This was how village meetings here in the north of Nepal near the Tibetan border were convened. But today the blast of the conch is a fearful sound. Only heard after dark, it summons the underground forces of Nepal's Maoist insurgency to meetings under the trees, lit by flaming torches. The police hear the sound but stay away. If they investigated, they could walk into an ambush.
Within days, the kingdom of Nepal, 22 million people of huge ethnic and religious diversity scattered along the Himalayan slopes, will get a new government. Voting in the second and final phase of the general election takes place on Monday. Most people, whatever their political views, are praying for one thing: a clear-cut result to produce a stable government.
But if, as is feared, support for the two main parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), is again evenly divided, the Maoists in the forest with their conches and flaming torches will throw an even larger shadow over this nation's fragile polity.
The "people's war", as the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) describes it, began in February 1996 and has spread to infest many of the poorer and remoter parts of the country. By one assessment, one-third of all districts have been affected. Perhaps 700 people have been killed, either by the insurgents or the police. Comparisons with Peru's Shining Path, the Nepali Maoists' role model, no longer seem laughable.
Tactically, this insurrection is very different from campaigns waged by groups such as the Provisional IRA or Eta, the Basque separatists. You could stay for months in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, with no sense of a low-grade civil war.
The brains behind the insurgency - its leader, Baburam Bhattarai, has a doctorate in architecture from an Indian university - have kept clear of the capital, the well-defended seat of royal power, and of other urban areas as well. But out in the countryside, the fear is spreading.
Leave Kathmandu, choked with traffic, hazy with fumes, fat with the money of tourists and remittances from the Gulf. Continue beyond the wonderfully preserved former capital of Bhaktapur. Soon the Nepal of grinding rural poverty, little changed for generations, is all around. It is beautiful.
Four hours to the north-east of the capital, the road divides. The right fork goes to Kodari and the Chinese border, but we take the left, heading for the district of Sindhupalchok. The metalled road becomes a dirt track. Our jeep is the only vehicle, bar the occasional bus. The long steep slopes are terraced from peak to valley floor. The road is lined with trees, the air is like honey. You can drive for miles and see no one.
Near the village of Chautaram Bazaar we leave the car and a local youth takes us zig-zagging down the slope, along the course of a monsoon stream.
It is a mountain idyll. By the devi mandir, a stone shrine to the local mountain god, spring water gushes from the hillside into a stone basin where women in red saris bathe.
Beyond and down the slope are the clustered roofs of the hamlet of Kalleri: tall stone houses, washed a pale russet colour. But the idyll has been smashed.
In his tiny, blue-washed front room, a farmer called Himalaya Dangal pulls up his shirt and shows the wound at the base of his spine where a local revolutionary shot him in the back. He produces X-rays from the hospital which show the bullet lodged close to his spine.
"I was on my way home on 8 January from a meeting of the village development committee when someone jumped out and took a shot at me," he says. "If I saw him again I'd recognise him: he comes from the next village but now he is underground. I tried to stop the bleeding with my handkerchief and ran to the nearest house screaming, `The Maoists have killed me!' I was flown to Kathmandu for treatment, otherwise I would have died.
"I'm not guilty of exploiting anybody, but I'm a member of the RPP [a minor political party], I was twice chairman of the development committee, I have good connections with top officials and the police - that's why they wanted to kill me. There are about 30 activists in the neighbourhood with 1,000 followers who run errands for them and carry the flaming torches when they have their forest meetings.
"They move from place to place, extorting food, hiding out in the daytime, only coming out at night. The villagers are terrified of them."
Himalaya Dangal's experience is echoed across large areas of west and north-eastern Nepal, where guerrillas, typically led by a highly educated Brahmin elite and supported by impoverished tribespeople, target the local political and intellectual leaders.
"They go after supporters of the Congress party, school teachers, educated people in general," says Kapil Shrestha, president of the Human Rights Organisation of Nepal (Huron).
Once they have eliminated or intimidated them, it will be easy to influence the mostly illiterate peasants in the community. "It's a very vicious and brutal thing," he goes on. "There was a case where Maoists dragged a teacher out of his classroom, slit him like a goat and cut off his hands and feet. They torture people by smashing their kneecaps and ankles with rocks.
"As a result, many educated people who do not agree with them have left their villages. Education has been disrupted, farming has suffered. People have lost faith in the ability of the police and government to maintain security."
In response to the attacks, the police have cracked down, arresting more than 1,600 suspected sympathisers and killing over 220 "terrorists" in what they call "encounters".
Amnesty International, which says that Nepal is now at "a turning point for human rights", believes that at least some of the "encounter" deaths are in fact extra-judicial killings of prisoners. The result of the insurgency and the police response is a radical change in attitude, in this historically peaceful country, to violence.
"Earlier, even five deaths would have created national distress," says the left-wing Nepali journalist Shyam Shrestha. "Today, as scores die, the polity refuses to be shaken out of its somnolence."
The roots of Nepal's Maoist insurgency lie in the nation's hasty and haphazard development over the past decades.
Until 1990, the Eton-educated King Birendra remained an absolute monarch, served by a unique "non-party" democracy which was subservient to his wishes. In that year, a sort of democratic coup, said to have been inspired by Nepal's giant neighbour, India, brought political parties and Western- style democracy to the formerly closed kingdom, and this is the third election to be held under the system.
But the election of 1994 produced a fatally hung parliament, and six different coalition governments have attempted to rule in the past five years, none of them attaining credibility.
Meanwhile, the conditions that allowed the insurgency to prosper continue to worsen. "These were hills where people lived lives in ignorance of what happened elsewhere - they never even came as far as Kathmandu," says Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal, a monthly magazine.
"With the building of roads, people started moving around and saw what they were lacking." They had no jobs, no money, and the government was doing nothing to better their lives. "Change has been fast in Nepal," says Mr Dixit, "but these areas have been left out. There are legitimately dissatisfied young people who came together under a banner which at least claims to take care of their concerns."
"The Maoist problem is an outcome of political confusion and mismanagement," says Kapil Shrestha. "Should government fail to provide good and clean and stable government and improve the lot of the people, the Maoists will grow more powerful."
"We thought we were Shangri-la, and that we were immune from political violence," says Kanak Mani Dixit. "Three years, and all that has been wiped out. It is no more than a memory."Reuse content