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Last month, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accompany a group of around 120 men on a very special pilgrimage to Surma Sarovar, the holy lake that straddles Darchula and Bajhang. This is what we saw and did.

The start was simple. Before the departure rituals with the people of the village, the Mula – leader, in Darchula’s dialect – led a group of men to the forest to find the right nigalo or bamboo to cut. All through the two-hour trip, he shouted instructions, as the men, barefoot, crossed one river with a bridge and another without, and heaved over hills, before plunging into a forest so dense, you could barely see. The men waited, impatient, as he looked for the perfect first bamboo to cut, unable to move before him, for fear of a fine. Soon, though, he found his bamboo and the men cut what they needed, lengths of 5, 6, or 7 hands, which they took to the river to clean and trim, to make the all-important “Bire Lauro”– walking sticks the pilgrims would use to help them on their arduous trek.

The trip back to Ghajir, their beautiful, small village nestled at over 3,000 m between huge hills and rivers, was rainy, but on the slippery, muddy paths, they met fellow pilgrims from other villages also making their way to Ghajir to participate in the Surma Saravor Jatra.

Let’s climb, Cha:ha, cha:ha cha:ha!!!

Surma Saravor Jatra is celebrated in even-numbered Nepali years by people from Darchula and Bajhang. In Darchula, people from Ghajir and Chetti villages are stewards of the six day-long festival that takes place around Janai Purnima to honor the goddess Surma Devi, believed to be one of the 16 sisters of Nava Durga Bhagwati.

Myth has it that the goddess was forced to seek a new home after falling out with her older sister, Durga Bhawani. When Shiva, goddess Durga’s husband, contracted leprosy, the goddess knew that garlic would cure him and so asked Surma Devi to make a paste of it. Surma, who was known for her purity and so hesitant to handle garlic, nevertheless tried to obey her sister. She started to pound the garlic with her left hand, but covered her nose with her right. Durga, furious at Surma Devi’s reluctance, banished her, ordering her to go far away. Surma Devi set off, and people in this part of Darchula believe that she passed through the villages of Ghajir and Chetti on her treacherous journey traversing massive hills and crossing raging rivers. When she found the lake that now bears her name, Surma Sarovar, she decided that this would be her abode, as it was clean, quiet, and far from human settlements. It is to honour her difficult passage that the men walk the same path.

The groups form 

Although other men can also go on the pilgrimage, men of some castes 1 from Ghajir and Chetti are obliged to do so at least once in their lifetime and only they are called bire. First-timers are called balo bire, and veterans, budo bire. Their work begins 15 days before the start of the pilgrimage, when would-be pilgrims move into the temple, where they will purify themselves, cooking their own food, eating only once a day, bathing twice and walking barefoot.

When it is time for the pilgrimage to begin, the people of Ghajir must prepare for an influx of outsiders who will join their men. This year, they had 250 visitors who, by tradition, are divided in groups to be hosted by each household of Ghajir. Their entry into the village is ceremonial.

People from Chetti welcoming pilgrims with their traditional instrument, the dhako.

The outsiders must wait until the villagers come to receive them – this year, it was a two hour wait in the rain, before they heard the welcome sounds of the dhako that told them that Ghajir was ready to receive them. In groups of 20, the visitors crossed the old suspension bridge, holding their shoes in their hands. For the duration of the jatra, no one in the village is allowed to wear shoes or eat foods like meat, onions or garlic that are considered impure. After the visiting bire were given their painstakingly made walking sticks or bire lauro, it was time for all to sing, dance deuda, and pray at the temple late into the night.

Women dancing Cha:ha Cha:ha at Ghajir on the first day of the festival.

Chetti was abuzz the next morning – women were cleaning their jewellery and children running helter skelter – as the whole village readied itself to go to Chetti, the next village up, which also has a special relationship with the festival. There is a popular saying about Chetti in Nepali “Nang maathi masu chhaina, Chetti maathi gaun chhaina” which translates as “Just like there’s no flesh above nails, there’s no village above Chetti.” With prayers to Surma Devi at the temple done, the group, now 500-strong, left the village. Although Chetti is just a 45 minute walk away, it took over two hours to get there. A group of 500, a bridge that can hold no more than 20 people at a time, singing, dancing, and high spirits make for slow, if enjoyable, movement.

