankar and his brothers were the last to eat, this meal being the first of the day because of the ritual.

Before heading in to eat, negotiations had started amongst the uncles and Shankar. Shankar’s uncle had organized a large puja for the next day, to which the whole village had been invited. A similar puja had been arranged after the passing of Shankar’s mother, which Shankar was unable to attend. His uncle wanted to know why he couldn’t attend this time. At every excuse Shankar provided, the uncles countered with some means to overcome that obstacle. First was Swastika’s school and missing two days in a row. (Uncles: Missing two days won’t make any difference on her exams.) Next was that I had already paid for my hotel in Dhulikhel. (Uncles: how much did she pay? (I’m pretty sure they would have taken up a collection if I told them).) After that was that we didn’t have enough bottled water for me to drink. (Uncles: we can have some brought up on a jeep.) Lastly was that where Shankar’s car was parked the owner of the shop was not going to be able to close his doors. (Uncles: A flurry of phone calls to confirm that there was no way to close the shop and what could be done. Resolution: Shankar could walk down the mountain, move the car, and come back up (either by foot or jeep).)

Doing the right thing and happiness is always more important than money. It was clear to me that Shankar staying would make everyone, including Shankar, happy. I told Shankar that I had no problem with staying in the village and that the cost of the hotel booking was truly unimportant. And with that, it was settled. Shankar, Swastika and I would be staying in the village. Shankar would make the trek down and back, to move the car and buy water (and an unnecesary roll of toilet paper/tissue) while he was there.

Shankar and his nephew headed down the mountain, while Swastika, one of the nieces, Shankar’s youngest brother and I headed up the mountain a little further. Swastika wanted to take me up to show me a couple of the temples in the village. The first temple was a small cobblestone wall surrounding a courtyard containing two bells and a colorful shrine. The next temple was down in a valley, bright with green crops and yellow mustard plants. After that we went to visit their other grandmother, a beautiful 81-year-old lady worn by sun and farming. She commanded that I sit, and sent the girls to go and fetch some sugar cane. The girls came back with two large stalks of sugar cane that were about three times as tall as they were. The cane was proficiently cut into smaller chunks and peeled so that we could chew on the fibrous mass to get it to release its sweet goodness. Before we left, we had to have a cup of warm and spicy tea flavored with a touch of black pepper to give it an additional bite.

Returning to the house, we joined in with the food preparation for the next day. The amount of food preparation that goes into feeding over 200 people is pretty impressive. The first job they let me help with was making the puri (round fried bread made using corn flour). My job was to help make balls of dough that the remaining 5 people were rolling out into flat perfectly round circles for cooking. At one point, Amrika asked me if I wanted to try rolling them out. To put it simply, I’m not very adept at rolling and flipping the dough in the right way so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin and ends up in a perfect circle. Being taunted with fresh hot cel roti (circles of dough like a doughnut but with the flavor of a funnel cake made using corn flour), I relinquished my rolling pin and block. After my snack, I went back to rolling the balls of dough.

As we worked, Amrika worked on learning a little English which actually involved a great deal of laughing. One of my habits that I picked up in Thailand is to say “ok, ok”. Amrika started mimicking me when I would say it. Through Swastika she was able to say a few other phrases by the end of the afternoon, including that she wanted to come to America with me. In between laughing, the kind old gentleman that looks a lot like Grandpa Walton from The Waltons, would smile his toothless grin and admonish her to work more and talk and laugh less.

While most of the family worked on food preparation, the rest tended to the evening chores. At one point, it was suggested that I try milking the cow or buffalo. While I would have been game for it, I opted not to. Which I think was a preferable choice for both myself and the buffalo.

As dusk started to settle, Shankar returned from his trek. Car was moved and I had two more bottles of water.

Life on the Mountain

As evening settled on the mountain and the temperatures began to drop, all the activity moved inside. The cheerful noise of people eating and talking resonated off the mud brick walls insulating us from the cold. The happiness of family and community apparent in the tenor of the talk and the smiles on the faces. Shankar was certain I was bored and many times offered that I was welcome to take a rest whenever I wanted to. Even though I couldn’t understand a single word, I was fascinated and warmed to be in the presence of such genuine love and didn’t want to miss any moment of this experience. After dinner, we moved to the other house where a wood fire was built in the cooking area and most the people went to work peeling and cutting the vast quantity of squash that was need for the curry the next day.

Finally it was time for sleep. Even though it was only probably 8 pm, I was exhausted from the long day of rising early, hiking up a mountain and meeting the family. My bed was in the youngest brother’s house. A solid Newari bed made of a wood platform and an inch thick mattress covered with the thickest blanket I’ve ever come in contact with. (Shankar’s youngest brother had brought it back from Saudi Arabia where he has been working.) I snuggled into my bed, head covered with a scarf that had I had been lent, and sank into a sound sleep in the pitch black room. The warm heavy blanket and the warmth and insulation provided by the mudbrick walls made for one of my most comfortable nights sleep of the whole time in Nepal.

