Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

February 2009

John Vincent Bellezza

This month let the khyung bird fly us between Tibet and the northwestern lands of Drusha and Takzik in varied pursuits. From the glaciers of the Himalaya to the bazaars of the Hindu Kush, I shall provide you with a perspective on the region that is both historical and contemporary in nature. The well-being of humanity increasingly hinges upon the destiny of High Asia. Frightful yet hopeful, tragic yet inspirational, its future is our future.

Going, going, gone!
The melting of the Tibetan glaciers
On January 16, a conference entitled “Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau” was held in the Asia Society’s auditorium in New York City. On January 17, the Trace Foundation hosted a panel discussion called, “The Tibetan Plateau: Environment at Risk”. These fora were presided over by specialists in climatology, rangelands ecology and Tibetan pastoralism, as well as by those attempting to shape global policy. The gatherings were as notable for those in attendance as they were for those who spoke. Academics, personnel from several different governments, and sundry Tibetophiles galvanized by the importance of the subject matter under discussion rubbed shoulders. That this somewhat incongruous assembly could come together with a single focus is in itself encouraging. A common challenge requires a unified approach.

Here is a résumé of the facts and trends as best as they can be conceived at present. It does not make for happy reading, but the issues involved are simply too big to ignore. This one fact brings them home: Himalayan glaciers are melting more rapidly than ice masses in any other area of the planet. There are approximately 37,000 glaciers in Tibet, 80% to 85% of them are retreating and the speed of that retreat is intensifying. The same can be said for all 150,000 glaciers of the Himalaya (comprising some 12,000 km³ of ice). For instance, the Rumbuk glaciers on the north side of Mount Everest (Jomo Langma) have lost a whopping 300 m to 500 m of thickness since the 1920s. Even the icecap near the summit of Mount Nemo Nanyi (7728 m), in western Tibet, is melting at an alarming rate.

Current trends indicate that roughly 2/3 of Tibetan glacial mass will disappear by 2050. The glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau feed six of the largest and most important Asian Rivers: the Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtse, Yellow River, Salween, and Mekong. One and a half billion people in South Asia, China and Southeast Asia directly depend on these rivers for their sustenance. Climate models predict that their water flows will become more erratic in the coming decades. Initially, there will be increased flooding as the glaciers melt (there is already evidence that this is occurring), but within several decades water volumes will drop precipitously. It is envisioned that the great Asian rivers may even stop flowing entirely during the dry season, something never seen before in the annals of human civilization.

The cause of this unprecedented loss of glacial ice is global warming. The temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau on the average are rising .3 Centigrade per decade, close to three times the global average. It is still not very well understood why the Plateau is heating up at a disproportionate rate, but several factors are at play. The heightened albedo effect on ever larger bare rock surfaces is one cause. Another factor is the warming of the Indian Ocean in a belt that stretches 25° north and south of the equator in conjunction with the intertropical convergence, forcing more water vapor into the atmosphere. As this moist air condenses heat is released over the Tibet Plateau. Also, heightened industrial activities are coating the glaciers in a dark layer of particulate matter allowing them to absorb larger amounts of solar radiation. Complicating any attempt at scientific prediction are climatic feedback loops, a wildcard in the rate of glacial melting.

For the Tibetans, the specter of a rapidly warming climate is already stalking their land. The drokpas, the pastoralists of Tibet, consistently report a fall in the quality of the grasslands. They say that the grass is shorter, less dense and less nutritious than before. Although more scientific research is needed, experiments indicate that the degradation of the grasslands is directly related to an increase in annual temperatures. They also warn that destructive winter snows are more frequent nowadays and summer rainfall less reliable. These are precisely the kinds of changes predicted by the climate models. The drokpas also note that yaks are calving less often than before and that sheep and goats are less prolific as well. From my field research, I know that the agriculturalists of western Tibet are struggling with increasingly arid conditions. The viability of many ancient farming communities hangs in the balance.

While the world is only now opening its eyes to climate change, the alarm was actually sounded two or three decades ago, but it went unheeded. Tibetans and other Himalayan ethnic groups have been keenly aware of negative environmental changes for many years. During my travels in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Tibet, I have repeatedly heard about shrinking glaciers, less winter snow cover, modified animal migrations, the disappearance of valuable plants, and an increase in freak weather events. Dwelling in their mountain refuges, however, the voices of Himalayan peoples were barely audible to governments and big business. With so much short-term gain to be realized who wanted to listen anyway?

While people of good will the world over are calling for immediate action to stem the effects of global warming, the politics of climate change are anything but straightforward. Although scientists have largely reached an understanding, policy makers and business leaders have yet to come to an agreement about the gravity of the problem and the types of solutions required to tackle it. At this January’s conference, Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, furnished us with global warming predictions beginning with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels stabilizing at 400–450 parts per million (ppm). A member of the audience questioned why he did not address the concern of many scientists that levels over 350 ppm will prove utterly disastrous. In other words, the implication is that carbon dioxide emissions must be capped at current levels, not at some higher number. Yes, the whole issue of climate change is a hornet’s nest, but it is a hornet’s nest we must open. Watch out for that sting!

