Climbing Sherpa’s and Pujas’
Today we came one step closer to stepping onto Everest and starting our long climb to the roof of the world. Today we had or Puja!
Since I was young I have been taught, when travelling in foreign countries, to embrace the local culture and the values of those around you. After all, it is us who has travelled half way round the world to climb a mountain in a foreign country, not the other way around. Whilst this sentiment remains true for any form of travelling and exploring, for an expedition where you rely heavily on the support and the help of the locals it is particularly important to not disrespect them. It could be the case that later on in the expedition you find yourself relying on one of your climbing Sherpas to help get you down the mountain.
Climbing Everest is a great challenge and really does push most human beings to the limits of their endurance both physically and mentally. Though for a privileged few who are born at altitude, up in the villages of Nepal, hidden away in the Himalayas, the challenge is made slightly easier due to them, over many years, naturally developing extra red blood cells to combat the limited supply of oxygen in the air. Since the first expeditions into the Himalayas, back in the days of Mallory and Irvine and later with Hilary and Tensing, westerners have employed the locals to help them porter their equipment to and from camps, and more recently to actually help them climb the mountains. In Nepalese these extraordinary human beings are called Sherpas. The majority of climbers who attempt to climb peaks in the Himalayas such as Everest, Choy, Ama Dablam, would not make it far past base camp without some form of help from the local Sherpas.
A puja is a religious ceremony which is extremely important to the climbing Sherpas. It allows them the opportunity to ask permission from nature to step foot onto the mountain and to get blessed. It is often the case that many Sherpas will not embark on a journey till they have been blessed. Whist in recent years it has also become tradition for westerners to join the ceremony, it is still very much about the climbing Sherpas getting blessed before climbing.
The ceremony normally involves a monk, from the local monastery, coming up to base camp. The monk will then lead the ceremony with the help of the Sherpas. The ceremony starts with the monk reading prayers from a scripture out loud, and continues throughout the entire ceremony. At the same time both Sherpas and climbers lay down items which they would liked blessed, on a prepared stone pillar before taking their seats behind the monk. The normal sort of items which people lay down are Ice axes crampons, harnesses and gloves. Tea is then passed around as the next hour entails sitting on a mat watching the monk chant, bang drums and drink, all while your hands and feet are slowly loosing feeling to the cold. Thankfully the tea is piping hot and remains so throughout the ceremony.
As the ceremony progresses, the Sherpas start to burn incense at the bottom of the stone pillar and prepare pray flags to be attached to a pole which will stand tall at the centre of the items to be blessed. The monk then signals for the Sherpas to hoist the pole up, with prayer flags attached to it in the centre of the stone pillar. The Sherpas then proceed to stretch out the long lines of pray flags in each and every direction of base camp. In the end you are left with a amazing view of multi coloured flags, flying in the wind stretching out to each corner of camp.
As the ceremony draws to a close plates of flour and grains of rice are passed round. Nearly simultaneously the Sherpas raise their hands in the air with a handful from each plate, all the time being lead by the monk. This continues for a couple of minutes before the Sherpas and monk, closely followed by everyone else, start to throw the rice and flour into the air and rub flour onto each other’s faces. All and all, for about a couple of minutes, it is effectively a food fight with flour and rice. Once the rice and flour stops flying drink and food, which were also placed at the bottom of the stone pillar, are brought round for everyone to eat. Climbers and Sherpas are then invited up one by one, to kneel down in front of the monk to be blessed. A piece of cord is then tied round their neck for good luck, before finally having a prayer scarf placed round them.
In total the ceremony lasts about 2 hours. As our team was so big we had two monks come up from the local monastery to lead our puja. A number of us also decided to join in a second puja of another team for extra luck. To the Sherpas the puja is not only a blessing but also a time to party and celebrate.