We find ourselves in Cheskam, high in the foothills of the Himalayas, the farthest stop on a multi-day trek into the Solokhumbu region of Nepal. This part of the region, and this side of the valley specifically, is predominantly Kulung Rai, a highly spiritual people with their own language, their own culture, and their own animist beliefs.
We are led on a short walk up the hillside above where we pitched our tents and are beckoned into the smoky den of a home.
The charred sooty state of the interior speaks to many moons of woodfire filled evenings. Lived-in doesn’t do the term justice; this is one of the homiest abodes that I have ever had the fortune of entering. We are invited to sit around the fire for a spiritual ceremony, flanked by members of dZi and the family that has graciously welcomed us. At the far side of the fire are three distinguished looking elders who drink in our presence with their eyes. We are invited into the center and sit down on threshed mats, in the customary cross legged style.
Smoke swirls around us, wrapping us all in its mystical embrace. As the flames subside into cherry embers an elder approaches with a silver plate full of white rice. Whilst doing so he exaggeratedly inhales and exhales, deeply, rhythmically, his breath matching the pace of his movements. When my eyes meet his he seems to read my stature and my mind simultaneously, and then returns the grains of rice to the platter. Gracefully, purposefully, he retreats to his rightful place at the head of the recently stoked flames, flanked by two similarly wizened faces, and sets himself to the task at hand. A stream of barely decipherable mantras float from his lips in a rhythmic chant that rises up and embraces the smoke that is hanging above our heads. As he kneads the rice, pulling and placing, sorting and selecting, he separates a small mound that he then subjects to further examination, forming a pile on the far side of the silver surface. I am lost in thought, and he is in all of our heads, his concentrated gaze fixed on the rice, on me, on my future, while all of us are entirely transfixed by the purposeful sweeping movements of his hands and the soft rumblings escaping from his mouth.
It is at this point the cultures collide, as a boy who has been otherwise silent sitting in the lap of a beautiful woman to my right, starts to play a game… on a smartphone. The vrooms, beeps, and crashing sounds eclipse the now inaudible chants, and I am shaken out of my reverie and forced to confront this cultural confluence. Yes I am in this blackened abode, high in the hills, taking part in a ceremony as old or older than the crumbling stone walls surrounding us, but I am also here, now, in the 21st century. The signs become increasingly apparent as my ancient illusions are shattered, someone receives a message, a flash goes off briefly illuminating the smoky chamber as as a photo is taken, and I realize that my barefeet are beside toes beset by Nike sandals.
Reeling I try to take it all in, overwhelmed by this reintroduction to modern society, it came as such a surprise in such a faroff isolated land, one seemingly untouched by modernization. I am thrust back into the past, that is my current present, as a worn stainless steel cauldron is positioned over the fire and a metal pipe is used to stoke the flames.
It feels as though I am in between, a temporal limbo, and yet I feel incredibly comfortable and comforted by the swirling smoke.
The elder glances up from the silver platter for the first time and I an engulfed by his gaze that penetrates the haze shrouding the room and my mind. . . .
Stay tuned for more on this ceremonial experience the rest of our Nepal trek, coming soon!
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