This is the first in a multi-part series discussing sacred landscapes and religion in the Himalaya
I recently returned from a month of fieldwork and research in Humla, the northwestern district of Nepal bordering Tibet and India. I was there as part of a research initiative focused on the concept of sacred landscapes in the Himalaya, with special interest in the pilgrimage routes leading to Mount Kailash (Kang Rinpoche in Tibetan) and Lake Manasarovar. These two geographic features, located on the Tibetan Plateau northwest of Nepal, have served as the focal point for millions of religious pilgrims from a wide range of traditions for centuries. Both are considered sacred sites by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Bönpos, as well as many syncretic and animist traditions still thriving in the region.
Although I have been doing research on sacred landscapes for several years, this was my first time going to Nepal and walking some of these trans-Himalayan pilgrimage routes that have been used for generations by people within this region. Spending a month traversing this beautiful yet challenging landscape gave me a renewed appreciation for those religious devotees who commit to such an undertaking, as well as the people who have made this area their home. While I wasn’t traveling intentionally as a religious practice, I nonetheless felt a powerful sense of purpose and awe as we climbed mountains, descended valleys and explored the landscape.
One of the most poignant observations for me was how deeply embedded religious symbolism and meaning is within the landscape, far more than I have ever felt in my travels in northern India or southern China. Some of this influence is a function of the Tibetan Buddhist culture of Humla and the Limi Valley area we were in. But even the more Hindu-dominated areas closer to the district capital of Simikot still had a certain sacredness that was distinct. While some of this has to do with the distinct rural mountain folk culture of western Nepal, even in the heart of the Kathmandu Valley and the capital there was a sense of this pervasive religious influence unlike anywhere I have traveled before.
Let me offer two simple examples of what I mean by this embedded everyday religion.
Western Nepal is very rugged, especially around the Karnali River and upper Limi Valley where we traveled. Our trip took us from a low of about 3,000 meters (about 10,000 feet) in Simikot to a height of 4,500 meters (about 15,000 feet) crossing over Nara La pass near the border town of Hilsa. We would have gone over 5,000 meters but an early snowfall made Nyalu La impassable. Every time you are nearing the summit of a steep uphill climb there is inevitably a stone cairn or fluttering assemblage of prayer flags intermingled with white and yellow silk khata (Tibetan prayer scarf) waiting to greet you–a sign you have finally reached the top of your climb for that particular section of the mountain.
These structures both greet the passing traveler and serve a specific religious purpose, at least in the context of local Buddhist and Bön practices. A string of horizontal flags, known as Lung Ta (wind horse), are placed at or near the top of the mountains, allowing them to interact constantly with the mountain winds, which are common and often quite strong. This interplay of earth and sky (flag and wind) then carries the blessings or mantras written on the cloth flags into the surrounding landscape, thereby acting as both religious symbol and purification tool simultaneously. All the beings (human and nonhuman alike) living below these flags thus benefit from the flags’ power, even including travelers like us.
After the first several days of grueling up and down climbs, these stone and cloth assemblages became signs that lifted our weary spirits–not to mention our tired feet–as we made our way across the mountain landscape. But even more than that, they also became integrated into our everyday lives as we carried stones from the bottom of the valleys to the top of the mountain passes, adding our own small contribution to these religious constructions which watch over the landscape and its varied inhabitants. It felt almost as if the very land itself was urging us to take part in these grand rituals of purification and transformation the longer we spent time there.
The second example of this subtle but pervasive religious landscape came towards the end of our trip, after we had returned to Simikot. One of the last research projects our group was able to do was meet with a local dhami from the Khas ethnic community that is native to this part of Nepal. While I am still trying to understand the nuances of how dhami spiritual practices function in this area, in general dhamis act as spirit mediums or oracles, and on the surface are often seen as closer to the Hindu community. Although dhami are often referred to as “shamans” in popular writings, Himalayan religious scholars tend to distinguish the dhami from the jhākri, which may perform similar activities but are more often described as shamans. The dhami acts as an oracle who is possessed or “mounted” by their patron spirit or deity, and the dhami them acts as a spokesperson for the spirit. A jhākri may actively seek out and interact with numerous spirit beings in other spiritual plains, such as the sky realm or the underworld, but are generally not described as being possessed by the spirits, but rather going into shamanic trances and travel to interact or battle with spirits.
Our three-hour interview with the local dhami was extremely wide ranging and included a day-by-day narration of the religious pilgrimage schedule that the dhami makes when visiting Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar from Simikot, which included numerous specific geographic sites and their associated rituals performed along the way. From these and other details it was clear that dhamis still play a critical role in many Himalayan communities within Nepal, a role which goes beyond simply being spiritual oracles. The dhamis function as quasi-political figures, and from what I gathered listening to the description of community activities in our interview, his work consists of equal parts political negotiation, conflict resolution, community social guidance and personal spiritual advising. It would not be an understatement to say that dhami (and jhākri) continue to play a critical role in many Himalayan communities in Nepal.
While these experiences may not be surprising for those familiar with mountain communities and traditions in the Himalaya, for me this trip was a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being enveloped within a deeply sacred mountain landscape, but I’m convinced that once you have experienced it, you will never see the world in quite the same way. I’ll talk more about what I mean in future posts expanding on this recent trip to Nepal.
1. cf: Hitchcock, John and Tex Jones (eds). Spirit Possession in the Nepal Himalayas. (1976); Walter, Damian. “Among Spirits and Deities: Diverse Shamanisms in the Nepal Himalayas.” Cultural Survival Quarterly. 27.2. (2003).