Among the Tibetans, by Isabella L. Bird

Chapter IV

Manners and Customs

Joldan, the Tibetan British postmaster in Leh, is a Christian of spotless reputation. Every one places unlimited confidence in his integrity and truthfulness, and his religious sincerity has been attested by many sacrifices. He is a Ladaki, and the family property was at Stok, a few miles from Leh. He was baptized in Lahul at twenty-three, his father having been a Christian. He learned Urdu, and was for ten years mission schoolmaster in Kylang, but returned to Leh a few years ago as postmaster. His ‘ancestral dwelling’ at Stok was destroyed by order of the wazir, and his property confiscated, after many unsuccessful efforts had been made to win him back to Buddhism. Afterwards he was detained by the wazir, and compelled to serve as a sepoy, till Mr. Heyde went to the council and obtained his release. His house in Leh has been more than once burned by incendiaries. But he pursues a quiet, even course, brings up his family after the best Christian traditions, refuses Buddhist suitors for his daughters, unobtrusively but capably helps the Moravian missionaries, supports his family by steady industry, although of noble birth, and asks nothing of any one. His ‘good morning’ and ‘good night,’ as he daily passed my tent with clockwork regularity, were full of cheery friendliness; he gave much useful information about Tibetan customs, and his ready helpfulness greatly facilitated the difficult arrangements for my farther journey.

The Leh, which I had left so dull and quiet, was full of strangers, traffic, and noise. The neat little Moravian church was filled by a motley crowd each Sunday, in which the few Christians were distinguishable by their clean faces and clothes and their devout air; and the Medical Mission Hospital and Dispensary, which in winter have an average attendance of only a hundred patients a month, were daily thronged with natives of India and Kashmir, Baltis, Yarkandis, Dards, and Tibetans. In my visits with Dr. Marx I observed, what was confirmed by four months’ experience of the Tibetan villagers, that rheumatism, inflamed eyes and eyelids, and old age are the chief Tibetan maladies. Some of the Dards and Baltis were lepers, and the natives of India brought malarial fever, dysentery, and other serious diseases. The hospital, which is supported by the Indian Government, is most comfortable, a haven of rest for those who fall sick by the way. The hospital assistants are intelligent, thoroughly kind-hearted young Tibetans, who, by dint of careful drilling and an affectionate desire to please ‘the teacher with the medicine box,’ have become fairly trustworthy. They are not Christians.

In the neat dispensary at 9 a.m. a gong summons the patients to the operating room for a short religious service. Usually about fifty were present, and a number more, who had some curiosity about ‘the way,’ but did not care to be seen at Christian worship, hung about the doorways. Dr. Marx read a few verses from the Gospels, explaining them in a homely manner, and concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. Then the out-patients were carefully and gently treated, leprous limbs were bathed and anointed, the wards were visited at noon and again at sunset, and in the afternoons operations were performed with the most careful antiseptic precautions, which are supposed to be used for the purpose of keeping away evil spirits from the wounds! The Tibetans, in practice, are very simple in their applications of medical remedies. Rubbing with butter is their great panacea. They have a dread of small-pox, and instead of burning its victims they throw them into their rapid torrents. If an isolated case occur, the sufferer is carried to a mountain-top, where he is left to recover or die. If a small-pox epidemic is in the province, the people of the villages in which it has not yet appeared place thorns on their bridges and boundaries, to scare away the evil spirits which are supposed to carry the disease. In ordinary illnesses, if butter taken internally as well as rubbed into the skin does not cure the patient, the lamas are summoned to the rescue. They make a mitsap, a half life-size figure of the sick person, dress it in his or her clothes and ornaments, and place it in the courtyard, where they sit round it, reading passages from the sacred classics fitted for the occasion. After a time, all rise except the superior lama, who continues reading, and taking small drums in their left hands, they recite incantations, and dance wildly round the mitsap, believing, or at least leading the people to believe, that by this ceremony the malady, supposed to be the work of a demon, will be transferred to the image. Afterwards the clothes and ornaments are presented to them, and the figure is carried in procession out of the yard and village and is burned. If the patient becomes worse, the friends are apt to resort to the medical skill of the missionaries. If he dies they are blamed, and if he recovers the lamas take the credit.

