The honey hunters of Nepal
In the vast mountain ranges of Nepal, there are isolated tribes who have, for centuries, collected a special type of honey from the slopes of the Himalayas. They live in remote villages of wood and stone houses which are set into the mountain range of the Dhaulagiri district, under the shadow of Mount Everest. Far from anything, this unspoiled area is only accessible on foot, and a couple of days from the neighboring villages.
Honey hunting is an atavistic tradition, handed down through the generations and a vivid testimony of a culture linked to nature and the seasons. Still practiced today with the help of rudimentary tools and without any safety precautions. It is a dangerous, crazy, and sometimes fatal ritual that may not last much longer. The reason for this can be partially put down to change in the ecosystem. However, the main threat is due to the growing reputation of the properties and effects of the honey. Over the years the demand for this quality product has increased exponentially, especially in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean markets. Demand combined with the complexity of procuring it make this an expensive product.
The Himalayan giant bees are the largest in the world and produce different types of honey depending on the season and the elevation of the nectar producing flowers. The honey has a reddish, viscous appearance, and is known as “mad honey”. It is created in huge hives that can reach two metres wide and sit upon jagged protrusions and steep rock faces. The only time the honey contains the grayanotoxin, a toxin produced by from the nectar of Rhododendron blooms, is in the spring. Spring honey has hallucinogenic properties, and two teaspoons are enough to produce psychotropic effects similar to that of cannabis. There are those who describe the effect as “slightly intoxicating”, whilst others, see it as a deadly poison. For the Nepalese, “mad honey” is considered curative in small doses and they will use it as an antiseptic, a cough syrup, and a pain reliever.
I am assured by the ex-leader of a group of honey hunters that “a teaspoon of honey every morning strengthens the immune system and allows you to lead a long and more productive life”. This is qualified by the statement “Exceeding the recommended dose may cause hallucinations and momentary loss of vision and, in larger quantities, also induce cardiac arrest”.
The preparation for this reportage was a time consuming, but hugely important commitment. The search to find the right contacts and confirming the accessibility to locations took one year to complete. It was especially difficult, because I decided to go solo, and over the course of the planning I repeatedly lost hope and saw the opportunity disappearing. But, in any case the Spring came and I was there, together with the Pun tribes, hunting this nectar and sensing the ancient aura. It took me four days to reach their village. Knowing of my arrival, the tribe prepared me a welcoming ceremony. I was greeted with bows, hugs, music, flower necklaces, tilaka (the third eye decoration on the forehead, also called pundra), but, above all, by a world of genuine smiles.
Among them there is DurgaGharti, the “Śikārī”, the young man who for years has been chosen as the leader of the group of honey hunters. We speak different languages, but we can communicate with looks, even if they are timid. My legs are struggling from tiredness, but I spend the evening with them all. It is an important moment. They were waiting for me to begin the assembly. In fact, every movement and decision cannot take place without all the village members having discussed and later questioning the "deities" (day of the lunar cycle).
The word comes: This year the most favorable day for honey hunting will be the first Wednesday of the month and it will be prohibited to disturb the forest on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We toast with some “kodho ko rokshi” (millet wine) and the time to recover from my journey never comes.
The hours of sleep available are limited. The alarm is at dawn break and the villagers must get up to thank the gods of the forest. There will be a ceremony and opulent offerings of flowers, fruit and most importantly, the spilling of blood to bless and pay homage to the land. The sacrifice of one or more animals is a necessary offering to guarantee an abundant hunt and harvest for the coming year.
Blood is the symbol of life and rebirth, elements and plays an important role in the daily life of the people. We arrive to the top of the village, where we find a small Mandila temple. You can find your way by listening to the prayer bells. Around a sacred statue, bilwa leaves are covered with kumuma (a powder consisting of purely turmeric) and geometric shapes composed of rice grains. The tolling of the bells increases until it becomes incessant. A sudden cry is heard. They sound like the cries of a newborn.
A man with a goat’s head in his hands runs towards me, dodges, and spills the warm blood on the candles facing the altar. I turn and get hit by a gleam; the curved blade of a khukri (a symbolic Nepalese machete) sparkles whilst hovering in mid-air, and another head is severed. The smell of incense mixed with the ghee of the lamps contrasted with the sweet, metallic smell of blood suffocates my senses.
I go to look in the viewfinder of the camera to focus the image, when I realise that the blade is still out and ready to sacrifice a further twelve goats. The deed is done, and silence fills the room. On top of the severed heads, laying on the altar as a gift, a drop of the red pundra is marked between the open, unarmed eyes. Everything is ready. The soul of the forest has been sated for now.
