Itâ€™s a cold, crisp morning on the second day of our trek along the India-Nepal border. Wind slaps against the lodge where we slept the previous night, and icicles cling to the rocks outside. But the sun shines brightly, and the trail zigzags upward along a steep switchback course. In time, my body warms and I begin to sweat. When I reach the top of a tree-lined hill, I pause for a few moments in a soft spot of green leaves covered in tiny berries. Rhododendrons bloom all around me.
Not much farther on sits a tea stop and rest area called Kaiyankata. The trail here is lined with fluttering flags, denoting the international border: the road is India, the tea shop Nepal. I stand precisely on the border line, jotting notes. I am everywhere and nowhere on that line.
The air way up here is so blue, so clear; the breathing is clean and easy. Itâ€™s amazing how much air can exist in a place with so little of it.
In addition to serving tea to trekkers, the villagers near Kaiyankata keep fields of green peas, and they make rock-hard cheese and butterâ€”commodities sold in Darjeeling, a dayâ€™s hike away. Occasionally on the trail, we pass villagers heading to the city with yaks and backs saddled with heavy goods.
We sit in the sun, sipping sweet tea and admiring the silence for a while. Then, just as we prepare to hit the trail again, we watch an old man scurrying back and forth with greens in his hand. Our guide explains: a woman in a nearby house is afflicted by an unhealthy spirit, and the villagers have called for an exorcist to perform a ritual to make her well.
Really? Can we see?
Our guide consults with villagers and they welcome us warmly. We are led into a kitchen where three men sit beside a bright blue wooden table. A fire burns in an earthen stove, and 8-inch lengths of hard cheese hang from the rafters. Beyond the kitchen is another room, visible through two tiny glass windows. The kitchen is dark but the other room is bright with sunshine beaming through a skylight of plastic sheeting. The ailing woman sits inside that room.
We watch intently. We have no idea what to expect. We have never seen an exorcism before.
And thus, the ritual begins. The exorcist, a 30-year-old man named Tirtha Bahadur, sits in the center of the kitchen. He places a dried flower into a tiny bamboo basket shaped like a cone. He sticks the bamboo into the wooden floor beside an array of itemsâ€”a small fire burner, a tray of raw rice with a piece of ginger, a vase of green leaves and a plate of incense shavings. The woman enters the kitchen and sits beside Tirtha.
He sprinkles vermilion over the flower, then lifts a few pieces of dried incense and hums a scripture. Three times he sprinkles incense onto the glowing embers of his hot little burner. After each sprinkling, he clasps his hands in prayer. Then he grabs a few grains of rice and sprinkles those onto the flower. The room fills with the perfume of incense.
Tirtha raises the green leaves over the flower, then lifts rice in his right hand and ginger in his left. The rice grains spill onto the flower. He lifts the greens again and sprinkles water from their stems onto the flower. Then more rice onto the flower. Then rice raised to the womanâ€™s head. Two more handfuls of incense are tossed into the embers. Flowery, spicy smoke sails upward; the room smells of cedar now. Throughout all of this, Tirtha chants. He swings his right arm around the woman, circling her with a handful of rice.
This continues about 10 minutes as Tirtha whispers soft prayers between quickly moving lips. Then he raises his hand to the woman, gives her a few grains of rice and holds the bamboo cone for her to spit into. She fingers the rice, eats a few grains and places the rest in a scrap of paper. Then she returns to her little sunlit room.
With that, the ritual ends. â€œHe has called all of the deities he knows,â€ our guide explains. â€œHe has been trained. And he has asked the deities to cure the lady.â€
I talk to Tirtha for a few moments. His name means â€œto go on a religious tour,â€ he tells me. â€œI have been doing this 18 years. I was born this way. My parents knewâ€”when I touched someone, he was cured.â€ He travels far and wide to perform these rituals; he requires food and a little money as payment.
Then I enter the small room and talk to the woman, named Daki. She is unable to move her arm, which looks out of place and oddly bent at the elbow. â€œI didnâ€™t fall down or anything,â€ she says. It just stopped working one day. â€œThe medicine man came six months ago. My arm got better. It comes and goes.â€ She says she must eat seven grains of raw rice for the next three nights before she goes to sleep. She is certain she will get better.