By Jon Osiris
Read Part 1 here: http://wp.me/p14cQJ-59Q
It so happens that after becoming a bit more familiar with this place, I have been privy to further tales and experiences with The Natha and his strange and magical ways...
After morning exercises some weeks back, I was invited to take tea with the Natha somewhat privately, along with a couple of other students. While we were ushered past a stone statue in the courtyard of the elephant headed god Ganesh, whom was bedecked with garlands of marigolds and offering bowls full of sweets, we entered into a small antechamber where the Natha's consort was serving tea. I exchanged formalities and a few pleasantries with her and the other three while everyone was served. Two of them were male senior students at the temple and neither were likely yet twenty years of age. The third, a friend and guest of the Natha, a pleasant woman tattooist and artisan in her early thirties.
While sipping the aromatic brew we listened as the Natha told us why we were assembled. It had to do with a messenger who had arrived a few days back... a weary looking fellow that had appeared one evening and begged to see the Natha straight away, even before accepting food or water. I had not heard anything more about him until now. The man had traveled for several days without stopping, only taking sustenance when it was dire, exhausting his provisions quickly nonetheless. The news that the messenger carried came from his village in the hill country north of the temple. Several animals from the village had gone missing and most recently a small mute child was also gone from her play area near her families' hut. The local hunters had seen the sign and tracks of a large snake near the livestock pens, though absolutely no sign was detected near where the child was playing. If that wasn't enough, the headman's daughter was coming into her own as a shaman and had sent word also to request a special tattoo ceremony to mark the transition fully into this capacity as a helper and healer of her people. The Natha had lived with the people of this village for several years before he had the vision to build the temple. He related that the headman and the old shaman were close friends of his and it was apparent that the he held them in high esteem. We were asked to accompany the him if we desired, on his journey into the hills to assist his friends in whatever capacity he could. Of course, all of us were keen on going and made immediate preparations to leave the following morning. The messenger would stay on to rest and receive needed care from the Natha's consort.
We left before dawn, the morning mist thick and wet as we bounced and rumbled along in the bed of the pickup truck. The two young students acted as porters and would carry food and basic supplies for the group, while the rest of the party would be in charge of their own personal gear. As the sun broke above the forested peaks before us, we waved at the driver who had left as at the end of a long dirt road, rumbling quickly out of sight in a cloud of dust. After slinging on packs and getting everything situated, we started off on the 3 day journey toward the village through the forest. We were instructed to step carefully and stay in pairs should we become separated from the group, and to stay on the trail. The trail itself, began easily enough and was easy to see, but as we gained elevation, it became much more vague. Out here, even a sprained ankle could be serious. Our friendly porters seemed to know the area or be sure footed in spite of the terrain, which consisted of roots, rocks and soil that was mostly engulfed in low lying plant life. When we came upon a small river running swiftly down the slope we stopped for a short break. It was here that the Natha pointed out the cairns on either side of the path by the river, obscured also by foliage at the base of two giant trees. After clearing some of the plants away with a machete, he exposed a small altar also made of rough stone. He pulled some incense out of his satchel and poured some liquid into 2 cups after placing them on the altar. He then lit a candle and made gestures of respect toward the altar, his lips moving silently, then to the cairns and finally the to river itself. Next, lighting the incense, he flicked his wrist, extinguishing the tongue of flame and placed it in a crack in the stone. The smoke slowly enveloped the altar and swirled about us. A shaft of sunlight cut through the canopy and illuminated the river in front of us as we re-saddled our gear and moved to the low, halved log crossing. A moment later a trio of butterflies were frozen momentarily in the smoky, fragrant beam, like translucent jewels birthed from a lacy nebula. This was to be a good omen; the forest spirits were pleased with us so far and well before half-light, we made it to an old shelter a stone's throw from the trail to make camp for the night. If we had been delayed at all, it is unlikely we would have seen it, as it had not been there when the Natha was last in this area. After one of our young porters set to cooking and the others looked to their own affairs, I helped the other young man re-thatch a few of the roof sections with some palm leaves we harvested nearby. It did not rain and the night air was warm enough. As i swung into my hammock and stretched out, i could see the Natha sitting in equipoise, a lone candle lighting his corner and carving his silhouette out of the blackness of the forest around us. The night was deafening.. Innumerable insects chirping and buzzing almost in unison. I eventually dozed off, my head ringing and humming, to a series of dreams about talking snakes and flying down a tunnel into the earth that landed me in a strange dimension.
