Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

April 2007

John Vincent Bellezza

Flight of the Khyung

Hunting and Gathering Information
Welcome to the Nepal Mandal! My wanderings around the Himalaya for 2007 have begun. One of this year’s travel destinations is the northern Changthang, a land of wild yaks, antelopes, brown bears, and wolves. This vast wilderness of seemingly endless plains and lofty mountain ranges covers some 300,000 kms². A key objective is to learn more about Tibet’s traditional hunting culture from those elders who were intimately involved in it. Until a decade ago, hunting was carried out using traditional weapons, traps and ritual methods. Since then the killing of game in the northern Changthang has been largely outlawed in the interests of wildlife conservation. While one might argue that there is still a place for Tibetan subsistence hunting, the reduction in commercial slaughter is a very welcome development. However, more still needs to be done to wipe out the illegal hunting of antelopes and other animals in the Changthang once and for all.

I am particularly interested in the personal purification and animal attraction rites that hunters carried out in the Changthang. Pre-Buddhist hunting methods, animal lore and laws regulating the liabilities of hunters are quite widely described in the Dunhuang manuscripts, Tibet’s oldest written documents. Recently composed Tibetan language articles recount hunting expeditions and their special ritual observances. Prescriptions on the hunting of certain animals at certain times, the deification of impressive ungulates and carnivores, and thanksgiving celebrations held after the hunt are part of an indigenous Tibetan bequest that developed independently from Buddhism. It is reputed that this hunting culture is of great antiquity, existing long before Buddhist ideas and values took hold on the Plateau. In order to determine if this is actually the case, it will be necessary to meet some of the last great hunters. This is not an easy prospect because the few who are still alive are spread over a vast area, much of which is hardly accessible. Sounds like a good challenge to me!

Last year on the Tibet Highland Expedition we reconnoitered areas in the far northern Changthang. In the eastern sector above Tsho Nyi we spotted large numbers of antelope and wild yaks. Unlike an earlier expedition when we had a Tibetan plateau bear pass through our camp we had no such spectacular sightings of this human-like species last year. Encounters with bears are common for herders living north of the 33rd parallel. In one story I heard, a drokpa couple came back home to find their tent inhabited by a large bear helping himself to milk and butter. This couple could not take up residence for a couple of days because the bear refused to leave until he had eaten up all their provisions. Another drokpa family living near Lake Aru was plagued by bears regularly preying on their herds of sheep and goats. Bears with a white pelage are thought to be divine variants of the animal, members of the circles of spirits belonging to the mountain gods. Until the Communist period, there were few herders living above the 33rd parallel but subsequently they were encouraged to settle in the far north. This has led to major negative impacts on native wildlife. Competition between wild ungulates and domestic livestock for fragile pastureland is one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the region.

According to Tibetan folklore of the Changthang, bears once mated with human women, giving rise to lineages of both species. It is said that bears would put on a human costume, complete with the peaked felt hat of the herders, and approach their victims. A woman thinking that it was one of her own kind would be seized by a bear and taken back to his den. Even if she escaped the woman could only take the human half of the bear child with her, the other half remained in the world of bears. In a myth from the Sekhor region, it is said that bears and telluric spirits known as a srin were the progenitors of the human race. This folklore echoes a very distant epoch, a time in Upper Tibet when clan groups had animals such as bears as their personal protectors and ancestral spirits. Cultural affinities with Mongolia, Siberia, and even the Americas seem indicated. The question of such wide-ranging cultural interconnections is an intriguing one but extremely difficult to address in a sound manner. Vast expanses of time and geography are involved, making the search for causal mechanisms like the quest for the Holy Grail, ever elusive and never quite conclusive. Molecular archaeology will eventually provide the tools for determining how closely related the Mongoloid peoples of the so-called Old and New Worlds really are. To have definitive answers a large amount of genomic data from diverse populations will have to be collected and analyzed first.

Lhasa (The Divine Land)

I am composing this second half of my newsletter in Lhasa, the capital of what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Situated at 3600 m above sea level, Lhasa has expanded to completely engulf a broad valley bottom nestled between lofty Transhimalayan ranges. The city has grown from around 10,000 people circa 1950, to a population of perhaps 250,000 (and still growing). The massive influx of Chinese and eastern Tibetans has had a huge impact on the character of the city. Lhasa natives are still easily distinguished by their dress and dialect, and by their strong devotion to the city’s many holy sites. Originally known as Rasa (Goat Country), the Lhasa valley is thought to have been dominated by a large body of water known as Oma Tsho (Milk Lake). The lake is said to have been drained in the early seventh century CE in order to found the Jokhang, the holiest of holies. Lhasa has remained an important cultural and population center ever since that time.