At some little distance outside Leh are the cremation grounds — desert places, destitute of any other vegetation than the Caprifolia horrida. Each family has its furnace kept in good repair. The place is doleful, and a funeral scene on the only sunless day I experienced in Ladak was indescribably dismal. After death no one touches the corpse but the lamas, who assemble in numbers in the case of a rich man. The senior lama offers the first prayers, and lifts the lock which all Tibetans wear at the back of the head, in order to liberate the soul if it is still clinging to the body. At the same time he touches the region of the heart with a dagger. The people believe that a drop of blood on the head marks the spot where the soul has made its exit. Any good clothing in which the person has died is then removed. The blacksmith beats a drum, and the corpse, covered with a white sheet next the dress and a coloured one above, is carried out of the house to be worshipped by the relatives, who walk seven times round it. The women then retire to the house, and the chief lama recites liturgical passages from the formularies. Afterwards, the relatives retire, and the corpse is carried to the burning-ground by men who have the same tutelar deity as the deceased. The leading lama walks first, then come men with flags, followed by the blacksmith with the drum, and next the corpse, with another man beating a drum behind it. Meanwhile, the lamas are praying for the repose and quieting of the soul, which is hovering about, desiring to return. The attendant friends, each of whom has carried a piece of wood to the burning-ground, arrange the fuel with butter on the furnace, the corpse wrapped in the white sheet is put in, and fire is applied. The process of destruction in a rich man’s case takes about an hour. During the burning the lamas read in high, hoarse monotones, and the blacksmiths beat their drums. The lamas depart first, and the blacksmiths, after worshipping the ashes, shout, ‘Have nothing to do with us now,’ and run rapidly away. At dawn the following day, a man whose business it is searches among the ashes for the footprints of animals, and according to the footprints found, so it is believed will be the re-birth of the soul.

Some of the ashes are taken to the gonpos, where the lamas mix them with clay, put them into oval or circular moulds, and stamp them with the image of Buddha. These are preserved in chod-tens, and in the house of the nearest relative of the deceased; but in the case of ‘holy’ men, they are retained in the gonpos, where they can be purchased by the devout. After a cremation much chang is consumed by the friends, who make presents to the bereaved family. The value of each is carefully entered in a book, so that a precise return may be made when a similar occasion occurs. Until the fourth day after death it is believed to be impossible to quiet the soul. On that day a piece of paper is inscribed with prayers and requests to the soul to be quiet, and this is burned by the lamas with suitable ceremonies; and rites of a more or less elaborate kind are afterwards performed for the repose of the soul, accompanied with prayers that it may get ‘a good path’ for its re-birth, and food is placed in conspicuous places about the house, that it may understand that its relatives are willing to support it. The mourners for some time wear wretched clothes, and neither dress their hair nor wash their faces. Every year the lamas sell by auction the clothing and ornaments, which are their perquisites at funerals. 2

2 For these and other curious details concerning Tibetan customs I am indebted to the kindness and careful investigations of the late Rev. W. Redslob, of Leh, and the Rev. A. Heyde, of Kylang.

The Moravian missionaries have opened a school in Leh, and the wazir, finding that the Leh people are the worst educated in the country, ordered that one child at least in each family should be sent to it. This awakened grave suspicions, and the people hunted for reasons for it. ‘The boys are to be trained as porters, and made to carry burdens over the mountains,’ said some. ‘Nay,’ said others, ‘they are to be sent to England and made Christians of.’ [All foreigners, no matter what their nationality is, are supposed to be English.] Others again said, ‘They are to be kidnapped,’ and so the decree was ignored, till Mr. Redslob and Dr. Marx went among the parents and explained matters, and a large attendance was the result; for the Tibetans of the trade route have come to look upon the acquisition of ‘foreign learning’ as the stepping-stone to Government appointments at ten rupees per month. Attendance on religious instruction was left optional, but after a time sixty pupils were regularly present at the daily reading and explanation of the Gospels. Tibetan fathers teach their sons to write, to read the sacred classics, and to calculate with a frame of balls on wires. If farther instruction is thought desirable, the boys are sent to the lamas, and even to the schools at Lhassa. The Tibetans willingly receive and read translations of our Christian books, and some go so far as to think that their teachings are ‘stronger’ than those of their own, indicating their opinions by tearing pages out of the Gospels and rolling them up into pills, which are swallowed in the belief that they are an effective charm. Sorcery is largely used in the treatment of the sick. The books which instruct in the black art are known as ‘black books.’ Those which treat of medicine are termed ‘blue books.’ Medical knowledge is handed down from father to son. The doctors know the virtues of in any of the plants of the country, quantities of which they mix up together while reciting magical formulas.