We woke with the sun. The birds announced their intent to return to daytime supremacy over the insects and crawlers once again and all the plant life yawned and stretched toward the light. We followed suit, though we had more inviting fare than the birds were after, and I was pleased to find the lone lady of the group already cooking a large bowl of porridge over the camp stove. We moved out onto the trail again after we ate and gathered up our things. Monkeys chattered overhead and dislodged leaves that fluttered down on our heads as we passed through a dense stand of bamboo and rattan about mid day. After a brief lunch we wound our way through the rest of the bamboo stand. Before exiting, the Natha took his machete to some long shoots and in moments we each had a sturdy walking stick. Perfect also for keeping the monkeys at bay if they decided to test our perimeter to get a morsel of food or a shiny piece of camp gear. The rest of the day passed quickly. We plodded along a gentle incline, taking in the the environment with our senses as critters scurried around in the brush, vacating the area ahead of us as the birds foretold our presence along the trail. At dusk we had already made camp again, this time at the base of a rocky outcropping that rose up to a ridge line in front of us. Tomorrow would be a longer day... much longer.
The climb up to the ridge was slow and arduous. We had to help one another maintain footing on the scree and our porters were nimble as usual taking our packs from us as we neared the top. Along the ridge the view was stunning. The forest was on our right, our sightline just above the canopy and the lush green extended out , a lake of emerald with rocky shores, next dotted with rural dwellings on the edges and at the horizon, a metropolis both ancient and modern that seemed to be frozen in time. To our left was a mountain facade giving covered in foliage, the earth diving down from there to several high mountain lakes and densely stippled with trees and some terraced hills. I had seen formations like this before in other parts of the world, the limestone a unique alkaline environment for trailing vines and wildly rooted trees. We paused for refreshment and rest. The Natha pointed out where we would find the village, over a few hills tucked on the far side of a small lake on the plateau. Our young porters apparently knew the way and would lead us on as the Natha would part ways with us to go visit the old shaman's cave. He had studied there before with the old one that had now crossed over into pure spirit and it was important for him to seek his guidance from beyond as it may pertain to his visit here. He would take what time he needed, in deep meditation to contact the spirit of his mentor. It took several more hours for us to reach that point of departure and he assured us, unequivocally, that the porters would get us to the village by dusk and we would be welcomed appropriately. We watched him hike away, with his small satchel of supplies, rattan staff lightly touching the earth here and there.. head up, gait even and steady, his dusty black shawl snapping in a gust of wind.
Our arrival at the village was perfectly timed. A pack of feral dogs had scented us as we hiked, appearing out of the landscape here and there at frequent intervals to try to separate one of us from the group. They were vicious and maniacal, lunging in to catch a leg and take us down. Our walking sticks turned into defensive weapons and the young porters, having been trained by the Natha in martial sciences for some years, were deft at landing blows on the would be attackers. I, myself, am no slouch with stick and I had taken to thumping the the snarling dogs on the hindquarters as they veered away from us. Weary we were, however, so we cheered when a small band of warrior/hunters from the village appeared to strengthen our ranks. They had evened the odds and the dogs soon melted away into the half light to pick at easier prey. The entry into the village was a blur. Our gear was taken from us and we were introduced to an array of chattering, smiling people, dressed in their traditional finery. Beautiful handwoven textiles, beadwork, jewelry and many accoutrements made of the skins of four-legged's and the colorful plumage of the winged's. After the meet and greet, we were swept to the village hub, a large raised platform with a thatched roof, where food was carried to us from several cook fires nearby. We ate with gusto and drank the local home brew, after which, the language barrier seemed to dissolve and we enjoyed simple humors and joked in pantomime with each other late into the night. The next morning, after eating and helping my host family with their chores, I bumped into the one of our porters. It was now apparent to me that he and his brother were from this village. The physical resemblances were obvious to me in the daylight, though they had a more seasoned sort of temperament that undoubtedly came from their years of tutelage at the Natha's temple.
