Bon voyage

Tibetan animist belief preserves message of conservation in Dolpo

The dazzling beauty of Dolpo is confined mostly to the ink-blue waters of Phoksundo Lake, which overshadows the district’s other destinations.

The remoter valleys of Nepal’s most remote region hide the ancient monasteries and culture of the Bon religion, an animist faith that is said to have existed in the Tibetan rim lands for 18,000 years – long before Buddhism got here.

Today, Bon Po has been overlaid by Buddhism and later Communism in Tibet, but it still thrives in parts of the plateau that today lie in Nepal, like Dolpo. The 500-year-old Thasung Tholing Bon Monastery, with the Pungmo Gompa, are the jewels in the crown of Bon animism.

NATURAL FAITH: The Thasung Tholing Bon Monastery on the slope above Phoksundo Lake is one of the two centres of the faith in Dolpo that pre-dates the advent of Buddhism here. Photos: SONAM CHOEYKI LAMA

Thasung Tholing is a cluster of nine private monasteries and one community gompa a 15-minute walk from Tso village. What is distinctive about the adherents of Bon Po here is their deep reverence for nature, so that conservation of the ecosystem is not some outside concept but deeply ingrained in the belief system.

Killing for meat was banned, so many villagers in this arid land used to chase wild animals to the edge of the cliff, where they fell to their deaths.

“Appalled by the cruelty, Lama Treton Tsewang Tshultrim founded this monastery many centuries ago so that the killing would stop and the wildlife would be protected,” explained Kenpo Nyima Samduk Lama, the present head monk of Thasung Tso. Thasung means ‘protected cliff’, and tso is ‘lake’.

Through the centuries till today, the monastery acts as a religious warden of the holy Phoksundo Lake and its surroundings, protecting its wildlife and restoring the ecological balance of the mountains.

Elderly villagers near the lake remember when musk deer and other animals came down to the shores to drink water, and roamed the forests surrounding the monastery. With poaching the numbers declined, but as the monastery actively revives traditional conservation customs the animals have started to return.

The Bon worship the landscape, mountains, lakes, rocks, rivers and wildlife. In short, nature is sacred, as illustrated in this chant in their dialect: ‘lhe lhu zhi dag’, which means ‘we are guardians of nature’. Generations of Dolpo Pa, therefore, have grown up with an innate understanding of how nature is linked to their daily lives.

The other centre is the monastery in Pungmo (in map, right) which spreads a deep reverence for mountains, trees, lakes and rivers.

Dolpo, Nepal

The Bon monastery is a habitat for musk deer, blue sheep and other small mammals, which are prey for the snow leopard and the Himalayan wolf. Given its relatively recent genesis, Phoksundo does not have fish and conservationists say care must be taken not to introduce any alien aquatic species.

“We are now seeing more and more snow leopards on the prowl in the forests around the monastery, and in the cliffs above. In winter, when there are fewer people, they even venture out to the shore to drink water,” said resident monk Geshe Nyima Samduk, showing visitors around the shrine.

Although Shey Phoksundo National Park was set up in 1984, it was the long-established Bon tradition that really helped conservation on the ground, says snow leopard researcher Tshiring Lhamu Lama. “Local conservation tradition was very important for preserving the nature and culture of Dolpo, and the two are linked. The national park is only 35 years old, but the gompas have been here for 500 years,” she added.

Besides Thasung Tholing in Ringmo, the other cradle of Bon civilisation in Dolpo is the less travelled Pungmo Valley. This wild and scenic landscape on the lap of Mt Kanjiroba is two hours off the main Dolpo Trail, and few visitors ever come here. The villagers worship Kanjiroba as the ‘ruler of kings’, just as they revere the cliffs, streams, waterfalls, trees and ravines that make up the topography.

The local Bon dialect has words for the divine: Yul Lha (lord of the land), Yul Sa Sol Sa (ritual for nature gods), Sman Mo (female spirits). The faith is so strong that locals believe that transgressing nature will bring down wrath and misfortune: livestock will perish, crops will fail and the salt caravans will be stuck in blizzards. The nature gods could also retaliate with hailstorms, earthquakes and disease.

“We are not allowed to eat meat that is slaughtered here. We only eat animals that die of natural causes. We are not supposed to cut trees because they are gods too, and so are the rivers and lakes,” says Yungdrung Lama, whose family lineage carries the Bon tradition.

Larke Lama is the elected ward chair in Pungmo village and says the Bon way of life is integral to everything his community does. Locals believe they have to perform the Yul Sa Sol Sa ritual to ensure a good harvest. Lama says, “sometimes the weather is bad for crops, so we pray to the sky gods to restore the natural equilibrium.”

No yarsa = no yaks = no caravans = no salt = no butter

For thousands of years, the Dolpo Pa have survived on a bi-annual journey back and forth across the Himalaya. But the winds of change have affected the ancestral occupation of the yak caravans that used to take grain and cotton up from the lower valleys to barter for rock salt and carpets from Tibet.

The modern monetised economy, the spread of transportation in Tibet and Nepal, education and out-migration have all contributed to erode this traditional practice. And now added to this list of factors is climate change, which has made weather unpredictable in the trans-Himalayan valleys.

This year, unseasonal spring blizzards closed the high passes that the caravans use for trading. Tourism was hit, as trekkers were stranded.

Dawa Gurung and his family take his yaks and horses into the pasture of Dhanigad, crossing the Baga La pass at 5,000m. “We heard the China border is opening soon and we need to go to Chang (Tibet) but this year I do not think I will go — the trail is still treacherous and there is not much to trade,” Gurung said.

The grain-salt barter trade between Nepal and Tibet has now been replaced by just one precious commodity: yarsa, the caterpillar fungus that grows out of the ground in meadows above 4,500m and is prized in Chinese medicine.

Yarsa means ‘summer grass’ or ‘winter worm’ in the local dialect and has raised living standards here. But lately, due to over-picking and climate change, yarsa harvests have slumped. Dolpo traders used to sell yarsa across the border in Tibet and buy rice, sugar, blankets and even solar panels in China.

“This year it snowed continuously from February to April, and in Saldang half the yaks died. The melting snow also made the ground soggy, and all the yarsa rotted,” said Tashi Dhondup Lama of Tso village.

The weather, crops and health of livestock are so closely tied that the loss of yarsa and yaks has meant no trade with Tibet, which means no salt and no butter. As a result, for most villagers in Dolpo this year there are no ingredients to make the salty Tibetan butter tea.