Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

March 2009

John Vincent Bellezza

Happy Earth Ox Year to you all! May this brand new Tibetan year be a blessed and salutary one. This month Flight of the Khyung resumes travel to yet other Himalayan domains. Please join me in the exploration of Lahoul Spiti through a vignette extracted from an old journal. Lahoul Spiti typifies the incredible cultural wealth that marks the highest mountains on earth. This region bridges the great cultural divide between the Aryan and Bodic cultural worlds and shelters ancient tribal pockets that belong to neither.

Tibetan Muslims*
It is believed that the first Muslims who arrived in Tibet came from Ladakh and Kashmir in the 12th or 13th century. They may also have come from Turkestan and adjoining regions. There used to be four mosques in Lhasa, one in Shigatse and one in Tsedang. Several years ago, a lovely 19th century mosque in the extremely rare Tibeto-Islamic style was razed in Lhasa to build a large concrete replacement. Islamic religious and social events were regularly held at Gyanda Lingka near Lhasa. The Tibetan Muslims also maintained a graveyard at Gyanda Lingka (and one other in the Lhasa environs). Tibetan Muslims were almost entirely involved in commercial pursuits. It is estimated that there may still be 3000 in Tibet and 2000 in exile.

The old Tibetan government maintained excellent relations with Tibetan Muslims. They were permitted to manage their own community affairs through a committee called the Panj. The headman of the Tibetan Muslims was known as Mia or Khache Gopo. For the most part, the Tibetan Muslims or Khache adhered to the same customs and traditions as their Buddhist counterparts. They were allowed to marry Buddhist women, who would then usually convert to Islam. Tibetan Muslims are renowned for speaking a particularly refined form of the Lhasa dialect. A century ago, they were popular performers of a classical musical style known as nangma. There were also a number of Tibetan Muslim writers, the most famous being Faidullah. He was the author of “Khache Phalu: A Few Words of Advice from a Tibetan Muslim” a witty account of wisdom in the native context. Tibetan Muslims should not be confused ethnically with much larger Chinese Muslim groups such as the Hui and Salar, which have poured into Tibet in recent years.
* Complied from an article written by Massod Butt in the Tibetan Bulletin (1990s) and the author’s own research.

A Little More on Himalayan Climate Change
In the Dhauladhar range (Outer Himalaya) it has been an exceptionally dry winter. Springs that have never dried up before have run dry. Rivers in the Kangra valley are a mere trickle. Temperatures are unseasonably high. For a quarter of a century the winters have become drier and drier. I cannot unequivocally state that this is due to a major change in the earth’s climate, but the result is matter of grave concern nonetheless. Whether you are a farmer or not, it is hard to ignore a drought when it is staring you right in the face. Perhaps we will have abundant spring rains to partly offset the parched winter? There is no making up for the lost snow though.

From My Journals: A Trip to the Lahoul Spiti District of Himachal Pradesh, India
June 7, 1990
I packed and walked to the bus stand in time to get on the 5:30 AM bus for Kyelong. I was lucky to get a front seat. Up we went towards the Rohtang pass. The slopes below 4000 m have been ravaged by logging. In some areas there are only bleached trunks where once noble forests stood. Below the pass is a flat called Marhi. We stopped here for breakfast. A number of food stands cater to travelers and tourists. Rubber overbooks can be rented by Indian tourists who want to touch the snow, which still lies in patches. This is only the second day of bus service in Lahoul this year. From Marhi I rode on top of the bus for a bird’s eye view. The drive and conductor don’t mind so long as there aren’t any police hassles. The weather was fine today unlike in 1983 and 1984 when it poured down. I was also riding on top back then and became miserably cold and wet. An English attorney was also on the bus, and from the pass he was on top with me.

The north side and more continental slopes of Rohtang are still heavily covered in snow. There are 6 m high banks along the road in places. In Khoksar, the first village in Lahoul and a Bhotia speaking one, I was the 77th foreign person to register with the police chowki. Last year 4000 foreign tourists came through and approximately 3200 in 1988 [the great majority were in transit to Ladakh]. I estimate that eight years ago there were less than 1000. This year with Kashmir closed and Spiti possibly opening up, the numbers will increase further. From Khoksar, a number of little villages are passed enroute to the confluence of the Chandra and Baga rivers. These include Sissu (famous as the home of Gephang devata, the presiding deity of Lahoul) and Gondhla. In the villages people waved freely to the Englishman and I. Sparse forests of birch and kheel grow on the slopes of the Mid-Himalayan range. The flanks of the Great Himalayan range are quite barren however.

