“As a general rule of biology, migratory species are less ‘aggressive’ than sedentary ones.
There is one obvious reason why this should be so. The migration itself, like the pilgrimage, is the hard journey: a ‘leveller’ on which the ‘fit’ survive and stragglers fall by the wayside.
The journey thus pre-empts the need for hierarchies and shows of dominance. The ‘dictators’ of the animal kingdom are those who live in an ambience of plenty. The anarchists, as always, are the ‘gentlemen of the road’.”
― The Songlines
Nomads, as a rule, don’t want to settle. Many of us force ourselves to settle or do so as a result of societal pressure. There is nothing else that is more important, is there, than ‘settling down’? But maybe it is in our nature to move on, to migrate, to move in cycles instead of one very flat, linear path from birth to death. I love moving. I am a fretful midge, so I get very restless when I can’t move on, and wonderful though rearing a child can be, it is not easy to be the mother of a child who claims to hate traveling to the countries I love, like India. He may one day, change. He himself is half Tibetan, so the DNA might kick in.
My Son with his Dad, a lay lama of the Nyingmapa tradition.
It already had during our times in India and Nepal, but it’s been eclipsed by pre-teen reactions to what it means to come from a world like that- although really, he very much comes from this world. Yet, he IS both. When we lived in Kathmandu, he was just 18 months old when we arrived, and his language abilities catapulted forward- he had a Sherpa nanny, and then a Tibetan one. He would run into temples, bang the drums and blow the horns. In one temple, the Dujom Monastery, which we visited frequently, our Lama friend was giving us a gift of a Ter Bum, a votive vase filled with precious things, made ritualistically.
My son in Dujom Gompa, with one of the Lamas, Banging the Drum.
It is usually installed in one’s home, to increase prosperity. This lama had been taught by the great Chatral Rinpoche to make these Ter Bum (Treasure Vase).
Tibetan Ter Bum or Treasure Vase
When my son saw the cupboard full of Ter Bum, he shouted “BUM-PA”, which basically means the same thing. Vase. Nobody had prompted him. The Lama looked at me, and I looked at the Lama. “How does he know that word?” he asked. I shrugged. I did not know how my 19 month old toddler knew that word.
Chatral Rinpoche, the great Dzogchen yogi
I’d had strong dreams about Chatral Rinpoche when I was pregnant with my son. Some thought it might mean what Tibetan families get most excited about: that their child is a reincarnated lama, known as a Tulku. Indeed, Chatral Rinpoche was very old even at this time, and we thought that he might pass away. But he didn’t. He lived until 2016, I think. So it seems my son is just an ordinary lad, and it’s a relief! For the first two years, we expected the ones in burgundy robes to knock on our door, and take him to a monastery school at four years old! And his Dad was very keen for him to attend a monastery school.
So, long before my son was born, I worked for the Tibetan Government in the Choglamsar Refugee camp outside Leh, Ladakh in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, I saw how traumatic it is for nomads to settle first hand. I was typing up statistics regarding the refugees who had attempted to cultivate land, having lived as nomads up to the time they left Tibet. There were cases of mental illness, depression being the most endemic form of it. Take Amnye, whom I based my ‘Amnye and the Yeti ‘ story on, in the previous blog- he spent his days with his cats in his lap in a dark room, spinning his prayer wheel, dreaming of a Tibet he would never see again.
Amnye is the one who is looking down. It is his wife, Momo, beside him smiling and all his grandchildren around him. He was a very special man, the subject of my previous blog ‘Amnye and the Yeti’
Since I was typing up statistics for the Tibetan Government CRO office about the failure of success of Tibetan nomads in exile to settle as land tilling folk, I decided I must go and see nomads who were living like that. Real ones who lived in Chang Thang, a vast plain that stretches into Tibet, but is now divided by the border.
I travelled with Amnye’s grandson, Gyalphur, in the tool box of an Indian National Goods Carrier ( a massive, painted truck!).
The engine fan looked like the teeth of a roaring lion, the edges of it catching the moon in the smooth curves. We climbed into the toolbox. Other ‘settled’ nomads came out of the dark alleyways of Choglamsar refugee camp, and clambered up to join us. One was Urgyen Tsering, a Changpa, an original nomad of the Chang Thang plains. He wore a brown chuba (Tibetan coat) and a thick set of Prayer beads around his neck. He sat huddled in the corner of the toolbox with a blanket, he clutched his pink ghetto blaster. I WISH I had a picture. I did sketches in the toolbox, but I fear they are lost in time. There was Jamyang, a cross-eyed Tibetan nomad and Tsewang who wore a red basketball cap and a checkered shirt. A young girl nestled in beside us, her head covered in a green scarf, her arms resting on the prow of the toolbox, like the figurehead on a ship.
We waited four long hours for the army convoy to pass- there was a war going on, down the valley, in Kashmir on the Siachen Glacier.
The Kargil War, a sad reality just a few hundred KMs from the peaceful plains of Chang Thang. The Indians got victory .
But war was the last thing on these nomads’ minds. We were going entirely in the opposite direction, towards the Tibetan border.
Nomads do not speak when they set out on a journey until the first rest when tea is made. If you speak without tea in you, a fight might break out. We could take a leaf out of that book.
The problems was, in Chang Thang, the Ladakhi nomads were getting resentful of the exiled Tibetan nomads. They blamed them for the recent outbreak of disease that afflicted the sheep and goats, the ra-luk. Jamyang was fearful that many of the nomads would have to settle in Choglamsar.
Over the Tagalong pass we saw the last of the army convoy snaking past. They left craters in the raid, into which our truck lunged, hurling across the steel floor of the toolbox like a helpless crate of chickens.
Taglangla Pass, Ladakh
Taglang la Pass, Ladakh
Then we saw the first green patches of the Chang Thang yarsa spread out over the horizon, under orange colored hills…”Tibet! It’s my Tibet!” shouted Tsewang, as we drove down the wide flat road to Samed camp, where you could see the dead animals littered around the river. We saw a nomad skinning a dead goat, covering him in dust, dumping the raw carcus in the stream. Things were not going well in Chang Thang…
This is to be continued in my next blog, very soon. If you want to read a more detailed version of the whole journey, you can pick up Lost in Shambhala
on Amazon Kindle! Originally published by Pilgrims Books