Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

December 2007

John Vincent Bellezza

Further Refinement
Over the last 2 1/2 months, I have again scrutinized Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet for anything that needs to be corrected or bettered. This comes after an entire year of editing and proofing by me and several others. In such a large and dense tome the path to completion seems never ending. I had submitted the formatted manuscript to the Austrian Academy of Sciences in the beginning of October, but they could not move on publication until a board meeting which was held only a few days ago. This has allowed me to ponder and examine my creation one last time before it takes life as a book. It is almost axiomatic that the longer you spend on a book the better it becomes, but only to a point. There is the possibility that too much scrutiny will lead one to nitpick and torture over their prose. Fortunately, I am not that obsessive!

My main task since August has been to complete the residential monuments portion of my new project, Antiquities of Zhang Zhung. This work, as part of an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, consists of an online inventory of all pre-Buddhist sites surveyed in Upper Tibet between 2001 and 2007. I plan to edit what I have composed over the next few weeks and submit it to THDL.org at the beginning of the new semester. The inventory will have to be gone over by a competent editor before it is truly finished, but in the meantime it can be readied for publication and posted on the web. This catalogue of sites will be the equivalent of two or three large volumes (approximately, 350, 000 words and 1900 photographs), a major undertaking by any standard. Fortunately compiling data on sites is a little less intellectually demanding than composing Zhang Zhung, in which every word, phrase and sentence had to be considered and reconsidered. As the first enthoarchaeology on Tibet, I have had to create the methodology and structure without the benefit of relying on earlier works for guidance. At least it is my baby and not a clone of someone else’s!

Have you had your Daily Bread?
Recently here in India (Himachal Pradesh) food prices have been skyrocketing. During the last monsoon flooding destroyed portions of the harvest so prices of flour and other grains are significantly higher than a year ago. In general, food prices are up about 50% over the last twelve months. Aside form the less than ideal monsoon season there are several other factors that account for this increase. Inflation associated with the rising standard of living among the urban middle classes is certainly a factor. There are those who can simply pay more for food or use much more of it (grain) to produce meat for personal consumption. The long-term environmental picture is not rosy either. As the Himalayan glaciers disappear, water for irrigation in the Indo-Gangetic plains will dwindle. Predicted higher temperatures will also adversely affect food yields from this breadbasket region of the Indian Subcontinent. Degradation of Indo-Gangetic farmlands is already a big problem in some regions.

The permanent ice fields in the Dhauladhar range have melted away and river volumes are down during the dry post-monsoon season. Drier soil conditions have been noted by farmers in the Kangra valley (at the foot of the Dhauladhar range), but typically they do not dwell on such things, making do as best as they can. As of the middle of December, we are desperately in need of rain or snow if we are to avoid draught conditions next summer. In the 1940s (according to elders I have spoken to), Upper Dharamsala (1700 m to 2250 m) would be covered by one to 2 ½ meters of snow by January. In the 1980s, this snowy mantle had been reduced to ½ to 1 ½ meters in depth. In recent years there tends to be little or no snow in the lower reaches of Upper Dharamsala and one meter or less in the upper reaches. Whether this is part of the global warming trends so talked about in the West, I cannot say with any assurance. Whatever the cause, the ecological impacts of less snow are clear to see in what remains of the surrounding forests.

Locally, higher food prices are putting a strain on the most vulnerable portions of the community, the bulk of the population. Macro inflationary pressures aside, Dharamsala is an expensive place thanks to all the international tourists, Tibetans and businessmen from the plains who can pay more for basic commodities. This localized inflationary effect is compounding the underlying rise in food prices. This is to the economic detriment of those sections of the native population whose wages are not keeping pace with inflation. Let’s take a local Gaddi laborer: even if he is lucky enough to make 150 rupees ($3.85) per day (rather than 80 or 100 rupees), his food bill is outstripping his ability to earn. But it is not merely unskilled laborers who are suffering. Even skilled craftsman and service workers are beginning to feel the pinch. From what I can see, relatively expensive fresh fruits and vegetables are the first things to be sacrificed in the diet.