The Englishman and I alighted at the bridge near the confluence. The confluence is marked by a chorten. This is where Rishi Vaishist is supposed to have given up his mortal body. Tan-di in Hindu means ‘casting off the body’. We ate lunch at a Nepali run restaurant that serves both Tibetan and Indian style foods. Our plan was to travel to Udaipur. The Englishman would make it and I would not because of crowed conditions in the two buses that ply the road to Udaipur. I wanted to go there this year solely to visit a local weaver, but I was not prepared to squeeze into a packed bus. Anyhow, a six-hour roundtrip was more than I was prepared to undertake.

Until evening, I would sit in Tandi village resting and writing. A local youth who attends college in Chandigarh invited me to his house for bread, butter and tea. He lives in a warm old style house. I learned that the sloping metal roofs not only shed snow but protect the rafters from seepage that occurs during the spring rains. The glaring metal roofs will take some getting used to.

A couple local college students and I went over my review of Lahoul Spiti. They explained that 15 days before Phagli there is another festival called Halda. Halda is a festival where the entire village takes out a procession to the mountains carrying torches. The gods are worshipped at a certain site. Halda, they said, is like a tribal Diwali festival. The Phagli festival is when the domestic deities are worshipped. These are the gree devatas. Phagli lasts for eight days. There is much drinking, feasting and dancing at that time. Each household makes the rounds of the village wishing everyone well. Village bards recite folk narratives and sing during Phagli. A chorus of young people joins in on the story telling by repeating the bard’s verses. This is how the tradition was passed down orally. Both Halda and Phagli are celebrated during the late winter. The Gondhla fair in June and the Pori mela in August are other important celebrations in Lahoul, in addition to Hindu, Buddhist and national holidays. From what the students told me, the Dachang and harvest festivals are nearly extinct in the Pattan valley. The most famous cham dance has its venue at Sassur gonpa in Kyelong.

In the evening I moved across the Chandrabaga river to Goshal. Goshal is a staunch Congress I village, so there was quite a celebration this evening [the Congress I candidate had just won a seat in the H.P. legislative assembly, the Vidhan Sabha]. The singing, dancing and drinking carrying on until 10 PM. I was sitting down in the village square watching the tamasha when a man grabbed my hand and led me to his home. He said I was to be his guest. In a large sitting room I met the local luminaries including political leaders and prominent businessmen. Many families from Goshal also maintain households and orchards in the Kullu valley. Political gossip lubricated by generous helpings of local arak continued until a late dinner.

I learned from a man whose father was a member of the legislative assembly that the biggest landowners in Lahoul have 100 to 200 bigas [5 and 1/2 bigas = 1 acre], but on the average a family will own 10–15 bigas of agricultural land. Goshal is one of the largest villages in Lahoul with nearly 1000 inhabitants. It is built on a plain above the Chenab river, near the confluence of the Chandra and Baga. It is the head village of a local kothi of five or six villages. Goshal has produced many educated and successful people. The locals pride themselves with being one of the most progressive villages in the District. Most of the Goshalis are Thakurs. Downstream of Kirting there are a number of Brahmans called Swanglas locally. In pre-Independence days, upper Lahoul was controlled by the Kullu Raja and lower Lahoul by the Chamba Raja. I understand that this territorial split has left behind certain cultural legacies. I want to learn more about how this jurisdictional variance affected society and culture.

I’ve come to learn that although Tindi is in the Pattan valley, this particular village speaks an Indo-Aryan language. Pattan is mainly Hindu but many customs and the material culture bear the imprint of Tibetan Buddhism [and an earlier cultural system related to Zhang Zhung]. Buddhist holidays are nominally celebrated here although there aren’t any gonpas in the Pattan valley. I slept along with a few others in the caucus room.

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