John Vincent Bellezza
Kathmandu, the hub of the Himalaya
It has been a busy last month. Since authoring my first issue of Flight of the Khyung in Nepal, I have been to two other countries. As always, my time in the Kathmandu valley was very fruitful. I can do so much within walking distance of my accommodation. The work shop of Rajan Dulal, the man who expertly makes and repairs much of my expeditionary equipment is just down the road. My tailor, print shop, book seller, and food suppliers are all nearby as well. This level of convenience, as well as the spirit of service that is embodied in Nepal, is rarely matched elsewhere.
At least all the big political players in Nepal are speaking to one another and there has been a halt to most hostilities. Much hope is being pinned on the ongoing dialogue between the King, political parties and Maoists. Virtually every Nepali citizen wants to see an end to the civil strife and looks forward to better economic and social times ahead. The transition to new forms of governance however, won’t be easy. The reigning political structures have been deeply engrained in the country for 250 years, and the sense of entitlement they have spawned is not quick to change. But if Nepal is to function as a modern nation deep abiding change must come to the body politic. This is liable to be a long and involved process with many twists and turns along the way. A better, more prosperous Nepal is certainly the goal of all sides in the political game, and the aspiration of the Nepali people for a better deal is everywhere loud and clear to hear. I am guardedly optimistic that the country will find the way forward. May it be so. Jai Nepal!
My Himalayan hermitage
I flew from Kathmandu to New Delhi early in August and then made the long bus ride north to my hermitage in the Indian Himalaya. How good it is to be in my own environment, in a tranquil and familiar place where I can work undisturbed. While people dwelling in the West may take peace and quiet for granted, these are precious conditions in Asia that one must strive hard to realize. Scholarly work demands long periods of intense concentration and time to reflect and conceive with no disturbances or interruptions. As I compose this newsletter, I am pleased to say that the only sounds coming from outside are the cries of the birds. The view from my windows is also conducive: I look out on the edge of a large chil pine forest. My study is a relatively large and airy room ideal for long periods of sitting. When I am on the road I must fit my office into one bag, but at my home base I have the luxury of all my reference materials at my fingertips. The rise of the internet as an important reference facility adds to this sense of scholarly self reliance.
From my hermitage, it is about a 5 km mountain walk to the main bazaar. This allows me to integrate a good measure of exercise into my daily routine. After whole-heartedly working for eight or more hours a day, there is nothing like a vigorous hike to clear the head and restore the body’s equilibrium. On some days, I head up into the deodhar forests. Intellectual activity alone would prove deleterious in the long run. As ‘naked apes’ we are biologically designed to move and move, not remain stationary as some other members of the animal kingdom do (clams!). Another positive thing about the environment in which I live is the air excellent quality. In some seasons there are also high quality locally grown vegetables for sale in the bazaars. The variety of greens in the winter and spring is especially good with delicate young spinach, fenugreek and a type of Swiss chard being quite cheap and plentiful. Now in the monsoon however, due to the excessive rains, vegetables are expensive and of middling quality at best. It must be remembered that the summer season on the Indian Subcontinent is from March to June, a good time for many kinds of produce.
It is not my intention to over romanticize living in the Himalaya. There are to be sure many practical problems regarding transport, commerce and communications. Poverty stubbornly remains a ubiquitous problem with around half the population for want of enough food and other basic necessities. The economic situation in the mountains is generally much better than in the Plains but still one does not have to go far to see human deprivation. With hundreds of millions on the Subcontinent living in poverty, there are no easy solutions. Monumental action on manifold social and economic fronts is demanded and this requires levels of commitment and resource allocation bordering on the Herculean. The situation however, is gradually improving in India and this is something to be sanguine about. As in the so called ‘First World’, the key is to insure that the gap between the rich and poor does not continue to widen…one would not want to open up Pandora’s Box!
International Association of Tibetan Studies conference XI
Between August 27 and September 3, the International Association of Tibetan Studies held its triennial conference in Bon Germany. I had the privilege of attending thanks to a travel grant from the Lumbini International Research Institute (involved in cutting edge Buddhist research). I delivered a paper on the utterances of the shamans (lhapa, pabo, etc.) of Upper Tibet, which seems to have been well received. Whilst under the possession of the deities, the shamans proclaim the origins and lineages of the gods and issue prophecies, the likes of which are not found in any other Tibetan oral and literary source. I will follow up this paper with a series of others, covering each verbal aspect of the trance ceremony. In this first study I examine the fumigation rituals (sang) of two elderly shamans, where they call upon a whole host of local divinities of the mountains and lakes for protection and assistance. In the fumigation rituals, these native figures exist in tandem with Buddhist gods, revealing the syncretistic nature of Tibetan religion.
In Bonn, I also spoke at the Bon panel about the localization of the capital of the Zhang Zhung kingdom, Khyunglung Ngulkhar (Horned Eagle Valley Silver Castle). As I have shown, using geographic, archaeological and textual data, the best candidate for this legendary stronghold is Khardong, a site in southwestern Tibet. Located near the Bon monastery of Guru Gyam, Khardong was first identified as Khyunglung Ngulkhar in the 1930s by Khyungtrul Rinpoche, a lama involved with resuscitating Bon traditions in western Tibet and Kinnaur. Khardong is situated at a geographic crossroads of considerable strategic value: it stands over the geographic juncture between the badlands of Guge and the wide open valleys of the southwest corner of Tibet (location of the famous holy mountain and lake, Tise and Mapang Yumtsho). Recently, it was brought to my attention that a certain German adventurer claims to have discovered Khyunglung Ngulkhar at Khardong, in 2002. It was with some amusement I looked at his new book, knowing that I have been regularly visiting this site and the environs since 1986.
There were a lot of excellent lectures given at the Tibet studies conference in Bonn. Scholars from India, China, Russia, and many western countries were all in attendance. Now with around 400 attendees, five or six talks are held concurrently each day. One must make hard decisions about what to attend at any given time. Each presenter has only 20 minutes to speak, hardly enough time for anything more than an outline of his or her subject. There are also ten minutes allotted for questions and this is where the proceedings can get lively. While an atmosphere of real cooperation and camaraderie marks the conference, there are stark differences in opinion that cannot be papered over by politically correct behavior. Fortunately, most of these rivalries do not appear to be of a personal nature but it is sometimes hard to draw the line when an individual’s life’s work comes in for criticism. Differences of opinion were very much in evidence at a round table discussion convened by anthropologists among the Tibetan scholars. There was little consensus on what theoretical avenues should be pursued or on how methodological links with other Tibetologists should be fostered. As with Tibetology in general, the anthropologists are looking for ways to emerge from the shadows cast by larger and more developed social science fields (Indology for example).
A film shown in both English and Tibetan on Gedun Choephel was especially poignant. This brilliant Tibetan patriot met an untimely and tragic end at the hands of his own government. Those who had a stake in the status quo found his talk of modernization threatening and they made sure to silence him. This occurred just before modernization, secularization and social and economic reordering was instituted in Tibet, like it or not, by the Chinese Communists.