The Natha arrived the following day, with an otherworldly presence about him. He was relaxed as ever, but bore a different look somehow and a more penetrating gaze. He stopped along the perimeter of stilted huts, visiting with the headman, and a few of the elders. I watched him help one of the hunters stake out a hide he was preparing to scrape and from my place in the shadow of the central platform, I wondered how long he had lived here as one of them. He had already visited the sites where the animals and the little one had gone missing and when we chatted with him for lunch he told us that there was a place where a great serpent sleeps that he had seen on his spirit walk in the old shaman's cave. It was purportedly the home of a very large old constrictor and to our reasonable hesitation, he said he must visit that place that very evening to seek more answers. A small delegation of warrior/hunters, the headman and his daughter, and many of the village elders formed up in the village center and a small address was given. The translation was made for us visitors, the gist being; we would hike to this serpent cave, confirmed by the eldest hunters to be over several hills west of the village and set up a ritual perimeter at the mouth of the cave with salt, animal dung fires, incense and various offerings, and to sit outside this circle. In no way were we to come across that boundary as long as we were there. We would also be expected to remain still, no matter what happened, so as not to disrupt any of the rite.
Getting there seemed to take no time at all and as the sun sunk behind the edge of the world, we had formed our sacred boundary of salt and dung fires and taken our seats, staring raptly at the opening of a low, dark cave. The soil there was damp and many plants and flowers that I had not seen before decorated the area. Soon it was too dark to see much of anything, save for the low, smokey perimeter fires and the flickering light that the torches near the cave mouth threw on the the craggy wall of rock and the expectant faces of our contingent. The Natha sat inside the circle and the headman and his daughter sat on either side of him, a couple of meters apart. Some strange chanting was heard in a tongue and tone i had not heard before. It seemed that all three in the circle were chanting and then, it would seem to be coming from elsewhere. There were certainly many things afoot here, many things that i could neither see, nor understand. A shiver electrified my spine when, a few moments after the chanting had ceased, the head and body of the largest snake I have ever seen, smoothly wound down the upper aperture of the cave and into the guttering light of the magic circle. A tangible tension rippled through those of us outside the circle and then released as all exhaled nearly in unison, remembering that it was also up to us to keep calm and focused if everything were to go correctly. The three practitioners then began to chant quietly again, and the serpent, a yard thick in the middle of its body, encircled the entire inner ring and placed its giant head gently in between them. The offerings that had been selected were now called for and were placed in front of her; eyes closed, tongue rapidly testing the air. As their chanting came into a new phase, that which created a harmonic between them, a fourth tone emerged at the zenith of the rite and an unearthly glow began to pulse, enveloping them in its ghostly radiance. The three inside the circle mumbled and rocked back and forth, lips moving from time to time, eyes closed or rolled back, fully gone now to that other place; beyond time, beyond words.
When they returned they each bowed and reached out with steady hands to anoint the head of the serpent with sacred oil and red powder. The giant reptile then ate the largest offering, a wild pig, entirely whole and gathered its length back to itself as its meal worked its way along its heaving coils. This was certainly some wild spectacle. It seemed much like a dream; lulled into an altered state with the chanting and surreal energies moving around, in a trance, watching from outside and above the myself. When it disappeared into its den once again the three stood slowly and signaled the end of the rite, the tone of the bell they had rung lingered on smoke and distorted as it hit the craggy stone walls of the cave. The dung fires were left to smolder out and the torches were carried at the front and back of the procession for the return journey to camp. Once there, the elders deliberated with the shaman for quite some time as we ate and drank with the villagers, who were quite enthusiastically discussing the events amongst themselves. When the elders finally emerged from the dimly lit hut, the people quieted down to hear what they would say. Their voices were resolute and steady, each seeming to tell a different part of the message. When i finally got the translation, I was back in my host family's lodge, eating wild pig and washing it down with palm wine. The elders had said that the Spirit of the Forest was pleased with the offering made to the old serpent. While in trance, the practitioners asked the serpent if she had been the one that took the dog and chickens from the village. She communicated that she had come upon the village very hungry and ate two stray chickens. A dog caught her scent and began harassing her. She took the dog when it became aggressive and then moved back into the jungle. When asked about the missing girl, her reply was that she had not been harmed but that there were hunters from another village from the south ridge moving through the jungle near her that day. She then told them to be watchful of their dreams this night - a clue would come to someone that would be of value to their search. After hearing this I could only marvel at the wonderful strangeness i had become involved with. Psychic snakes, ceremonies, ancient and arcane societies… my mind was starting to feel warped and my emotions seemed strangely detached as well. I smoked a large, hand rolled cigarette that my host had given me and swung into my hammock for the night.
So ends part 2.. Stay Tuned for the conclusion of the Forest Trek/Part 3….