We can see the entire village huddled around the mouth of Maratika Cave as we drop with the sinking sun into town, following a man with two pigs in the basket on his back. Gold terraces, silver-roofed houses, prayer flags tangled with electric lines. Chickens scatter at our feet and the valley sings with the cries of animals and children. Although Maratika is a name uttered on the tongues of ancient texts as a place where both Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims can receive the blessing of longevity, our first impressions of this place are something more common than sacred.
It has been disputed throughout literature whether the legend of Maratika matches the physical landscape we now stand on. While high lamas through practices of Clear Vision rediscovered the site through deep practices of meditation, its authenticity is still contested even within the Buddhist community. For this reason, Maratika occupies several places: one in the Buddhist’s mind as the place where Padmasambhava and his consort princess Mandarava performed a secret practice to brew immortality, another in the Hindu’s mind as a holy place of Shiva, and third as a village nestled in Nepal’s Khotang District. Here where people have farmed their terraced hills for as long as they can remember, life in the villages maintains its pace undisturbed. The townspeople move through their daily tasks of laundering, farming, and carving a life from these sweeping hills. They are more concerned with survival, than whether or not their home is “real” to someone who has never visited it. Far from the academic arguments all three Maratikas seem to blend into one, wreathed beneath a lingering haze of mystery and untraceable story.
Perhaps there is instability in the fact that some harbor doubts that this village is the true Maratika, but in the village itself both traditions have agreed to coexist in the shadows of these caves, offering incense at the base of the same formations. The village Maratika, is iconic as a holy site for two of the world’s great religions, but is also geographically stunning, graced with a semi-arid climate and dominated by small farm agriculture. Village women with baskets of laundry under their arms, cross the same path that monks circulate while walking Kora through the valley behind the caves as they chant mantras under their breath. This is not only the path to enlightenment, but also to one of the few sources of water in the village. Maratika’s features, even down to the trails that braid across the landscape connecting people to their homes, fields, school and faith, serve multiple functions. Children play in the caves that foreigners trek across countries to meditate in, and the water pilgrims fill their jugs with to take home as a blessing of longevity flows from the same fountain that the women have gathered to do their laundry under.
There is evidence, however, that the economy of Maratika may be bending away from mere subsistence toward tourism as the number of pilgrims drawn to its sacred cave increases. Although Maratika is not in the pages of even the “roughest,” off-the-beaten track guidebooks for Nepal, there is rarely a night that a visitor is not lurking in the village’s packed dirt streets, on their way to or from one of the many caves dotting the hillsides skirting town to make an offering. While Maratika has traditionally been the destination serving only the most devoted pilgrims, recent foreigners from mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and Malaysia have been adding Maratika as a stopover on their journey on treks through the mountains skirting Everest. Maratika has become a place of rediscoveries: for pilgrims, for ancient religions searching for their roots, and now as a village offering accommodation to travelers on their way through rural Nepal.
As we depart from Maratika, we are struck again at the heavily browed mountains stacked with centuries of rice paddies and how his rugged land has sustained people for as long as time remembers. The controversy about the cave’s authenticity can never truly be settled. More pilgrims may come, some may shun it, but for those who have always lived at the mouth of Maratika, life goes on.