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Week 8 in Nepal: Pokhara, Broken Axle, Puja Room, Shiva Cave and Sitting Gufa

Wow! Where do I begin? I have just returned from such an incredible experience….I hope that I will be able to do it justice. We left last Tuesday, traveling by bus from Pokhara to Sangye, where Bel’s best friend lives. We hired a bus to take us instead of hopping on the bus that makes that run several times a day. We had way too many things to take to make that an option. Bishnu and Babita literally took their entire kitchen with them to do the cooking…two burner propane stove, huge gas cylinder, pots, pans, cups, plates and utensils. After having a quick bite to eat at the friend’s home, we transferred all of our gear to the jeep and began the climb to the village. We had only traveled a short distance when the jeep’s rear axle broke. They unloaded all of us passengers and returned to Sangye to get it fixed, leaving us by the side of the road. In typical Nepali fashion, they said they’d be right back…and when we’d call to see what was happening, they would say that they were on their way. This went on for four hours. Finally, they returned with the jeep repaired and we once again began the steep climb. There were times when the ride seemed tolerable and times when I closed my eyes and said some prayers. The vistas were spectacular…when I looked. It was a single track road…unpaved…which set the jeep to rocking back and forth, forward and backwards. Sometimes it would lean so far over on its’ side that I was sure it was going to tip over. If another vehicle comes down the road and there is not enough room for them to pass each other, one of them has to back up or down the track until a side turnout is available. Luckily this did not happen. We were stopped for a period of time because another jeep had broken down and we had to wait until it was clear to climb up past it. Shelly and I were given the honor of sitting in the front seat with the driver while the rest either sat in the back on bench seats that faced inwards…or on the top. By the time we finally made it to the village, it was late and dark. We were greeted by all of the villagers, who had built an archway of flowers for us to pass under. After we passed through, they put tikka on our foreheads and flower mallas (necklaces) around our necks. We then began the climb up to the caves.

What we found was truly amazing. The villagers had cleared the area, brought water in through a long pipe, strung wire so that we could have light, built an amazing toilet and a separate ‘bath house’ with a raised bamboo floor and a woven shelf for our things. They pounded bamboo poles into the ground to form a circle and then attached the chitra (woven mats) they had made to serve as the walls. This formed the room in which we did our ceremonies. More woven mats were spread out on the ground and the tall bamboo tree next to the puja room was pulled over the top of the structure and staked to the ground. Over this they threw a large tarp that created our roof. The villagers had a fire burning outside, which they kept going the entire time we were there. Babita and Bishnu were our cooks. And Sangita came to act as our translator. By the time we had eaten dinner, it was quite late, so we got out our sleeping bags and crashed inside the puja room. As the chitra was being put up, two of the village men came and asked Bel if they could also sit gufa…they both work as jhankri (shaman) and have never had the opportunity to do this important initiation…which he, of course, said yes to. Bel’s friend from Sangye also sat gufa with us, as did his nephew Bikesh. Shelly named the friend ‘Tall Man’, the one without hair became ‘Bald Man’ and the third man had wild hair like one Indian holy man named Sai Baba…so that became his name.

Wednesday morning started our fast. We were able to have tea or coffee, fruits and breads. Each morning the villagers would arrive with fresh milk from their cows and buffalos. They also brought us a steady supply of oranges and bananas from their orchards. Whenever it was time to do puja (ceremony) they would all start to arrive so that by the time we were finished, the entire village would be sitting outside of the door of the room, sitting in plastic chairs and watching us as we worked. This was a little bit disconcerting. We knew that we would be stared out because we were foreigners…but to be the night’s (and day’s) entertainment was a bit strange. Also, when it was time to drink tea or to eat fruit, they would set out at table and two chairs and Shelly and I would have to sit in the place of honor and the villagers were watch us as we sipped our drinks.

We spent the day Wednesday doing the different ceremonies that would prepare us to sit in the caves that night. We decorated the puja room. We wore special costumes and hats, we drummed, played cymbals and hand bells and danced around the outside of the puja room…all the while being watched by the villagers. At one point in time we danced up to the top of the ridge that overlooks the next valley where the cremation ground was and drummed towards that place. Down below was a school. When we returned to the room, I jokingly said that I bet the school does a field trip to come see what was happening. Sure enough, that afternoon the entire school and all of the teachers filed in, stood and watched the camp, walked around our puja room, peeking inside before returning to school.

