Puja – A Right of Passage

Around this time of year at Everest Base Camp the sounds of chanting and prayers rise up from the snowy surroundings, beneath billowing clouds of Tsampa flour. A literal “right of passage” a Puja, is being performed to make contact with the divine gods for permission to climb, to ask forgiveness for the damage caused by climbing and to ask for the safety of all involved. Everyone participates including cooks, guides, Sherpa, climbing teams and porters.

You see, for the Sherpa people, Mt Everest is known as Sagarmatha, Goddess of the Sky which literally means “the Peak of Heaven.” It is a place of the gods, a place that no mortal should be.  In fact the Sherpa consider the mountains within Sagarmatha National Park and other mountains of the Himalaya to be the “dwelling of supernatural beings.” The mountains are considered sacred and act as monitors and judges of human behavior. They are always there and unchanging. Legends, myths and songs deal with the vastness, beauty and spiritual importance of the mountains. To enter the mountains requires deep acts of respect and reverence for the Gods that dwell there.

Preparation for the Puja starts several days before the event, turning camp into a bevy of back breaking activity. First, a prominent location is selected and then large flat rocks are carefully chosen and stacked to create a large cairn or Stupa. On one side a small opening is left in which to burn juniper branches and incense.

Early in the morning as the sun starts to rise final preparations for the Puja begins. Amidst endless chatter, smiles and laughter, a picture of the Dalai Lama is carefully placed on the Stupa which is then decorated with prayer scarfs, butter sculptures, popcorn, cookies, cake, rice, food and drinks.

In many cases, a Tibetan Lama will hike in from a nearby monastery for the blessing and ceremony the night before, often rotating through base camp performing several ceremonies in a day. Blankets are laid out around the Stupa for the participants and all the technical climbing equipment, boots, ropes, crampons and ice axes are placed alongside the cairn.

The several hours’ long ceremony begins with Tibetan prayers, chanting mantras and offerings to the mountain gods to grant the team safe passage. There is dancing and joy with rice being thrown into the air three times amidst cries of Lakalu, which means “victory to the Gods.” Near the end of the ceremony a tall pole is placed in the centre of the Stupa and a rainbow of prayer flags respectfully tied to it and draped like a lavish maypole. The ceremony ends with final chants before everyone’s faces are turned grey in coverings of Tsampa flour. Large handfuls of flour are then thrown into the air as an offering to the gods while nuts, sweet milk tea and rice wine is passed around.

The ritual of the Puja is more than just a right of passage to enter the mountains and seek the blessing of the Mother Goddess. Covering each others faces with flour is itself recognition of the hope to see each other into old age. For the Sherpa know that Sagarmatha is ultimately the one who determines the outcome of our journey. Young and old, novice and experienced, gather as strangers on a journey together into the unknown; a journey where the forces of nature can change the landscape in a second.

Debra Bouwer

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