It is a chilly autumn afternoon in a herding camp above Langtang, a Tibetan community which lies at 11,500 ft. in Rasua District north of Kathmandu. Yak, Tibetan cattle and chauri (yak-cow crossbreeds) graze while Tibetan herdsmen busy themselves with evening-chores. Two lowland Nepalis, who work for a mountaineering expedition camped nearby, come over to buy some sheep. Pasang, a Langtang Tibetan (“Bhotiya”), bargains with them and a ram is sold for NRs500. The two lowlanders grab the sheep by the horns and drag it back to their camp, where it will be slaughtered for the mountaineers’ evening meal.
Back in the herding camp, many Langtang Tibetan men are furious. One man, Lakpa Tenzing, tells me why. “We, everyone in Langtang, are Buddhists. And yet year after year, some Tibetans sells sheep to be slaughtered in the shadow of our sacred mountains. As a result the gods are angry and curse us. This is why so many of our children die, why there is so much disease in the village and why the crops fail.”
Langtang Tibetans, one of the poorer ethnic groups in central Nepal, have little arable land and can grow only one crop of barley, potatoes and buckwheat a year. These crops are not enough to meet the basic requirements of the Langtang Tibetan community. To make up the deficit, they trade wool, spices and herbs and sell livestock and dairy products, and work as porters and guides for mountaineering expeditions. Despite these other sources, many Langtang families do not have adequate food or clothing.
Most Langtang Tibetans claim to respect traditional Buddhist values, such as that forbidding the taking of life. However, abject poverty forces some of them to sell livestock for slaughter. Langtang Tibetans believe that if they forbade the slaughter of livestock they would alienate mountaineering expeditions which pump much-needed cash in to the local economy. However, almost all Langtang Tibetans (including those who sell the livestock) also believe that by allowing animal slaughter they are cursed by the gods whose support is necessary to get rid of the disease, poverty, child mortality and crop failure.
A perceived lack of divine support has caused widespread apathy in the Langtang community. Many Langtang Tibetans believe that unless they regain divine support by protecting sacred values and providing support to religious institutions such as gumbas, development projects in their community have little chance of success.
Compare the situation in Langtang with that in the Khumbu heartland of the Sherpas. It is Saturday, the weekly market day. Dozens of hill Nepalis have their goods displayed: cooking oil, biscuits, rice, flour, sugar, blankets, clothes and jewelry. Four men sell meat from large bamboo baskets. “Why are no live animals being sold?” I ask one of the meat sellers. “Don’t you know the Sherpas have a rule forbidding the slaughter of animals in the Khumbu? This meat is from animals that were slaughtered below Namche yesterday.”
Later, I ask a Sherpa about the Khumbu’s rule forbidding slaughter of livestock. “How could we call ourselves Buddhists and still allow the blood of animals to stain our sacred lands? Expeditions often offer to buy our goats, sheep and chickens for food. But if we allowed the slaughter, our monks and our gods would no longer protect us,” he said.
The purchase and slaughter of sheep in Langtang, and the rule against the slaughter of livestock in the Khumbu, reflect important differences in the culture and socioeconomic life of Khumbu Sherpas and Langtang Tibetans. These differences have important implications for approaching development in the Himalaya.
Khumbu Sherpas are a wealthy ethnic group who have maintained their dominance by being active in the mountaineering and trekking trade. The community’s wealth has given it much political clout in dealings with outsiders. The rule for-bidding slaughter of livestock is just one example of this. While Langtang Tibetans fear economic repercussions from such measures, the Sherpas are able to force outsiders to abide by local rules.
Their economic and political clout has given the Sherpas more cultural autonomy than that possessed by Langtang Tibetans. The Sherpas are confident in their knowledge that the sacred landscape is secure and protected, and that they have the divine support so necessary to sustain their existence in the Khumbu. Faith in divine support has also given the Sherpas the confidence and motivation necessary to develop their communities.
There are important lessons to be learned from the experience of the two communities. First, that development, as an ideal in any Himalayan community, cannot be arbitrarily imposed by outside observers. Rather, the goals and meaning of development can only be understood from community members’ point of view. Development, in their view, is not simply the access to health care, food, clothing and education.
Khumbu Sherpas and Langtang Tibetans will only consider their communities developed when they have the political and economic resources necessary to support their religious in-stitutions and protect sacred values. They also believe that the maintenance of religious institutions and protection of sacred values is essential to maintain the divine support on which their lives depend. When these are missing, both communities have little faith in the potential success of any development project.
Cox, an American anthropologist, has studied Langtang Tibetans.