Without electricity, life rhythms definitely flow with the rising and setting of the sun. Once I could see a faint thread of light around the wooden shutters and was sufficiently sure that other people were stirring about, I decided it was time to get up. Watching the day get started filled me with a sense of contentment. Each person efficiently and happily performing their chores. Large pots of warm mush (flour and water) was made for the cattle. Cows and water buffalo were milked. Goats were brought out to their stakes and their bundles of food hung from the posts. The embers from one fire being used to start the other. People washing and brushing their teeth with the cold mountain water. Shankar said it must seem strange to me. Just because it is not my normal doesn’t make it strange. In fact, at the heart of it, watching the rituals just enforces how similar all humans are despite their culture or where they live.

Of all the sunrises on the Himalaya that I saw during my week in Nepal, the sunrise from the village was by far the most beautiful. For the first time I was truly able to appreciate the height of Mt. Everest. Instead of being a small triangle on the horizon, its height a victim of perspective robbing it of the respect as the tallest mountain deserves, it appeared as a peak that truly stands above all the others.

Removing Obstacles

Preparation for the Fire Puja was a furry of activity, each person doing their part to make certain that everything was as it should be The main preparation was the area where the puja would be performed. The eldest uncle was in charge of building the altar, a 20″x20″x4″ two-tier square built out of cow dung. Once it was made, he proceeded to decorate it using white flour and red and yellow tikka powder. The white representing peace, the red action and the yellow perfection. At each corner were three flower petals. On the east side, was the name of god (Rama). On the south side, was a conch shell. On the north side, was the weapon of Rama. In the center was a wheel with spokes going to each corner. Along the sides was a scalloped pattern looking like a garland made out of powder.

Fire puja preparation.

Fire puja preparation.

The jovial priest with his effervescent personality arrived wearing a bright orange jacket with silver reflective strips and began his process of setting up the rest of the altar. Several people helped to find ways to string the cloth banners with Sanscrit writing on the wall as another altar was set up for Shankar’s mother and the images from the pantheon of Hindu gods. Music was playing on a loudspeaker, and every now and then at the appropriate moments, the priest would throw in a “hare Krishna” or just a “hare”. When I asked what I could do to help, he said to dance. In demonstration he put his hands in the area and spun around sounding a solid “hare”. My version was a much weaker attempt.

The blowing of the conch shell indicated that the ceremony was beginning. The recorded music that had been playing was replaced with a 3-piece band comprised of an accordion, a pair of drums and cymbals. Once the playing and singing began, it carried on continuously throughout the entire day. Listening to the music, it was easy to become mesmerized and start chanting Hare Krishna along with the music. The men of the village took turns filling in as one needed to go do something or just to give them a break. The constant mantras of hare Krishna filling the air, carrying the praises down into the valley and up into the heavens.

The Fire Puja is considered to be very powerful and has many benefits. For the living, the ceremony fulfills wishes, removes obstacles, improves health and increases merits. For the deceased, the ceremony is a method of purifying negative karma in order for the soul to attain a higher rebirth. During the elaborate ritual, the offering is made by tossing a large number of specific substances into the fire. Among the substances offered during the Fire Puja were barley, sugar, ghee, cel roti, and coconuts.

One of the more interesting offerings was the mound of cow dung covered with flowers. Shankar explained this to be a traditional offering to honor Krishna for saving the people from Indra’s wrath. A long time ago, the ancestors used to make offerings of their crops to Indra. Krishna came along and told them to not make the offering to Indra. This made Indra angry and so she ordered the god of rain to send furious and relentless rains and the god of wind to blow mighty winds. The ancestors went to Krishna and asked what they should do, so he told them they must lift the village to make it a mountain. All the ancestors worked together and with the help of Krishna’s little finger, they lifted the ground and were able to be protected from the wind and rain.

Offering to Krisha.

Offering to Krisha.

Shankar was absent for a good portion of the fire puja, as he isn’t allowed to celebrate through singing or clapping of hands for the year while he is honoring his mother. Mostly I again just watched and tried to take in all the detail, wishing I knew more about the symbolism. Prayers would be said by the uncle and the priest over a substance and it would be added to the fire by the priest. This pattern continued until all of the substances had been offered. The words of the prayers being overshadowed by the mesmerizing sounds of the band playing and chanting.

Finally it came time for everyone to participate. Each person was given a handful of barley and then came to stand behind the priest. I wasn’t going to participate until the priest handed me a handful of barley. Shankar was quickly summoned to explain the process to me. While chanting the name of god, offerings are thrown into the fire 3 times. The process was repeated with sugar and coconut. Lastly was a handful of marigold petals. The petals were thrown into the fire while walking around the altar. Coming back around to the starting point at the front of the altar, each person got down and bowed. This process marked the end of the first part of the ceremony.

After a short respite while the area in front of the other altar was finished being prepared for more ritual was performed. All the time the band continued to play the mesmerizing music. People from the village had begun arriving and finding places to sit on the ground in front of the house. The uncle’s oldest daughter was in charge of giving tikka blessings to the people as they arrived. Children that arrived looked at me with that blend of curiosity and suspicion. (Looking back at pictures, I would have looked at myself the same way given the state of my hair having not been brushed and my clothes having been slept in.)