We left before the sun rose from behind the eight-thousand-metre-high snow-covered wall in front of us; we have been driving through the thick jungle for over eight hours. It is the third day of walking for me and the backpack weighs heavy on my shoulders. I am running out of strength. I look to my companions and the agility with which they move is incredible, unleashing machete blows upon the branches that block our path, without pause. They cross the river, jumping from one rock to another wearing flip-flops; me, with my technical clothing, I just cross the river with the ice water that reaches my waist. I have leeches attached everywhere. I can’t stop wondering how the hell it occurred to me to come up here and think back to the hundreds of calls, months of searching for clues and the sleepless nights. I have the feeling that my rhythm causes them to feel obliged to slow down and the effort they put in, on top of guiding me, is superhuman. The women look at me and smile, until I realize that the situation makes me smile too. They carry on their shoulders wicker baskets filled with food and firewood. Along the way they collect berries, mushrooms, asparagus-like shoots and delicacies unknown to me.
The forest is also equipped with useful materials for the collection of honey. Long bamboo canes of different shapes, each with its own precise function. Then baskets, hooks, different types of ropes made from bamboo fibers and then very long stairs. The pace quickens; we are late and the light requires us to arrive before sunset. Despite the efforts we reach the base camp in darkness; a group has arrived before us and the fire is already lit. In large pots there is a broth made from the forest’s delicacies bubbling away. Our shelter for the next few nights will be at the foot of the steep wall we are to climb tomorrow morning.
I look to the stars as I lay on a bed of leaves; one night of the harvest remains. The fire projects dancing shadows on the wall, like a propitiatory rite for the success of hunting. The voice of the river, the croaking of frogs, the call of crickets, and other verses unfamiliar to me, all of which appeal to the lost purity of nature. Even tonight I won’t be able to sleep.
I will never forget the feeling of those tears running down my face. I do not feel ashamed to admit that I cried, whilst giving my last remaining energy to climbing the endless staircase. Exhausted, I screamed inside, I had already been forbidden to speak, to avoid attack from the bees. Durga was up there, far away, and he waited for me, enveloped in a thick trail of black and bees, whilst his ladder rocked precariously. Before my eyes I had the image that I had dreamt of for months. The moment I had hoped to portray was there waiting for me, but it was still too far away. I exhorted myself to not give up, drawing on the passion, stubbornness, pride, sacrifice, and will power used. I had to go on at all costs, winning over the pain and effort. I cried through a combination of joy, anger, and fear. It was a thousand different sensations culminating at once. But, one step at a time, I reached the summit.
I am looking for a moment to breathe a sigh of relief when I get hit by a white cloud: it is the thick smoke of the burnt foliage used to push away the millions of angry Apis Labriosa away from the honey. The intent is to disorientate and clear the bees from the hives with the aim of reducing the number of potential stings, although, most of them remain to guard their golden treasure. In turn, they raise their wings, aligning to create a trail that waves from side to side in the shape of a half moon. A practiced defense strategy for use against predators, much like we are.
Durga gives the signal, with three different whistles that echo throughout the valley. He warns a companion perched half way down the wall on an overhanging tree who is coordinating the work, who instructs the others at the bottom and top of the wall how and when to drop the baskets, move the ladders, direct the smoke and retrieve the ropes. There are a dozen men in total, and teamwork is essential for recovering the honey.
The Śikārī begins to manoeuvre his tools. He commands, with perfect synchronicity, ropes and poles like a puppeteer manipulating his puppets. The slow, precise movements of a conductor. The blade cuts through blocks of hives that are then caught in a basket and lowered.
As I obverse he shows no fear. I wonder how he can survive the constant attacks from these desperate creatures who are trying to defend their riches at all costs. Giving their lives in kamikaze-like dive bomb attacks. It almost appears as though he has developed a mystical relationship with these creatures.
He knows that he is robbing them of their prized possessions and for this accepts the consequences without complaint. The work is almost over. The hive has not been collected in its entirety. Durga leaves part of it, at the base, to make sure that it will be repopulated before the next season.
As night falls again we find ourselves back in the cave, with the heat of the fire that hasn’t stopped over the last three days. We each enjoy our own piece of the hard-earned honey. Some are smiling, some are already stoned. There are those who laugh and sing loudly and others who have serious discussions with the Gods above. What I experienced myself, I want to keep to myself. I look one by one at the faces and eyes of these heroes. I think of their strength, their ingenuity, the singing and dancing, their extraordinary sense of humor, and the incredible uncontaminated environment in which they live.
This is where my journey ends. An adventure between the kingdom of dreams and madness. One of those rare moments in life when the expectations of dreams and reality converge. I think of my last night here and that, perhaps, maybe this time I will be able to sleep a wink.