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They walked up the valley or tumbled down the pine-scented slopes to cross the bridge, like one long line of ants suspended high above the river. Meanwhile in the temple, monks offered fresh water to the gods and butter lamps flickered in the morning light. Something passed through the air, expectation and fear all in one, as on this second day of the festival, crowds gathered for the all-important blessing.
Tingling in anticipation, we joined the faithful pouring into the courtyard for the welcome dance as village girls in their best finery shuffled on the flagstones to the rhythm of long horns and drums. There was much chanting and praying, and incense smoke rising through the air, until suddenly everyone rushed towards the gate, led by dignitaries, Lama and red-robed monks.
* * *
We had hardly noticed the two haystacks waiting ominously in the nearby field. They stood just feet apart and as more blessings rose under a deep blue sky, an eerie silence fell upon the crowds. They kept their distance, a human chain ready to break loose at the first spark.
All was set for the fire blessing, the purification rite and highlight of the year. Watched by thousands of eyes, an official ignited the hay and the flames shot up, burning smoke and ash filling the air as in one massive surge, young and old moved forward, running through the fire to cleanse their sins and ensure good luck for the coming year.
Friends dragged each other through, toddlers held on to their mothers, fell, got up, men pulled up their collars to protect their hair. Overcome by the heat, I stepped back, stunned, caught up in unrivalled frenzy, but not brave enough to run through, I kept my sins.
* * *
‘I did it, three times,’ called out my young guide.
She looked as good as new, bubbling all over, all set for a fresh start. The flames died down as quickly as they started and great clouds of smoke drifted downstream, bearing witness to a faith stronger than pain. Prayer wheels tinkled along the banks, flags fluttered in the breeze and now, in the valley sprinkled with apple trees and nodding buckwheat, the harvest would be good and the children healthy.
Back in the temple masked dancers twirled barefoot on sun-baked stones while cymbals and gongs echoed across the hills. Hoisted on the wall for a better view, toddlers munched sunflower seeds, monks sheltered from the midday heat under makeshift awnings and families gathered around home made offerings of marigolds and clay phalluses, as if nothing unusual had happened at all.
* * *
A favourite moment was the sharing of chapattis in the offering dance when every hand was held out for a lucky scrap. I followed suit, among grinning skulls and fierce demons from the underworld, pouncing all around in a flurry of multicoloured brocade and ‘thunderbolt steps’.
‘Time for lunch,’ chirped Chimmi and with undisguised relief, we escaped for a break and a breath of fresh air on the river bank. The haystacks had vanished, leaving just a patch of singed grass.
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