Another Hindu Kush Retrospective
Northern Pakistan and the Hindu Kush are regularly in the international news these days and often in less than a favorable light. The Hindu Kush is home to dozens of languages and tribal groups, a region at the epicenter of Eurasian cultural and ethnic diversity. This great vortex of human migration and settlement deserves attention for its artistic and societal achievements as much as it does for the political uncertainties now gripping it. The exceptional beauty of the Hindu Kush landscape and the admirable integrity of its peoples are legendary. In praise of these stupendous assets, I begin with a poem written in Brep, Chitral, on July 23, 1984:

Like Children
Monolithic shapes,
And highland travels.
Pursuing roads unforeseen,
With new sojourns at every wayside.
Extravagant beauty, our remunerator,
Leads us up and back down again.

This is our life,
Where treasures are as light as the breeze and as fleeting as the sunset.
Ours is a life of ease,
Lived to enjoy the lofty fastnesses of unspeakable grandeur wherever they may lie.
Sometimes we find them in the tallest mountains,
And sometimes they are discovered locked well within the human heart.

December 1, 1989
… In addition to the bazaar and governmental infrastructure, Chitral City is a conglomeration of villages. They include Shiakotek, Singur, Joghore, Balach, Mogolandeh, Harkhashandeh, Denin, Silasht, Backerabad, Uchust, Bakamak, Dumshagor, Muldeh, Goldur, Zagarandeh, Hirankot, Churadu, and Zang Bazaar. Hirankot is where the Pathan immigrants have settled. Shiakotek is where Shahji, a relative of Hakim Behush, lives. I stayed at his house for several days in 1985. Today is a nice quiet day. Being Friday (Juma), it is the Muslim Sabbath. School children and government workers are off today. Activity in the bazaar is reduced but by no means stopped. I suppose commerce must go on?

A man named Mirza Hussain just came by to see me. Invariably, when I am a guest in a village, I will have anything from a trickle to a steady stream of visitors in a day. While talking to Mirza, aged 25 and unmarried, it occurred to me to record one of the most striking demographic changes of the contemporary age: the delaying of marriage four to seven years on the average as compared to the older generation. Increased levels of education partially explain this phenomenon, but I also believe that it is a form of birth control. Withholding young men from the reproductive cycle for several additional years serves perhaps to reduce population growth. [Note: over the ensuing years I have come to appreciate just how much delaying marriages contributes to rising social tensions in Himalayan and other Indian Subcontinental regions).

District Chitral’s population is now over 200,000, plus 40,000 so-called Afghan refugees. The explosive growth in population has forced people into the market economy. There are of course other factors involved in the growth of the market economy in the Greater Himalaya, but population growth is the most important one. Chitral is a large district. It is nearly 300 km from Arandu to Boroghil. Save for the districts Leh and Kargil, it is probably the largest district in the Indo-Pakistan Greater Himalaya. I have begun to use the term Greater Himalaya to refer to the Himalaya, Sub-Himalaya, Trans-Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakorum for lack of a better word. The common denominator of all these mountain ranges is that they are in or border on the Indian Subcontinent.

Receding forests, a large influx of outsiders and changes in cultural patterns and values seem to be the three great stresses affecting Chitral. Religious conflicts exist in Chitral but not nearly at the same magnitude as in Ladakh. Slowly but steadily the pagan Kalash are being converted to Islam (perhaps it is a miracle that they have survived this long). Tensions still exist between the Sunnis and Ishmailis of Upper Chitral but thank goodness no one has been killed since 1985. Many Sunnis consider the Ishmailis kafirs, which to my eyes is a great injustice. Floods and earthquakes have not been a major problem since 1984.

I watched the tail end of a cricket match. Several hundred villagers were in attendance. Chitral is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning chequered or variegated. This is a very appropriate name for a district as linguistically varied as Chitral. Kowar is spoken by upwards of 90% of Chitralis and is surprisingly homogeneous over its entire range. This is probably due to its use as the lingua franca of the region for centuries.

December 2
A very rewarding day educationally. After breakfast Mohammed Ali Jinnah and I left for Drosh. We walked the 2 km to the main road via the newly constructed footbridge. Until several months ago a hazardous bridge built during the British Raj was used. Now, finally, the thousands of natives of Ayun have safe access across the Kunar River via the south side of their 5 km-long composite of villages. As a rule, it is safe to state that the natives of the Indian Himalaya have enjoyed slightly better facilities and infrastructure than their counterparts in Pakistan. Jinnah and I caught a ride in a pickup truck that went too fast for our taste. The Afghani and Pathan drivers are the worst. Chitralis usually drive better. Halfway to Drosh from Ayun is a compound built on a rocky ledge above the Kunar. This imposing home is owned by Haizir Zaman, a famous Chitrali sitar player. On the walk to the main road this morning Jinnah told me a little about his father, Rastam Lal, who died in a lorry accident 30 years ago. Mr. Lal was a local Muslim League leader who fell out of favor with the Ayub Khan regime. Mr. Lal was loved and admired by the people of Chitral. Mohammed Ali Jinnah was named by his father in appreciation of the Quaid-e-Azam (Father of the Nation).

Quazi Nawaz Lal lives near the Drosh bazaar. He warmly received us and most energetically and graciously entertained his nephew and I. Mr. Nawaz Lal was a minister in the Provincial government during Zulfirkar Ali Butto’s rule of Pakistan. For most of the day, Mr. Nawaz shared his vast knowledge of Chitrali culture and history with me. He is the curator and owner of the only museum in Chitral. He most generously spent hours showing me the items in it. Materially, his resources are limited but this has not deterred Mr. Nawaz Lal from carefully cataloguing his acquisitions.

Previous Post

Next Post