I was heartily sorry to leave Leh, with its dazzling skies and abounding colour and movement, its stirring topics of talk, and the culture and exceeding kindness of the Moravian missionaries. Helpfulness was the rule. Gergan came over the Kharzong glacier on purpose to bring me a prayer-wheel; Lob-sang and Tse-ring-don-drub, the hospital assistants, made me a tent carpet of yak’s hair cloth, singing as they sewed; and Joldan helped to secure transport for the twenty-two days’ journey to Kylang. Leh has few of what Europeans regard as travelling necessaries. The brick tea which I purchased from a Lhassa trader was disgusting. I afterwards understood that blood is used in making up the blocks. The flour was gritty, and a leg of mutton turned out to be a limb of a goat of much experience. There were no straps, or leather to make them of, in the bazaar, and no buckles; and when the latter were provided by Mr. Redslob, the old man who came to sew them upon a warm rug which I had made for Gyalpo out of pieces of carpet and hair-cloth put them on wrongly three times, saying after each failure, ‘I’m very foolish. Foreign ways are so wonderful!’ At times the Tibetans say, ‘We’re as stupid as oxen,’ and I was inclined to think so, as I stood for two hours instructing the blacksmith about making shoes for Gyalpo, which kept turning out either too small for a mule or too big for a dray-horse.

I obtained two Lahul muleteers with four horses, quiet, obliging men, and two superb yaks, which were loaded with twelve days’ hay and barley for my horse. Provisions for the whole party for the same time had to be carried, for the route is over an uninhabited and arid desert. Not the least important part of my outfit was a letter from Mr. Redslob to the headman or chief of the Chang-pas or Champas, the nomadic tribes of Rupchu, to whose encampment I purposed to make a detour. These nomads had on two occasions borrowed money from the Moravian missionaries for the payment of the Kashmiri tribute, and had repaid it before it was due, showing much gratitude for the loans.

Dr. Marx accompanied me for the three first days. The few native Christians in Leh assembled in the gay garden plot of the lowly mission-house to shake hands and wish me a good journey, and not a few who were not Christians, some of them walking for the first hour beside our horses. The road from Leh descends to a rude wooden bridge over the Indus, a mighty stream even there, over blazing slopes of gravel dignified by colossal manis and chod-tens in long lines, built by the former kings of Ladak. On the other side of the river gravel slopes ascend towards red mountains 20,000 feet in height. Then comes a rocky spur crowned by the imposing castle of the Gyalpo, the son of the dethroned king of Ladak, surmounted by a forest of poles from which flutter yaks’ tails and long streamers inscribed with prayers. Others bear aloft the trident, the emblem of Siva. Carefully hewn zigzags, entered through a much-decorated and colossal chod-ten, lead to the castle. The village of Stok, the prettiest and most prosperous in Ladak, fills up the mouth of a gorge with its large farm-houses among poplar, apricot, and willow plantations, and irrigated terraces of barley; and is imposing as well as pretty, for the two roads by which it is approached are avenues of lofty chod-tens and broad manis, all in excellent repair. Knolls, and deeply coloured spurs of naked rock, most picturesquely crowded with chod-tens, rise above the greenery, breaking the purple gloom of the gorge which cuts deeply into the mountains, and supplies from its rushing glacier torrent the living waters which create this delightful oasis.

