With the shamans of Gosainkunda
A week before my planned trek to Gosaikunda last month, I was in Kathmandu uncertain if the annual Janai Purnima festival at the holy lake had been cancelled as Nepal was still reeling from the second wave of the pandemic.
Nonetheless, I took my chances and was soon on my way to the lake revered by Hindus, Buddhists and animists alike to document the shaman festival that coincides with Janai Purnima.
On the way, I met people with conflicting information about the festival being held this year, and when I finally reached Gosainkunda, the owner of the lodge told me thousands of people would arrive soon.
“For three days, you can stay in the room. On the fourth day, you will have to move to a tent,” he said.
At Trishul Dhara on the morning of Janai Purnima, a female shaman arrived and started performing the rituals with a trident on which she tied a white and a red scarf. On her forehead, she wore a red cloth with cowrie shells sewn in. She took a dip in the freezing water of the lake and climbed up to Trisul Dhara, the source of the holy Gosaikunda. The water from here flows down to the Trisuli, Gandaki, and finally the Ganga in India.
The full moon played hide and seek through the monsoon mist all night. In the morning, at Trisul Dhara another group of shamans sang and danced as if in a trance to a traditional shamanic drum dhyangro.
The rituals included filling up a decorated jug with water from Trisul Dhara and pouring it onto the palms and heads of devotees. The rest of the water was sprinkled in the four directions before the shamans left, beating their drums rhythmically and chanting.
Janai Purnima gets tens of thousands of pilgrims from Kathmandu, Central Nepal and even India, although since last year the mood has been subdued. New tents and makeshift shops had sprouted along the trail to cater to the influx of devotees. Mules laden with LPG cylinders were seen walking past the Shiva temple by the lake.
In the open space near the temple were hundreds of people dressed in colourful attire singing and dancing. It was raining, but not strong enough to break the festive spirit.
Later, a competition took place. Each shaman had to play dhyangro without dropping an egg placed on top of the drum. A shaman who appeared to be the oldest won the contest and then broke the egg to the top frame of the temple door.
After circling the temple, shamans began walking towards Trisul Dhara, where more rituals followed for the benefit of the novice shamans who were ‘graduating’ on this holy day.
As the sunset neared, and monsoon clouds moved up the Bhote Kosi valley, obscuring the view of Ganesh Himal, I went back to the lake where devotees had been taking a dip all day long with a belief that it will wash away their sins.
At the lodge, there were no more rooms, people had to sleep in the dining area. I was asked to adjust with others on the upper floor. It was impossible to sleep, the haunting beat of drums and the hypnotic songs went on by the lakeside.
Next morning, the show was over and it was time to head down the steep and muddy trail to Syapru Besi. Trekking during the monsoon in Nepal is an adventure, and the pandemic added an edge to it.
The shamans showed that their primordial bond with nature and the spirits is strong and alive, and is being passed down to a new generation.
Pravez Shaikh is an aspiring documentary photographer from India with an interest in religions, cultures, and traditions shaping humankind.