I got Mine so get Yours
In the early 1980s, there were two cars in Upper Dharamsala: one owned by His Holiness and one owned by a local business man. When a car would venture up to the McLeod Ganj bazaar everybody would crane their necks to see who was coming through. Now there are hundreds of vehicles, more and more every week. This being a tourist center the explosion in motor vehicles is especially pronounced. It has become extremely hazardous for pedestrians on the roads and one must constantly look out out for speeding automobiles, trucks and motorcycles. The ethic of the Indian roads is patently clear: the bigger you are the more right of way you have. Let the walker beware! Yes, the charm of this old British hill station is now just a memory. Virtually every Indian family who does not already have a two-wheeled or four-wheeled conveyance wants one. During weekends in the high tourist season there is gridlock on the narrow roads that run through the upper bazaars. Very unpleasant indeed.

Can Indians be blamed for wanting what Westerners take for granted? I don’t think so. However, Indians do so at their own peril. Unfortunately, many of them do not yet realize this. Awareness of environmental issues in India is extremely low. Only a very small segment of the intelligentsia seems to get exercised over the environment.

For me, the most graphic example of the prevailing unconcern for the natural world is the Jamuna River, which flows through Delhi. Along with the Ganga and Saraswati (has long since disappeared underground), the Jamuna is a highly potent signifier of Indian religious identity. In the 1980s, the Jamuna, albeit highly polluted, was still a river coursing its way through India’s capital. No longer though. The Jamuna is now a stinking, black, toxic slough, an affront on the senses and a colossal health risk. This transmogrification has occurred under the noses of India’s leaders. Sadly, they seem mostly unbothered by it. Economic development is their mantra. The media, which tends to downplay or ignore environmental issues, has also abrogated its responsibility to properly inform the Indian public. The Delhi newspapers often run editorials claiming the nation can ill afford to cut greenhouse gas emissions while it is still in a nascent stage of economic development. I am afraid that this is highly flawed short-term thinking. The environmental degradation affecting India (and the rest of the world) is not likely to spare anyone in the final analysis.

Those living in crowded countries should be particularly concerned. Rising populations, declining natural resources, climate change; it does not take a genius to see that the equation is not balanced in our favor. Unless countries like China and India (I have spent many years in the natural environments of both) change tack, the juggernaut of ecological catastrophe is inescapable. There is probably still time to act but there is no time to spare. We live in very interesting and epic times indeed. May clarity of thought and goodness in motivation prevail!

Join Me in Tibet
In September of 2008, I plan to lead a group of friends and associates to central and upper Tibet. After a couple days exploring primitive corners of the Kathmandu Valley we will fly to Lhasa. From Lhasa we go overland to Shigtase. I want to show my companions archaic sites in Central Tibet, relating them to the historical development of the much better known Buddhist monuments. We will have plenty of time to chat with a wide range of Tibetans. My style of travel is to plan for all imaginable contingents while being open to special cultural moments as they appear. No ho hum routine here. From Shigtase we will traverse the Transhimalaya Range to the vast northern plains of Tibet over a recently opened road. I will introduce my fellow wayfarers to ancient Zhang Zhung Bon sites, as well as to some of my old friends among the nomads. We will revel in 3000 years of beautiful rock art, an 8th century Bon hermitage, and some of the most beautiful and sacred lakes in Upper Tibet. If you are an individual with ample physical and psychological reserves please consider joining me on this unique journey. It you do sign up expect surprises to make for a trip of great color and depth. I am very pleased to announce that my Tibet sojourn is being organized by Pawan Tuladhar, my old friend and one of the best Himalayan tour operators in the business (see his website: www.dharmaadventures.com). We could not ask for a better support team.

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