If you're interested in extreme displays of faith, go to Sankhu next Wednesday. It may not match fire-walking, body-piercing and self-flagellation, but it is still hard penance-a group of men wrapped in white and rolling on the cold ground all over Sankhu, followed by women chanting prayers.
These are the bratalu-fasting devotees who attend the month-long festival on the banks of the Shali river in Sankhu to re-enact an ancient custom. This year, there are 329 people (18 men, 311 women) undertaking the penance-most are from Bhaktapur (108) and Sankhu (81), and the rest from the mid-hills and the tarai. The festival began on the full moon night of 9 January this year and ends on 8 February, the next full moon, with a big yagya-the devotional pyre, all-night puja, and the chanting of Vedic verses.
This very-Nepali festival revolves around the Swasthani, a text with stories from the Puranic tradition. The book has creation myths, stories about Parvati's devotion to Shiva, and about the marriage of a girl-child, Goma Brahmani, to Shiva disguised as an ageing man. The Swasthani has been criticised by Hindu reformists for glorifying child marriage and sanctioning discrimination against women, but this time of year households across the country-Thakali, Gurung, Newar, Chhetri and Bahun-have readings from the book. There are Newari, Nepali, Maithali and Hindi versions of the Swasthani. Last year, an English version was also published.
The bratalu at Sankhu undertake the fast to cleanse their souls and pray for good spouses and happy families. There's no temple specifically for them-the river is their god, and they also pray at other temples like the Bhairab temple, Shiva temple, and Bhimsen temple. Each day begins with a dip in the river. Shirkers are dragged and pushed into the water. Then there is a collective puja by the riverbank. And, once a day, the men circumambulate the shrine at the Shree Ram Jhopadi at Sankhu Bazaar, rolling on the floor.
The devotees don't only remain in Sankhu. They also undertake a barefoot piligrimages to four sacred sites in the Valley-Pashupatinath, the Sekh Narayan Temple in Pharping, Panauti and the Changu Narayan Temple nearby. They follow the ka-jee, who carries the idol of Madhav Narayan-the chief deity of the Bratalu-and live on a diet of rice, red radish, chaku (hard boiled molasses), ghee, sugarcane, fruit and peas, milk and palungo saag (spinach) grown at Patan. "This is a very old tradition. Only palungo grown around Chyasal in Patan is allowed," says 62-year-old Ravi Nath Shrestha, chairman of Swasthani Brata Sewa Committee, which manages the bratalu puja.
The walk is restricted to devotees, but their route makes for great hikes anytime of year. The first takes in Pashupati and Sekh Narayan and it began on 23 January. The first night out is always at Pashupati, after an early-morning dip in the Shali river and a hike to the hilltop temple of the power-goddess Bajrayogini. The next day, a dip in the Bagmati at Pashupati Aryaghat, and they're at Sano Gaucharan for lunch. The march then continues to Narayan Hiti outside the Royal Palace, though Bhotahiti, Ason, Jana Bahal, Makkhan Tole, Hanuman Dhoka and Basantapur, onward to Thapathali. It passes over the Bagmati bridge at Kupondole and heads towards Pharping's Sekh Narayan Temple via Jawalakhel, Nakhu, Bagmati Korikhana and Hattiban. They reach their destination for the night halt.
After puja at the Sekh Narayan temple the bratalu go through Pharping Town and head back, taking a slightly different route through Bungamati, Lagankhel and Mangal Bazar. They stop at Sankhamul for a meal. After that it's a long hard trail as the road winds through Baneswor, Pashupati, Baudha and finally to Sankhu.
The second pligrimage this year starts on 27 January. It takes the bratalu to Panauti for the night, before moving the next day through Kharpati, Bageswori, Pasuram Chhap, Nala and on to Banepa.
The third and final one is held on 4 February and this is the relatively short one to Changu Narayan. The grand finale takes place on 8 February. The night sky of Sankhu is lit up with flames from the grand yagya, and the bratalu, together with friends and family, sing devotional chants and pray as they end their vows and get ready to return home. t
Getting to Sankhu: The ancient Newari town is 12 km northeast of Kathmandu. Microbus services are available from Jorpati. Sankhu once lay on the trade route to Tibet that went via Kuti, before its importance diminished after a new route was established to Tibet through Kalimpong. The day to be in Sankhu is 31 January, the day the bratalu roll on the ground.