John Vincent Bellezza
This Flight of the Khyung comes on the heels of last month’s issue. In November, I described highlights of a recent trip to Tibet. Lasting four weeks, this was an eventful journey, which culminated in reaching the ruins of an ancient Bon hermitage-temple at sacred Lake Nam Tsho. As readers will know, after 20 years of trying, I finally made it to the tip of the horse’s ear at Tamchok Ngangpa Do. I am now back at my Himalayan hermitage, reveling in the quiet and solitude after eight weeks of travel and much activity. I am returning to my new book project, something I have been anticipating eagerly.
More about Tamchok Ngangpa Do
The hermitage-temple atop the horse’s ear at Tamchok Ngangpa Do (rTa mchog ngang pa do) was clearly a geomantic centerpiece at Lake Nam Tsho in the pre-Buddhist era. Yet this impossibly situated religious facility was only one of a number of ancient residences at Tamchok Ngangpa Do. All along the extremely rugged headland of Tamchok are the remains of masonry façades barricading small caves and ledges. Ancient red ochre inscriptions and pictographs in these caves unambiguously chronicle their prehistoric and early historic occupation by the early Bonpo/bonpo.
One of the most dramatic pieces of rock art is found in an alcove in the rear of a large overhang, the site of an extensive residential complex. Unfortunately, the ruined buildings at this Tamchok Ngangpa Do site were dismantled and the stones used to construct corrals. Large, boldly designed counterclockwise swastikas flank an elaborate flaming jewels motif and the Tibetan letter A. These were painted in red and yellow ochre, a white pigment and a black pigment. This is the first instance in Upper Tibet that I have documented a panel of rock art being created in four distinct colors. The use of four different coloring agents indicates that the creators possessed quite advanced knowledge of mineral pigments and their properties. The style of the swastikas, flaming jewels and the letter A suggest they were made between 900 to 1300 CE, or during the final phase of the archaic cultural era at Nam Tsho.
Also of special note at Tamchok Ngangpa Do are two large red ochre pictographs of anthropomorphs. One of these resembles a torma (sacrificial cake) with a face and arms, 70 cm in height. A counterclockwise swastika was painted over the breast of the figure. This composition is liable to represent a deity of some kind painted for ritualistic and/or protective purposes. The lines of the other large pictographic anthropomorph appear to follow the contours of the rock face. This rendition gives the impression that it highlights a rangchung or self-formed image that was envisaged on the rock surface. Heavy wear has taken its toll on the pictograph, making identification difficult. Its body may terminate in a fish’s or snake’s tail. If so, this figure might represent a klu, the primary class of water spirits in Tibet. In the Mother Tantra tradition of Bon, Nam Tsho is a particularly important center of the klu.
During the recent trip to Upper Tibet I was also able to revisit Khyigen Gakpa Do (Khyi rgan gag pa do), the site of more red ochre and black pictographs. I am especially intrigued by a group of ‘bird-men’ that dot the walls of a shallow cave at this location on the north shore of Nam Tsho. These figures are executed gracefully and of significant age, as attested by the level of wear and color change they have undergone. There are also inscriptions in Tibetan at Khyigen Gakpa Do, the earliest of which may date to imperial times. A detailed description and analysis of this rock art will be featured in a comprehensive catalogue of Upper Tibetan rock art that I hope to begin in 2009.
Power Cuts in the Kathmandu Valley
Help, the lights are out! Electricity provision to the Kathmandu Valley is steadily deteriorating. The explosion in the population of the Kathmandu Valley means that ever higher demands are being placed on the power grid. Load shedding has become a routine part of life, with lights being out four to eight hours per day. Sadly, even longer interruptions to the City’s electric supply are planned. There is no solution to this crisis in sight. New power generation stations will take a minimum of five to seven years to come on line and it is still not certain when construction will begin. It appears that the economic and social activities of the Valley will be crippled for years to come, adversely affecting virtually every single resident.
Let me give a couple personal examples of how peoples’ lives are being impacted by these power cuts. The cyber café I use in the Jyatha Tole is an efficiently run business in a clean and pleasant setting. It only has eight computers for hire. Now that power cuts regularly reduce the hours of operation, the business is no longer profitable. Unfortunately, there is not enough revenue to make the purchase of a generator feasible (Chinese ones cost around $1200 and Japanese models run $3000 or more). How much longer can the young proprietor keep his business afloat?
I have much of my expeditionary gear made and repaired at another shop in Jyatha, which is owned and operated by a young man named Raju Dulal. Raju is a highly competent craftsmen and a very decent human being. Working closely with Raju, I am able to design and produce equipment of a higher standard than I can buy from the international market. I am, of course, willing to pay a premium but prices are still highly competitive. A couple years ago Raju invested in new commercial electric sewing machines. These are considerably faster and more efficient than the old treadle machines he used previously. As a result, productivity increased and business began to improve. With the incessant power cuts this progress is being reversed. Keeping the workers employed and the business profitable is now a huge strain. Raju has no alternative but to bring his old treadle machines back into operation. He is planning to buy more of them as well. They may not be as efficient as the modern models, but at least they can be used when there is no electricity. Buying an expensive generator is not an option, as turnover is not high enough to warrant such a large expenditure. Raju, like the cyber café owner I patronize, finds himself in dire straits. Business prospects are bleak indeed.
I hasten to add that these examples are repeated thousands of times over all around the Kathmandu Valley. Less power equates to less business and less money at a time when Nepal desperately needs to increase its economic output. The new Maoist government seems to understand this gut level reality, and hopefully they will be able to institute policies accordingly. I wish them every success. The nation waits expectantly.
The air pollution in Kathmandu and Delhi has reached a horrendous state. I have never seen it been this bad, and conditions were already terrible. Inversion layers and huge amounts of airborne dust are preventing the emissions of vehicles, factories, power plants and other pollution sources from escaping. How much more atmospheric toxicity can the urban dweller take? The number of motor vehicles increases daily in Kathmandu and Delhi, making getting around particularly difficult and unpleasant. Air pollution in Lhasa and Nagchu is also bad and getting worse. Chaotic growth and lack of effective planning are wreaking havoc on the urban environment. There is no logic in this degradation, just the imperative of economics gone awry.
Is it that societies bereft of traditional limitations frantically go on to sow their own demise? There are limits to the numbers of motor vehicles a city’s roads can hold and limits to the levels of respiratory distress with which human beings can cope. This is just a matter of simple reason, but the modern world seems to have put reason aside for dubious material gain. A society in which the wonderfully empowering faculty of reason is subverted inevitably finds itself in trouble. Even magic and religion cannot fully counter clouded thinking. Out of balance and with its key intellectual facilities impeded, the regulation and organization of societies are increasingly held hostage to a host of threats (be they economic, cultural, political, or environmental). This is the great paradox of modern life, an existence dependent on the most sophisticated of technologies and scientific knowledge, yet one that seems to have forgotten the utility of common sense and historical insight. What could be less secure than a way of life that insures the destruction of the planet’s ecological balance? No, the sky is not falling yet but perhaps it is time to reconsider our way forward, collectively and with a sense of common purpose. The streets of Delhi, Kathmandu and Lhasa as well as health of the inhabitants would surely be better off for it.