The juniper forests that once blanketed the slopes of the enveloping mountains have long since disappeared. Adverse environmental impacts continue to this day and are intensifying. When I first came to Lhasa in the mid-1980s, one could happily swim in the Kyi Chu River and drink the water. That is no longer possible as effluents of many kinds now sully this great waterway. It is my opinion that rather than bring in a still woefully inadequate sewerage system that consumes much precious water, high tech dry composting toilets should be developed. They are well suited to high elevation conditions and would eliminate one big source of water pollution. Enforcement of existing legislation would go a long way to halting the dumping of rubbish and industrial waste into the Kyi Chu. In the last three to five years, with the explosion in the number of motor vehicles on the roads, air pollution has also become a big problem. Along with all the cars, motor bikes and trucks comes congestion, taking away from the genteel atmosphere of Old Lhasa. With carbon emissions threatening to unsettle ecosystems around the globe perhaps we should have second thoughts about such forms of development. If there is any lesson to be drawn here from traditional Tibetan culture it is that the natural world is imbued with sanctity and must be respected and fostered.

Tourists are flocking to Lhasa in ever greater numbers. Nowadays more than 90% of all visitors are from the Chinese mainland. Like Westerners and their counterparts from other nations of East Asia, the Chinese have developed a fascination for all things Tibetan. In the big eastern cities of China Tibetan theme cafes are all the rage, and the younger set is seen sporting Tibetan style jewelry and clothing. Interest in Tibetan Buddhism and Bon is also very much on the rise. As we all know in the West, a car, house, possessions, and money are never enough in themselves to insure happiness. This verity is no different in China. Thus, a new generation is searching for meaning and contentment, and Tibet is one place in which they hope to find them. For many Chinese, Tibet represents an unspoiled culture and landscape, a window on an idealized past. This Shangri-La view of Tibet spread to much of the rest of the world many decades ago.

The innate quest for spiritual awareness in humanity can never be extinguished by economic and political means. I think the history of the 20th century demonstrates this quite convincingly. As regards governance, the pragmatic way forward for any political order is to sanction and facilitate its citizens’ spiritual endeavors. By acting as the guardian of a nation’s cultural and spiritual treasures, the state finds its most effective and secure expression. This does not mean that the organs of power indulge every cult and fashion that emerges but rather undertake to support religious groups and traditions that have the best interests of their citizenry at heart. Tibetan Buddhism and Bon are well suited to insure social well-being and stability throughout Tibet and the Chinese mainland. Tibetan Buddhism and Bon are ancient religions with highly refined philosophies and ethical structures. With the right policies and legislation they can be shorn of their theocratic accretions and permitted to assume a new vigor and purpose. This could be of tremendous value to the new China of the 21st century. To this end, reconciliation is of paramount importance. The lessons of history are clear: political systems that benignly use religious institutions to actualize their goals are the forms of dominion possessing the most survivability.

Hunting and Gathering Information

Welcome to the Nepal Mandal! My wanderings around the Himalaya for 2007 have begun. One of this year’s travel destinations is the northern Changthang, a land of wild yaks, antelopes, brown bears, and wolves. This vast wilderness of seemingly endless plains and lofty mountain ranges covers some 300,000 kms². A key objective is to learn more about Tibet’s traditional hunting culture from those elders who were intimately involved in it. Until a decade ago, hunting was carried out using traditional weapons, traps and ritual methods. Since then the killing of game in the northern Changthang has been largely outlawed in the interests of wildlife conservation. While one might argue that there is still a place for Tibetan subsistence hunting, the reduction in commercial slaughter is a very welcome development. However, more still needs to be done to wipe out the illegal hunting of antelopes and other animals in the Changthang once and for all.

I am particularly interested in the personal purification and animal attraction rites that hunters carried out in the Changthang. Pre-Buddhist hunting methods, animal lore and laws regulating the liabilities of hunters are quite widely described in the Dunhuang manuscripts, Tibet’s oldest written documents. Recently composed Tibetan language articles recount hunting expeditions and their special ritual observances. Prescriptions on the hunting of certain animals at certain times, the deification of impressive ungulates and carnivores, and thanksgiving celebrations held after the hunt are part of an indigenous Tibetan bequest that developed independently from Buddhism. It is reputed that this hunting culture is of great antiquity, existing long before Buddhist ideas and values took hold on the Plateau. In order to determine if this is actually the case, it will be necessary to meet some of the last great hunters. This is not an easy prospect because the few who are still alive are spread over a vast area, much of which is hardly accessible. Sounds like a good challenge to me!

Last year on the Tibet Highland Expedition we reconnoitered areas in the far northern Changthang. In the eastern sector above Tsho Nyi we spotted large numbers of antelope and wild yaks. Unlike an earlier expedition when we had a Tibetan plateau bear pass through our camp we had no such spectacular sightings of this human-like species last year. Encounters with bears are common for herders living north of the 33rd parallel. In one story I heard, a drokpa couple came back home to find their tent inhabited by a large bear helping himself to milk and butter. This couple could not take up residence for a couple of days because the bear refused to leave until he had eaten up all their provisions. Another drokpa family living near Lake Aru was plagued by bears regularly preying on their herds of sheep and goats. Bears with a white pelage are thought to be divine variants of the animal, members of the circles of spirits belonging to the mountain gods. Until the Communist period, there were few herders living above the 33rd parallel but subsequently they were encouraged to settle in the far north. This has led to major negative impacts on native wildlife. Competition between wild ungulates and domestic livestock for fragile pastureland is one of the biggest environmental challenges facing the region.

