My journey through the Himalayas – Ancient wisdom and customs in the modern world

“Every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?”

Wade Davis

On my first journey leaving Europe, I had the fortune to experience corners of the world, where people have not forgotten the old ways, where different religious faiths live in harmony, where death is celebrated as part of life, where people spend their entire lifetime preparing for a moment we pretend does not exist: death, where people don’t seem to be searching for happiness, but instead, embrace things just as they are, not trying to manipulate their circumstances to be happy, and therefore, are content with what they have and where they are in life.

It all started with a slip of the tongue. One morning, in a moment of frustration, my husband sighed up jokingly: ‘We should just disappear into Tibet!

Me: ‘Tibet?! Let me check …’

So I had a look, and I was fascinated, and the whole journey was planned and booked within 2-3 weeks. We left London on 12th August 2019.

Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu, is the central of Nepal’s history, art, culture, and economy. Kathmandu, the city of temples at the foothills of the Himalayas, has a multiethnic population with a Hindu and Buddhist majority. It is also the home of the Newars, the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley and its surrounding areas in Nepal. They are the creators of its historic heritage and civilisation.

Nepali and Newari are the most spoken languages in the city. The two languages belong to different language families: Newari is a Sino-Tibetan language, Nepalese is an Indo-European language, but centuries of contact have resulted in a significant body of shared vocabulary.

Kathmandu is a very lively city and we happened to be there at a time when two important festivals were taking place that usually fall in July or August.

The Sacred Thread Festival

Hindu men celebrate Janai Purnima, a Sacred Thread Festival. The festival celebrates the bond of pureness and security. Janai means holy thread and Purnima is the full moon. On this day, Hindu men, especially the Brahmins perform their annual change of Janai and all who celebrate this festival put a sacred thread around their wrist. Wearing these holy threads protects the faithful from demons and is a blessing for the earth. Janai Purnima is a Hindu festival, and it was fascinating to see Buddhist monks also taking part in the celebration by helping out in the event as a token of friendship. 

On the occasion of Janai Purnima, thousands of devotees visit hiti ponds or spouts in Patan. There is a popular belief that the water spring that fills these spouts comes all the way from the holy lake of Gosainkunda, which is located about 43 km north of Kathmandu. Taking a dip in that pond during Janai Purnima is equivalent to taking a dip in Gosainkunda itself.

Janai Purnima is also a big day to observe the Shaman culture. On this day Shamans of the valley and around Nepal gather to perform their ancient rites. We could see some of them in trance. It was a wonderful, colourful and lively festival.

The following day, we took part in Gai Jatra and witnessed how the Newar people celebrate death as part of life.

The festival of cow

Gai Jatra is a festival of commemoration, dancing, singing, and laughter. The word “Gai” means cow in Nepali. Cows are worshipped as a vehicle associated with the goddess of wealth ‘Laximi’ in the Hindu religion. The festival of cow is celebrated in the Kathmandu Valley to commemorate the death of loved ones.  As part of the festival family members of the deceased of the past year gather at home to commemorate by creating and decorating a beautiful bamboo framework upon which they indicate the dead ones with their possessions and photographs. 

The family then embarks on a procession and parade on the streets.

The origin of this celebration goes back to the reign of the Malla rulers (1201-1769). It is said that one Malla Queen was in mourning for a long time after the death of her son. The king, in an attempt to console her asked every family that lost a loved one to come out in a procession to show the queen that she was not alone with her suffering. That is why there is much joy and joking during the procession that goes through the streets.

Gai Jatra is celebrated by the local Newar community residing in Kathmandu, Lalitpur (or Patan) and Bhaktapur districts with great enthusiasm and excitement. The Gai Jatra is also a public holiday in Nepal.

People offer foods, beaten rice, curd, and coins to the cows and the young boys who are dressed as cows. They believe that this will bring good fortune, peace, and harmony not only to them but also their own families and the city as well.

What is more unique about Gai Jatra in Bhaktapur is the Ghinta Ghisi dance which shows similarities to the Morris dance, a form of English folk dance. The dance is performed in a long row of people, performing rhytmic stepping and choreographed figures, the two opposite people hitting each other’s stick.

Ghinta Ghisi dance

We were overwhelmed to observe such energy, humour and colours in an event that is triggered by a rather sad occasion.

On the roof of the world

Then, we took off to go into Tibet and to reach the higher Himalayas. This was a physically very challenging part of our journey due to thin mountain air in the regions above 3000-4000-5000 meters. We learnt a lot about our bodies physical capabilities and limits.

What we saw and experienced was again something mind-blowing. Tibetan Buddhists spend their entire lifetime preparing for a moment we pretend does not exist: death.

“We spend all of our lifetimes trying to live to be hundred without losing hair and teeth. Those Buddhists spend their lifetime trying to understand the nature of existence. We race against time, seek happiness, define success by measures of the material wealth and achievements. To the Buddhists, this is the essence of ignorance. They remind us that all life grows old, that suffering is part of life, and that all possessions decay.”

Wade Davis

As our fantastic Newar guide in Kathmandu explained: “We are visitors in this world. We never bring along what we own.”

The sand mandala which we saw in Sera monastery near Lhasa is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from coloured sand. A sand mandala is ritualistically destroyed once it has been completed to symbolise impermanence and that nothing is eternal.

Before laying down the sand, the monks will draw the geometric measurements associated with the mandala. The sand granules are then applied using small tubes, funnels, and scrapers, until the desired pattern over-top is achieved. Sand mandalas traditionally take several weeks to build due to the large amount of work involved in laying down the sand in such intricate detail. It is common that a team of monks will work together on the project, creating one section of the diagram at a time, working from the centre outwards.

Sand mandala in Sera Monastery

Tibet is a nation that has given so much to humanity. It was devastating to see the Chinese dominance and attempt to control spiritual and everyday life. The imposition that lies behind this is an assertion of superiority of knowledge, and culture: “I know it better than you”, “You are inferior to me”. Let’s admit, it is a dynamic that drives the cult of progress that is the modern world’s development paradigm. 

But here’s a powerful reminder from Wade Davis, author, anthropologist, ethnobotanist, filmmaker and photographer whose book The Wayfinders. Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world has majorly inspired this blog post:

“The myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked this question, the cultures of the world respond in 7000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species over the next 2500 generations, even as we continue this never-ending journey.”

The resilience and redemptive spirit of the people of Tibet is something to behold though. As you go into these “remote” places on Earth, you actually discover that they are not remote at all. They’re homelands of somebody, they are homelands of people.

So let me finish this post, with a quote from Octavio Paz, Mexican poet and diplomat:

“Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life.”

Octavio Paz

The nomad Yak herder on the slopes of the Chomolungma teaches us that there are other options, that there are other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the Earth. This wonderful cultural and linguistic diversity is something the humanity must cherish.


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