Manakamana, a film produced by Stephanie Spray and Pancho Valez at the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, explores the cable car journey made by pilgrims to worship the goddess Manakamana at her temple, above a mountainous jungle in Nepal. It looks at how the introduction of modern transportation methods has revolutionised this journey, while we observe life in rural Nepal.
We see how the introduction of this piece of infrastructure in the form of the cable car has dramatically changed the nature of this pilgrimage. About 80% of Nepal comprises mountainous or hilly terrain, and is extremely vulnerable to landslides due to extreme monsoon rainfall and large earthquakes. It has only 59km of railway and 4000km of paved road, making it difficult for populations to travel cross-country. The journey to the temple of Manakamana on foot is a hike of up to a week in duration along a dirt path, but by cable car pilgrims can make a round trip in one day.
The documentary never takes us up to the temple of Manakamana; rather it is filmed as a candid camera in the cable cars of those travelling up and down the mountain – eleven trips for us to compare, each composed of a single static shot.
In the beginning this seems a rather strange exercise; most people don’t talk, and simply sit in silence for ten minutes as their car carries them further up the mountain. However it soon becomes a fascinating exercise in people watching, giving unique, cumulative insight into the lifestyle and customs of a culture which tells us much about history, tradition and change.
One group in particular offers an echo to our experience as viewers: obviously travelling to the temple out of curiosity rather than out of any desire to worship the goddess, they discuss the pilgrimage up the mountain as something alien to them; perhaps even bizarre.