Pilgrimage to Kalingchok

Our story takes us to the than, or shrine, of Kali, the female energy, located at Kalingchok. The place is a treeless summit (3,810 m) north of Dolkha in north-eastern Nepal, and is set amidst an ocean of hills and clouds that obscure any sign of human inhabitation. It is early dawn, and faint streaks of golden light dazzle in the mist as the sun prepares to come out for another day. This, however, is no ordinary day. For today is Janai Purnima, when the spirits enter the material world, and through pilgrimage, prayers and offerings, the faithful believe it is possible to gain favors from them.

People from far flung villages have walked for days to get here. Their reasons for making this journey are as varied as the languages they speak. Some have come to ask Kalingchok Mai (mother Kali) for a son, others to pray for a good harvest this season. Still others have come to set up roadside eateries that sell everything from tea, noodles, potatoes to cigarettes and the home-brewed liquor, rakshi. Quite a few, like me, have come just to see the mela, or festivities.

Animals seem to be out in equal numbers to be sacrificed to Kalingchok Mai – either to please her into granting a boon, or to thank her for blessings bestowed. “You have to bring her something because Kali Mai seeks blood,” says an old woman with a goat slung on her shoulders.

Those who have spent the previous night in caves and shelters meant for yaks are the first to emerge as they jostle for position around the shrines. Roughly 30 m long and 15 m wide, the place houses bells of differing sizes and huge mounds of tridents left behind by pilgrims. There are three shrines, two of them made of slabs and placed back to back. The oblong-shaped stone is where the chickens are sacrificed, while the round one is for the goats. The third shrine, a little distance away, is a hollow in the ground filled with water, and it is where pilgrims offer milk and fruits.

“The water here never dries up nor does it freeze in winter,” says a young man who has been coming here for the past three years. “This is where Kali Mai bathes herself, and we pray to wash away our sins.”

There is no arguing with his comment. The mystery which surrounds this place, the utter faith and devotion of the pilgrims and the awe the events here command are proof enough.

The hilltop is now a swathing mass of bodies, and there isn’t an inch of space to spare. It is no wonder that the authorities have built a railing around the shrine to prevent people from falling over the cliff.

“Even a hundred thousand people can fit here, it is the power of Mai,” was the observation of one.

The air is filled with cries of “Jai Kalingchok Mai” (praise be to mother Kali) and the hymns of the devotees. Despite the crowd, everyone is cocooned in his or her own personal worship – vying for the favors of the supernatural. Some chant prayers and light butter lamps, while others invoke the gods by ringing giant bells. In one corner, animals are sacrificed at the shrines.

Little dramas unfold here. Children from surrounding villages fight each other over coins offered to the goddess. An old man pushes and tugs in order to get near the shrine – spilling his offerings in the process. But his protests are lost in the din. Another opportunity to seek goddess Kali’s blessing will not come until next year, thus, resulting in the frenzy of activities unfolding here.

Then, as the sun heaves itself over the horizon, bathing the entire congregation in its pale light, you hear it – the unmistakable sound of the jhankri (shaman) drums. Looking downhill, I can see a long line of people, and amongst them are scores of jhankris. Beating their drums and dancing as they climb the treacherous and narrow paths, they are lost momentarily in the swirling mist that heralds the arrival of these spiritual healers.

Their majesty is fully revealed as they enter the gates to the shrine. They are dressed in regal attires of flowing white frock with red headbands, the long ends of which fall gracefully to their feet. A crisscross of bells and beads on their bodies jingle with every movement. And on their heads are crowns of bright peacock feathers and porcupine quills. Each troop of jhankris from different villages is led by a bearer who carries a bumba, or a copper vase filled with flowers. The hills around begin to reverberate to their drums, and the magical air is filled with the pilgrims behind singing “Saio, saio, saio le bumba saio” (lead us, lead us, lead us oh bumba lead us).

Dancing to the rhythm of their drums, they jump and swirl around as their bodies shake in uncontrollable bouts. These are the signs that a spirit has entered them, and people try and touch them to receive mystical healing. Children and adults alike stare at them with fright and fascination as the jhankris beat their drums and throw themselves at the shrines with an almost hysterical rage.

The day wears on, and the steady line of devotees walking along the hills drops to a trickle, a sign that the mela for this year is coming to an end. To the multitudes that have attended, this has surely been a joyous occasion. People living in these remote villages rarely have opportunities when they can express themselves without any worldly cares. Their lives are a constant struggle dictated by the hardships of the land and the will of the elements. This particular day is an opportunity for them to forget the struggles of their daily existence. Old friends living far apart have met, and new acquaintances forged. Mothers are reunited with their daughters, and the daughters in turn show off their children. The gathering has not been for the sake of worship only, but also an avenue for the people to bring meaning to their lives.

It is midday, but the clouds have won the game of hide and seek with the sun. And like the weather, the area around the shrine, too, bears a forlorn look. It is hard to imagine that just a few hours ago this place held “a hundred thousand”. Solitary figures huddled against the cold kneel before the shrines in humility. Occasional bellows of laughter mingled with smoke arise from the tiny restaurants outside the shrine. It has been a successful day – not only for the restaurant operators but also for the gods who have had devotees’ offerings and pilgrims who have had their faith restored and who go back contented with renewed hopes of a good harvest and a son for support during the coming weary years. The jhankris have paid homage to the spirits, and have danced their way back brimming with renewed powers to heal the sick.

The sun momentarily peeps through the clouds as if to see what is left of the events it had helped start. The people have all gone. So have the little eating houses. Only smoldering fires and flickering flames of prayer lamps mitigated in the mist are the remains of the day. Kalingchok is at rest again – free for the spirits to play.