The gopa came forth to meet us, bearing apricots and cheeses as the Gyalpo’s greeting, and conducted us to the camping-ground, a sloping lawn in a willow-wood, with many a natural bower of the graceful Clematis orientalis. The tents were pitched, afternoon tea was on a table outside, a clear, swift stream made fitting music, the dissonance of the ceaseless beating of gongs and drums in the castle temple was softened by distance, the air was cool, a lemon light bathed the foreground, and to the north, across the Indus, the great mountains of the Leh range, with every cleft defined in purple or blue, lifted their vermilion peaks into a rosy sky. It was the poetry and luxury of travel.

At Leh I was obliged to dismiss the seis for prolonged misconduct and cruelty to Gyalpo, and Mando undertook to take care of him. The animal had always been held by two men while the seis groomed him with difficulty, but at Stok, when Mando rubbed him down, he quietly went on feeding and laid his lovely head on the lad’s shoulder with a soft cooing sound. From that moment Mando could do anything with him, and a singular attachment grew up between man and horse.

Towards sunset we were received by the Gyalpo. The castle loses nothing of its picturesqueness on a nearer view, and everything about it is trim and in good order, it is a substantial mass of stone building on a lofty rock, the irregularities of which have been taken most artistic advantage of in order to give picturesque irregularity to the edifice, which, while six storeys high in some places, is only three in others. As in the palace of Leh, the walls slope inwards from the base, where they are ten feet thick, and projecting balconies of brown wood and grey stone relieve their monotony. We were received at the entrance by a number of red lamas, who took us up five flights of rude stairs to the reception room, where we were introduced to the Gyalpo, who was in the midst of a crowd of monks, and, except that his hair was not shorn, and that he wore a silver brocade cap and large gold earrings and bracelets, was dressed in red like them. Throneless and childless, the Gyalpo has given himself up to religion. He has covered the castle roof with Buddhist emblems (not represented in the sketch). From a pole, forty feet long, on the terrace floats a broad streamer of equal length, completely covered with Aum mani padne hun, and he has surrounded himself with lamas, who conduct nearly ceaseless services in the sanctuary. The attainment of merit, as his creed leads him to understand it, is his one aim in life. He loves the seclusion of Stok, and rarely visits the palace in Leh, except at the time of the winter games, when the whole population assembles in cheery, orderly crowds, to witness races, polo and archery matches, and a species of hockey. He interests himself in the prosperity of Stok, plants poplars, willows, and fruit trees, and keeps the castle maims and chod-tens in admirable repair.

Stok Castle is as massive as any of our mediaeval buildings, but is far lighter and roomier. It is most interesting to see a style of architecture and civilisation which bears not a solitary trace of European influence, not even in Manchester cottons or Russian gimcracks. The Gyalpo’s room was only roofed for six feet within the walls, where it was supported by red pillars. Above, the deep blue Tibetan sky was flushing with the red of sunset, and from a noble window with a covered stone balcony there was an enchanting prospect of red ranges passing into translucent amethyst. The partial ceiling is painted in arabesques, and at one end of the room is an alcove, much enriched with bold wood carving.

The Gyalpo was seated on a carpet on the floor, a smooth-faced, rather stupid-looking man of twenty-eight. He placed us on a carpet beside him, and coffee, honey, and apricots were brought in, but the conversation flagged. He neither suggested anything nor took up Dr. Marx’s suggestions. Fortunately, we had brought our sketch-books, and the views of several places were recognised, and were found interesting. The lamas and servants, who had remained respectfully standing, sat down on the floor, and even the Gyalpo became animated. So our visit ended successfully.

There is a doorway from the reception room into the sanctuary, and after a time fully thirty lamas passed in and began service, but the Gyalpo only stood on his carpet. There is only a half light in this temple, which is further obscured by scores of smoked and dusty bannerets of gold and silver brocade hanging from the roof. In addition to the usual Buddhist emblems there are musical instruments, exquisitely inlaid, or enriched with niello work of gold and silver of great antiquity, and bows of singular strength, requiring two men to bend them, which are made of small pieces of horn cleverly joined. Lamas gabbled liturgies at railroad speed, beating drums and clashing cymbals as an accompaniment, while others blew occasional blasts on the colossal silver horns or trumpets, which probably resemble those with which Jericho was encompassed. The music, the discordant and high-pitched monotones, and the revolting odours of stale smoke of juniper chips, of rancid butter, and of unwashed woollen clothes which drifted through the doorway, were over-powering. Attempted fights among the horses woke me often during the night, and the sound of worship was always borne over the still air.

