So why ‘once in a blue moon’ to denote something that almost never happens, extremely seldom, absurd or an indefinitely long time? Under extraordinary and rare atmospheric conditions the moon has been known to appear blue, and indeed sunsets turn green and the sky red, due to dust and smoke particles caused by prolonged droughts and the volcanic explosions of Krakatoa, Mount St Helen, and Pinatubo.
In the West we have become dislocated from the celestial cycles, preferring our high days and holiday dates fixed and predictable on the annual calendar. Moons get a bad rap, unreliably made of green cheese and linked with lunacy, and blue moon crooners allude to sadness and loneliness in their songs. Easter is one of the few annual moveable feasts in the liturgical year, preceded by Lent and Holy Week and finishing with Pentacost, fifty days later. This week we mark Poppy or Remembrance Day in memory of all those lost in conflict, fixed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment that the Armistice was signed in 1918.
On the other hand, people of the Himalaya are totally at ease with the mystery of lunar calendars which determine all religious festivals, life celebrations and even government rule in Nepal, as well as tsechus in Bhutan, purnima Hindu rituals and Buddhist traditions. Comfortable with uncertainty, astrologers presided over everything from royal decision making to sacred ceremonies, to ordinary existence, rites of passage, and practical concerns such as auspicious dates for travelling, initiating projects and even finding missing property.
Soon after arriving in Nepal, some cash went missing from a bedroom in the Sanepa guest house where I was staying. To resolve the acrimony and accusations, the whole household repaired to a low dark room deep in the Kathmandu bazar, traipsing up a narrow staircase with bowed heads to settle around a lady psychic seated against the wall. A blue shawl shrouded her head and a shy little boy leaned against her knee. Swaying forward she muttered incantations, then consulted the boy’s palm that had been carefully smeared with a shiny black paste. We waited in awed expectation. Sure enough, the revelation on that tiny hand was able to describe a clear vision of someone entering the room, opening the trunk and taking the money. The thief was identified, and we all returned home satisfied and relieved.
Cosmology governs the sequence of spectacular festivals that mark the Valley’s seasons and 12-year cycles, integral to normal existence for local inhabitants and core tourism attractions for visitors. I used to bike and hike through the dirt lanes and paddy fields to distant villages and far-flung temples, sampling the celebrations, witnessing the pujas, and processing with the pilgrims. I mixed with the colour-drenched crowds who concentrated in the Durbar Squares for vibrant festivals observed unchanged over centuries.