I crouch on the crumbling bank of the Hanuman River, people push up behind me and a small Nepali woman grabs me by the backpack to keep me from going over the edge into the foul-smelling water. All around me people are bathing in the very water that I’m trying to avoid.
This morning, I'm documenting the Madhav Narayan festival in Bhaktapur. This month-long festival is one of the most difficult rituals practiced by Hindus in Nepal. Devotees undertake a month-long fast, walk barefoot in the cold winter mornings, and take a chilly, holy bath in the early light of day.
Around me, women loosen their hair and prepare their offerings before entering the freezing water. They disregard the trash that floats up around them and rinse their entire body, including their mouths. Many light candles at the water's edge and chants of Madhav Narayan fill the air.
Across the bank of the river, a row of men and boys line up in front of a temple. They are dressed in white. They hold conch shells in their hands and lift them to their lips. They chant and follow women in red who roll out large pieces of white fabric. The men and boys roll or crawl over the fabric, which is unrolled around the entire perimeter of the temple (maybe a half a mile).
The women unroll the pieces of white cloth while the men roll over them. More women walk along side the rolling men holding burning branches to their feet. At the end of the journey the men return to the bank of the river; they lay their heads at the base of the temple and float on their backs in the water with their palms together. Then the older men push off the wall to the center of the water, and submerge themselves three times.
A man beckons me to his side during the final minutes of the ceremony. He asks me if I know the name of the festival and tells me there are only a few days left. As soon as the last man in the water finishes his final dunk, the man grins at me and says, “It’s finished.” Then he wanders away.
I am still so enthralled with what I’ve seen that I cannot leave quite so quickly. I wander down the bank and photograph the woman hanging the white clothes out to dry and catch an older gentleman in a white khadi out of the corner of my eye. I follow him down to the edge of the water and take my final photos of the day. I leave not quite understanding all I’ve seen, but completely fascinated with the experiences this country is bringing my way.