According to Tibetan folklore of the Changthang, bears once mated with human women, giving rise to lineages of both species. It is said that bears would put on a human costume, complete with the peaked felt hat of the herders, and approach their victims. A woman thinking that it was one of her own kind would be seized by a bear and taken back to his den. Even if she escaped the woman could only take the human half of the bear child with her, the other half remained in the world of bears. In a myth from the Sekhor region, it is said that bears and telluric spirits known as a srin were the progenitors of the human race. This folklore echoes a very distant epoch, a time in Upper Tibet when clan groups had animals such as bears as their personal protectors and ancestral spirits. Cultural affinities with Mongolia, Siberia, and even the Americas seem indicated. The question of such wide-ranging cultural interconnections is an intriguing one but extremely difficult to address in a sound manner. Vast expanses of time and geography are involved, making the search for causal mechanisms like the quest for the Holy Grail, ever elusive and never quite conclusive. Molecular archaeology will eventually provide the tools for determining how closely related the Mongoloid peoples of the so-called Old and New Worlds really are. To have definitive answers a large amount of genomic data from diverse populations will have to be collected and analyzed first.

Lhasa (The Divine Land)

I am composing this second half of my newsletter in Lhasa, the capital of what is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Situated at 3600 m above sea level, Lhasa has expanded to completely engulf a broad valley bottom nestled between lofty Transhimalayan ranges. The city has grown from around 10,000 people circa 1950, to a population of perhaps 250,000 (and still growing). The massive influx of Chinese and eastern Tibetans has had a huge impact on the character of the city. Lhasa natives are still easily distinguished by their dress and dialect, and by their strong devotion to the city’s many holy sites. Originally known as Rasa (Goat Country), the Lhasa valley is thought to have been dominated by a large body of water known as Oma Tsho (Milk Lake). The lake is said to have been drained in the early seventh century CE in order to found the Jokhang, the holiest of holies. Lhasa has remained an important cultural and population center ever since that time.

The juniper forests that once blanketed the slopes of the enveloping mountains have long since disappeared. Adverse environmental impacts continue to this day and are intensifying. When I first came to Lhasa in the mid-1980s, one could happily swim in the Kyi Chu River and drink the water. That is no longer possible as effluents of many kinds now sully this great waterway. It is my opinion that rather than bring in a still woefully inadequate sewerage system that consumes much precious water, high tech dry composting toilets should be developed. They are well suited to high elevation conditions and would eliminate one big source of water pollution. Enforcement of existing legislation would go a long way to halting the dumping of rubbish and industrial waste into the Kyi Chu. In the last three to five years, with the explosion in the number of motor vehicles on the roads, air pollution has also become a big problem. Along with all the cars, motor bikes and trucks comes congestion, taking away from the genteel atmosphere of Old Lhasa. With carbon emissions threatening to unsettle ecosystems around the globe perhaps we should have second thoughts about such forms of development. If there is any lesson to be drawn here from traditional Tibetan culture it is that the natural world is imbued with sanctity and must be respected and fostered.

Tourists are flocking to Lhasa in ever greater numbers. Nowadays more than 90% of all visitors are from the Chinese mainland. Like Westerners and their counterparts from other nations of East Asia, the Chinese have developed a fascination for all things Tibetan. In the big eastern cities of China Tibetan theme cafes are all the rage, and the younger set is seen sporting Tibetan style jewelry and clothing. Interest in Tibetan Buddhism and Bon is also very much on the rise. As we all know in the West, a car, house, possessions, and money are never enough in themselves to insure happiness. This verity is no different in China. Thus, a new generation is searching for meaning and contentment, and Tibet is one place in which they hope to find them. For many Chinese, Tibet represents an unspoiled culture and landscape, a window on an idealized past. This Shangri-La view of Tibet spread to much of the rest of the world many decades ago.

The innate quest for spiritual awareness in humanity can never be extinguished by economic and political means. I think the history of the 20th century demonstrates this quite convincingly. As regards governance, the pragmatic way forward for any political order is to sanction and facilitate its citizens’ spiritual endeavors. By acting as the guardian of a nation’s cultural and spiritual treasures, the state finds its most effective and secure expression. This does not mean that the organs of power indulge every cult and fashion that emerges but rather undertake to support religious groups and traditions that have the best interests of their citizenry at heart. Tibetan Buddhism and Bon are well suited to insure social well-being and stability throughout Tibet and the Chinese mainland. Tibetan Buddhism and Bon are ancient religions with highly refined philosophies and ethical structures. With the right policies and legislation they can be shorn of their theocratic accretions and permitted to assume a new vigor and purpose. This could be of tremendous value to the new China of the 21st century. To this end, reconciliation is of paramount importance. The lessons of history are clear: political systems that benignly use religious institutions to actualize their goals are the forms of dominion possessing the most survivability.

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