Three hundred feet in the air, Mauli Dhan dangles on a bamboo rope ladder, surveying the section of granite he must climb to reach his goal: a pulsing mass of thousands of Himalayan giant honeybees. They carpet a crescent-shaped hive stretching almost six feet below a granite overhang. The bees are guarding gallons of a sticky, reddish fluid known as mad honey, which, thanks to its hallucinogenic properties, sells on Asian black markets for $60 to $80 a pound—roughly six times the price of regular Nepali honey.
Himalayan honeybees make several types of honey depending on the season and the elevation of the flowers that produce the nectar they eat. The psychotropic effects of the spring honey result from toxins found in the flowers of massive rhododendron trees, whose bright pink, red, and white blossoms bloom each March and April on north-facing hillsides throughout the Hongu Valley. The Kulung people of eastern Nepal have used the honey for centuries as a cough syrup and an antiseptic, and the beeswax has found its way into workshops in the alleys of Kathmandu, where it is used to cast bronze statues of gods and goddesses.
For Mauli, honey hunting is the only way to earn the cash he needs to buy the few staples he can’t produce himself, including salt and cooking oil. But no matter how important the money is to him and to others in his village far below, Mauli believes it is time to stop doing this. At 57 he is too old to be attempting this dangerous, seasonal honey harvest. His arms grow tired as the ladder swings in space. Bees buzz around him, stinging him on his face, neck, hands, bare feet, and through his clothes.
But he pushes aside such thoughts and focuses on the problem at hand. He swings his leg over to the rock face and steps onto a small ledge, barely the width of a brick. Letting go of the rope ladder, he shuffles sideways to make room for Asdhan Kulung, his assistant, to join him. Now both men share the narrow ledge. Far below, Mauli can see the river, swollen with monsoonal runoff, cascading down a V-shaped valley.
With each move toward the hive, the holds get smaller and farther apart. He moves slowly but with confidence until only 10 feet separate him from his quarry. This final section of loose, wet rock offers hand- and footholds no bigger than Mauli’s fingertips, and since he is not attached to a safety rope, it would be certain death should he lose his grip. Adding to his challenge, he carries a 25-foot bamboo pole hooked over one shoulder, and he pinches a bundle of smoldering grass between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. A wispy trail of smoke drifts upward from his hand toward the agitated bees. If air currents cooperate, the smoke may engulf the bees and confuse them slightly as he approaches.
The hive pulses like a subwoofer, each beat sending waves of angry bees into the air. They continue to swarm Mauli, but he doesn’t flinch. Instead he murmurs a Kulung mantra meant to appease the bees and the spirits that inhabit this cliff: “You are Rangkemi. You are of the bee spirits. We are not thieves. We are not bandits. We are with our ancestors. Please fly. Please leave.”
Rangkemi, the guardian spirit of bees and of difficult, dangerous places, has always looked after Mauli, and there is no reason to believe he will abandon him now. With this knowledge in his heart, Mauli shows no fear as he commits to the most difficult part of the climb.
For centuries the Kulung people have remained separate from the outside world thanks to the dense jungle surrounding their home in a deep gorge carved by the Hongu River. Although Mount Everest is just one valley to the north of these Himalayan foothills, the area remains isolated and remote. Much of it is still a mystery, even to wide-ranging Kulung hunters such as Mauli.
But every year the outside world gets closer. A dirt road has been cut to within a couple days’ march of his village, Saddi, and work has begun on a tourist trekking route that will penetrate into the upper reaches of the valley, connecting Saddi and its sister villages to a popular trekking area just over a pass from the well-known circuits of the Khumbu region. A politician has promised to build a small airport in the area.
Kulung elders like Mauli still refer to Kathmandu as “Nepal,” a place apart from where they live. In their minds the capital is a foreign country, a distant neighbor of their own tiny realm. But the world around them is changing so fast that the boundaries—and the magic—that have long defined this ancient community are beginning to fade away.
Mauli sits beside the fire pit in his ramshackle, one-room home. The mud walls, riddled with cracks from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of April 2015, look as if they could cave in at any moment. Most homes visible from his doorway have bright blue metal roofs, but his is made of thatched grass, a sign of his poverty. He may be the only one of the small band of hunters allowed to actually rip hives from the rock walls with his own two hands—but clearly the honor does not convey a great deal of cash.
It’s been 42 years since Mauli had the dream that put him on this path. It came when he was 15, the night after he assisted his father with a honey harvest for the first time.
“I saw two beautiful women,” he recalls. “Suddenly I found myself trapped in a spiderweb on the side of a cliff. I was struggling to get free when I saw a large white monkey above me. It dropped its tail down, and the women helped me grab it. Then the monkey lifted me up, and I escaped.”
