APR 04 – Come mid-March every year and villages in Humla wake up in a jovial mood, all ready to bid a fond farewell to winter and welcome the onset of spring. That was the case in the village of Bargaun this year, a little settlement in Humla in Nepal’s north-west that boasts serene landscapes and spectacular mountain-views practically year-round. It hosted the Mani festival this time around, and I was lucky to be present to observe the goings-on in person.
Bargaun is a four-hour walk from Simikot, the district headquarters. My journey to the village began with an uphill climb from Tehe, also in Humla, a path that is challenging, especially for an outsider. It was after traversing a number of dangerous cliffs that I got there more than an hour later, a trip that I was told locals make in less than half that time.
The Mani festival, a celebration of the Lama community, is a four-day affair that generally falls either in Falgun or Chaitra of the Nepali year. And preparations start early on, with organisers working in groups, visiting people door to door to spread the word. Invitations have been doled out to people from far-flung villages in the district—like Rorpa, Nimatang and Buraunshe—to come and participate, particularly in the cultural dances that are part of the festival. And in return, Bargaun locals are also issued invites by these villages when the festival happens to be organised in their areas.
The primary venue was to be an open space in the village called the Kangne Chaur, which was packed with people. Men, women, children and the elderly were gathered all around the chaur, some having even climbed on to rooftops to get a better view of the ongoing show.
And what a show it was. Masked men in traditional Lama costumes dancing to the beat of a variety of instruments—damah, dhool and taal—to the delight of spectators. Several other performances were scheduled for the four days, including plays that revolve around the stories of kings and commoners alike. “These dramas reflect the community’s changing sensibilities,” says CB Lama, author of the travel guidebook Kailash Mandala. “They’ve now become a fusion of indigenous and modern traditions, and they’re very engaging.”
The fourth and last day comprised a special session when participants wore their clothes inside out, coloured their faces in white powder, and drank chhyang. While food and drink are a big part of the festival anyway, it’s a unique sight when all families emerge from their homes with mugs or bottles of chhyang in their hands, offering these to others. The drinking was followed by another dance, where men and women carrying small branches danced along the village’s main road.
In the spirit of renewal and a bid to clear the air before the start of a new season, people are also encouraged to lay their hearts out during the Mani festival, say anything that comes to mind. There is then a sense of liberation surrounding the festival—people smiling, women decked in beautiful ornaments walking about, laughter ringing out from all corners—a time to forget the grudges of the past and rejoice in the hopes of the future. And I’m glad to have been a part of that cleansing experience.