November 8, 2011. Sometime in the morning.
It’s hard to sleep, through the chill and my own anticipation, and knowing that each time I close my eyes, the rite will be one day closer to ending when I wake. I wish I could stay all night in the yajña-śālā. I don’t know when the earliest rites begin, or how. Do the fires burn through the night? I fell asleep wondering, and this morning decide to fuel my own agni and get to the site as quickly as I can run up the hill.
Each day, we take two meals at the café adjacent to my friend’s guesthouse. The morning tea is especially welcome; my cold hands take warmth from the mug, and then the sweet brew drives away the lingering chill. Breakfast is delicious as always, and I wish I could tell the cook – the proprietor’s wife – my appreciation clearly, instead of via gestures and smiles.
At some meals, the proprietor of my friend’s guesthouse has spoken about respect and Nepali traditions. Today he speaks to my friend about the short traditional homes, how the door frame is deliberately lower than the ceiling because a house should be respected; one therefore bows the head upon entering.
I remember this as I enter the śālā this morning, for I have been bowing to this place, these priests – fortunate beings! what must it be like to do this work?! – since the first day, in my mind, in my heart, every time. Coming here feels familiar now, as if my normal routine always begins with dropping my shoes and stepping into this otherworld.
The assembled priests continue their morning offerings for the next half-hour. Then they rise and move to the open entrance of the inner sanctum; one priests picks up a huge iron karai and stands behind them. In a group they wait. The microphone is passed. I perk up; I’ve never seen them do anything standing there. This is something new.
They start to chant, and I freeze, listening acutely. I don’t always understand what the priests are saying, but I know what this must be. They sing the refrain three times:
subrahmaṇyoṃ subrahmaṇyoṃ subrahmaṇyoṃ / indrāgaccha hariva āgaccha medhātitheḥ / meṣa vṛṣaṇaśvasya mene / gaurāvaskandinn ahalyāyai jāra kauśikabrāhmaṇa gautamabruvāṇa
—Taittirīya Āraṇyaka I.12.3.
(“‘Come, O Indra!’ Indra is the deity of the sacrifice: therefore he says, ‘Come, O Indra!’ ‘Come, O lord of the bay steeds! Ram of Medhātithi! Wife of Vṛṣaṇaśva! Bestriding buffalo! Lover of Ahalyā!’ Thereby he wishes him joy in those affairs of his. ‘O Kauśika, Brāhman, thou who callest thee Gautama.’”
—Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 220.127.116.11-19, Eggeling translation. The addendum post has other translations of this litany.)
I have never heard singing like this, strong, powerful…the singers call for the Deva’s presence, in tones that move the core in longing sympathy. The energy in the structure palpably rises. Any idle talk around the altars fades; people fall quiet and fold their hands, until all of the conversation is silent, and the song soars gloriously, and everyone is watching and hearing only the invocation.
Scores of people then throng to take prasādam, from the karai held during the chant. Until now I have been too timid to take anything from the rites unless it is specifically held out to me, but for this, I rise and join the crowds. The pot holds dried fruit and nuts, and this simple mixture tastes sweeter and more robust than anything else I’ve eaten so far.
It is only mid-morning, and already I don’t want to go to sleep tonight.
(Afternoon/evening coming in the next post, and after the remaining four days of Nepal, the posts won’t be nearly this lengthy.)
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