Once in a Halloween Blue Moon in KathmanduUnlike in the West, people of the Himalaya are totally at ease with the mystery of their lunar calendar
The lichened terrace wall chaffs the back of my legs and jasmine scent floods the night air as I wait for the blue moon to rise. The gradated rosy glow of sunset has etched the forest trees a black silhouette against the sky fading along the Kathmandu Valley rim. A chorus of crickets shrills in the bushes, and my bare feet can just detect the lost glow of afternoon sun in the terracotta tiles.
Blocked by the bulk of Shivapuri looming behind the house, the dappled golden orb was slow to reveal herself above the horizon, sailing stately into the navy night sky. The rare spectacle of a spooky full moon on Halloween 31 October visible all around the globe has not occurred since 1944, 76 years ago deep in the last dark days of World War II. The next one will not be until 2039. I shivered, even though it was not a cold evening.
It’s complicated, but a so-called blue moon is when a year has 13 full moons instead of the usual 12, the name given to the third full moon in a season that has four moons (normally a quarter year has three full moons). However more recent usage refers to when two full moons fall within the same month, as happened the other night very exceptionally on Halloween.
But one thing is sure - the moon never looks blue and the event is not particularly unusual. A normal lunar cycle is 29.53 days, so two full moons are squeezed into one month about every two or three years, or seven times in 19 years to be exact. Although the origin of the name is hazy, I like the fanciful speculation that the term is derived from archaic English belewe or belaewe meaning ‘to betray’ because the extra moon "betrays the usual perception of one full moon per month."
So why ‘once in a blue moon’ to denote something that almost never happens, extremely seldom, absurd or an indefinitely long time? Under extraordinary and rare atmospheric conditions the moon has been known to appear blue, and indeed sunsets turn green and the sky red, due to dust and smoke particles caused by prolonged droughts and the volcanic explosions of Krakatoa, Mount St Helen, and Pinatubo.
In the West we have become dislocated from the celestial cycles, preferring our high days and holiday dates fixed and predictable on the annual calendar. Moons get a bad rap, unreliably made of green cheese and linked with lunacy, and blue moon crooners allude to sadness and loneliness in their songs. Easter is one of the few annual moveable feasts in the liturgical year, preceded by Lent and Holy Week and finishing with Pentacost, fifty days later. This week we mark Poppy or Remembrance Day in memory of all those lost in conflict, fixed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment that the Armistice was signed in 1918.
On the other hand, people of the Himalaya are totally at ease with the mystery of lunar calendars which determine all religious festivals, life celebrations and even government rule in Nepal, as well as tsechus in Bhutan, purnima Hindu rituals and Buddhist traditions. Comfortable with uncertainty, astrologers presided over everything from royal decision making to sacred ceremonies, to ordinary existence, rites of passage, and practical concerns such as auspicious dates for travelling, initiating projects and even finding missing property.
Soon after arriving in Nepal, some cash went missing from a bedroom in the Sanepa guest house where I was staying. To resolve the acrimony and accusations, the whole household repaired to a low dark room deep in the Kathmandu bazar, traipsing up a narrow staircase with bowed heads to settle around a lady psychic seated against the wall. A blue shawl shrouded her head and a shy little boy leaned against her knee. Swaying forward she muttered incantations, then consulted the boy’s palm that had been carefully smeared with a shiny black paste. We waited in awed expectation. Sure enough, the revelation on that tiny hand was able to describe a clear vision of someone entering the room, opening the trunk and taking the money. The thief was identified, and we all returned home satisfied and relieved.
Cosmology governs the sequence of spectacular festivals that mark the Valley’s seasons and 12-year cycles, integral to normal existence for local inhabitants and core tourism attractions for visitors. I used to bike and hike through the dirt lanes and paddy fields to distant villages and far-flung temples, sampling the celebrations, witnessing the pujas, and processing with the pilgrims. I mixed with the colour-drenched crowds who concentrated in the Durbar Squares for vibrant festivals observed unchanged over centuries.
One Indra Jatra I found myself in the royal rana magnificence of the great room of Kathmandu’s Hanuman Dhoka Durbar, overlooking the square thronged with worshippers and pyramids of people packed onto the temple steps. As privileged guests we mingled with ministers, generals and diplomats in that imposing space beneath the sculpted columns, glittering glass chandeliers and grand vaulted windows. From our vantage on the stucco balcony, we could look directly into the intimacy of the Kumari’s chariot and feel the fervour of the masked dancers.
For me it was a once in a blue moon memory, especially precious as that wing of the palace was later destroyed in the 2015 earthquake.