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“I’m glad I got to experience this unique pilgrimage, the barefoot hikes, the makeshift shelters, the long walks on an empty stomach.”

It is a chilly morning in late July in Martadi, the district headquarters of Bajura. Six young men clad in raincoats head out to begin a pilgrimage to Budinanda. Their backpacks are covered with blue plastic to shield them from the incessant rain. The first leg of the journey will take them to Baddala, but even Baddala is far, requiring a whole day of walking across swollen rivers, suspension bridges, hills, landslides, and many villages. As the men make their way through the treacherous and convoluted path, they mostly encounter shuttered shops. The few that are open are also running out of stock. The men have a difficult time finding food, sometimes even water. They eat just once in their trek spanning 33 km and reach Baddala late at night. They are tired and hungry, their bodies soaked from the rain.

Every year, while Hindus across the country celebrate Janai Purnima by wrapping a sacred thread around their wrists or slinging it along their torso, hundreds of people from Bajura make the arduous pilgrimage to Budinanda, a holy lake that lies at the altitude of 4,574 metres. The pilgrimage, which requires pilgrims to travel a distance of over 100 km, is made entirely on foot. This year, despite fears around the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of pilgrims made the journey through forests, grasslands, and rocky mountains to reach Budinanda.

“Oh my god, that was scary.”

Upon reaching Baddala, three more youths join the group for the pilgrimage. This leg of the journey takes them to Motedhunga, where they realise there isn’t any place for them to sleep. Afraid that they might have to sleep with cows in the cowshed, they manage to find shelter at one of the pilgrims’ houses.

“We almost ended up in the cowshed. Thank god we were saved from the piss and kicks of cows.”

It all began in Motedhunga, where goddess Budinanda is believed to have taken the form of a deer and pillaged crops. In order to hunt this deer, two men carrying spears set off into the wilderness. They spent two nights at Chapre and Dhauli Odar. On the second night, the deer appeared as a goddess in their dreams to enlighten them about her powers and the path to the lake. Having realised their folly, the men established a temple for Budinanda. Pilgrims flock barefoot to the temple every year, taking the same route the two hunters are believed to have taken, with the conviction that she will fulfill each and every one of their wishes.

From Motedhunga, the young pilgrims head towards Chapre, a stop so remote it has only three small huts, with tiny openings for doors. The rain has flooded two of the huts, and so the youths take shelter in the third one. After crawling in, they make a small pitiful fire with wet twigs that emit more smoke than warmth. The pilgrims take turns warming themselves against the fire. They share a small meal and snuggle next to one another to sleep soon after.

The rain persists the next morning, but the pilgrims are ready to continue their journey towards Dhauli. A huge herd of sheep grazes outside their huts, and further on, at Bar Magne Danda, the pilgrims spot many more, along with horses and donkeys, grazing on the grassland. They pause on this hill, write up a wish and hide it as safely as possible. It is widely believed that their wishes will only come true if they are able to find their wishes upon their return. With this task completed, they reach Gai Goth, which has a small lake they must bathe in before arriving at Budinanda. 

On their final night, they rest at Dhauli Odar and exchange their wishes with each other. According to the myth, the two hunters didn’t share their dreams with each other and this had angered the goddess. The next morning, they prepare to encounter the holy Budinanda Lake. 

“We’re almost there. Just walk a little more along this curved path and we’ll get there.” 

After days of traversing rocky hills in the rain and snow, they finally arrive. The frigid weather does not deter them, and they dip into the holy waters to worship their beloved goddess, Budinanda.

This story was produced with the support of the 2020 photo.circle grant.

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Kishor Maharjan is a Kathmandu based photographer. His interest in music and design brought him to photography. In his works, he explores rural parts of the country and makes a documentary of stories that were otherwise unheard of. He uses photography as a medium to explore, question, document, travel, and to challenge himself.