Namaste maro sathi,
Have you ever drunk yak blood? Or worm tea? What about both in the same evening? If the answer to these questions is ‘No’, then you’ve never been to Nepal. But don’t worry! Hop on and I’ll take you there in a couple seconds to explore some very bizarre traditions in Nepal. No passport needed.
It was yet another frozen evening in the winter wonderland of my hometown Brasov when my phone rang. It was my cousin. His voice sounded way too excited for a mundane conversation, so I knew he called to tell me some really good news. I was right.
“I’m going to Nepal in a month. Wanna join?”
My answer is probably quite obvious to you by now, since you’re reading this post. A month after that phone call, I find myself on a plane together with my cousin and some of his friends, heading to one of the most exotic and mysterious destinations I have ever been to. Anyone who knows me also knows my darkly inclined nature and my love for anything Gothic. While some will think that places like The Catacombs of Palermo or The Capuchin Crypt in Brno will best satisfy my dark tastes, I can tell you for sure that colorful Nepal greatly exceeded my gloomy expectations.
From entire temples dedicated to the dead and lots of surprisingly eery funeral rituals to blood drinking and ash-covered Sadhus walking around, Nepal is the place to be if you want to catch a glimpse of a slightly different Gothic experience.
The Temple of Life and Death – Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu
I don’t know exactly how this happens, but I tend to turn into a far more spiritual person while I am on the road and Nepal did not disappoint me from this perspective. One of the first wonderful memories of our Nepalese adventure is (surprise, surprise) related to a very intense spiritual experience.
An UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, the Pashupatinath Temple is actually a huge complex of temples and ashrams located along the Bagmati River banks – its connection to the Holy Ganges River in India. Pashupati is said to be the incarnation of Hindu God Shiva and he is regarded as the national deity in Nepal – although not officially as I understand.
Although an incredibly holy place in its entirety, what caught my attention was the highest spiritually charged area of the temple, its famous crematory. Hindus believe in reincarnation, so they care very much about the way their deceased members of the family depart this world. Their cremation ceremony is honestly one of the most powerful rituals I have witnessed.
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As a foreigner and an obvious tourist you are allowed to watch the entire funeral from a very close distance, so I just stood there and contemplated. I am preparing to become a doctor, so my main focus is prolonging and saving lives. However, this experience had me pay a lot more respect to the end of one, and better understand its true value in a way no medical textbook has ever done. Watching a human body burning up in flames and turning into ashes to be thrown in a river is a truly transcendental experience.
In the physical, observable world, it goes like this:
An all-male group carry the deceased on a stretcher to one of the assigned cremation ghats (or cremation spots/stone blocks). The body is purified and dressed in a white cloth, with the feet and head remaining uncovered. It is anointed with ghee butter and sprinkled with flower petals. Wood and straws are placed over it and the lead mourner – the Karta – usually the eldest son of the deceased, who has to shave his head prior to the ceremony, as a sign of respect and humility, puts rice or sesame seeds in the deceased’s mouth. The kindling is lit next to the head, as the Hindu belief states that the spirit departs from the body through the mouth. After a few hours, the ashes are scattered into the water.
In the spiritual world, this whole ritual takes different proportions, but you have to be there and witness it to understand what I’m saying. Trust me, it’ll change you.
Among what you’d call fairly ordinary people walking around the temple settlement, a somewhat high number of cows and goats minding their own business and a very sneaky population of monkeys roaming around, an unusual group of individuals stand out – The Sadhus.
These wandering holy men will charm you with their odd and colorful appearance and their willingness to bless you and pray for you. Traditionally, they are ascetics, people who are deeply devoted to the spiritual path and who renounce the pleasures of the physical world. They’re adorned with all sorts of pieces of jewelry and dreadlocks, their faces are painted in bright colors and their bodies are covered in ashes. To me, they seem like a true gate to the non-material realm.
Nepal Travel Tip: Be careful and try to pick the authentic sadhus to talk to, not one of the (many) people pretending to be sadhus just for commercial purposes.
Would you like a glass of… Yak blood?
Nepal is famous for its blood-drinking festival, at least among people looking for creepy adventures around the world, myself included. This event takes place in villages protected by the mountains, where giant yaks are roaming around, such as Marpha, so it will take a serious hike to get to one of these places.
People there believe that yak blood has powerful medicinal properties and are not afraid to slit the animal’s neck blood vessels and collect cups of the healing elixir to drink. This usually happens once a year, when villagers go into the forest, set camp fires and wait for the animals to show up. It is a purifying process mixed with some sort of a party they all take part in.
I did not get a chance to participate in this, but I have heard stories from the locals and it seems like one of the oddest traditions in Nepal and definitely an interesting experience to try if you happen to be there at the right time.
Five o’clock (ghost worm) Tea Time
Nepalese cuisine is not very demanding, as it basically consists of rice, lentils, and vegetables (Oh, and don’t forget the delicious momo – thank me later). It is not very hard for the foreign traveller to get used to this diet. However, (some of) the beverages are quite interesting – to say the least.
My cousin and I always used to play pranks on one another, but this time he has outdone himself. His trick was simple. He bought and offered me a cup of tea. Do not imagine anything regular. I had yartsa gunbu tea – meaning summer grass, winter worm tea. Not really appetizing if you ask me.
However, the story behind this cup of tea is great. This yartsa gunbu is actually a fungi that lives by inhabiting an insect’s (the caterpillar of the ghost moth) body, killing it and consuming it from the inside. How Gothic is that, huh?!
Indigenous from the Tibetan plateau, it is said to boost endurance, stamina and enhance your organs’ functions and sexual performance. All of these properties, made it extremely expensive. I mean – extremely. If the most acclaimed of the truffles, the Italian White Truffle could cost a little more than $1000 a kilogram, this mushroom can go up to $50,000 a pound. Quite fancy, I’d say.
So now you know about some of the odd traditions in Nepal. I hope you enjoyed the ride to Nepal and back and until next time, Suva Yatra, my fellow lady travelers!
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