The courage and endurance of the Langtangpa

Hanging new prayer flags near the old chorten and the newer post-earthquake Memorial Wall in Langtang village on the final day of Losar celebrations in March 2020. Photo: AUSTIN LORD

Five years ago, I was in the Langtang Valley with my parents at the moment when the earth shook. The earthquake released a massive, roiling avalanche weighing over twelve million tons of material from the slopes of Langtang Lirung, carrying half the force of an atomic bomb. The earthquake brought loss beyond words or comprehension, and even now, so much remains unspeakable and unknowable. Surviving those unstable moments and all that followed has changed my life and my view of this world, forever.

Five years after the avalanche, Langtang is locked down

Since that day, I have returned to Langtang again and again, and I have remained engaged with post-earthquake recovery and the Langtangpa community in a variety of ways. It has been an immeasurable privilege to see and feel Langtang come back to life. The Langtangpa have a great deal to teach us about strength, courage, resilience, endurance, and the ways we might carve out places for ourselves in a world full of uncertainties.

Disasters can shift, warp, and fold our sense of time in complex and unexpected ways. Anniversaries and other moments of mutual reflection, ceremony, or commemoration can help us mark time and reorient ourselves in the wake of disaster. In regathering ourselves, we might attempt to restore some kind of temporal sovereignty, if only for a moment, or perhaps give ourselves over to the uneven flows of time.

Earthquake survivors waiting to be evacuated in Ghodatabela on 26 April 2015. Photo: AUSTIN LORD

Five years after the 25 April earthquake, fundamental questions about the time of disaster persist and recur. How and when does a disaster truly conclude, and for whom? In what ways do we navigate the tangled temporalities that shape the aftermath of disaster, or the multiple pasts of our present moment?

As all Nepalis know, we do not all reckon or account for time in the same ways. And so, the ‘anniversary’ of the earthquake is itself is referred to as ‘April 25’, ‘Baisakh 12’  and ‘Bö da sumbatsebadün’ in the Gregorian, Nepali, and Tibetan calendars. This time around, each date falls on a different day, and so the anniversary is (perhaps, rightfully) distributed over an entire week.

Langtang lament

The Reincarnation of a holy valley, Clara Bullock

The following reflection – written based on dozens of conversations and interviews with my Langtangpa friends over the years – retraces some of the moments and feelings that have gathered around each of earthquake anniversaries in the Langtang Valley over the past five years:

Langtangpas and foreigners gather at the edge of the avalanche zone to commemorate the first anniversary of the 2015 Nepal earthquake. April 25, 2016. Photo: AUSTIN LORD

The lamas of Langtang lead the ceremonies for the April 25 observation of the earthquake anniversary in Langtang. April 25, 2016. Photo: AUSTIN LORD

1. Awash in uncertainty and emotion, without homes, the people of Langtang gathered. Most of them had only recently returned to the valley, disoriented and struggling to begin again. Foreigners came from around the world -- those who had lost their family members, survivors, and other supporters -- bringing a feeling of solidarity and care. A tangle of people and torn lives, gathered in the lap of the mountain, at the edge of the scar the avalanche created in the landscape. On the morning of 25 April, we gathered at the foot of the avalanche, in front of a recently built mani wall inscribed with the names of the deceased and the phrase ‘forever in our hearts’ written in the eleven languages. Every nerve was raw. A moment of silence at 11:56 AM, and then twelve minutes to read all the names of the dead, as I was asked to do.

Inside Langtang Gompa the night before the earthquake. April 24, 2015. Photo: AUSTIN LORD

Destroyed Langtang Gompa and Tibetan Buddhist Texts in November 2015. Photo: AUSTIN LORD

A video projection of old Langtangpa songs and photographs. Labourers walked by carrying building materials. Both of the gompas in the Langtang Valley had been destroyed, and there was no place to conduct a puja on the earthquake anniversary. A few days earlier, on April 13, the Langtangpas had gathered for a puja that Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche conducted in a field above the village. On the same day, a few Langtangpas also gathered for prayers at the Yellow Gompa in Kathmandu one last time. One turn around the sun, and many of us were still broken. A year of grief and absence, followed by gathering and presence. Time flowing around our varied and imperfect attempts at beginning.

Ceremonies for the 2nd earthquake anniversary inside the newly built community centre in Langtang village. May 2, 2017. Photo: Ayako Sadakane.

