Mountain Spirits and the Shaking Earth

Posted by on Oct 20, 2015

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Ghilling interview. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung.

Ghilling interview. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung.

After the devastating earthquakes in Nepal earlier this year, Sienna Craig began to conduct field research in Mustang to understand how communities in the area perceived and dealt with the earthquake. Craig is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. She is the co-editor of HIMALAYA, the flagship journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, and the co-founder of DROKPA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to partnering with pastoral communities in the greater Himalayan region to implement grassroots development and promote social entrepreneurship. She agreed to write a post for GlacierHub about her work.

Yangjin and I were talking about causality when the topic of glaciers came up. She was describing the interviews she and her fellow community researchers from Mustang, Nepal, had completed this summer as part of an NSF RAPID award called “Narrating Disaster: Calibrating Causality and Response to the 2015 Earthquakes in Nepal.” Yangjin moved her hands and shoulders, narrating, through the words of others, how this living earth, jigten, balances on the back of a mythical animal. Sometimes it is an elephant, other times a white ox, fish, tortoise, or pig. “When the animal shakes its tail, there is a small earthquake. This time people felt the whole body shaking.”

Demolishing house in Ghiling. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung

Demolishing house in Ghiling. Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung

This causal explanation of Nepal’s devastating earthquakes will likely prove to be a common response in our research, particularly among the elderly. Other recurring explanations include discussions of the four elements – fire, water, air, and earth – which at once comprise and course through our planet. When these elements are out of balance or in need of release, events such as earthquakes, floods, or volcanic eruptions occur, locals explained. These views resonate with Tibetan Buddhist cosmological understandings as well as those derived from the region’s medical and astrological traditions. Even so, we are finding that such concepts are often voiced in dialogue with what our interlocutors recognize as “science,” including descriptions of tectonic plates shifting and colloquial expressions that correspond with geological and geophysical concepts.

“Many people also spoke about the cultural and religious reasons for the earthquakes,” Yangjin continued. These reasons might be thought of as the lived effects of the anthropocene in culturally Himalayan terms.

Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung

Photo credit: Ngawang Tsering Gurung

“Some people said these days people are more greedy or focused on individual concerns. Others are poor or ignorant of religion so they use nature’s resources without making proper ritual.” In this ‘dark era’ (kali yug), Yangjin said, reflecting the views of others, we are not using the earth carefully. She went on to describe how people mentioned that specific deities of place (lü, tsen, sabdak, etc.) were displeased with the ways people have forgotten to honor them. At times this reflected a shift in Mustang away from subsistence agriculture toward planting cash crops. “One person in [the village of] Samar said that since so many people are now just planting apples, and nothing else, the lü [serpent spirits] are not happy.” In such terms, the earthquakes are being interpreted as painful reminders to pay attention – wakeup calls that have, in some instances, sparked new waves of religious action among young and old alike.

“The earthquakes have also made people very scared of floods,” Yangjin went on. “Especially in some areas where there are glaciers.” Yangjin is from the Village Development Committee of Tshoshar, a region that suffered massive destruction in the wake of a glacial lake outburst flood about thirty years ago, right around the time Yangjin was born. The results of this flood still define great swaths of Tshoshar’s landscape: river stones the size of ostrich eggs and massive boulders stretch across the river valley, lending it a lunar feel. I had known about this flood but had not realized that a relatively mild earthquake may have triggered it. Such connections are now being made – memories form and re-form as people reflect on the past as a way of dealing with the present and auguring uncertain futures.

Yangjin then explained that a youth group from Kimaling, one of Tshonup’s hamlets, had organized an expedition up to Gyakar Tsho, a glacial lake tucked into the folds of Mustang’s trans-Himalayan ridges. “Youth from all of the nine wards [in Tshonup VDC] went up to the glacier to look at it, but also to take care of it.”

Glaciated peak. Photo credit: Kimaling Youth Club

Glaciated peak. Photo credit: Kimaling Youth Club

“What do you mean ‘take care of it’?” I asked.

“They collected all sorts of chinlab [objects ritually imbued with efficacy] that had come from many holy places or from important lamas. They went up and put it on the glacier to keep it happy, to keep it in place.” Later that day I watched video footage of this event: young men moving across moraine, laughing and narrating their adventure. The footage did not show them making chinlab offerings, but several other interviews confirmed they had indeed made such propitiations.

“Sakya Trizin Rinpoche said that people didn’t have to make such offerings to the glacier,” Yangjin went on, “but local people felt it was important. So they did it anyway.” I found this admission fascinating. At a moment when religious affiliation across the high Himalaya seems to be consolidating around more orthodox manifestations of Tibetan Buddhism such as that embodied by the leader of the Sakya school, experiences of deeply grounded environmental precarity reinforce the importance of place-based knowledge and sacred geography. This glacier – at once a source of much needed irrigation water and a specter of ruin – needs to be coaxed into staying put by those for whom its presence matters most.

The research reflected in this post would not have been possible without Ngawang Tsering Gurung, Yangjin Bista, Tsewang Gyurme Gurung and Karma Chodon Gurung. 

The NSF RAPID Award 1547377 (2015-2017) was granted to PI Kristine Hildebrandt (Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville), Co-PIs Geoff Childs (Washington University – St. Louis), Sienna Craig (Dartmouth College), and Mark Donohue (Australia National University).  This project combines ethnographic and linguistic field methods to study the lived experiences of the 2015 earthquakes in three contiguous but differently impacted districts: Mustang, Manang, and Gorkha. 

 

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