While I am in Panauti, a very important festival and celebration is taking place. A Soma Yajya. I won’t go into the religious and spiritual significance because I will probably get it wrong, but you can read about it here
To simplify, a large structure is built out of bamboo and twine, covered in fabric and tarps, and a specific set of ceremonies are performed over six days involving sacrificing cow and goats milk with ghee to large fires and a lot of beautiful chanting. At one point, 40 foot high fireballs are produced, and sometimes, on the last day, they burn the structure to the ground. Unfortunately, at this particular yajya, they are not burning it down.
These events are usually only held in India, but this year, Nepal was chosen to promote the peace that has taken hold in the country, and to promote worship without sacrificing animals. Panauti was chosen because it is one of the holiest places in Nepal. This is the first time that Nepal has hosted one of these… well… if not ever, then a really long time.
The structure is the size of a hockey arena and about five stories high. Enormous lengths of bamboo are held together with twine. About 20 priests and hundreds of volunteers work to make the Somayagya a successful venture. It takes on a festival atmosphere complete with vendors, information tents, and support facilities (there is no yagya beer tent however.
The chanting is amazing… when you can hear it. As I mentioned in a previous post, an unfortunate part of life in Nepal is electrical “load shedding”, which means the power goes off often. Also, the microphones kept popping in and out, and the sound guy thought it would be neat to add a reverb delay to make the chanting sound like it came from a robotic toilet. I had to remind myself several times that I was on vacation and they didn’t need some Canadian dude screwing with their mix… but I felt like saying “Dude! The priests don’t need a vedic auto-tune! Turn off the reverb!”
It seems to me that regulations in this country are more suggestions than hard set rules. What the stage hands and crew can get away with here just wouldn’t fly back home. The riggers here just climb with no harnesses, and no footwear, (from now on I’m calling it the high bamboo and not high steel), the electricians use an amazingly tiny gauge of wire to run all of the lights, and hook them up with marrettes while the power is live down the line. Instead of a crane, the cameraman just leans a 14 foot ladder against a bamboo pole and climbs it to get a better angle… with no one footing the ladder. The sound guys haul up huge speakers into the rafters using crappy, unrated camping rope without a harness and over the crowd. I have pictures that I’ll upload later once I can figure out how to get the shots out of my camera.
Now, I understand that these guys are doing the very best that they can with what is given to them. Recycled wire and gaff tape, old gear and some gear that I’ve never heard of, is the norm over here, and whoever can get the job done, gets the contract, but a lot of things I saw would have made a workplace health and safety inspector’s head explode.
The sound and light rental company guys cracked me up. I snapped a shot of them hanging out in their van for a chai break, and it might has well have been the crew room at MTC. I even named all of the guys in my head. There was a Nepalese John T., a Nepalese Hart Greenberg, a Nepalese Ray G., and a Nepalese Doug Antoine (he isn’t in the picture because he was using the washroom).
But among all of the perceived hazards, there are moments of pure genius. Amidst the tents on the festival grounds, there is one tent handing out Prasad (food offered up to the Gods and then consumed by humans). Prasad can be anything from spiced dhal to rice sweets to nuts, almost any kind of food as long as it’s vegetarian and fresh (kicks but on the cardboard host that the Catholics give out).
Instead of handing out Prasad on plastic or styrofoam plates, they give it out on leaves pressed into the shape of a bowl. When you are done eating, you just drop the bowl and it becomes a leaf again and composts quickly. Brilliant!
Among the thousands and thousands of people here, there are only a handful of caucasians, and as far as I can tell, I’m the only Canadian. I can’t walk anywhere on the Yajna grounds or in the townsite without hearing “Hey! Jawn from Kanada! namastē!”, and as always, I’ve become a kid magnet. Groups of children flock to me and ask me questions about where I’m from, where I’m going, why my hair is grey, and have I eaten yet. Most of them are pleasant, but over here, some kids may be pickpockets and scam artists, not just curious children wondering why the western Santa Claus is in Nepal needing a hair cut. It’s good practice because I’m going to get a lot more of that in India as they try to fleece me.
Food in Panauti is fairly simple, but tasty. At least it is where I’m staying. Every morning I get a simple omelette with dry toast and masala tea, and for dinner, rice with stewed vegetables, soup, poppadoms and a really tasty drinkable yogurt called juju dhau or kurrd. But I’ve had this menu almost everyday while in Panauti, and I’m looking forward to getting back to Kathmandu and India for a change of pace in the menu front. I may even have to get myself some Yak cheese when I’m there.
All in all, Panauti has been a wonderful and peaceful place to start the trip, and the Yajna didn’t disappoint, with some huge fireballs and a real sense of people coming together to foster peace and wellbeing in Nepal and everywhere else.