Yesterday morning, I walked down to the Bajrabarahi temple with one of our interpreters, Gunaraj, and his fiancé. I had been sitting at the table with Dr. Lucy, having a tea before breakfast, when Gunaraj brought in some fry bread that is eaten on holy days. He said he had to go to the temple before he had food and invited me to walk with him. I jumped at the chance.
January 14th is the Hindu holy day called Makar Sankranti. (It is also Felix’s birthday, though we are one day ahead, so I will not call him until the 15th here.) This is a very important day in the Nepalese calendar. It marks the start of Spring and it ends the time of darkness/winter in which sacred rituals cannot be performed. After this day, the Nepalese are free to perform their rituals with the good favor of the gods and the sun.
To celebrate this day, the Nepalese often take a bath in one of the holy rivers. However, in Bajrabarahi, we wake up to temperatures in the high 30’s, with no heating systems. Our living quarters have bedrooms whose doors open directly to the outside and our windows are not insulated. I sleep in a 15 degree, down sleeping bag wearing wool socks, two layers of wool long johns, my hooded down jacket and a merino wool hat. The last two days, I slept with my thick scarf on. The dry grass landscape looks white at 8am, due to a heavy layer of frost. The joints in my thirty-nine year old fingers feel stiff and painful for the first few hours after I am up. It’s unlikely that anyone would go for a dip in this.
The Bajra temple is across the street from the clinic. We walk through a white gate and down a spiral set of concrete steps. Small, covered porches are set along the sides near the bottom. On one of the walls, Shiva has been drawn with Nepali words underneath. I know that they say something to the effect of “Be it known to all, this is the temple of the Goddess, Bajrabaraji!” since I asked on an earlier day about this. He stares at me, with his trident held tightly in his right hand and I quietly acquiesce. Though Shiva both intrigues and frightens me, I have decided that Bajrabarahi might well be the god that has most of my attention on this trip. I am determined to let her know that I come in peace and that I only want to be here with her permission.
When we get to the bottom of the steps, Gunaraj opens the plastic sac he has brought. His fiancé pulls out a large, square metal plate. She arranges some small cedar boughs in the upper right corner as he hands her a fistful of sweet black incense sticks. They pull paper packages from the bag. One is bright red tikka powder and she carefully empties it into the left corner. The next is a yellow powder that she taps into the center. There is another pouch of rice and then some fennel seeds. These are carefully arranged as well. Lastly come two duck eggs. Gunaraj had carefully marked these as sacred with vertical yellow lines and then added small dots with the red tikka powder. These are set into the middle of the plate. She hands him a metal drinking cup and he runs down some steps to the river to fill it with the holy water.
We stand close to the altar, where many families have lined up with their own offerings. Though Gunaraj is cold and wants to light the incense sticks and get on with it, his fiancé tells him no. I can understand enough of their Nepali conversation to know that she wants to wait to light the sticks until they can have the center spot in front of the altar. I watch two young boys in cotton hoodies shivering in their flip flops as they wait for their families. To my left, a man slits the throat of a white chicken and removes it’s head. It’s neck continues to move and it’s wings continue to flap as he rips the feathers from the body and sprinkles the pieces on the various large rocks of the altar. He fills his cupped palm with blood and sprinkles it on top of the tikka powder, money and dried rice already on the altar.
Finally, it is our turn. We make our way in front of the altar and my friends begin sprinkling the items on their plate on top of the large rocks of the altar. Gunaraj sprinkles the holy water on top of everything. They leave some rupees amongst the offerings. A man rings a bell behind us to call the god and Gunaraj fills my hand with rice and tells me to sprinkle it. His fiancé dips her finger into the tikka powder of the altar, where river water, chicken blood and incense ash have been sprinkled. She asks me to bend down so that she can put a tikka between my eyes. She does the same to Gunaraj. They gently crack open the small end of the duck eggs, spilling the yolks and deciding that they do not like that. They put the eggs into a plastic bag and cinch it. I am unsure of what happened with the eggs, though I do know that they are proud they have brought duck eggs and not just chicken eggs like everyone else.
We walk towards the river to where the aged bronze bells hang. The bells are covered in red and yellow tikka powder and Gunaraj instructs me to walk around them with my right side towards the bells and ring each one to call the god. I do this, as instructed, but I am worried about whether or not I truly want to call the god. I feel unworthy of her attention. Perhaps I have not done as well as I could have. Perhaps my heart is not as pure as I would like it to be. Am I ready to meet her? I am more afraid of halting the procession behind us than I am of these things and so I decide I will take my chances and I ring the first bell, the second, the third and on, until I come to the last bell in the line of bells.
We proceed forward and stop many times to sprinkle rice and tikka powder. First we do this in the hollow of a small tree, where a prayer has been set. Then we do this on two small places at the foot of the stairs, also where prayers have been set. Halfway up the stairs, we do this again. We walk through a staircase and gateway in which prayers have been left in our path and we honor them with these powders and seeds.
As we make our way home for breakfast, I think to myself that I did not mean to see a chicken sacrificed this morning. I cannot reconcile it in my head. The colors at the temple were so vibrant, the bells so loud, the sugary incense so strong. What is it about the sacrifice that has been made? What is it about humans that we feel such a pull towards sacrifice?
I do not have a temple in my village where I go to pray in this way. The gods where I live are not so pronounced as this. I do not know a family in my home village who would sacrifice a chicken and sprinkle its blood onto an altar, though I do know of a family who kills their own chickens for food. Is there anything in my life, in my village, where we have these sensorial tributes to the spirit that we have together determined to be ruled by? Isn’t this what the god represents? A collaborative tribute to a shared spirit of protection and, in this case, the dissolution of ignorance?
Though I feel sick at the image of that bawking chicken, I also feel a grief for the communal sacrifice that I do not have and that I have never experienced. I feel a sense of loss for a shared value system that is honored in my community on specific holy days. I watch these feelings and they add to the visceral sensation that the whole temple experience has brought today.