“Do you believe in the Yeti?” I asked our Sherpa trek guide, Lakpa. We sat in front of a woodstove at a guesthouse, warming up with whisky and Masala tea. Rain pounded the corrugated tin roof. The storm had caught us an hour outside Ghorepani and soaked us to the skin. We practically ran the last few miles, lightning chasing us up the valley.
“The Yeti are all gone now,” said Lakpa. “Twenty years ago, maybe, but with the climate change it’s too warm for them.” An experienced guide, Lakpa’s seen the Himalayan glaciers retreat firsthand, with Spring coming earlier and the Fall rains lingering later every year. “The long-haired animals are having a hard time, yes? The sheep and yaks. Anything with short hair like you can survive, but those with long hair like Madam?” he gestured to my wife and shook his head.
Sherpas have been telling westerners Yeti stories since the first climbers arrived in the 19th century. Though a minor figure in Himalayan folklore, Yeti took off in the western press, leading to expeditions of varying scientific quality that nearly always fell prey to hearsay and pseudoscience. To this day, television networks send crews to the Himalayas, though most evidence – including a book by one of the worlds’ foremost mountain climbers, Reinhold Messner – points to Yeti sightings as misidentifications of the Himalayan brown bear.
“I tell you this about the Yeti,” added Lakpa. “If you ask schoolchildren in Kathmandu to draw a chicken, they will draw a Tandoori chicken-cooked with no head. They’ve never been up in the mountain villages and seen a live chicken. It’s the same when people talk about the Yeti.”
Indeed, most Yeti sightings in Nepal come from billboards and signs. Our hotel in Kathmandu featured the rooftop “Yeti Bar.” There’s a T-shirt company called Urbanyeti (no relation to the game). Yeti Airlines shuttles passengers on domestic flights and offers stuffed Yeti plush toys at airport boutiques. Paragliding agencies prop dingy white ghillie suits out front as mascots, the mop heads and old rags scabbed over with road dust.
It’s a far cry from the Yeti and nyalmu — wild man — of Nepali folklore. These fierce creatures would kill livestock and assault travelers. Some would kidnap a man or woman and spirit them off to the woods to live as its mate, even bearing hybrid children. In one particularly gruesome folktale, a kidnapped man escapes his nyalmu “wife” with one of their two children – and in her rage at being abandoned, the nyalmu smashes their second child against a boulder and devours it.
However not all Yeti tales are violent. Legends also tell of the Buddhist Lama Sange Dorje, who befriended a Yeti, invited it into his home and lived with the creature until it perished in a landslide. The Yeti’s scalp currently resides in the Pangboche monastery, though tests indicate it’s actually from the shoulder of a hoofed mammal.
But despite its fame, the Yeti isn’t the only — or even the most important — monster lurking in the Himalayas. Indeed, Nepali folklore has a veritable army of demons and ghosts that are more than a match for the wild man of the snows.
Shape-Shifting Demons and Their Parrot Horcruxes
Like most Eastern cultures, Nepal has its share of demon tales. Nepali demons are vicious and ogre-like, craving human flesh and invulnerable to weapons. They’re also shape-shifting magicians, often arriving in disguise and living close to their victims before harming them.
In one story, a demoness disguises herself as a beautiful woman and marries a merchant — then systematically murders and devours his other wives. Another tale tells of how a demon put a poor bamboo cutter in a trance and then assumed the man’s shape in order to trick and eat the man’s wife. One story includes a sorcerer demon who could keep darkness, mountains and oceans bottled up in gourds and could walk hundreds of miles in a few strides — in fact, he was so powerful that he’d depopulated an entire city and lived there alone with his beautiful daughter.
But Nepali demons had one trick that made them effectively immortal: the ability to separate their soul and embed it in a living animal. Most often the vessel was a parrot that lived high up a tree or in an iron cage, but one particularly thorough demon placed it inside a beetle that, in turn, lived inside a parrot’s stomach. Usually in these tales, the demons perish when heroes find their soul vessels and destroy them. In the case of the bamboo cutter though, his clever wife baits the demon into a boiling cauldron.
These demon stories likely stem from one source: the fear of other people. Demons are insatiable and gluttonous, either scheming wives trying to destroy others out of greed or stand-ins for bad princes. The fact that they can’t be destroyed physically — but can be outwitted — indicates that they’re doubles for social and political fears in village life. They’re the people who have power over you, or the ones you want to trust, but can’t.
They’re nothing, however, compared to Nepali ghosts.
Cremation and Cannibalism: Ghosts of the Himalayas
Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu is Nepal’s holiest Hindu site. It’s also a popular place to die.
Shiva devotees believe that dying in proximity to the temple causes them to gain merit, and the temple’s massive hospice building has seen thousands of Nepalis breathe their last beneath its roof. Once dead, their family and attendants carry their bodies outside to the ghats, or cremation platforms, on the Bagmati river. Then, they light the pyre and watch their loved one burn until they’re nothing but ashes the river. Given the high contact with corpses family members have during these funerals, it’s unsurprising that – unlike the west’s more non-corporeal ghosts – Nepali specters tend to be grotesquely physical.
