2-8 August 2013 #667

Gosainkunda Festival: The ritual and the risks

Dhanvantari by Buddha Basnyat, MD

Mountains are perceived to be the abode of the gods, and people have sought to obtain religious merit points (punya in Sanskrit, sonam in Tibetan) by ascending mountains to pray. Moses, Mohamed, Shiva, all have important associations with mountains. Before we discuss the health issues of ascending to these sacred sites, a word about the many high altitude sacred sites in our region.

Damodar Kunda in the Mustang region of Nepal (4,890 m), Muktinath (3,900 m) north of Jomsom , Kedarnath (3,584 m) in Uttarakhand, India (where recently floods damaged the temple and killed thousands of people) , Shree Amarnath ( 4,000m) in Kashmir, Lake Tilicho (4,900 m) in Manang, and, of course, Lhasa, Tibet (3,650 m), are some high altitude sacred sites.

Kailash (6,714 m) also in Tibet is famous because thousands of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains come to circumambulate the sacred mountain and bathe in the nearby Lake Manasarovar (4,560 m). For Kathmanduites the nearest, well-known sacred mountain lake is Gosainkunda ( 4,300m).

The Gosainkunda legend is riveting. In their quest for amrit ( the elixir for spiritual immortality), the titans and the gods collaborated in churning the ocean. Mount Mandara was selected as the churning stick, Vasuki the king of serpents, would be the churning rope, and Vishnu himself in the form of a tortoise dove into the ocean to support with his back the base of the mountain. After Vasuki had been wrapped around the mountain, the titans laid hold of one end of the rope and the gods the other. They churned for a thousand years.

Unfortunately from the murky depths of the ocean, the first thing to rise was Kalakut, a deadly poison. The operation could not proceed further until someone drank this concoction. Lord Shiva who was aloof and sitting at a distance was approached. He shook himself from his deep meditation and surveyed the scene. Then he swallowed the poison in one gulp and his throat promptly turned blue ( Nilakhanta, Blue Throat, is another name for Shiva). He needed to cool off the immense heat generated by Kalakut; so he dove into Gosainkunda Lake. In the memory of this selfless act by Lord Shiva, pilgrims annually take a holy dip in the lake and wash away their sins. But just like for the great Shiva, this pilgrimage is not risk free.

On Aug 20, 2013 ,the eve of Janai Purnima, Gosainkunda lake will be the venue for the climactic enactment of the greatest Vedic tradition. Starting from Dhunche in Rasuwa district, it is best to take 4 to 5 nights to reach the lake so that you are properly acclimatized. You need to listen to your body and not push ahead relentlessly disregarding symptoms of acute mountain sickness which are chiefly headache and nausea.

Volunteers with accurate knowledge of altitude sickness from the Himalayan Rescue Association and the Mountain Medicine Society of Nepal will also be at hand to help you. Taking diamox, if you don’t have sulpha allergy, will help to prevent and treat AMS. Drinking 2 liters of clean water ( boiled or treated with chlorine/iodine tablets) per day will help avoid hydration. Proper rain gear and carrying some table salt to deal with leech bites will come in handy. The lake area is completely packed during Janai Purnima so being psychologically prepared for some of the hardship will help. But you will be amply rewarded for your efforts.