Thin Places: A pilgrimage to the Khembalung caves
|Text by : Ann Armbrecht
Photograph by : Ann Armbrecht
As Virginia Woolf wrote in ‘The Waves,’ “There are moments when the walls of my mind grow thin; when nothing is unabsorbed.”
My skin was like wet tissue paper. It peeled off with my socks, pulled off under the damp bandage. It came off between my toes, from the soles of my feet and the edges of my heels. The exposed new skin was raw and tender. There was too much of it to cover and nothing solid or dry to hold down a new bandage. I had never seen anything like it and had no idea what to do. I glanced up with despair and saw the women already lifting their bamboo baskets and filing barefoot into the early morning mist. Pain was preferable to abandonment. Wincing, I pulled on my last dry pair of socks and laced up my soggy boots. I stuffed my jacket into the top of my pack and followed in the direction of the women − day number two on our pilgrimage to Khembalung.
At night in their dreams, shamans and priests from Hedangna, a village in the upper Arun Valley of northeastern Nepal, are said to travel to a cold clear lake on the right shoulder of Khembalung. Witches travel to the ridge as well, but they bathe instead in a lake of blood. When they are done washing, the shams, witches, and priests stretch out on the rocks, drying themselves in the moonlight and arguing over which of them is the most powerful. Khembalung refers to several places. It is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world and the home, so the villagers in Hedangna say, of Lord Shiva. Khembalung is also a bhayul, or hidden valley of Tibetan cosmology, a pure enchanted land set outside the destruction and corruption of time. Here, so the legends say, one will find refuge from the enemies of religion and will attain eternal youth, beauty, strength, and fertility.
These bhayuls are physical places hidden deep in the Himalaya and rendered inaccessible by the magic of the Tibetan yogin Padmasambhava. Years ago, so the story goes, in the paradisal kingdom of Galdan, Arya Avalokitesvara made a prophecy:
Emaho! In the future, during the epoch of conflicts and disputes the land of snows, where live those who follow the way of the great compassion, will be conquered by the demons of ignorance. At that time all the followers of the Arya, to flee from the demons will take refuge in this place which has sprung up from the flowers offered by the most powerful of the gods... It is the castle of the divinities, is the place of the purest prayers, is the natural site of the Vajra. It is surrounded by rocks and snowy mountains, and is known as mKhanpa lung, the valley of Artemisia. Everyone who arrives there will go to paradise of Akanisthah.
At the time when all temples are destroyed, Giacomella Orofino describes, when servants become masters, when “people sacrifices their own animals, drink blood, and eat flesh of their own fathers,” those disciples of Padmasambhava who “display greatness of heart” will take out the guidebooks hidden thousands of years before and set out to “open” these hidden lands.
The journey to Khembalung crosses the physical landscape, passing by a lake, so the guidebook says, that “by day is like boiling blood and by night like burning fire,” through a valley like “the outer curtain of a door,” and beneath “a mountain of black slate like untied hair.” But what the pilgrims see along the way depends on what they are capable of seeing. Some travelers encounter rocks and trees, snow and empty forest. Others travel over the same terrain and see mysterious landscapes shimmering with jewels, spacious deserts beneath strange skies, and towering mountains floating above clouds of light. The hidden valley itself bestows a spiritual blessing on all who arrive there. How the pilgrims experience that blessing again depends on what they are ready to experience. Most who enter the hidden lands of Khembalung will have a vision of a peaceful and fertile valley with room for a settlement of 500 people. These pilgrims will receive health and long life, fertility and strength, and all of their desires will be fulfilled.
Though yogis trek beneath the same mountains and enter the same lush, green valley, they also undergo a spiritual transformation on their journey to Khembalung, a death and rebirth that allows them to transcend their usual state of consciousness and awaken to deeper levels of the mind. These pilgrims experience a flash of insight into the nature of reality, a vision that is fleeting, but one that strengthens and deepens their own spiritual journey. The secret journey to Khembalung is reserved only for those who have reached the highest level of spiritual fulfillment. Here, at its most profound level, the hidden valley corresponds to the body and mind of the pilgrim to the realm where no distinctions are made between oneself and the outside world. Upon entering this innermost realm of the kingdom of Khembalung, the pilgrim acquires clarity of mind and openness of heart, the two qualities needed to attain the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
Few attempt to undertake this journey to the hidden lands. It is too dangerous, and they fear they will never return. but many make pilgrimages to the edges of these valleys, to the “gateways” (Tibetan gnas sgo) mentioned in the guidebooks and said to have been hidden by Padmasambhava. Two caves carved out of a granite cliff 1,000 feet above the high a-altitude summer pastures of Yangle Meadow, a day’s walk south of the base of Makalu, are said to be one of the gateways into the hidden valley of Khembalung. Whether they are or not, these caves are believed to be places where gods have been; they are sacred places and are one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus and Buddhists throughout the upper Arun valley.
Priests and shamans, lamas and yogis may be able to make the journey to Khembalung in their dreams or through intense spiritual practice. Everyone else must get here on foot. And so, at the height of the monsoon of 1992, I set out at dawn with twenty-five villagers from Hedangna on a pilgrimage made annually to the Khembalung caves during the August full moon. Most in our group were Yamphu Rai, the original inhabitants of Hedangna, strong wiry people who have spent their lives as subsistence farmers in this remote subtropical Himalayan village.
Yamphu rituals and spiritual beliefs are based on oral texts passed down from the ancestors through the priests and shamans who learn these traditions in their dreams. Although they know that the caves are connected to the hidden valleys of Tibetan cosmology, they consider themselves to be Hindu and refer to the site as Shiva’s cave. Two Brahmans from a less remote village to the south also joined us. These men were tall and thin and not at all suited to the long, hard days of walking. One of them complained incessantly, saying the trail was too hard, the trip too difficult. Each time the Brahman complained, Jadu Prasad, one of the oldest Yamphu men in the group, who was on his sixth pilgrimage to Khembalung, would reply, “It wouldn’t be a pilgrimage if it wasn’t difficult.” By the end of the trip we were all repeating, again and again, “It wouldn’t be a pilgrimage if it wasn’t difficult.”