In one story, a postman is traveling along the road when he comes to a house. On entering, he finds a sick man who can’t rise from his bed, but who invites the postman to stay the night. While preparing a meal for the two of them, the postman asks the sick man to pass him the salt – and screams when the man’s arm extends five meters to reach the shelf. Fleeing through the mustard fields, the postman hears the “sick” man close behind him. Reaching the next village, the hysterical postman tells his story to the townsfolk who decide to investigate – they find the sick man’s corpse lying in bed, mustard flowers between his stiffened toes.
The stretching arm is a recurring element in Nepali ghost lore, appearing in several stories – including ones where the ghost pretends that he hasn’t died at all, but recovered from the illness. These stories deal with the cultural need for immediate cremation, and the terrifying contamination potential of being around dead bodies.
But ghats can be centers for hauntings as well. Angry spirits might mob travelers who use the firewood set aside for cremation, or chase away those working at night near ghats. The ghosts’ objective, always, is to eat the living.
The most frightening tale comes from the town of Sankhu, a pilgrimage city outside Kathmandu. Long ago, a young lady married a rich man in Kathmandu, but soon found that he was an abusive drunkard. One night during the Tihar festival, her husband came home after losing a great deal of money during the festival’s traditional gambling. Wishing to play more, he demanded her gold jewelry. When she resisted, he hit her and threatened to kill her. Pretending to get her ornaments from upstairs, the woman instead escaped out a window and fled into the night, hoping to find safety in her home village of Sankhu.
After several hours, chilled and wet from crossing rivers, she came to a stream and knew her home village was near. Upstream, she saw fires and heard voices-a funeral party come to cremate a dead body. While it was never good to be near a ghat at night, after journeying so long alone she was glad for the company.
Reaching a clearing, she was surprised to see an old woman under a fig tree, cooking a meal in an earthenware pot.
“Oh, my dear poor child!” said the old woman. “How lean you are! Come sit down. The rice is cooked, eat some before you go.” She laid two plates on the ground.
The young woman lingered, unsure what to do. Why was this old grandmother out at night alone, and not home with her family?
“I’m not hungry,” she lied.
The old woman repeated her invitation and ladled out the food, and as soon as the young lady saw it, she knew the old crone was a ghost.
It was rice grits cooked in blood.
But before she could run, the old woman leapt up and seized her.
“Take but a little,” the crone said, forcing the bloody rice down the young woman’s throat with her fingers. Then the crone sat down and began to eat, scooping the coagulating rice with her hands.
The young lady was repulsed, but knew she couldn’t outrun the ghost. Instead, she asked to be excused so she could relieve herself. At first, the ghost resisted, but relented when the young woman offered to tie one end of her girdle to the fig tree. Slipping into the bushes, the young woman undid the girdle and began to sneak away.
“Come my child,” said the ghost. “You haven’t finished yet.”
“I’m almost through,” said the young woman, moving slowly so the ghost would not hear leaves crunch beneath her feet. “I’m coming back.”
There was a disdainful silence as the woman crept away into the darkness. Then she heard the ghost call, “Rice, rice, where are you now?”
“I am here!” replied the bloody rice in the terrified woman’s stomach.
The woman ran, the ghost howling after her. When she could feel the crone’s breath nearly on her neck, she took a copper coin from her pocket and touched it to her head as an offering to the goddess Vajrayogini. Praying for protection, she dove into a rice field along the village road.
“Rice, rice, where are you now?” yelled the crone.
“I am here,” responded grains of rice across the field. The crone plunged into the field, but could not find the crafty woman.
At dawn, a farmer found the young woman huddled in the field, shivering. The rice was trampled flat all around her, but the crone had never found her victim. The farmer took the young woman back to her parents, who told her she never had to go back to her worthless husband in Kathmandu
Sacred Mountains, Haunted Streets
To walk through Nepal is to understand why it’s known for elusive creatures and hidden cities. Mountain paths are narrow and winding, often passing through dense forests or squeezing between massive boulders. It’s possible to come upon a town without realizing its there, or have traveling companions disappear around a bend in the cobblestone road. You don’t see horses thundering down the path until they’re nearly on top of you, and the animals – more adept at scaling mountain slopes than humans – only allow a traveler brief glimpses. Mountains soar above you like frozen temples. In this environment, it’s easy to see how people might believe that ape-men lurk around the bend or that an undiscovered city lies over the next ridge.
Kathmandu too, is a place of ghosts. From the cremation smoke on the black-watered Bagmati to the great stupas washed white and adorned with prayer flags, the city crackles with spiritual energy. But turn a corner out of the public eye and you’ll find something unusual. Empty temples looked after by police with submachine guns. Antique shops that invite you through locked doors to see sacred objects from Tibet -things that feel like a violation to even look at. Palace bas-reliefs so real, the king defaced them when the queen claimed that they came to life.
And the old beliefs are never far away. In Kathmandu’s arts district of Patan, I met a shop owner from the metalworking caste. His family specializes in making ritual objects for Buddhist practice – especially the triangular phurba daggers used for meditation, ritual and exorcism. They supply Buddhist priests in the region and even sell six-foot phurbas that monks bury to consecrate holy ground. Some daggers had previously belonged to priests and bore scars of those mystical battles.
As I picked up one dagger, the shop owner nodded.
“Iron,” he said. “Very conductive for spiritual energy. You can feel it, can’t you?”
I could, but to be fair, I’d felt it the moment I stepped off the plane.
You need not look for spirits in Nepal — they find you.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.