There was a festival at the temple on top of Chobhar hill, and from the road below hordes of devotees could be seen making their way up to it. The day was clear and sunny, and one could look at a part of Kathmandu ’s sprawl with a glimpse of snowy peaks beyond the hills. The winter sun was mild and the breeze from the north stirred the leaves of trees and grasses. Cars, motorbikes, vans and buses had been parked at the roadside.
On the big ground at the base of the hill, a stage had been set, and where men and women in traditional costumes were presently singing and dancing to a large number of audience. Then a group of old Newar men played melodious tunes on their traditional musical instruments to commemorate the deities. There was a great deal of activity going around at the fair. Lines of stalls sold assortment of things and lots of people had thronged at the food stalls to savor barbeques along with taking sips of strongly flavored local spirit. Young girls and boys in their best clothes were strolling in small groups capturing the general mood of fun and festivity.
The Bagmati flowing beside the Jal BinayakTemple. The river leaves its polluted past from here.
From the old steel suspension bridge a little distance away from the fair, one could see the Bagmati river flowing out from the Chobhar gorge and then past the Jal Binayak temple. From here one could also see the Manjushree cave, which was a few hundred meters from the Chobhar gorge, and when my group reached its main entrance accompanied by a local guide a young man was guarding it to prevent any unauthorized entry. He didn’t noticed us coming as his gaze was fixed on the opposite cliff from where few men were coming down without any safety wires attached to them. It was one rare sight and for a couple of minutes we also looked at the men skillfully walking down the narrow path of the cliff, sometime just holding on to plants and branches where it was very steep. They twisted and turned their body, made smart maneuvers to shun obstacles on their way down, but during the whole time looked pretty unconcerned about the fact that one wrong step would lead them directly to the ravine below. Other people also watched the daring feat as the men jumped onto the rocky banks below and went behind a big stone-wall to disappear from our sight.
The Chobhar gorge seen above is the only water outlet of the valley. Legend has it that the gorge was formed when the Chinese monk Manjushree struck a deep cleft in the southern hills to drain the water from the valley.
A while after the group led by a female guide entered the cave, it was our turn to go inside the cave. There were six routes to choose from when we had bought the ticket to the caves, all varying in length, and we had opted for the one which was not too long but not too short either. The maps of those caves said that the route we had taken was 128.6 meters in length and would take us approximately 50 or so minutes to emerge from another point at Naya Gupha.
But we had no idea at that time how long and arduous these minutes would be.
Our guide was a middle-aged man and looked experienced. Before entering the cave he told us certain precautions we should take while inside the cave, like maintaining a certain distance between us while inside, following each of his instructions and above all to be careful while taking each step.
“If you make one wrong move and break your hands or legs then you’re in for a serious trouble as most of the time you have to crawl on all your fours inside the cave,” the guide said plainly, “And since there’s not enough space inside the cave there is no way anybody would be able to carry you from there! So please be watchful and enjoy your experience inside the cave.”
But it was what the young gatekeeper had told me while waiting for our turn that had got me a little wary.
“In the past many people have lost their way inside the cave while exploring it, some even for days, “ he said, and told me how when he was a kid and used to graze sheep in these hills he had seen a group of foreigners go inside the cave never to come out of it again.
“Not even their bodies were found,” he continued, “And I have seen two lovers jump to their death from that bridge there. You see I have been living here since my childhood.”
I was somewhat startled to hear these stories, but didn’t say anything.
The other members of the group I was put in with didn’t look a least bit worried, remarkable considering that three boys in it looked just in their teens and a girl, who I found was their elder sister, barely in her 20s.
Wearing the head-lamps which the guide had handed to each of us, we entered the cave and were not even few meters inside it when we had to bend on our knees to pass through a cylindrical route barely few inches in diameter. It was more like a tunnel than a cave, and we had to slowly crawl with the help of our knees and hands while minding our heads so that we don’t bump into the cave wall.
The guide led us from the front followed by three boys, me and then the girl, who seemed a bit terrified and not even few minutes into the cave she had wanted to turn back. Looking back at her with the light of the torch, crawling very slowly and difficulty, ruining her fine dress, I felt a little sorry for her. There was already tension in her voice and I had to stop many times to see that she doesn’t lag behind. She had been to the huge bat caves in Pokhara and, like me, she had also imagined that in this cave, too, she would be able to walk while enjoying the glittering rocks inside it and take pictures at will.
For most of the time we had to crawl on all our fours, sometimes simply dragging ourselves with the chest flat on the ground while passing through extremely narrow passages. We had to constantly twist and turn our bodies to make it through the vast network of limestone caves. The boys were short and slim and they passed through the narrow routes pretty easily, but a grown up like me had to make a great deal of effort for the same.
Some parts of the cave were wet and slippery and one had to be extremely careful while passing through it. And at points where the routes diverged, one had to climb up and down with great care or risk breaking the hands or legs. But it was amazing that despite being so deep inside the tiny cave we didn’t feel a least bit suffocated.