Once ready, the next part of the ritual started up. The priest began by pouring a circle of water on the ground. Next he placed offerings of sugar, salt, grains and tikka powder around the circle at the six points of the star that represents knowledge. The fervor of the celebration picked up with a flurry of spinning, chanting, playing music, blowing conch shells and ringing the bell. The cacophony of sounds meant to ensure the gods hear the prayers and send their blessings.

As mid-day approached, we slipped away from the ceremony and took our last meal with the family before heading down the mountain. Once we finished our meal and bags had been loaded with fresh spinach, squash, garlic, ghee, and fresh cows milk to take back to the city with us, it was time to say goodbye. Shankar suggested that I go over to the group and say namaste to the village. When I did, the priest came over to me and insisted I first dance, indicating that I mimic him in turning with my hands held up in the air. He then placed a mala around my neck and insisted I spin again. Then he gave me an orange and insisted on one final spin. Laughing and happy, I bowed and said one last namaste. Then off we went, accompanied by his brother and one of the uncles for a short way down the road.

Going down a mountain is much faster, although not necessarily easier on the body. We avoided one of the particularly steep areas by taking the road for awhile. With great concern, Shankar kept reminding me to go slowly. I followed him, carefully placing my feet in his footsteps. Along the way, two gentlemen from the village caught up with us. They joined us, carrying Swastika’s backpack as she was struggling with the weight and had developed blisters on two of her toes. They reacted when great concern when I slipped and plopped down on my bottom and again when Shankar also slipped. An hour and a half after we left the village, we arrived at the car.

My final night in Nepal was spent in Shankar’s home. The long drive home was punctuated by stops to buy fresh butter and pick up my belongings from his brother’s house, taking time for a cup of tea and to show pictures of the ceremony. At home, I met his father, a lovely and happy old man and we had a delicious, filling meal after our long two-day journey. Shankar’s wife and everyone ensured that I was comfortable and warm. Covering myself with a fleece blanket and then the quilt, I slipped into peaceful sleep.

In the morning, after the flurry of getting the children off to school and eating some of the most delicious rice pudding I have ever had (Shankar’s wife promised to teach me how to make it the next time I visit), we took our breakfast and I loaded all my pictures from our two days onto Shankar’s computer. His father seemed so happy to see the pictures and spent the 45 minutes that I was gone to walk into Bhouda to buy a few more souvenirs looking at them continuously. Not many people have cameras in Nepal, so seeing pictures of relatives and of the village was particularly special for him.

Finally it was time to head to the airport. Shankar’s father insisted on going with us. At the doorway, his father standing outside the door and me just inside, I was given a tikka blessing, a mala and an orange. The blessing was to ensure a safe and successful journey.

The whole family is a truly kind and genuine group of people who I am so fortunate to have encountered.

A Touch of Nepali Culture

Throughout my blogs I have said very little about some of the customs that I have encountered since I felt they deserved their own special discussion.

Eating in Nepal was one of the most interesting cultural differences I encountered. Nepali eat their food using their right hand. All the food is mixed together on the plate using fingers and then eaten. My food was typically given to me with a spoon as no one expected me to follow suit. On the morning of our stay in the village, they made me a traditional meal of dhindo (thick corn porridge) and sag (cooked spinach). Several people were concerned that I would have difficulty eating this with a spoon. So, much to their amusement and surprise, I followed by example and ate using my fingers. Eating using fingers as the utensil actually makes great sense as it allows you to enjoy the texture as well as the taste of the food. At lunch, I also used my fingers, quietly and without fuss. Shankar noticed and just gave me a nod and a happy smile. Eventually someone else noticed, followed by a warm smile and a laughing comment.

Love is also shown through food. Plates are piled full of food. When the plate is nearing empty, more food is offered. Politely I would accept additional food saying torre (just a little) so as not to offend and to accept the hospitality. The idea of just a little seems to be lost on most people out of wanting to show love and caring. By the last meal in the village, Shankar’s youngest brother actually obliged by only giving me a true little bit more.

Another cultural practice that it took me some time to adjust to was Swastika and other children asking an elder person permission before doing something. The first evening that I ate with Shankar’s family, the kids asked me if they could eat prior to going into the kitchen to take their dinner. In the village, Swastika would ask permission to stand (leave after eating) and to go to the bathroom or off to spend times with the village kids. Such a simple act that shows how elders are honored in Nepali society.

The beautiful more intimate greeting between people was another cultural aspect that I found endearing. At one point during the puja on the second day there was a brief time where people took time to greet each other. The greeting is done only between people of the same gender (with the exception of the old man who greeted me following this ritual). For this traditional greeting, a pair of people say namaste with their hands in prayer position and a bow of the head, then two hugs are given with hands placed on shoulders and changing sides left to right with each hug, then fingers are placed with the thumbs at the third eye (just between the eyebrows) and with fingers touching a final bow is given while uttering namaste and the name of god (Rama). This manner of greeting is to show that you recognize and honor the god that is within each of us. As I was leaving, I honored Shankar’s wife this way.

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