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Of Mountains, Wishes and Hidden Places: Himalayan Tales from the Middle Land

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Orton Academy’s Head of Research Dr. Jane Orton gives her account of travelling through India’s high-altitude Himalayas in search of wish-granting entities and hidden lands. We also find out why she decided to give up her quest for fortune and fame, and chose to stay hidden.

Where in the World is Spiti?

“Buddhism was born in the plains,” locals told me during my first few days in the Indian Himalayas. “But all spirits speak Tibetan and most come from there.”

This set the tone for my journey to what is perhaps one of the most interesting religious, geographical and political junctions in the world. Known as the “Middle Land” between India and Tibet, Spiti is the home of the snow leopard, the blue sheep, and the ibex, and is an area of stunning natural beauty.

It is also home to a confluence of Tibetan Buddhism, indigenous manifestations of the Himalayan Bön religion and the Hinduism of migratory Gaddi shepherds. Spiti has one of the oldest monasteries in the world, at Tabo, and one of the highest, at Komic. As the Nono (the King) of Spiti told me, “Spiti is a point of cultural convergence. It is religiously linked to Tibet, but it is geographically and politically linked to India.”

Journey to the Middle Land

Perhaps one of the reasons I was first drawn to Spiti is its seclusion: this is not an easy place to access and getting there takes days. As a budding musician often overwhelmed by the intrusive nature of social media promotion, I was enchanted by the idea of escaping to a distant land.

The journey itself starts in Delhi, with birds circling high above the city; smells of dust, spice and fruit carried on the warm air; the noise of horns and traffic and people. From here, travellers to Spiti must take an overnight bus to Manali, trundling through the suburbs of India’s great capital, through Haryana and Punjab to Chandigarh.

Dawn will see you in Kullu, a lush, bountiful district on the banks of the Beas river that holds the Great Himalayan National Park. Later that day, you will arrive in Manali, where you must spend the night, before travelling by minivan on a day-long journey through the Rohtang Pass to Spiti.

It is at this point that the traveller realises how far they have come from the plains. The roads are difficult, even in the relative mildness of summer, and it is common for an avalanche to delay the passage by hours. You will see the mountains grow higher, the land grow more barren and the snow caps more frequent. At the next pass, you will reach Kunzum Mata temple, where colourful prayer flags blow in the wind against a stunning backdrop of Himalayan peaks. Beyond lies Spiti, a high-altitude desert, at 4,000 metres above sea-level.

It is easy to be intimidated by the starkness of these remote, windswept lands. The air is thin here, altitude sickness sets in and phone reception is sparse. You are in a land where village divinities vie for power and la (spirits) must be placated with animal horns left on chorten (monuments) as offerings. As Rudyard Kipling remarked of Spiti, “Surely the Gods live here...This is no place for men!”

But don’t let this fool you: Spiti is a place in which you can feel at home. The generosity and warmth of its residents will humble you. Among locals, hitchhiking is the prevalent means of transport, an acknowledgement that no one survives here without cooperation. Local wildlife is shy, but rewarding to those with the patience to seek it; and the mountains gradually open up their secrets to those who ask.

Himalayan Hidden Lands

I had spent years visiting the Himalayas to understand the unique religion, anthropology and folk music of the area, before travelling to Spiti at a time when my own music career was just beginning. In other Himalayan states, I had heard many tales of mythical sbas yul, or hidden lands. These are difficult to access, enchantingly beautiful and often contain magical entities. Spiti is no exception, and has plenty of biyul, as they are called in local dialect.

Some of these sacred spaces are said to be quite ordinary once accessed, although it is said that salt is never found there and can be used to trade with biyul residents. I was told that the hidden lands at Rangrik are harvested as they would be in our world and, according to some, the worldly village of Demul was previously a hidden biyul.

Often in the Himalayas, entry to a hidden land depends on your personal holiness or purity; certainly, in Spiti, these traits may help. At Tashigang, I was told that if you have sonam (goodness stored within you), you can hear the dogs barking from a hidden monastery in the parallel world. However, on one fieldwork expedition in 2015, I was to learn about an entirely different spiritual state.