The elders, one of them his father, told him that the monkey was Rangkemi, the guardian spirit of bees and monkeys—a sometimes wrathful energy that inhabits dangerous places where few humans dare to go. They assured him that he would be guaranteed safe passage onto the cliffs, that the spirit would not retaliate against him and his family when he took the precious honey. On that day Mauli shouldered the rare and difficult burden of a honey hunter. In the decades since, he has risked his life every spring and fall to harvest the sweet, mind-bending substance from the same cliffs his father harvested a generation ago.
Mauli was born under the light of a bamboo torch across the valley in the village of Chheskam. It had no formal school, and his classroom was the steep hillside terraces where he spent his youth cutting grass and farming. Poverty and isolation mean early death for many Kulung. Mauli had four brothers, but two of them died; he has been married and widowed three times, leaving him alone to care for his four daughters, two sons, five grandchildren, and the few other relatives who scurry in and out of his hut at all hours.
As we sit beside the fire pit, Mauli reaches into the hip pocket of his rough wool jacket, grabs a pinch of homegrown tobacco, and deftly rolls it into a scrap of dried corn husk. He shoves the stubby cigarette into the coals and brings it to his lips. As he exhales, his cloudy, bloodshot eyes reveal the soul of a man who is worn out. “I’m tired, and I don’t want to do it anymore,” he says. “The only reason I still do is because I’m poor, and no one else will do it.”
One of Mauli’s nephews sits on the only furniture in the dark room, a wooden trunk wedged in a corner. His hair is spiked at wild angles, accenting his tight jeans and black T-shirt. A large fake-gold medallion hangs around his neck. He has no interest in following his uncle up the cliff faces.
As for his sons, Mauli won’t let them harvest the honey. “People who climb cliffs are idiots,” he says. “My kids go to school so they won’t have to do it.”
The obvious person to take over as the head honey hunter is his assistant Asdhan, who is wiry and strong, in his early 40s, and a community leader. He and Mauli have worked together on the cliffs for some 15 years, but in all that time Asdhan has never had the dream and, adhering to Kulung tradition, has never led the harvest or touched the precious honeycomb before it is separated from the cliff.
“Yeah, I’d like to have the dream,” Asdhan says, “but I haven’t, and I don’t know why. Of course I could harvest the honey. But other people have tried without the dream, and bad things have happened to them. Their fathers have died, their children have died, their houses have fallen in, and their crops have failed. And I’m afraid of that.”
At dawn, as is the custom during the harvest, we follow a shaman deep into the jungle to a tiny clearing from where we can see the honey cliffs. There are 10 of us, including Mauli and his band. The shaman walks around the clearing, driving bamboo stakes into the ground and wrapping a long piece of twine around them to form an enclosure. He hangs bits of meat and other food from the twine and burns incense made of cotton soaked in butter. Its pungent smoke wafts through the air. Once the ceremony begins, says the shaman, we must remain in this sacred enclosure for our own safety.
In one corner the shaman carefully builds a pair of altars from banana leaves. One is for Rangkemi; the other is for his companion, the forest spirit Baneskandi. The altars are provisioned with dried beans, corn, and rice. Rangkemi’s also includes a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky.
The ceremony begins. The tiny circle is crowded with us, the altars, and two bamboo baskets, each containing a cackling chicken. Mauli kneels before the altars, head bowed, his hands on his thighs. The shaman has donned a vest made of stinging nettles and has wound a colorful sash around his waist. He dances among us, chanting in a tongue known only to him and the forest spirits that he beckons to our enclosure. In one hand he holds a bamboo wand, in the other a gourd filled with water. He continuously dips the wand into the gourd and flings the water onto our heads.
The shaman grabs a chicken and in one smooth motion slices off its head with a knife. Everyone is splattered with blood. He carefully places the lifeless head at Rangkemi’s altar and rubs some of the blood onto Mauli’s forehead. The headless chicken thrashes at our feet. “DO NOT leave the enclosure,” commands the shaman.
As if on cue, several honeybees land on the altar. Inexplicably the camera our documentary team is using to film the ceremony shuts off and won’t restart. One of our team members looks at his altimeter watch, which shows the barometric pressure spiking, indicating clear weather. But instead it starts to rain.
The shaman snatches something invisible out of the air in front of him, brings his hand to his mouth, and chants into his closed fist. He opens his hand, flinging the invisible object back into the thick jungle that surrounds us.
The ceremony ends, and as soon as we leave the enclosure, the camera starts working again. The barometric pressure drops, signaling bad weather, but instead a ray of sun breaks through the clouds. The shaman plops down on a rock next to Mauli and opens the bottle of Johnnie Walker. The others begin to pluck the dead chicken.
