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Photographing Chhyam Puja at Yalbang Gumba, Humla: A treat of natural beauty and cultural heritage

The Covid-19 pandemic was raging everywhere. People were locked inside the house. Amidst all this chaos, I reached Humla in April 2021. To be precise, the Namkha Khyangzhong Gumba (Yalbang Gumba) of Humla was my destination. The annual Chhyam Puja there had attracted me there.

It was not my first time at this monastery. My maiden visit was 15 years ago on my way to Kailash Mansarovar from Simikot. Similarly, in 2011, I walked the Simikot -Hilsa-Limi section on the Great Himalayan Trail. At that time, this area was not touched by motor roads.

It took four days to reach Hilsa from Simkot and two more days to reach Yalbang Gumba on foot. On the way, there were herds of buffaloes, sheep, and goats. Some were going to Taklakot with rice and pulses to get back salt while others were returning from Taklakot with salt and wool. However, such scenes have become rare after road transportation has reached there.

This time, I travelled from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj, then to Namkha Khyangzhong Gumba via Simikot. Since the flight was uncertain, we had already kicked off our journey before the puja started. After reaching there, open mountains, warm and blooming spring filled my heart with enthusiasm and happiness before I got to observe a grand cultural event.

The splendour of snow

Coincidentally, it started snowing when we reached Yalbang. I love to play with the snow, to touch the snow. 

And, the day of Chhyam Puja came. On the day, after the rain, the sky looked wide and open. With the vast infinite blue sky in the background, the mountain looked majestic. I reached the monastery as early as 6 o’clock in the morning. There was an eternal kingdom of snow.

The rays of the early morning sunlight painted the monastery golden. A lump of melted snow was falling from the roof of the monastery. The sound of chanting was coming from inside the monastery. And, outside, it was mostly quiet.

Above the monastery was a dense forest of angular pine trees, all covered in white snow. And, above the forest, eagles and crows were flying freely in the open sky. 

The snow-covered pine forest allured me and I went straight to the forest with the camera lens. The mixed sound of the Karnali river and the wind sounded musical in itself.

Several musical instruments were playing loudly in the monastery. People gathered around the monastery. And, I also joined their crowd.

The monastery was decorated with pomp. To its right were precious Thangka paintings. On the left, Rinpoche and the guests, and in front, the villagers, all wearing masks, were sitting quietly.

Soon after that, a stream of people dressed in very attractive clothes came out of the door of the monastery followed by the playing of musical instruments. They started dancing, making a circle in the empty space in front of them. I also immediately rushed to capture this scene with my camera.

A different dance

The first dance continued for an hour and the dance was very calm, gentle and meanwhile, very grand. When the fifth dance was over, the atmosphere suddenly deteriorated. All of a sudden, a  loud noise came from inside the monastery. 

Some ghosts came out of the monastery dancing, jumping, fighting, shouting and playing thunderous instruments. They jumped up and came to the place where the devotees were sitting.

In a way, the atmosphere was tense and fearful. But, actually, there was nothing to be afraid of because it was a dance that carries the main message of the Chhyam puja.

Explaining the meaning of the dance, the founder of the monastery, Rinpoche Guru Pema Riskal, shares, “According to Buddhist scriptures, until the 49th day after our death, we do not take any new birth. We see a lot of scary things. At that time, hunger and thirst haunt us.”

According to him, earlier, in that period, people see the flash of half of what one will be in the next birth and half of what they are born in. As time passes by, various thoughts come to mind. They feel anxious, due to which many frightening illustrations appear. It makes you panic. From there, the road to heaven and hell is decided.

Chhyam Puja at Yalbang Gumba, Humla

If you do not recognise that what you see are yourself and your own shadow, you will suffer for many days. Therefore, one should look at their shadow with reverence and understand that that frightening illustration that can be seen for 49 days is none other than one of many forms of Guru Padmasambhava, who is seen due to the nature of Buddha. This is something we have already seen in the Chhyam.

After realising that this is just a form of Guru Padmasambhava,  there is no fear. This is an opportunity to get acquainted with the Buddha. At the end of the dance, Guru Padmasambhava comes in front and blesses us. Then, it is believed that sin is removed and virtue is attained.

Eight Bajra dances based on the biography of Guru Padmasambhava are performed during the Chhyam Puja. This puja, which has been performed for thousands of years, has been performed uninterruptedly at Namkha Khyangzhong Gumba Yalbang for the last 13 years. The Chhyam Puja should be promoted not only religiously but also in terms of tourism.

I myself am a resident of Humla. But, I got to know about Chhyam from my Dr Janita Gurung last year.

Chhyam Puja at Yalbang Gumba, Humla

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