August. 5.30am. At the very beginning of the day, as the sun peeks above a blanket of monsoon clouds which give a mystical touch to this holy place. A shaman is dancing to the drumbeats of his dhyangro among a big crowd of pilgrims whose tired bodies shiver in the cold morning. This is Dudh Kunda, the Lake of Milk, 4,400m up in a remote corner of Solu Khumbu, far from the main trail leading to the slopes of Mt Everest. Hardly anybody comes here the rest of the year, but today caravans of Sherpas, Tamangs, Rais, Chettris, Magars, and Bahuns have gathered here for a very special occasion: today is Janai Purnima, the full moon of Srawan, the auspicious day to come and pray to the numerous deities which inhabit the holy waters of the lake.
Dudh Kunda is the younger sister, the maili bahini, of Gosainkunda in the Langtang region, where Shiva is worshiped today on the occasion of Janai Purnima. At Dudh Kunda there are perhaps a thousand pilgrims and a few dozen shamans who have come to make contact with invisible powers. They offer a means to these hill people, mostly farmers, to try and influence the actions of spirits whose control is beyond the ordinary person's reach, but whose powers to affect everyday life-health and family harmony are understood here to be as essential to survival as sunshine and rain.
The shamans, called dhami here, have been walking with their fellow villagers for two or three days up the slippery paths and in the rain, to reach Dudh Kunda, whose majestic setting makes anything, even an abundance of resident deities, seem a matter of course. Three giant peaks, Karyolung, Khatang and Numbur, soar up from behind the lake to 7,000m almost guarding this holy spot and keeping it safe.
Srawan is generally considered a month of sickness and trouble. The gods have gone to the underworld, leaving humans defenceless against the attacks from the forces of the netherworld. For Buddhists and Hindus alike, it is a special time for worship. A famous puranic episode relates a big battle between Indra, the god-king of heaven and Bali, the demon-king of the underworld. On the full moon of Srawan, Hindus celebrate the day when Indra's guru Brihaspati gave him the extra strength he needed to win over Bali by tying a rakshya bandhan on his wrist and chanting sacred mantras. For Buddhists, this is the day Buddha, as Sakyamuni, was victorious over the maras, the difficulties and drawbacks he had to face on his way to nirvana before becoming the Enlightened One.
Dawa Sherpa, from the village of Hewa in the Tarksindu area, is one of these Buddhists. He arrived to Dudh Kunda a couple of days ago with his family and four yaks to run one of the eight temporary teahouses on the shores of the lake. These sheds, with walls of wood or stone and plastic sheeting for a roof, are enough to protect the pilgrims from the rain and shelter them at night. For the last thirteen years, Dawa has come every year to Dudh Kunda to run one of these resthouses. This year, he even got a permit from the government in Salleri to run two tea-shops.
On the night of the full moon, chhang and raksi will flow freely in Dawa's tea shops. The Dudh Kunda Mela is not only a pilgrimage, it is also a big festival of dancing, singing and sharing the pleasure of being here together in this cold night lit by the bright moon, on the shore of Mahakunda a few metres down from where the snow never melts.
It is 5.30am and two hours ago, most pilgrims were taking a purifying dip in the icy but sacred waters. Now, wrapped in their blankets, they are making offerings of rice (acheta), incense, lights, flowers and coins. They sprinkle milk from small bamboo containers as the gurus recite mantras to call upon the deities who live in the lake to bless them. Around them, the dhami, who have been dancing all night long, are encircling the lake-they will require strength from these invisible powers to protect themselves and heal their patients in the coming year.
Dokshe Maila, a Tamang dhami from Nunthala village, is one of them. He has come to Dudh Kunda to fulfil a promise he made to his guru Banesh Kandal who was revealed to him 35 years ago in a dream. Maila was ill before he began this pilgrimage, and prayed all night long in Nunthala. Then he brought his promise of rice, flower and coins wrapped in a clean cloth to the lake, followed by a dozen of his fellow villagers.
He is wearing the traditional costume of shamans here, a full, pleated white skirt falling to his feet, necklaces of dark-red seeds and bandoliers of bells criss-crossed on his chest and back. He has a head-dress of white, green and red strips of cloth, braided to form a circlet on his head and falling loose behind his back. Two of his relatives follow him beating large, double-headed drums called dhyangro, covered with the skin of a mountain goat. Maila, barefoot, dances and hops over the rough stone trail in rhythm with the drumbeats. Like the other shamans here, Maila is the leader of his fellow villagers, outside any strictures of caste, the only master of the invisible powers who manifest their presence through the trembling of his body.
The sun rises higher into the sky, bathing the lake the mountains and clouds in a golden monsoon glow. This is where heaven and earth meet once a year: at Dudh Kunda on the full moon of Janai Purnima.