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The Desert that Would Not Be Tamed

Updated: Jun 24

Dr. Orton investigates the Himalayan communities whose distinctive local beliefs outlived the Tibetan Empire.

The Forgotten Empire

The Tibetan Empire is not something we hear a lot about. Nowadays, we are more likely to hear of the Tibetan diaspora – the flight of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees after the incursion of the Chinese Communist Party into Tibet. Yet the Tibetan Empire spread over East, South and Central Asia, an area considerably larger than the Tibetan plateau, from c.600-c.850 B.C.E.

Official imperial policy embarked on a ‘civilising mission’ in which Buddhism was established as the official state religion in the latter half of the eighth century. Bonpos – followers of the Bön religion – were persecuted and the Zhang Zhung kingdom was assimilated into the Tibetan Empire.

It is tempting to characterize this period as one of obliteration of indigenous religion by the imperial-Buddhist elite, as culturally disparate peoples were assimilated into a pan-Tibetan religion. However, this would be an oversight; just as it would be an oversight to mischaracterize the Himalayas today as a monoculture, dominated by Tibetan Buddhism and homogeneous in its religion, culture and thought.

Important insights have been provided in the literature regarding the Tibetan Empire, Tibetan Buddhism and the cultural themes that unify the area, but this kind of ‘top-down’ research is only half the story. Research into the vernacular looks at the views of ‘ordinary people’ in a localized setting, often concerning ‘folklore’ as opposed to established religion. Anthropologist Charles Brigs pointed out that we often define the vernacular in opposition to something else - local versus the global, for example. The reality is much more complex.

In truth, both of these lines of research can be synthesized in order to understand contemporary communities in what is commonly called the Tibetan cultural area. As much as communities across the Himalayas might celebrate the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, and though the monasteries hold considerable influence over village life, it is also true that some aspects of local religion and culture were not wholly subjugated, but rather survived alongside the new religion and integration into the Tibetan Empire.

The Gods and the Emperor

Tibetan king Songsten Gampo (Srong-bstan Sgam-po, c.569–649/50) is credited not only with the creation of the Tibetan script but also the extension of the the unification of what had previously been several Tibetan kingdoms and the foundation of the Tibetan Empire. Thus began the imperial project of ‘taming’ Tibet.

Certainly, this involved the subjugation of other religions. Srong-bstan Sgam-po is seen not only as a great ruler, but also as a dharmarāja and Buddhism was an important tool in the ‘taming’ of Tibet. Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche) the Buddhist mystic credited with the introduction of Tantric Buddhism into Tibet, was said to have converted local gods and spirits into protectors of the dharma.

However, the spread of Buddhism throughout Tibet and the Himalayas did not eradicate all traces of the pre-existing religions. Writing of the Nepali village of Te, anthropologist Charles Ramble notes that local people claim that their local deities were never effectively tamed.

The Desert that Would Not Be Tamed

In the cold mountain desert of Spiti in the Northwest Himalayas, no Bonpo carvings have been either defaced or wiped out historically by Buddhists, despite the presence of Buddhism the late tenth century onwards. One way of looking at this is to say that Bön was completely assimilated into Buddhism, which is why the carvings remain – another is to say that local religion was not wholly subjugated, but rather survived alongside the new religion. Certainly, in Spiti, local lhas (spirits, predating even the Bön religion) endure in the vernacular.

This illustrates the importance of a dynamic approach to research in the area, appreciating the organic nature of Himalayan communities and the interaction between the local, the global and the many layers in between. Tibetan Buddhism has a huge presence, but this should not blind us to the many other facets of cultural life in the region.

An examination of the decision-making process in the Spiti region will illustrate the point. Known as the “Middle Land” between India and Tibet, Spiti itself is a cultural centre for Tibetan Buddhists. The area is also frequented by the migratory Gaddi, Hindu herders and is rich in local narratives and cultures. At the same time, monks are deeply involved with non-religious aspects of community life.

In their response to the coronavirus pandemic, Spiti’s religious institutions were – though crucial – only one part of the decision-making process. Tabo, one of the oldest monasteries in the world, at Tabo, and Komic, one of the highest, were among the institutions involved in the region’s pandemic response, which you can read about here. Traditional institutions include the numbardar (from one of the powerful families of the village who calls meetings and sets the agenda), mahila mandals (women’s alliances) the devta (oracle), youth groups and more formal institutions such as the Tribal Advisory Council and the Panchayat Samiti (rural local government).

This is just one example of how Spiti’s dynamic political ecosystem informs community life and practice. Such a diverse mix of groups and institutions have worked together in conservation and management of natural resources, along with other issues affecting the area. I mention all this to illustrate that, although common pan-Himalayan characteristics are abundant in Spiti, decision-making is often multi-lateral, decentralised and community-based.

Vernacular narratives in Spiti exist within this evolving context of interconnectivity, tradition and change. These narratives do not have a single origin, but can be found in kyakshung (short stories one might tell over tea), namthar (long religious stories), etiological narratives, lakshung (modifications of Indian fairy tales), saint’s legends, proverbs, local lore and gyalshung (stories, told by song in winter, for bedtime entertainment).

Concepts from Tibetan Buddhism sit alongside local gods, stories of whom transfigure from one village to the next. Spitian additions are made to traditional Indian fairytales and non-endemic animals are adopted into home-grown iconography. On a community level, there are so many layers to communication, discussion and decision making that we should not expect narratives themselves to be one-dimensional. Perspectives from Tibetan Buddhism, local folklore and more recent discussion prompted by the arrival of tourism and NGOs all contribute to this region’s fascinating cultural profile.

The Resilience of the Vernacular

Communities are constantly in dialogue with their own narratives, adapting and revising these to meet their current needs and situation. Premodern Tibetans may see things very differently from Tibetan Buddhists living in modern-day India, for example, and there may be stark differences between vernacular and canonical representations. In addition, many Tibetans are not Buddhists, but rather practice the indigenous Bön religion or elements of it, and many Tibetan Buddhists do not and have never lived in Tibet.

The Tibetan cultural area is a vast one, extending beyond the boundaries of Tibet and covering areas with very different histories and influences. It is the resilience of vernacular traditions and beliefs that makes the area so fascinating: an organic, heterogeneous and evolving cultural landscape.

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. For those wishing to undertake fieldwork, contact us to get started or take a look at our Introduction to Anthropology and Culture and Conservation courses, both of which have fieldwork options.

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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