It felt like we had been negotiating the narrow passages of the tunnel for hours, but the clock showed it had been only about 30 minutes. The guide called a time out at a place where there was just enough space to sit up straight.
“You must all be tired,” the guide told us, “So rest for a while and we’ll proceed again.”
“How much more time would it take us now... we must have at least made it till the half way?” I asked, sitting on a slab of stone.
“Yes, we are half way through,” the guide agreed, and looking at his watch said that as the path ahead is not so difficult it would take us another half an hour or so with the current pace.
“Even this is so difficult for us, what would have been our condition if we had taken the longer route,” said the girl, “And look at our clothes, it is all ruined.”
She asked the boys whether they were finding this very difficult and felt very sorry for what she had made them go through. However, the boys weren’t complaining, in fact they seemed to enjoy every moment of it and were not even a bit afraid.
“How long is this cave exactly and is this all natural or man-made?” the girl asked the guide.
“If you add up the length of all the routes then it is over a kilometer long.,” said the guide, ”I was told by a foreign research team that came here that it is also the third longest cave in Asia . And except for the entrances, and the stairs, no part of the cave is man-made. It has been like since ages. ”
“The whole cave looks like a tunnel, aren’t there any place where you can walk straight up?” I asked
“Yes there is one place inside that is so big that at a time 10 or more people can gather there.
“Are we going to see that place?”
“No, it falls on the other route.”
Then I couldn’t stop myself from tallying the gatekeeper’s story with the guide.
“Oh, that boy was just bluffing you, I live in the village nearby and as far as I know, no one has died while exploring the cave. Yes foreigners do come here but they are mainly cave experts who carry out their researches inside,” the guide said. Then he fell silent for a while as if trying to remember something.
The guide continued, “But yes a couple of years back, when the caves had not been formally opened to the public, a group of laborers from the nearby cement factory had lost their way inside the cave.” He paused. “It took us three days to get them all out of here. They were all naked when we found them as they had burnt all their clothes to build fire for it gets really cold inside, and a few seemed to have lost their sanity after staying in the dark for so long.”
He then asked all of us to switch off our head-lamps and sit silently for few minutes. We did as he told us and, in the pitch darkness I had a slight hint what those poor men must have gone through during their ordeal.
We again started our little adventure after this calming talk, and strangely I now began to observe interesting details inside the cave. The guide told us to observe them closely, and in doing so one could see fascinating figures in the lime stone cave walls and some rocks shined wonderfully after the beam of light fell on them. Even the cigarette stubs and wai-wai packets left by previous visitors had certain peculiar quality to them in this place that seemed untouched by the outside world.
The map of Chobhar caves.
As had been promised by the guide earlier, we soon came upon a small pond, but we were told not to venture too close to it, as the path was slippery and it could be dangerous. And at one point I found my worst nightmare coming true when suddenly, after a turn, I didn’t saw the boy in front of me. I called for him, but there was no answer. I just hoped we had failed to catch up with them and that they were waiting for us at the end of the tunnel. The girl was pretty worried and may have shrieked if I hadn’t calmed her down assuring her that we had just failed to catch up with their pace and that we would soon find them. But while continuing to crawl on confidently as if I knew the cave like the back of my hand I felt something inside me giving away. I thought what if we were really lost, what if we have to spend a couple of days inside this pit trying to find our way like those helpless men, or worse, what if I never find out my way out from here! Fortunately there were no passages to choose from, only few zig-zags, and soon I saw a flicker of the headlamp at the end of the tunnel. I heaved a long sigh of relief.
All four of them were waiting for us there and quite relieved to see us again. The guide told me that he was afraid that he had lost us and was just about to come to look for us.
“Only yesterday a man failed to catch up with the rest of the group and it took me hours to locate him. Now follow me closely, we are now just 10 more minutes from emerging out of this cave,” the guide said and again led us from there.
Finally, after what seemed hours that was specially accentuated by my losing way inside the caves, we climbed up a narrow passage, up the stony steps and came outside the cave into light and fresh air of the outside world. We had made it to the entrance of Naya Gupha at the other end of the hill. We were all in good spirits that one gets after accomplishing an adventurous feat, strangely found ourselves not very tired and dusted our clothes off the red soil without complaining. It was certainly a new experience and the boys seemed to like it so much that they wanted to go inside again to try out the longest route.
It was already late evening when we said goodbye to our wonderful guide. We came to the road again, and as none of us were feeling tired or hungry, we decided to go on up the hill to the temple. On our way up we saw groups of devotees feasting here and there all over the hill, and further up people going to the temple to pay their tribute to the lord with offerings of flowers, vermilion, powder and incense. As the day had been clear, the view of Kathmandu valley with the hills and mountains at the backdrop was breathtaking in the evening twilight. And soon the full moon came into view after the cloud passed. We stopped at a shop to take a breather with sips of coke. The moon was a large orb, and it seemed to be of the same color and material as the mountains. The evening sky gleamed with the moon’s light and it spread across the valley, but the pilgrims making their way up temple never noticed it.