Dr. Angela Dietrich

The entire Himalayan region is renowned for its many caves serving as refuges for the spiritual activities of sincere seekers of nirvana, or enlightenment. Observers have, in consequence, dubbed these caves as ‘power places’ as a result of these activities ranging from meditation to the performance of austerities like tumo, a practice done in winter to generate internal heat rendering the practitioner immune to the icy cold permeating high altitudes. A power place has its own special atmosphere which can be felt when visiting such a place of refuge and it thus often serves as a place of pilgrimage. Particularly the famous caves are visited by those with a spiritual motivation, who wish to gain merit thereby or may simply want to imbibe the atmosphere generated by centuries of practice in such a rarefied environment The caves in question are often marked by unusual, multi-coloured, rock formations and may even have underground streams, evocative of a passage to an other-worldly realm.

Two wondrous caves in Nepal

More commonly known as Haleshi in Nepali language, Maratika is composed of two caves, one upper and the other lower, lodged in a hillside located in Eastern Nepal, 185 kilometres south of Mt. Everest, in remote Khotang District which is devoid of electricity or other modern facilities. Besides what can be grown locally, all other goods need to be transported there by pack animals or porters. Although it is one of the most famous places of pilgrimage in Nepal mentioned already in the 12th century in Himalayan Buddhist literature, it remains notoriously difficult for a pilgrim to visit. I was one such pilgrim and hence have experienced at first hand the hardships one needs to face to reach it. Especially as it is off the main trekking route, you need to hire an experienced guide who knows the area well as the trails are unmarked and it takes a minimum of one full day from the nearest airport in a town called Lamidanda to reach. But it is a pleasant trek as you wind your way through the mid-hills, on a lower altitude than the high Himalayas, through villages in which time has stood still. There is also a river which you have to cross by dug out canoe – though with the help of an oarsman – which is tricky because of the strong current

The effort is richly rewarded because of its uniqueness as a place equally sacred to both Hindu and Buddhist, embodying the principle of religious harmony which characterises the Nepalese religious and cultural landscape. The Hindus claim it is an abode of Mahadeva (Shiva) while hiding from the monster Bhasmasur. They therefore have nicknamed it the ‘Pashupatinath of the East\ Pashupatinath being the most famous Hindu temple in Nepal located in the capital Kathmandu which is dedicated to Shiva. There is a huge festival there on the eve of Shivaratri, in honour of the Hindu god. A major Hindu god alongside Vishnu,4the preserver* and Brahma,4the creator’, Shiva is considered to be ‘the destroyer, and is often depicted with snakes instead of long strands of hair, smoking ganja or pot. with his consort Parbati at his side.

The Nepalese Buddhists who take the trouble to visit the place primarily include the hardy Mongolian or Tibetan-origin ethnic groups, Tamang and Sherpa, known as high altitude guides and porters, who practice Vajrayana Buddhism. They count it among the six most holy places in the present Buddhist eon. A pilgrimage is often undertaken at Losar, the Tibetan New Year held in February, and is said to guarantee that one will not be reborn into one of the three lower realms, the hell realm, hungry ghost realm or animal realm. Losar is a time for celebration, in which the resident lama conducts a special ceremonial prayer or puja, followed by extensive feasting on special snacks like memos, dumplings filled either with vegetables, or for non-vegetarians, with minced goat or water buffalo meat. Some participants drink locally brewed beer orchang made of fermented rice, millet or maize. The hot version, tumba, is served in special bamboo containers, which you drink using bamboo straws, at the bottom of which is fermented millet which keeps getting topped up with hot water until ail the alcohol content has vanished.
When pilgrims first enter the lower cave, they are expected to blow through a hole in a rock to make a sound like blowing into a conch shell commonly used in both Hindu and Buddhist religious rituals. For Buddhist pilgrims, this is the ‘Cave of the Eight Means of Attainment’, where Guru Rinpoche, an Indian siddha, a practitioner of austerities and magic, was said to have slain a demon. A particularly unique rock formation is pointed out to be in the shape of the demon’s flesh and blood. Guru Rinpoche is then said to have flown through the roof of the cave leaving a large hole through which the sky is visible. It is called the ‘Sky door’ and 500 Arhats are believed to have come there especially to see it. Many people still go to Maratika to practice Chod, a Vajrayana practice taking an entire night normally performed in a cremation ground. It is thought to reinforce the feeling of impermanence thereby speeding one’s way towards a better rebirth. Holy water from the caves is called the Nectar of Immortality, said to extend one’s life and purify negative karma, which could otherwise cause rebirth in lower realms. Long-life pills are made from this nectar for the pilgrims to take away with them.

The higher Maratika cave is the place where Guru Rinpoche is supposed to have stayed in retreat before going north to spread Buddhism into Tibet. It was here that Rinpoche and his consort, the Indian princess Mandarava, are believed to have undertaken a taniric practice which endowed them with immortality. Pilgrims circumambulate both the entire hill housing the caves and also the inside of the caves. Deep down at the bottom of this higher Maratika cave is a large chamber with all kinds of rock formations evocative of gods and goddesses of the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons. You can test your faith by entering what is called the ‘womb cave’: if you succeed in passing through its narrow entry way, it is believed that your sins are purified and you will achieve a higher rebirth. Buddhists also allege that their stay in the Bardo realm, the intermediary stage following death but preceding rebirth, will be made easier by succeeding in passing through this passage. It changes in size to accommodate even very fat people, and their being able to pass through proves that their karma is good enough. There is also a rock in the shape of a box that grants all wishes, especially of women hoping to get pregnant.

Attesting to the enduring vibrancy of the traditions surrounding Maratika, in a brochure produced by the monastery on location catering towards the pilgrim’s needs, the following guidelines are given: “When visiting this great place, Maratika, the highest profile people should engage in longevity practices, the middle ones should perform offerings, and the general practitioners should make prostrations and also circumambulations. If one visits this great holy place, one will not need to experience the lower realms” (Ven. Wangchuk, abbot of the Maratika Chimey Takten Choling Monastery, 2013).

My own experience of going to the Maratika site underlined the fact that it certainly still is a power place which is well worth a visit even for those who may be sceptical about its actual spiritual benefits. Nowadays, the visitor can stay in a simple but comfortable guest house and the site can even be reached by helicopter if one wishes to avoid the trek, although the hike through some very beautiful and unblemished landscape is certainly a reward in itself.

In closing, I would like to express a word of thanks to the organisers of this conference for their considerable efforts and sacrifices made in organising such an important event as it expresses a profound desire to enlighten people about the nature of Buddhist culture and religion and the benefits which can be achieved through cultivating Buddha Dharma for the benefit of everyone.

Note about the author

Dr. Angela Dietrich is a retired educational consultant who has worked … of college management and as a lecturer in communication studies. She has alSo active in the field of human rights and particularly, the right to education. Having been born in Germany and grown up in the US, she then migrated to the UK where she has been living since graduating from Heidelberg University in the Faculty of Ethnology in 1981. While she was living in Nepal from 1992 to 1998, she established her own charity to assist the access to education for females from economically and socially weak backgrounds. She has a strong interest in engaged Buddhism, has conducted research and written articles on this topic. Academically, too, she has written extensively on Asian religions and is the author of two books on Nepalese culture and religion. Her professional and personal experience encompass not only Europe and the US, but also India, Nepal, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries and, most recently, China, where she was a visiting lecturer in English and American culture and literature. Her experience in China gave her the opportunity to explore .other religious traditions.and particularly how all three, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, have influenced one another. Her interest now is focused chiefly on engaged Buddhism in regard to its cultivation on all levels, both personal and for the sake of others.