Maghe Sankranti is a Hindu festival, marking the end of the inauspicious Nepali month of Poush (Mid- Dec to Mid-Jan). The festival is celebrated all over Nepal but the best place to see festivities is from the Bagmati River, Sankhamole, near Patan.
Maghe Sankranti signals the start of warmer weather and good health. Though at 7am, as I stood on the foggy streets of Thamel trying to convince a taxi driver to take me to see the bathing at Sankhamole, the improvement in the weather was far from apparent.
Two cab drivers refused, one claiming no such place existed and the other saying no one goes to Sankhamole to bathe anymore. Finally, a driver agreed to take me but he admitted he wasn’t completely sure where I wanted to go. It was freezing cold. I reasoned, a driver who was half sure of the destination was better than standing around until my fingers froze off.
Along the way the driver stopped to ask some locals if they knew of the bathing at Sankhamole. They all responded with amusement, “There is nothing to see in Sankhamole.” After nearly an hour of lost aimless circling the driver asked some police if they knew of anywhere in the area for bathing?
It is no surprise this aroused an intense and suspicious questioning. Officers lent through my open window and demanded answers. Why was I in Nepal? Where had I come from this morning? Why did I want to bathe in the open? Who told me there was a festival? Why did I want to take pictures of people as they bathed? Why didn’t I know where I was going? No help there.
While we hopelessly trailed the quiet streets, the suddenly very informative driver explained, traditionally many people came to bathe in the Baghmati but now the river is so polluted that Maghe Sankrati is mostly celebrated in the home. Families come together and enjoy traditional foods, such as: yams, sweet potatoes, laddoos (sesame seeds ball cakes), chaku (molasses), ghee (clarified butter), khichari (mixture of rice and lentils) and green leaf spinach. I wondered why he couldn’t have shared this information in Thamel?
As I didn’t have a Nepali family to share sweet potatoes with, and I was determined to see something of the festival, we headed to the Pushupatinath ghat, the only place he could think of that people might be bathing at this hour (and probably the furthest away).
Pushupatinath ghat is one of the famous cremation sites of Nepal, the temple here is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Pushupatinath temple is thought to be the oldest temple in Kathmandu. The legend states that Lord Shiva left his palace at Mt. Kailash and secretly came to live in Kathmandu valley, in the form of the Deer, Pashupati, Lord of the Animals. When the other gods found him and he refused to return to his palace, God Vishnu shattered his horns into pieces. When cow herders dug around the spot, they found the lost horns and again built a temple in reverence.
When we arrived at Pushupatinath people streamed towards the temple with their bright little bundles of leaves, flowers, beads and fruits. Music flowed over the walls of the Pushupatinath Temple in a pulsing and infectious beat. I quickly paid the 500NR, stored my shoes, belt and camera and headed to the temple. I got just close enough to hear the chanting, to feel the anticipation of those who lined up to enter and to read the sign firmly stating “HINDUS ONLY”.
We sat near the river, jealously listening to the celebration on the other side of the wall and watching as people came to float their burning offerings. My friend told me of the legend behind Maghe Sankranti and the wealthy business man who found an idol of Lord Vishnu in his sack of never-ending sesame seeds.
Placing of an Offering in the Baghmati River
I was still disappointed that I couldn’t view the festival but glad that some things were considered sacred enough to refuse tourists. I consoled myself with the knowledge that after Maghe Sankranti the warm weather was coming and maybe by next year I will make it to Sankhamole.
If you want to try to see Maghe Sankranti at Sankhamole a google map of the area can be found here. The taxi should be about NR 280 from Thamel. If you would like to head to Pushupatinath the taxi should be around 150NR and the map can be found here.