Dr. Marx left on the third day, after we had visited the monastery of Hemis, the richest in Ladak, holding large landed property and possessing much metallic wealth, including a chod-ten of silver and gold, thirty feet high, in one of its many halls, approached by gold-plated silver steps and incrusted with precious stones; there is also much fine work in brass and bronze. Hemis abounds in decorated buildings most picturesquely placed, it has three hundred lamas, and is regarded as ‘the sight’ of Ladak.

At Upschi, after a day’s march over blazing gravel, I left the rushing olive-green Indus, which I had followed from the bridge of Khalsi, where a turbulent torrent, the Upshi water, joins it, descending through a gorge so narrow that the track, which at all times is blasted on the face of the precipice, is occasionally scaffolded. A very extensive rock-slip had carried away the path and rendered several fords necessary, and before I reached it rumour was busy with the peril. It was true that the day before several mules had been carried away and drowned, that many loads had been sacrificed, and that one native traveller had lost his life. So I started my caravan at daybreak, to get the water at its lowest, and ascended the gorge, which is an absolutely verdureless rift in mountains of most brilliant and fantastic stratification. At the first ford Mando was carried down the river for a short distance. The second was deep and strong, and a caravan of valuable goods had been there for two days, afraid to risk the crossing. My Lahulis, who always showed a great lack of stamina, sat down, sobbing and beating their breasts. Their sole wealth, they said, was in their baggage animals, and the river was ‘wicked,’ and ‘a demon’ lived in it who paralysed the horses’ legs. Much experience of Orientals and of travel has taught me to surmount difficulties in my own way, so, beckoning to two men from the opposite side, who came over shakily with linked arms, I took the two strong ropes which I always carry on my saddle, and roped these men together and to Gyalpo’s halter with one, and lashed Mando and the guide together with the other, giving them the stout thongs behind the saddle to hold on to, and in this compact mass we stood the strong rush of the river safely, the paralysing chill of its icy waters being a far more obvious peril. All the baggage animals were brought over in the same way, and the Lahulis praised their gods.

At Gya, a wild hamlet, the last in Ladak proper, I met a working naturalist whom I had seen twice before, and ‘forgathered’ with him much of the way. Eleven days of solitary desert succeeded. The reader has probably understood that no part of the Indus, Shayok, and Nubra valleys, which make up most of the province of Ladak, is less than 9,500 feet in altitude, and that the remainder is composed of precipitous mountains with glaciers and snowfields, ranging from 18,000 to 25,000 feet, and that the villages are built mainly on alluvial soil where possibilities of irrigation exist. But Rupchu has peculiarities of its own.