Back in Saddi, Jangi Kulung beckons me into his home to show off the new, 300-foot rope ladder that he and the rest of Mauli’s helpers have spent the past two weeks weaving from hundreds of long, thin strips of bamboo. Jangi is the keeper of the tools and, for the past 18 years, the brains behind the honey harvest. With his massive potbelly and sausage-like fingers, he stands out from the other honey hunters, who are all wiry and thin.
Jangi is a born dealmaker, possessing the ruthless savvy necessary to get permission for the harvests from the local forest committees, and the contacts to sell the honey and beeswax in distant markets in Kathmandu and beyond. He trades other goods as well, sending his team of mules loaded with heavy bags of sweet-scented black cardamom to the new dirt road—a rugged two-day trek away—to meet other traders and bring back batteries, instant noodles, cooking oil, and beer. Jangi can read, unlike many in the village, and does his own accounting. He rations the pay for the eight other members of the honey-hunting team—all his cousins—according to their duties and experience. Mauli makes the most, about a hundred dollars for three days of death-defying work, twice a year. No one in Saddi knows how much Jangi earns from the harvest, and he won’t tell me, but he is the only person in the village who owns a house in Kathmandu.
For many years the trade in mad honey centered on a single trader in Kathmandu who had a buyer in South Korea, where some people believed it improved sexual performance. “For a long time we could basically name our price,” Jangi says. “Then someone in Korea ate too much and died.” The death is rumored and not proven, but the incident killed the Korean market and drastically reduced the price of the honey. One has to be careful not to eat too much of the honey, says Jangi. Two to three teaspoons is usually the correct dose. After about an hour you are overcome with an urgent need to defecate, urinate, and vomit. “After the purge you alternate between light and dark. You can see, and then you can’t see,” says Jangi. “A sound—jam jam jam—pulses in your head, like the beehive. You can’t move, but you’re still completely lucid. The paralysis lasts for a day or so.”
“I will give you some honey,” he says, “and you can try it for yourself.”
The honey hunters are sitting on benches around a long wooden table while hailstones pummel the tin roof above them. The sound is deafening but not loud enough to drown out their animated voices as they argue about whether they will leave for the honey harvest in the morning or cancel. A battered jug of raksi, a clear, millet-based alcohol that tastes like Japanese sake, makes the rounds.
The next morning it’s still raining. The deluge overnight has started a landslide across the river. Through breaks in the fog, we watch refrigerator-size boulders crash down the hills to the river. The honey hunters gather to talk. The approach to the honey cliff—a steep and exposed climb up a grassy slope and moss-covered rock—would be suicidal in these conditions. Perhaps Rangkemi has spoken. The honey hunters find a jug of raksi and pick up where they left off the night before. It’s 7 a.m.
A few hours later Mauli, reeking of raksi, is making his impossible climb in the rain as large, angry honeybees swarm and sting his face.
By whatever force—his skill or perhaps Rangkemi’s benevolence—Mauli, now obscured on the cliff face in a dense cloud of bees, makes it across to the hive. He carefully places his bundle of smoldering grass on a tiny ledge and wipes the bees off the hive with his bare hands. The swarm falls, almost as if it is a single being, and becomes a stinging, writhing fog.
Mauli pokes two wooden pegs through the comb and fixes them to a thin bamboo rope that has been lowered from above by helpers. He pulls the long bamboo pole off his shoulder and presses its sharpened end against the comb and begins sawing it from the rock.
After a few minutes the hive breaks free and swings on the rope, just missing Mauli. He cries out, the first loud noise he has made since he left the village hours before. The two men tending the fire at the foot of the cliff cover their heads as a gooey dark rain and a black hail of dead bees fall upon them.
Mauli’s son sits alongside a small river at the base of the cliff, waiting to help carry loads of honey, wax, and tools back to the village. The honey hunters appear in the mist—wet, exhausted, swollen. As Asdhan carefully pulls a few remaining stingers out of Mauli’s face, his son pulls out a phone and takes photo after photo. He has a Facebook page; later he may post a shot.
Processing Honey and Wax
As with much of rural Nepal, there is cell reception. All the teenagers in Saddi know when to gather on the appropriate rock so that they can catch a weak 3G signal with their inexpensive Chinese smartphones. These portals to a separate reality, which exists far from the fields in which their parents toil, have instilled in them a desire to see the world and to earn wages.
“Children these days don’t value the culture,” Mauli says. “If this continues, our culture is going to disappear.” The elders know it’s the reason no one has had the dream—or if they have, why they won’t admit it.
As the loads of honey and wax are distributed, the never-ending bottle of raksi again makes the rounds. No one mentions what we’re all thinking: that we’ve likely witnessed Mauli’s last honey hunt, the end of an era.
Mauli puts the jug to his lips and drinks deeply. He takes one last look at the cliff, shoulders his bamboo pole, and moves silently up the trail toward home. One by one the other honey hunters, like worker bees following their queen, fall in behind.