Yogis and lamas travel to hidden valleys in search of enlightenment; they hope to escape samsara and attain eternal bliss. The Yamphu were going to Khembgalung to ask for a son, a daughter, a job, a good harvest. As an anthropologist living in their community, I hoped to learn more about their pilgrimages, about what they did and found myself mumbling repetitive chants, over and over, to keep myself moving across the rocky terrain.
I carried a down sleeping bag, a Thermarest, a toothbrush, a pack cover, a flashlight, a notebook, iodine, four pairs of socks, long underwear, a synchiulla jacket, a camera, rice, and the boots on my feet. Every time I unpacked and repacked, the women gathered around to comment on each item I had brought. They carried a handwoven woolen blanket, bamboo mat to keep out the rain, rice, some spices, and a pot. They were barefoot. They had small bundles of string and bits of cloth, a shawl, their finest clothing to wear on the day we climbed to the caves, and raksi, a type of wine made from millet. That was all.
Each morning we awoke in the dark. We walked all day along steep narrow trails, fording icy streams overflowing from the monsoon rains, and climbing from 5,000 feet in Hedangna over two 16,000-foot passes and up the Barun valley. In five days, we covered the same distance I had covered in two weeks the previous spring while trekking with family. The villagers would stop only at dusk, when we had reached a cave large enough to hold all twenty-five of us. We ate one meal of rice a day, mixed with wild plants gathered along the trail. While hiking we snacked on roasted corn flour. Occasionally, we drank black tea.
By the third afternoon, we arrived at Yangle Meadow, the grazing lands at 13,000 feet below the Khembalung caves. We sat on the grassy floor of the narrow valley, flanked on either side by towering granite cliffs. Our words were swallowed by the roar of the Barun River, which carved its way through the center of the valley. Jadu Prasad pointed out some invisible trail going straight up the vertical rock face:” the path to the caves. I sat silently. A chill that had been with me the entire trip slowly crept up from my stomach. The two oldest women in the group, both in their seventies, looked at the cliff and then looked at me. “Don’t go,” they said. “Don’t do it. The trail is too hard. Stay below and wait.”
I know how to rock climb, I know that to be afraid of, and I shared their concern. “If these grandmothers can do it, of course you can,” Jadu Prasad said. Having spent much of the past year trying to keep up with these same grandmothers while collecting firewood and stinging nettle in the jungles around Hedangna, I wasn’t so sure. But the men promised we would all go together the next morning, and they would look out for me. If I could go with them, I agreed, I would give it a try. We lifted our loads and went in search of a dry cave for the night.
The next morning we again awoke in the dark. It was drizzling. It had rained all night, and I had slept fitfully, dreaming of slippery mud and slippery rocks. I again asked Jadu Prasad if he thought I could make it, and he again reassured me, so I went with the women to bathe. The women were used to doing things on their own; they were strong, and they assumed I was equally strong. I couldn’t count on them for help on the trail. After a perfunctory bath in the icy water, I returned to an empty cave. I waited, thinking the men must have gone to bathe as well.
Finally, one man returned. He was surprised to see me, said that the men had already left, and that he had just come back to get something he had forgotten. I grabbed my bag and scrambled after him. We walked silently and rapidly through the drizzle, turning off the main trail onto a narrow, overgrown path that climbed toward the cliff. We caught up with Jadu Prasad and the two Brahmans. They greeted us as we approached and told me that the trail was too slippery for my boots, that I should go barefoot; they then returned to their discussion of whether the two menstruating women should climb to the sacred caves. I was curious to hear what they had to say, but was distracted by the trail and, now, by my bare feet. Until now I had never thought of the cold. The soles of my feet were numb, so numb I didn’t notice the stones underneath.
Soon the trail disappeared into the base of the rock. Those ahead had been slowed by the climb, and the women coming behind caught up with us. Hands gripping the rock, we slowly followed the others up the cliff. Along with our group of twenty-five from Hedangna, there were Bhotes (Tibetans) from the northern Arun Valley and Chetris (Hindus) from the south. Together, sixty or more people were making their way up the rock face.
In the West, we climb rocks with rope and protection. We wear soft rubber under our feet. We are on the rock, yet not on the rock. With these pilgrims I climbed to the Khembalung caves barefoot, with no rope. Perched on a tiny ledge, Jadu Prasad reached down to pull me over a difficult section. I clutched his hand as he hauled me up the cliff, not letting myself think about what he in turn was holding on to. At a particularly difficult part, one of the grandmothers looked at me with concern and suggested I go down. But then a man appeared with a twelve-foot piece of rope. He knelt above the difficult section and held the rope as I used it to climb up the crack.
Once, at a Quaker wedding I attended, the father of the groom talked about thin places, about places where one’s nerve endings are bare. We take pilgrimages to thin places, to places where gods have made their mark on the land. As the legends of the hidden valleys make clear, these journeys are internal as much as they are external. How thin the place seems to us depends on who we are and where we come from; most important, it depends on what we bring and what we can relinquish in order to make our journey.
Part 2 of the story will appear in the Feb issue of ECS NEPAL. Ann Armbrecht is an anthropologist and educator, and the author of Settlements of Hope (1989) and Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home (2010). This article first appeared in Terra Nova 3 (1), 1998, and is reprinted by permission of Ann Armbrecht and The MIT Press. Ann Armbrecht can be contacted at email@example.com.