As in Ghajir, you have to wait to be invited in to Chetti, and the group waited good-naturedly, the women were dancing deuda, and the bire were singing cha:ha cha:ha. Again, the dhako rang out, as some residents of Chetti came to the entrance of the village, dressed in their finery – others preferred to shout welcome from rooftops, rather than tramp on the muddy path. After collecting prasad from every household, the group split, all the outside bires going to spend the night at the temple and gather their strength for the day, and the others to sing and dance before turning in for the night at their hosts’ homes. For the bires, their trials had already begun, as they slept on the hay-covered temple floor, with little more than a yoga mat and thin blanket each.

Climbing, Slipping, Sliding, Sleeping

All bires woke up at 4am, to wash themselves, get their families’ blessings and the blessings of the gods and dhami. When they set off four hours later, the talk was of how difficult the trip would be. We did not have to wait long, for right outside the village we crossed was the first of the many landslides we were to encounter. The thick white rhododendron forest and the enormous, lush grassland (where yarchagumba is found) made up for the hard slog we then had to make up a steep mountain – it must have been about 70 degrees – to crest a 4,600m pass.

I climbed beside two men over 60, Harak Singh Kuwar and Dhanpal Singh Bohara. They were mit, ritual brothers, who had sanctified the relationship in front of the goddess Surma Devi at her lake. It was Dhanpal Singh’s sixth time on the pilgrimage as a bire; Harak Singh’s caste allows him only to be a normal pilgrim, and it was his second visit after he and Dhanpal Singh forged their bond 32 years earlier.

Talking helped ease the journey somewhat over this massive hill at the border of Darchula and Bajhang, but after a while, most of us were just chanting cha:ha cha:ha, lost in a dense fog as we slowly crossed the mountain in the fog and rain, knowing that we had a second, equally high, mountain to traverse before we reached bire odar, where bire rest for the night. We had a stroke of luck at the river between the two mountains because even if there was no bridge, at least the waters were not high, and so bire could cross it by forming a kind of human rope.

The leeches are never far.

The dangers were not only physical. We could not use umbrellas, as they are believed to be an unwelcome shield against the blessings of the god. Bire are protected by their leader Mula, and a dhami, but even so, pilgrims must move as a pack, to stave off negative or evil energies.

The arduousness of the walk and slowness with which a large group moves meant that it was almost 12 hours after we had set off that we reached the next high pass. Bire odar was still far down, and we had to descend the steep mountain in darkness. This was the most frustrating part of the journey; not one person made it without a fall. Then came a walk – barefoot, of course – across a frozen river in the dark. At some point during all this we were a mass of slipping, falling bodies, not caring, just wanting to reach bire odar and rest.

When we finally reached bire odar at 9:45 pm, we had been pushed to the limit. There were separate bire odar for bires from Chetti and from Ghajir. Both were basic: a campsite under a plastic tarpaulin. The ground was soaked, the wood was damp and made a sputtering, smoky, weak fire. But no one cared. Everybody just sat down wherever they found space, or fit themselves in however they could, collapsing into sleep in their wet clothes and underwear, huddling close to stay warm.

A blessing, a view, a meal

It was a glorious morning. The bright sun revealed what the previous night’s darkness had been hiding: a huge grassland, full of flowers, shrubs, all kinds of flora. One view of this place – that some locals had been referring to as heaven – and all exhaustion and pain immediately disappeared. If it were possible to live a regular life here, one would never want to leave.

The view and the mandatory frigid bath worked their magic on the bire, who enthusiastically began their final march towards the lake. Surma Sarovar Lake – which some Hindus think of as a mini-Kailash – lies at 4,333m in Bajhang. The steady climb and high passes of the previous day meant that more bire were munching on green chillies, which they believe keeps altitude sickness at bay. 2

After walking through beautiful grasslands, at a predetermined spot, balo bires must change into women’s clothing and hunch down as they walk. Heads covered with white cloths, they cannot see much and may not look anywhere but at the ground in front of them. Which is a shame, because the view is spectacular: rocky mountains, huge grasslands and crystalline skies. We were walking above clouds, but balo bire would never know it.

Balo bire disguised as women and walking towards Surma Sarovar Lake.

The hunched shuffle soon must give way to crawling on all fours, hands joining the bare feet in their painful traverse across the rocky pastureland. When they finally reach the famous stone Surma Devi temple, the mula instructs the balo bires on how to perform their pooja, assisted by budo bires. After some moments, the mula yells that all balo bire can now shed their head coverings. For the first time, the novice pilgrims can take in the beauty of their surroundings, the lake, and the temple.

