Dashain on the Annapurna Trail

Festival Issue 203 Oct, 2018
Text by Helen O'Gorman

Getting on the road during Dashain lets you glimpse a myriad lives, as Nepalis put on their finery, spending time celebrating the biggest holiday in the calendar. BijayaDashami, the tenth and most important day of the festival, is when almost everyone celebrates. The roads are empty, anyone who is outside is keen to get home and start the festivities. There are jeeps and vans on the road, although you might need a bit of luck to find one, and be prepared to pay double the asking price. I suppose it is a bit like booking a taxi in rural England on Christmas Day. They are out there, but there’s a price. Don’t be deterred. Ask your guest house owner. They’ll know someone who’s on the move that da

On the upper reaches of the Annapurnas, where I started the journey down, there were few signs of Dashain celebrations. The jeep hit the road from Manang village early on BijayaDashami, driving across relatively smooth roads along the Nyardgang valley, over a hill into the Pisang valley. It wasn’t until we got to the check point in Chame that the signs of Dashain started to be seen. A blonde European family with a cluster of children on their way around the circuit weretaking photos at the APAC checkpoint, police officers posing with them, all with red tikka from the brass tray on the desk adorning their foreheads. There was a lightness in the air, the checkpoint officers were smiling, although they were at work on their biggest holiday. They didn’t offer me tikka, though, nor rice or flowers. I hoped I didn’t look jaded.

It begins on the first day of the first bright lunar fortnight of Kartik(September/October in the Julian calendar) and ends on the next full moon, the purnima. Durga, the warrior goddess, is central to the festival. She is usually depicted riding a lion or a tiger, with between eight and eighteen hands, each holding a weapon to destroy and create. In the Ramayana epic, she beat the demon Mahisasur and symbolizes the gods’ victory over demons. But, that day, we saw no demons on the road.

Our jeep driver was a young man with an enormous smile; accompanied by the jeep bhai, we shared the ride with three other travelers from Pokhara, who had hit Manang two days earlier to make the Tilicho Lake run and head back home for the tenth day of Dashain. I’m not sure how far Besisahar is from Pokhara, but I reckon they were optimistic to try to reach home that night. By the time we got into Besi, the sun was setting, and the buses were going nowhere.

Driving down over mountain stone, water pouring from rocks transformed the road into a stream in many places. I almost gave myself concussion more than once, as I cavalierly forgot to hold the handle above the window. When the driver maneuvered four wheels over jagged rocks, my head slammed against the jeep window with great force. I was worried the second time. So was the driver, who took his eyes off the trail for a moment to see for himself if I had survived. I don’t know which was riskier, but as this was BijayaDashami, we were the only jeep out there.

It may have been the effects of concussion, but the further we headed down the mountain side and towards the lush green fields of LamjungProvince, I noticed a change in the mood. There was joy in the air—people with intricate grass decorations sticking out of their ears, red tikka and rice covering foreheads, smiles all around. Grandfathers accompanied grandchildren on walks, holding hands as they visited relatives. Everyone was in their best, bright topis, red saris, new suits, taffeta dresses, and sparkly shoes. There was pride in the air. Today, everyone had the right to smile and light up their face. It was a celebration. We did it. Another year, another harvest. We made it.

Passing through villages on the way to Besisahar, street parties gathered around pings—makeshift swings of all dimensions. A roll of carpet or a plank of wood attached to two ropes and slung to a tree, the swing flying wildly through high arcs. Wooden ferris wheels that turn 180 degrees, sending the pinger back and forth on a fixed trajectory. They look like medieval instruments of water torture, or a creation from dystopian fantasy.

Our unique status on the road made us very popular. Pings across roads held us up at certain villages. While some moved the swing to one side, hordes of villagers clambered onto the open back of the jeep. In the absence of other transport, we became the bus. Women passing children first, then hitching up saris to pull themselves up. The jeep doors opened as kids were thrust onto our backseat, their mothers climbing in after them gently pushing the passengers together as a seat for three easily became a seat for six. Our driver beamed at the attention, while new passengers told him they wouldn’t be paying him, they just needed a ride down to the next place. All in good humor. It’s Dashain.

And then, finally, down into a shuttered Besisahar. Few guest houses were open, most shops and cafes had closed their doors. At least for today. Here’s looking forward to this year’s Dashain, however we all may spend it.