Para Momo and Para Thonbo

In Kibber village, where phone reception was only possible by balancing your mobile device on a particular ledge of a certain window and angling it in a very specific direction, I spent some weeks learning about Spiti’s mythical places and how to get there. Over many days of visiting nearby villages, and many nights of listening to the winds howling over the mountains, I learned that vulnerability may be a part of the secret.

According to indigenous folklore, there are those of us who are para momo (people who have fear) and those who are para thonbo (people who do not have fear). Para momo people may be those who are very old, holy people such as monks, or those of us with a spiritual sensitivity. Para thonbo people have the power to resist evil spirits, even to protect their village and their loved ones. However, if you are para momo, you are more likely to see and enter biyul.

I reflected that I must be para momo, considering how much I used to tremble on the journey from Kibber to nearby Chicham. On my earlier fieldwork expeditions, this journey had involved crossing the (recently bridged) 300m-deep gorge via a terrifying ropeway-and-basket-pulley combination. Could my own fear be a way of accessing the Himalayas’ mythical places?

Balu Thukangbu

This leads me to another anthropological interest of mine: entities with the capacity to grant wishes, such as the crossroads demon who grants money and fame to hopeful musicians in the American deep south. As a performer myself, I was excited to learn that there was a wish-granting legend in the Himalayas who attaches no strings to the wishes, unlike the crossroad deal stories of the US in which you must sign over your soul.

Balu Thukangbu is one foot tall, wears a one foot tall hat and carries a one foot tall stick. He can grant wishes, but first you must overpower him and take his stick and his hat – and he has the strength of a bear. There are stories about Balu all over the Himalayas, but in Spiti, it is said that he comes from a place just above Gete village.

Here, they say that Balu is invisible, although if you are para momo, you stand a chance of seeing and catching him. In nearby Pin Valley, they say Balu comes from a biyul. Once again, spiritual fragility seemed to have value in connection to the otherworldly elements of Himalayan folklore. Encouraged, I began to seek out places he was said to frequent: the beautiful grasslands on the road from Kibber to Tashigang where the horses grazed, for example.

“He is not really real,” Tenzin, my friend and interpreter, used to joke when I insisted on stopping to look for Balu on our way to interview other villagers. Yet he good-naturedly stayed to explore the mountains with me in the gentle Himalayan sunshine.

On Staying Hidden

Would I ask Balu for money and fame if I caught him? According to legend, he has suffered a lot for his gifts. I was told that someone in Kibber caught him once and kept the hat and the stick under the kitchen sink, forcing Balu to do the housework (I heard the same story from another village on a separate expedition). In Ki, they say he used to play in the pond there but stopped going after some of the villagers wanted to catch him.

In the end, I gave up my search for Balu. Of course, I had dreamed of catching the little creature, submitting my request for rock and roll stardom and setting him free (I would never keep him prisoner in the hope of more wish-granting). But even this seemed unfair. His magical nature made him vulnerable; I was spiritually delicate. We para momo people should stick together.

Besides, my time in Spiti had made me question my own wish for fame and recognition. The appeal of Spiti’s hidden spaces was their seclusion, not their conspicuousness: I was drawn to the biyul not because of their fantastical nature, but because of their concealment. Equally, I realised, it is sometimes best for gods and men - and even would-be rock stars - to stay hidden.

Find Out More

To find out more about the anthropology and folklore of the Himalayas, take a look at our Anthropology courses on Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, Himalayan Folklore and Religion of the Himalayas. If you are interested in undertaking your own fieldwork, contact us to get started or take a look at our research page.

Finally, for those with a fascination with how to get into the world’s forbidden places, our Interdisciplinary course How to Get Into Almost Anywhere offers an exciting comparison study of the biyul of Spiti and the door policies of Berlin’s most notorious techno club. If you are still interested in finding a shortcut to rock stardom, our course on US Highways: History, Culture and Folklore lets you in on the secret of selling your soul for money and fame. Finally, our course on Culture and Conservation will give you insight into the links between wildlife and anthropology. 

These are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her!

Contact us to find out more!

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