Other rituals and habits follow. Faces and hands must be washed in the lake, and all bire lauro must have their dip as well. All bires filled special pouches brought from home with ganga mati, mud from the lake, and filled bottles with holy water from the lake, to bring to their homes and lives. Finally, all bire exchange ganga mati, anointing each other on the forehead with the blessing of Surma Devi.

At noon, the fog and rain came in, indicating that it was time to go back to bire odar. Now that the balo bire were free to look around, the splendid views were no longer on display. All that was remaining was shades of white and shadows of people passing through the fog. As the pilgrims descended, the fog started to clear. But the photo sessions were brief; everyone was starving, after two days of fasting and gruelling physical activity.

Four hours later, they were back at bire odar, and had divided themselves up into groups. Some brought water from the river, others cleaned and cut the potatoes, still others had to cook the potatoes, and a final group were preparing to make puri. They had carried all these supplies themselves up to bire odar. The pots were small, and food had to be prepared for the next day too, so the cooking and eating went on till 1 am.

A waterfall, a race, a flower

A scant three hours later, the bires were up again, to pack up and hit the road by 5. Shivering, sleepy bires once again had to climb up the hill they had come over and cross a frozen river. But this time, a river that had been easy to ford on the way up was swollen. They would need ropes to cross, holding on tight as they waded through waist-deep water.

Remembering the landslides, the bires decided to take a different route, but this may not have been the best idea: they ended up having to cross right through a waterfall bisecting a steep cliff, across slippery rocks. That may have been good for rock climbers or canyoners, but if any of these men fell, there would be no saving them. Everyone managed to cross.

Before reaching the border between Darchula and Bajhang, the balo bires have a race, to reach the crest of the hill first. The budo bires carry the racers’ clothes and bags, as, clad only in their underwear, the newly successful pilgrims set off. A balo bire from Chetti, Keshar, came first and was hugged and jostled by the budo bires and the mula. Others were not so lucky, and some stragglers arrived on all fours. When everyone was dressed and had eaten a snack, the two groups went their separate ways.

The weather was bad – as usual, at noon it started to become foggy and the rain came in. We were still above 4,000m, the altitude above which the bramha kamal flower thrives. This aromatic flower is believed to be the symbol of Surma Devi, and so all the bires were trying to collect as many as possible. They made necklaces and bracelets to exchange with each other. Decked out in the flowers, they looked like they had descended from another planet.

First-time and returning pilgrims exchanging garlands of bramha kamal.

Thus bejewelled, the bire set off on the home stretch, where there seemed to be even more landslides than before. As they approached Chetti, hundreds of people were awaiting them, dressed in their best clothes. The bire were welcomed like returning warriors, and made a round of the whole village, visiting every household to receive the prasad of Surma Devi and anoint the givers with the ganga mati, before going to sleep one last time at the temple.

The festival ended the next day in the premises of the Surma Devi Temple of Ghajir. At around noon, all those from Chetti who could or were ritually allowed to walked to Ghajir led by the bires. They arrived before the people of Ghajir had finished performing their customary rituals in remembrance of their ancestors. As they waited, women performed deuda until two hours later, they were allowed to enter the village.

The village was decorated beautifully, the temple and all other buildings were swathed in red and orange fabric. There were now hundreds of people, including from villages further down. After a huge puja was done and prasad was served, all the bires again had to visit every house in Ghajir, receive prasad, and put ganga mati on residents’ foreheads. As the day wore on, Ghajir slowly emptied out, and once more was quiet. The festival was over.

Beyond pilgrimage

Beside its religious significance, the area is also interesting for adventure travellers and nature lovers. In addition to the beautiful Surma Sarovar, walking through, you see like Api Himal and Jethi Bahurani. The huge grasslands are rich in flora, with beautiful wildflowers, poisonous flowers and plants, herbs and spices, as well as fauna, like small black bear, barking deer, and different types of pheasants including the Himalayan Monal. The culture and traditions of this part of Nepal are also unique, with the deuda, fag and magal, hymns to the goddess Surma Devi.

More photos from the trip here.

The author is grateful to Pramod Singh Manyal of Ghajir and IT officer at Api Himal Gaupalika, for facilitating this visit and participation in the pilgrimage.