Vivek Agarwal sat at the counter of his shop in Kathmandu, behind the glass display cases filled with goods. The merchandise, laid out on red velvet under bright white lights, gave the place the air of a jewelry shop, and his products wore price tags listing hundreds, thousands, and (stashed away in a safe location) even tens of thousands of dollars. Agarwal doesn't stock Rolex watches or diamond rings—he's in the market of selling gnarled, brown tree seeds.
"These aren't just any seeds," said Agarwal. "These are the tears of god."
The seeds, known by their common name rudraksha, are grown from a broadleaf tree (scientifically, Eliocarpus ganitrus) in the foothills of the Himalayas and are believed to bestow healing powers and tranquility onto those who wear them. There are variations of the story, but the common legend says the seeds are tears of the Hindu god Shiva, who was sitting in meditation for thousands of years and burst into tears of ecstasy when he finally opened his eyes and set sight upon the universe.
"This sells for $100," said Agarwal, holding out a bracelet made with seeds the size of gumballs. "This one is worth $500," he said, pointing at a single seed, "and this," he said, carefully extending out what looks like shriveled prehistoric fruit loop, "is worth $1,750."
Rudraksha trees are a common species in Nepal and other parts of Asia, and their fruits can easily be picked up off the ground in public parks. Beneath an outer rind is a segmented seed, the most common being ones with five segments. Five-faceted seeds aren't worth much financially, but mutant seeds with more or fewer than five parts are rare, and it is the mutated seeds with the highest number of facets that bear the biggest price tags.
Agarwal's stock ranges from rudraksha with one to 21 facets. Each type is believed to have unique connections with different gods or goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, and therefore each seed grants the wearer a different type of power.
"The two-facet rudraksha are associated with Shiva at Parvati and are good for marriage, mental peace, and pregnancies," explained Agarwal. "The ones with three facets are associated with Lord Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and are effective for meditation and concentration—very useful for school children who do not possess high learning abilities."
In terms of money and rarity, the seeds are sort of a Nepali equivalent of the grilled cheese sandwiches burned with images of the Virgin Mary (which sold for $28,000) or the cornflake shaped like the state of Illinois (which sold for $1,350). But unlike those one-off rarities, the seeds make up an entire industry.
Quality can vary, and there are more affordable forms of lesser-quality rudraksha available in the street markets, but individual seeds can sometimes fetch thousands of dollars. Strands of seeds can sell up to $40,000. The most expensive seed behind Agarwal's counter was priced at $1,750, but he also had two others stashed away—the Gauri Paat (Trijuti) and the 21-mukhi rudraksha—which sell for $20,000 and $45,000, respectively.
It's worth noting that over 57 percent of Nepal's population lives off of less than $2 a day, and a good salary for white-collar workers in the Kathmandu valley is around $300 per month. For those who are able to cash in on rudraksha, the trade is quite profitable. Last year, the Kathmandu Post reported on a Nepali farmer who was offered 2.5 million Nepali rupees—around $23,000—for a tree. Though the tree had not yet produced any fruit that season, the farmer had earned $10,000 a year selling seeds from the tree in the past.
For a westerner, it's hard to understand how these seeds could be worth their price tags, but Nepali mythology tells a different story. For thousands of years they were (and continue to be) used by wandering holy men, sadhus, and sanyasis, to protect against negative energies, black magic, and poisons in water.
Another rudraksha dealer, Sunil Shrestha, told me about the powers of rudraksha from his trinket shop in Thamel, the commercial district of Kathmandu.
"You'll feel the powers of these seeds as soon as you touch them," said Shrestha. "They lower blood pressure and people who wear them become cool-headed and feel guided by a higher force." (No scientific studies have been conducted in the West that show a correlation between rudraksha seeds and positive effects on physical health and mental wellbeing in humans.)
Despite all of the hype, it didn't seem like many people in Kathmandu were wearing the seeds. Instead, Agarwal says, most of his customers are wealthy tourists from India and China. "Nepalis don't have the money to spend on things like this," he said. "The Indians and the Chinese, they're the ones willing to buy the rarest and most expensive seeds."
Though there are probably cheaper ways to attain tranquility or healing, those who believe deeply in the powers of Rudrakshha maintain that feeling the powers harnessed by the seeds firsthand can convert even the most skeptical.
"It's something you just have to feel to believe," Agarwal told me. "These seeds are a gift from God; whether we use them or not is up to us."
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