The puja room was located on a clearing above the slot canyon that contained the caves. To get to the caves, we walked down steps carved into the dirt. On the right side was the ‘Shiva Cave’. Inside this cave were naturally occurring rock formations that were considered sacred. Further down on that same side were the ‘caves’ where Shelly, Bel, Guru and I sat. They were not caves in the classic sense of a room that you enter but more depressions on the side of the slot canyon that allowed us to place our plates of rice and oil lamps with enough of an overhang to have shelter. Tall Man, Somendra, Bald Man, Sai Baba and Bikesh sat on the other side. We began sitting gufa at 10:00 that night. The purpose was to acquire power. To do this, we were to spend the night drumming and working with the spirits of that place. You would call them to you, feel their power and let them shake your body. We had taken our alter plates down and needed to keep the oil lamp going all night. The next day, Guru said he was proud of me and that I had done it well. Shelly and I really worked hard together to stay awake and take full advantage of this rare opportunity. Bikesh also was up most of the night shaking and letting his spirits speak through him. Gufa ended the next morning when the rooster crowed (around 5:30). We all made our way back up to the clearing and were sitting around the fire drinking tea when we heard a bell ringing down by the caves. We looked around to see who was missing and possibly back down in their gufa, but we were all there by the fire…so Kalu (another of Bel’s nephews) and Sangita ran down to see who was ringing the bell only to return and report there was no one there. The villagers say they hear bells and drumming all the time and that it’s the Shikari Jhankri spirit either calling for puja to start or expressing his pleasure.

Thursday was full moon day and all of the villagers took the day off from their chores to spend the day with us. Full moon day is a very auspicious day and to have had jhankris working all night on their behalf made them very happy. When they arrived, we put tikka on their foreheads and passed out Prasad (fruits and breads) that had been blessed during the pujas. We started with the oldest man in the village. He spent five years in a Japanese POW camp during World War II having fought in the British army. After we had put tikka on all who were present, the Father group took over distributing tikka and prasad to all who arrived later. Women would come and enter the puja room to light incense at each of our places and put flowers on our plates. The Mother Group began to sing and dance. Shelly and I presented the village with a stretcher to thank them for all of their hard work. Soon, Shelly and I were pulled into the dancing and it became quite the party. The villagers decided that a book of record needed to be created to mark this special event. So Sangita worked with them to find the right words to describe the time two shamans from America came to their village to sit in their caves. They listed our country and names and we signed the book and wrote brief messages of gratitude. This was truly an historical event for everyone. Some of the old women asked that we please return before they died.

That afternoon, we had one more puja to do. We had created a ‘louie’. This is a representation of the evil spirits that cause harm to the villagers. The main jhankri spirit of those caves is called the Sikari Jhankri who is a hunter…so we had bows and arrows made out of bamboo. Sai Baba put on a mask to represent the evils and danced around the louie and Bald Man pretended to shoot the louie with a bow and arrow. A chicken was sacrificed to appease the evils appetite and stop them from ‘feeding’ on the villagers. We then took it all up to the top of the ridge where we each shot an arrow into the louie before setting it on fire. This ritual was originally scheduled for the evening, but something happened to Shelly that required the chicken to be cut earlier. After the singing and dancing had wound down, Shelly had gone into the puja room to rest and when I went in to check on her a bit later, she wasn’t looking so good and asked for help. I summoned Bel and he worked on her behalf. He said that the Sikari Jhanki has a wife, many children and many students….which his wife doesn’t like. So she tries to cut up the students and feed them to her kids. Because Shelly is a new student, she was trying to ‘cut’ her up and prevent her from becoming a jhankri. After Bel’s treatment and the puja with the louie, Shelly was back to herself. That night, we were finally fed a hot meal…yum!!!!!

Friday morning we slowly packed up all of our gear. The Mother group cooked food for everyone (except for Shelly and I). One of the challenges of going remote is that we cannot eat the food they prepare because it is not cooked in a way that is safe for us to eat. So Babita cooked our food and the Mother group cooked for everyone else. Right before we started to head back down to the jeep, a ‘tikka frenzy’ ensued. Everyone in the village came with a plate with red powder, flowers and oranges. They then began to smear the read powder all over our faces so that by the time we left, our faces were totally red. The Father and Mother groups then led a procession down the mountain, playing their drums and singing. At each home we passed through, more tikka would be put and everyone would dance. It was spectacular. We all sadly had to say good-bye and as the jeep crested the first ridge and I looked back down, they were all down there swinging their shawls above their heads in farewell.

I truly felt so blessed by the entire experience. I got to see Bel’s older brother, who I had met years before at Bel’s oldest daughter’s wedding. I had not seen him in many years. And I also got to spend time with his son Kalu, who used to come down to Bel’s periodically and whom I got to know over the years. He was the one who wired us for light and who worked so incredibly hard throughout gufa, helping with any job that came up. Both and he and Bikesh are real treasures.

The jeep ride back down seemed anticlimactic…and we all made it safely back to Bel’s home. Guru said he was feeling sad because in gufa we had become a family and now we were all dispersing in different directions. I also felt that sadness in my heart. Shelly heads to Kathmandu tomorrow and I follow in two weeks. Sigh!

With great joy in my heart..and constantly on the edge of tears!


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