2. Small houses, a community center, a larger gathering of Langtangpa. “We had made some progress rebuilding, but it was still a very emotional time.” Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche came to Langtang again on the Tibetan earthquake anniversary and conducted a serkhim puja for the protection of the village. “This puja gave people some mental support, it helped us deal with all the tension.” Rinpoche also conducted a puja at Seto Gompa in Bouddha that day, since there was still no gompa in Langtang. Tearful speeches in the community centre, bittersweet reflections on change. A large prayer wheel spun inside the recently built Memorial Stupa, sending prayers to the heavens for all the deceased in their new lives. The herders moved more confidently this year, as a Japanese NGO had helped them buy zomos to replace some of the animals that had died during the disaster. The prayer flags of the prior year were taken down and burned, new flags hung. The rhythms of the valley were slowly layering onto each other again.

Ceremonies for the third anniversary of the earthquake in the newly rebuilt monastery at Kyangjin Gompa in April 22, 2018. Photo: Ayako Sadakane.

3. The three-year period of collective mourning came to an official and imperfect end. The gompa at Kyangjin had just been rebuilt, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche came again to lead the ceremonies in this beautiful new space. Most of the official work of reconstruction had been completed, and the cheese factory had also been rebuilt, so people finally felt some sense of material comfort. The night after the puja ceremonies, some people were singing, for the first time since the earthquake. A few days later, Drukpa Rinpoche, who had lived here earlier in his life and also in one of his past lives, returned for the first time in many years. After these ceremonies, many people said that they could see that everyone’s hearts were lighter, there was a little more hope. A few months later in July, the Langtangpa gathered in Kyangjin Gompa, some excitedly and some tentatively, for the Dukpa Tse Shi, the first major festival celebration since the earthquake. It was a powerful moment of transition and rejuvenation, one which many Langtangpa referred to as “a time for singing again.”

Kyangjin Gompa Under Construction in July 2017. Photo: AUSTIN LORD

4. A different kind of ceremony, and a return to more conventional ritual rhythms. The community organised a tsok puja and a seven-day reading of the Kangyur (a set of one-hundred and eight texts considered a core part of the Buddhist canon). There was laughing and dancing in the evenings when the ritual labour was done. There were more tourists in the valley. Carefully, the Langtangpa continued the slow work of reweaving their lives back into more familiar tempos. Sometime a few weeks later, the last of the compacted ice still remaining in the avalanche zone finally melted. We celebrated Dukpa Tse Shi again during the summer, and this time some of the archery competitions were held. Everyone said this year’s festival was better than the last, but also that the festivals of the coming year would be even better, like they were before the earthquake.

An international group of people who lost loved ones in Langtang, foreign survivors, and Langtangpas gather online at 11:56 AM NST on April 25 2020. Photo: Austin Lord

5 . The time of the virus, a kind of bardo all its own. On 9 March almost all of the Langtangpa gathered in Langtang village for a public celebration of the final day of Lhosar, for the first time since the earthquake. A large puja was planned for the 25 April with Rabjam Rinpoche and many other high lamas, but it had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were hoping that this would be the last collective puja for the earthquake anniversary.” A large group of foreign mourners and survivors, as well as some Langtangpa – some of who had cancelled their plans to return to Langtang for this anniversary – gathered virtually at 11:56AM on 25 April. We read the names of the dead, tried to honor the memories of those who died, and reflected on time gone by – sharing some of ourselves again. People called each other throughout the week, seeking connection across social and physical distance. Meanwhile, the lamas of Langtang began preparations for their own puja on the anniversary according to the Tibetan calendar next week. At the time of writing, they did not yet know how many Langtangpa community members would be able to attend given the ‘lockdown’. “We hope that we will be able to host the Rinpoches later this year, on an auspicious date, or maybe on the sixth-year anniversary,” they said. “Whenever we are able to do this puja, then that will be the last ceremony for the earthquake, maybe... possibly.”

Langtang Avalanche Zone. November 2015. Photo: AUSTIN LORD

The Langtangpa, like many of us, are both looking backward and looking forward. Amid the confusion and liminality of the pandemic, there are some silver linings. Many of the children and youth of Langtang are back at home, reconnecting to their place, speaking their mother tongue. In the past few weeks, many people in Langtang have again begun planting fields that have lain fallow since the earthquake. Looking out at these fields and the children working alongside their parents, some people are saying: “पहिले जस्तै लाग्छ” (it feels like before).

In Langtang, as elsewhere, the temporalities of disaster and aftermath are woven together with long-term processes of social and intergenerational change, dreams of progress, memories of fading pasts, and the cycle of births and deaths. The wind comes. Rivers and glaciers carve through mountains forever rising and falling apart. Pasts and futures flow together and eddy around us, today and every day.

Austin Lord is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Cornell University and a Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellow who conducted his dissertation research in Nepal in 2019-2020. He would like to thank all of his friends and sources in the Langtangpa community who helped him piece together this narrative, for sharing their experiences, their words, and their time.

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