Between Gya and Darcha, the first hamlet in Lahul, are three huge passes, the Toglang, 18,150 feet in altitude, the Lachalang, 17,500, and the Baralacha, 16,000 — all easy, except for the difficulties arising from the highly rarefied air. The mountains of the region, which are from 20,000 to 23,000 feet in altitude, are seldom precipitous or picturesque, except the huge red needles which guard the Lachalang Pass, but are rather ‘monstrous protuberances,’ with arid surfaces of disintegrated rock. Among these are remarkable plateaux, which are taken advantage of by caravans, and which have elevations of from 14,000 to 15,000 feet. There are few permanent rivers or streams, the lakes are salt, beside the springs, and on the plateaux there is scanty vegetation, chiefly aromatic herbs; but on the whole Rupchu is a desert of arid gravel. Its only inhabitants are 500 nomads, and on the ten marches of the trade route, the bridle paths, on which in some places labour has been spent, the tracks, not always very legible, made by the passage of caravans, and rude dykes, behind which travellers may shelter themselves from the wind, are the only traces of man. Herds of the kyang, the wild horse of some naturalists, and the wild ass of others, graceful and beautiful creatures, graze within gunshot of the track without alarm, I had thought Ladak windy, but Rupchu is the home of the winds, and the marches must be arranged for the quietest time of the day. Happily the gales blow with clockwork regularity, the day wind from the south and south-west rising punctually at 9 a.m. and attaining its maximum at 2.30, while the night wind from the north and north-east rises about 9 p.m. and ceases about 5 a.m. Perfect silence is rare. The highly rarefied air, rushing at great speed, when at its worst deprives the traveller of breath, skins his face and hands, and paralyses the baggage animals. In fact, neither man nor beast can face it. The horses ‘turn tail’ and crowd together, and the men build up the baggage into a wall and crouch in the lee of it. The heat of the solar rays is at the same time fearful. At Lachalang, at a height of over 15,000 feet, I noted a solar temperature of 152 degrees, only 35 degrees below the boiling point of water in the same region, which is about 187 degrees. To make up for this, the mercury falls below the freezing point every night of the year, even in August the difference of temperature in twelve hours often exceeding 120 degrees! The Rupchu nomads, however, delight in this climate of extremes, and regard Leh as a place only to be visited in winter, and Kulu and Kashmir as if they were the malarial swamps of the Congo!

We crossed the Toglang Pass, at a height of 18,150 feet, with less suffering from ladug than on either the Digar or Kharzong Passes. Indeed Gyalpo carried me over it stopping to take breath every few yards. It was then a long dreary march to the camping-ground of Tsala, where the Chang-pas spend the four summer months; the guides and baggage animals lost the way and did not appear until the next day, and in consequence the servants slept unsheltered in the snow. News travels as if by magic in desert places. Towards evening, while riding by a stream up a long and tedious valley, I saw a number of moving specks on the crest of a hill, and down came a surge of horsemen riding furiously. Just as they threatened to sweep Gyalpo away, they threw their horses on their haunches, in one moment were on the ground, which they touched with their foreheads, presented me with a plate of apricots, and the next vaulted into their saddles, and dashing up the valley were soon out of sight. In another half-hour there was a second wild rush of horsemen, the headman dismounted, threw himself on his face, kissed my hand, vaulted into the saddle, and then led a swirl of his tribesmen at a gallop in ever-narrowing circles round me till they subsided into the decorum of an escort. An elevated plateau with some vegetation on it, a row of forty tents, ‘black’ but not ‘comely,’ a bright rapid river, wild hills, long lines of white sheep converging towards the camp, yaks rampaging down the hillsides, men running to meet us, and women and children in the distance were singularly idealised in the golden glow of a cool, moist evening.

Two men took my bridle, and two more proceeded to put their hands on my stirrups; but Gyalpo kicked them to the right and left amidst shrieks of laughter, after which, with frantic gesticulations and yells of ‘Kabardar!’, I was led through the river in triumph and hauled off my horse. The tribesmen were much excited. Some dashed about, performing feats of horsemanship; others brought apricots and dough-balls made with apricot oil, or rushed to the tents, returning with rugs; some cleared the camping-ground of stones and raised a stone platform, and a flock of goats, exquisitely white from the daily swims across the river, were brought to be milked. Gradually and shrinkingly the women and children drew near; but Mr. —’s Bengali servant threatened them with a whip, when there was a general stampede, the women running like hares. I had trained my servants to treat the natives courteously, and addressed some rather strong language to the offender, and afterwards succeeded in enticing all the fugitives back by showing my sketches, which gave boundless pleasure and led to very numerous requests for portraits! The gopa, though he had the oblique Mongolian eyes, was a handsome young man, with a good nose and mouth. He was dressed like the others in a girdled chaga of coarse serge, but wore a red cap turned up over the ears with fine fur, a silver inkhorn, and a Yarkand knife in a chased silver sheath in his girdle, and canary-coloured leather shoes with turned-up points. The people prepared one of their own tents for me, and laying down a number of rugs of their own dyeing and weaving, assured me of an unbounded welcome as a friend of their ‘benefactor,’ Mr. Redslob, and then proposed that I should visit their tents accompanied by all the elders of the tribe.

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