The power and pull of Pathibhara
There is a belief that a pilgrimage to the mountain-top shrine of Pathibhara is all it takes to have one’s wish granted by the gods. However, there is also a belief that if the journey is too easy, the blessing may not be granted.
Many kings and politicians in the past have been thwarted by weather or other obstacles from taking a helicopter to the shrine located at the summit of a monolithic 3,800m high pyramid-shaped mountain in eastern Nepal.
Like other holy places in other religions, the hardships endured in the journey are as important as the act of worshipping and sacrificing sheep at the shrine. It is not supposed to be easy.
Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari, Yeti Airlines founder Ang Tshiring Sherpa and five others had flown in from Kathmandu to Tehrathum on the morning of 27 February to inspect a proposed airfield. The weather was closing in, and angry dark clouds had enveloped the mountains to the north.
There was talk about the weather getting worse, and the need to get back to Kathmandu. But after the helicopter took off, the group appears to have decided to make a quick trip up to Pathibhara.
We will never know who proposed the side trip, but within ten minutes the chopper was on the helipad below the shrine. Soon after, the pilot radioed the tower at Suketar airfield that there was heavy snow and it was not possible to take off. The passengers waited it out inside the helicopter sipping tea, and waiting for the clouds to clear.
Information pieced together from conversation overheard by the temple priest suggests that one of the passengers suggested they take off because the weather enroute was fine. That turned out to be a fatal decision, the helicopter crashed into the cliff at Sisne Bhir a minute after takeoff.
Pathibhara was an animist Limbu shrine, but after the Gorkha conquest came to be revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike as a holy shrine. The temple is so called because the mountain is shaped like a pathi (a grain container). Local Limbus worship it as a place of power and purity. No matter how old the devotees, they are all guided by devotion to undertake the steep all-day climb up from the road.
That Pathibhara temple is located so high and the trail is almost impassable during heavy rain or snow means many try to fly there, and helicopter companies offer quick roundtrips from Suketar, or even Dharan.
It is not just the final climb on foot that is arduous, the ride from Birtamod to Fungling is no less difficult – it can take a whole day along narrow and serpentine mountain roads.
In the old days, people had to make a two-week trek from the plains, but with the road to Taplejung, the journey time was cut to three days. Now, an expensive and jolting jeep ride takes pilgrims up to Tallo Phedi. Many prefer to walk because the roller coaster ride on the jeep is not for the faint-hearted. There is also a shortage of jeeps, which means pilgrims returning prefer to walk back to Fungling instead of waiting.
From Tallo Phedi it is a long climb to Mathillo Phedi, the ramshackle base camp for the final summit climb. Hundreds of pilgrims cram into tin huts huddled together for the night. The hardships are part of the pilgrimage, and endured uncomplainingly by devotees.
Pathibhara gets over 350,000 visitors per year, and half of them are on the trails at any given time, some even wake up at 2AM and walk with flashlights just to be ahead of the crowds.
Despite the throngs, the forests are lush with oak and rhododendron giving way to pine and alpine meadows. Within a few weeks the rhododendron will be out in full bloom in many colours: pink, red, striped, and sometimes solid and striped flowers on the same tree. This year many branches have broken due to the weight of heavy snowfall.
The majestic peak of Jannu Himal and Mt Kanchenjunga accompanies visitors throughout the climb, and the 360 degree view from the summit is stunning. Even those who are not particularly religious are overwhelmed by a feeling of exhilaration by the panorama, the crisp cold air and the mysterious energy of the shrine that pull many to it.
The Minister and Sherpa reportedly flew to Pathibhara to inspect a proposed cable car up to the shrine. Perhaps the legends are right, and the gods of Pathibhara do not want it to be more accessible.
Unleashing Kanchenjunga, Anurag Acharya