Draped in silk and hand-woven gowns shimmering like rainbows, town folk and farmers come from every direction; women with babies bobbing on their back, old people leaning on bamboo staffs, men in knee-length chequered ‘ghos‘ with sweeping white cuffs and sashes, and garlands of children whose dark eyes sparkle with excitement.
They walk up the valley or tumble down the pine-scented slopes to cross the bridge, like one long line of ants suspended high above the river. Meanwhile in the temple, monks offer fresh water to the gods and butter lamps flicker in the morning light.
Something passes through the air, expectation and fear all in one, as on this second day of the festival, crowds gather for the all important blessing. Tingling in anticipation, we join the faithful pouring into the courtyard for the welcome dance, as village girls in their best finery shuffle on the flagstones to the rhythm of long horns and drums.
There is much chanting and praying, and incense smoke rising through the air, until suddenly everyone rushes towards the gate, led by red-robed monks.
I hadn’t noticed the two haystacks waiting ominously in the nearby field. They stand just feet apart and, as more blessings rise under a deep blue sky, an eerie silence falls upon the crowds. They keep their distance, a human chain ready to break loose at the first spark. All is set for ‘Thangi Mani’, the fire blessing, a purification rite and highlight of the year.
Watched by thousands of eyes, an official ignites the hay and the flames shoot up, smoke and ash filling the air as, in one massive surge, young and old move forward, running through the fire to cleanse their soul and ensure good luck for the coming year.
Friends drag each other through, toddlers hold on to their mothers, trip, get up, men pull up their collars to protect their hair. Overcome by the heat, I step back, stunned, caught up in unrivalled frenzy, but not brave enough to run through – I decide to keep my sins.
‘I did it, three times,’ calls out my young guide. She looks as good as new, bubbling all over, all set for a fresh start. The flames die down as quickly as they started and great clouds of smoke drift downstream, bearing witness to a faith stronger than pain.
Prayer wheels tinkle along the banks, flags flutter in the breeze and now, in the valley sprinkled with apple trees and nodding buckwheat, the harvest will be good and the children healthy.
Back in the temple masked dancers twirl barefoot on sun-baked stones while cymbals and gongs echo across the hills. Hoisted on the wall for a better view, toddlers munch sunflower seeds, monks shelter from the midday heat under makeshift awnings and families gather around home made offerings of marigolds and clay phalluses, as if nothing unusual had happened at all.
A favourite moment is sharing chapattis in a ritual dance when every hand struggles to grab a lucky scrap. I follow suit, among grinning skulls and fierce demons from the underworld, pouncing all around in a flurry of multicoloured brocade and ‘thunderbolt steps’.
‘Time for the picnic,’ chirps Chimmi and with undisguised relief, we escape for a break and a breath of fresh air on the river bank. The haystacks have vanished, leaving just a patch of singed grass.