At 5:30 a.m. I was in a taxi headed to Pashupatinath Temple, northeast of Kathmandu, where a photographer friend told me was the best place to observe the festivities of Hartalika Teej. Despite jump-starting my day, I was still hours behind the women who queued up at 3:00 a.m.
During the early morning cab ride, I watched people start to stir in the usually swamped streets. They swept their storefronts, balanced heavy loads on their heads, read the newspaper or chatted with neighbors.
I closed my eyes, leaned my head out the window, and felt the rare cool breeze over my pollution mask. I was excited to photograph in Nepal, the land of festivals.
Teej is a collection of holidays draped in tradition and controversy. They take place during the monsoon season and the theme is Goddess Parvati's union with Lord Shiva. The controversy lies in the holiday's focus on obtaining a wealthy and successful husband. Critics feel this departs from feminist values and say there is more to happiness and success than a partner. Generally speaking, the holiday is a time for unmarried women to fast and pray for a husband and married women to celebrate theirs, but it isn't that simple.
Hartalika translates to "abduction of a female friend." This represents the legend of Goddess Parvati's friend stealing her away to the forest upon hearing her father's plan of marrying her to Lord Vishnu. She prayed until Lord Shiva promised he'd marry her. A Kathmandu Post oped recently introduced opposition to the skeptics. The writer's grandmother was quoted saying, "[Parvati] fasted as a sign of devotion. She fasted to take her life into her own hands by choosing her own partner." Multiple interpretations of the holiday make it difficult for an outsider to form a stance. The first challenge is to get inside.
My cab driver advised me how to get into the ancient Hindu temple. I saw ticketed females entering, while males stood behind guards and ropes. Thousands of women were in attendance, and it was only morning.
I approached the guards, and asked if I could pass in slow, focused English to no avail. A nearby man said only women can go through this way. He motioned towards a beautiful forest and said I could get in near the mountains. I thanked him and started walking in the street alongside a sidewalk filled with an extensive stream of women wearing elegant red attire. Cars and motorcycles honked as they passed me, because that's just what they do in Nepal.
The second entrance seemed more restricted than the first. I watched a man get turned away, so I continued on without inquiring. The third entrance was almost vacant, save a handful of guards. I asked them if I could enter, and they said it was the VIP entrance. I might be an oddity or a spectacle in Nepal (being above 5 foot tall with a big 'ole red beard), but I am no VIP.
I then asked where I can enter as a photographer. A young guard took the time to chat with me for a while, and ultimately said to head back the way I came. I told him there didn't seem to be a usable entrance that way, and he insisted I needed a pass to get in the entrance he was guarding. Where do I get this pass? His perplexing answer was the passes to enter Pashupatinath are inside Pashupatinath.
Upon another dead-end, I pleaded to see if there was any other way. He pointed to a path that disappeared hauntingly into the forest.
I didn't have bug spray and truly didn't want this to be the answer.
I thanked him and contemplated my next move. He must have sensed my fear of the mosquito-infested forest or frustration with the failed attempts at entering the temple, and he abruptly told me to follow him.
He led me past the other guards after attaining his boss' approval and I was in. Persistence awarded me VIP status... or so I thought.
There was at least one more bridge to cross before I could begin covering the festival.
Little huts, shops and swarms of monkeys surrounded the temple. I have learned to not look into the eyes of our clever little evolutionary ancestors. They are quick to defend their young and don't mind searching you for goodies.
The first bridge I came to had an onslaught of guards, and I was starting to feel like Solid Snake. I didn't want to trigger the exclamation points atop their heads so I cut an immediate right.
The next bridge was roped off, but men and children were scampering under without a word from the guards, so I did the same.
The endless lines of colorful women were now weaving in and out of buildings and down corridors. There were people at their feet asking for pittance or rice. Merchants lined the dirt roads to sell ornate statues or adorn foreheads with tikkas.
After making a few rounds I felt like I was missing something. Photographers have an intense fear of missing out. There had to be a world within a world I needed to find. I started to follow the queues of ladies until I found a workable entrance. It was a tall golden gate surrounded by guards and children.
I decided to keep my chin down and take my chances. And I was happy I did. I heard one "sir", but continued on, escalated heartbeat and all.
I was now in the heart of the celebration.
The lines outside continued here, some over raised bridges. Beyond them were collections of women of all ages rejoicing and dancing. Some groups were guided by a religious leader, but most were a call-and-response format where one would start a chant, then the group would join in unison.
There was a quad with more of these circles and stubborn goats meandering about. Men in a stand offered different forehead adornments. Up some steps they burned incense and prayed. Fire plays a crucial role in their lives and spirituality. When the festival hasn't engulfed the temple, it is used for cremations.
There weren't many photographers, so it was daunting and exhilarating to stand out even more in a country that already had no problem staring. Outside the walls of the temple I am one of few Americans, inside I am also one of few males. The joyous women quickly exchanged smiles and displayed their intricate henna tattoos with this curious foreigner.
Hours later I was sun-baked, head and throat throbbing from the incense smoke, but happy. Controversy aside, it seemed to be a day of sharing happiness between mothers, daughters and friends.
So if you're a male in Nepal during Teej and you want to enter Pashupatinath, I suggest being a little weasel and wearing a camera. And if all else fails, bring your DEET and brave the forest.