Do no harm

Travel to a holy Himalayan valley which champions non-violence and living in harmony with nature

Himalayan Griffon. All photos: Pema Norbu Lama

The sacred valley of Tsum lies in the Himalayan rain shadow behind Ganesh Himal, and has set an example for harmonious coexistence between human beings and nature.

Much of this do no harm philosophy emanates from the belief of the people there in Tibetan Buddhism and in particular the animist Bön faith which they share with many other secluded valleys in the Himalayas.

Tsum Valley is only 60km on a straight line northwest of Kathmandu in Upper Gorkha district on the border with China. It comprises two local wards: Chumchet and Chhekampar under the Chum (Tsum) Nubri rural municipality.

Tsum Valley was not always a peaceful place. More than 100 years ago, legend has it, a major conflict arose between two communities and when it became impossible to resolve it internally, the Tsumpa invited a high-profile monk from Dragkar monastery in Tibet. They also summoned the Drukpa Lama Ngawang Palsang from Bhutan who at the time was also residing at Dragkar.

Tsum Valley in Nepal NT
Mani walls along the fields of Tsum.

The Drukpa Rinpoche resolved the conflict successfully, and is also credited for advising local people to adapt to drought, famine and pestilence which was happening frequently at the time.

Locals were so pleased that they asked Drukpa Rinpoche to reside permanently in Tsum, who in return got the people to adopt a communal edict for peace and harmony with nature, thereby establishing the tradition of Shargya in 1920.

Read also: The courage and endurance of the Langtangpa, Austin Lord

The term Shargya means (hundreds of) commitments taken by the people or community collectively. It was put into writing on a wood block in Tibetan script and then thumb printed. They were: 

1. No to slaughtering (of animals, or humans)

2. No setting traps (hunting)

3. No bee-keeping

4. No selling of domestic animals for commercial purpose (mostly to Tibet and lower valleys)

Tsum Valley in Nepal NT

This indigenous knowledge holds its origin from the ethic of Tibetan Buddhism, and is similar to the non-violence practiced in Khumbu and other Himalayan valleys.

In the few select communities of the neighbouring valley of upper Nubri below Mt Manaslu, local monks have intervened to stop the slaughter and consumption of livestock as well as a blanket ban on wildlife hunting.

The Shargya tradition in Tsum has withstood the test of time and evolved through different historical phases. It saw war and conflict when Tsum Valley became the launching pad for Khampa guerrilla raids on the Chinese military in the 1960s.

The 1966 documentary ‘Raid into Tibet’ by George Patterson and Adrian Cowell showed the two British journalists sneaking into Tsum to make the film, aided by the Khampa fighters.

Tsum Valley in Nepal

Today, surviving elders recall the violence of the time. It did not just affect the livelihood of locals, it also violated the Shargya ethos because the guerrillas slaughtered many yaks and wildlife.

Following the defeat of the Khampa by the Royal Nepal Army, Nepal’s border police post was set up in Tsum in the 1970s. But while the move lessened the influence of the guerrillas, there was a language barrier between locals and the lowland police who were unaware of the region's non-violent tradition. 

This was eventually resolved after the Shargya edict was translated into Nepali. The 2015 Constitution drafting exercise and the introduction of the ILO convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention also played a role in the local people embracing their century–old tradition.

People of Tsum consider Shargya an everyday practice handed down over generations. It is a way of living that brings positive change within individuals, as well as in the external environment. 

The idea is not to commit harm on other sentient beings and nature on which they depend. Shargya is a communal edict, a certain set of oaths taken by people. If violated, people will need to pay a fine. 

The decision to declare Chumchet (lower Tsum) as Shargya territory and the 2012 Tsum Shargya Festival cemented the tradition. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai attended the festival to sign the Shargya ethos declaring Chumchet and Chhekamapar as zones of non-violence, and a Shargya preservation committee was formed.

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Tsum festival signing ceremony by founder reincarnate Drukpa Rinpoche in 2012.

The committee teaches the younger generation about the tradition, and also patrols the area to prevent hunting, animal slaughter, deforestation, and wildfires. If there is an extreme violation of the norms, an individual can even be exiled from the valley.

Committee members are rotated every five years, and a centennial celebration slated for 2020 had to be postponed due to the pandemic. 

Locals say the indigenous edict in creating a peaceful, harmonious and resilient community has helped adapt to the climate crisis

They say the region has never suffered a severe drought, famine or major conflict after the introduction of Shargya. They say individual behaviour change from Shargya ethos has helped create a balanced coexistence between humans,  nature and sentient beings.

Farmers in Tsum do not use chemical pesticides, they minimise the use of plastic. Locals also worship the mountains and rocky cliffs as their protectors, and treat water, forest and wildlife as invaluable divine treasures. 

Read also: The 'Organic Uncle' of Chitwan, Anita Bhetwal

As a result, trekkers and visitors to Tsum Valley today see freely roaming wildlife such as the Blue Sheep, the Himalayan Tahr, Snow Leopard and Black Bears in the villages and farms, unafraid of humans.

Tsum Valley in Nepal NT

However, despite its remoteness, Beyul Kyimolun is not a hidden valley anymore. There are challenges arising from haphazard tourism and road construction

But people are also promoting homestays and small guesthouses over modern amenities. Responsible tourism complemented by the indigenous culture has further cemented Shargya as a unique and resilient tradition.

Tsum Valley today teaches us how an intergenerational commitment can change the world for the better at a time when people are more individualistic than ever before. It is a perfect blend of religious practice and a social construct, preparing the community for the changes and crises to come. 

Pema Norbu Lama is a research associate and social entrepreneur from Tsum Valley. 

This article was written prior to the recently held Tsum Centenary Festival and therefore might lack certain updated information of the communal edict. Please refer to pocket book prepared by the organising community for updated information.