Prayer flags flutter in the icy winds. The chants of the local Lama echo between the stone-built stupas. Traditional Sherpa dances erupt now and then, set to a backing track of Tibetan drums and the ceaseless clicking of prayer beads in the high mountain air. Smoke twists and turns in ice-white plumes from a crackling clutch of juniper boughs. It floats upwards towards Everest. I see it disappear into the grey-white camouflage of the Khumbu Icefall.
I’m attending the compulsory Puja ceremony with the summit hopefuls of Everest Base Camp. A rite of passage for any mountaineer eyeing up the mighty peak at 8,848 meters, the Puja is a common sight in the Khumbu Valley at the start of the spring climbing season. It’s a trekker’s way of asking the gods of mighty Sagamartha – the divine mountain of Everest in Tibetan mythology – for safe passage to the top.
From beginning to end of the three-hour ceremony, I am entirely enthralled. I sit in wonder as the Sherpas pass platters of roasted barley flour (known as tsamba powder) for the climbers to rub on their faces – thought to encourage a long and fruitful life. I watch wide-eyed as the Lama, a tanned and venerable fellow who made the trek to Base Camp especially for the Puja from nearby Pangboche village, flicks through scrolls of Tibetan scripture. He occasionally glances upwards to inspect the colourful Buddhist altarpiece, decorated in fabrics and bowls of food offerings for the gods.
Towards the end of the Puja, I cast rice into the air as a further gift to the divine Sagamartha. Then the drinks come out. Local moonshines, tinned beers (eager to fizz from their cans in the high-altitude thin air), and whiskey are all poured. We all dip our fourth fingers into the liquid before toasting; a final libation to the revered deities of the high Himalaya.
When the Puja finishes, climbers reclaim their ice picks and crampons from a pile of blessed equipment. The expedition teams gaze towards the great peak ahead, taking stock. Everyone – Sherpa, climber and Lama alike – feels closer to each other, the earth, and Everest in the clouds.
Do you have an experience of a traditional Buddhist Puja ceremony? Want to find out more about the one I experienced? I’d love to hear your comments below…