The Thakalis, Bon dKar and Lamaist Monasteries along the Kali Gandaki
Ratan Kumar Rai
Book Faith India,
1994, NRs 950
ISBN 81 7303 021 9
The Kali Gandaki Valley, for long one of Nepal´s principal trade links with Tibet, has in recent times become the country´s most popular trekking route. As travellers ascend from the gorges below Ghasa and enter the more rarefied air of the Thak Khola, they encounter the first signs of Tibetan cultural influence: temples, monas¬teries, stupas and gateways painted with Buddhist motifs, through which they pass on entering and leaving villages. Many traders and trekkers alike will undoubtedly have wondered about these decaying structures: the identity of the divinities and mandalas adorning these crumbling walls, and that of the people who built and painted them. Ratan Kumar Rai´s Along the Kali Gandaki is the most substantial attempt to date to address these questions. It is, in a sense, a natural sequel to his earlier book of pen-and-ink drawings.
Along the Kali Gandaki: the Old Salt Trade Route. The elegant sketches of that collection portrayed the settlements of the valley in their overwhelming landscape. In the present work, the author follows his artist´s gaze behind that landscape to find the human agency that modified it, laid the stones for the buildings and brought their interiors to life with sacred art.
Non-specialist visitors to the Thak Khola who simply want to know something of local art and architecture will make heavy weather of the author´s purist approach to the rendering of local names and other expressions. This may be especially true of Tibetan terms, the presentation of which is frequently unorthodox, as in the case of words such as Bon-gNak (for Bon-nag), bLo (for lHo) and so forth. Readers may have difficulties with following up some of the sources: articles are not identified in the references by their authors but by the journals in which they appear, so that one would look in vain for, say, Vinding in the bibliography.
While the acknowledgement of sources is sometimes a tedious business for both writer and reader, especially where minor observations are concerned, the habit does at least enable an author to avoid the charge of originality in coining errors. The translation of the word Tsangpo (Tib. gTsang-po), the Tibetan name of the Kali Gandaki, as “the clear one”, is a mistake that probably derives from Michel Peissel´s Mustang: a Lost Himalayan Kingdom, presumably by association with gtsang-ba/ma, “clean, pure”. In fact, in choosing the name Tsangpo for both the Brahmaputra and the Kali Gandaki, the Tibetans showed about as much poetic flair as the Celtsdidin christening a local watercourse the “Avon”: in their respective languages, both names simply mean ´river´.
The bulk of the book is occupied by the third and last chapter, entitled simply “Art: painting”. The chapter includes descriptions of the interiors of the gompas located in the two main divisions of the Thak Khola, Thaksatae and Panchgaon, and a few of those immediately to the north in Baragaon. The section provides an interesting insight into the lives of some of the local artists, who conform uncannily to the popular image of their Western counterparts. The highly gifted Khaipa (Tib. mkhas-pa) Kancha “was helpless without drink and tobacco. He often climbed trees and indulged in his cherished fancy, the fantasy of flying through the air, like the great Lamas who were capable of doing this. The fantasy finally cost him his life.” The last sentence is a reference to his early death when he fell, drunk, from a precipitous trail, a victim to exactly the same fate as his hard-drinking father and teacher, Lama Jamyang.
The untimely demise of these two exponents of the gTsang school left the field open for the Mon-bris, whose principal heir at the present time is Sashi Dhoj Tulachan. Among the commissions that the latter has received in Mustang was the task of repainting the interior of Phuntsholing monastery in the Bonpo village of Lubra in 1966. Rai includes a quite detailed and interesting description of the murals, but he does not mention one oddity that has often intrigued me about his little gompa. Amid the saints, divinities and mandalas of Bonpo inspiration, is a peculiar detail: a European robin sitting on a holly bush against a background of snow. An uncommon touch of syncretic inventiveness, this, that inserts among standard Tibetan imagery what is surely a scene from an English Christmas card.
The first two chapters, which deal respectively with the Kali Gandaki as a historical trade route and with the mythology and history of the Thakalis, provide a helpful background to the artistic heritage, To the extent that these chapters draw widely on secondary sources, they bring together and make accessible much that is to found in the scattered material on the region. For example, there is a very welcome and informative list of the customs contractors—the pivotal figures in the salt-grain exchange—spanning the century from 1862 to 1962. But these chapters are more than just a compilation of already published miscellanea. They contain much original work. Of particular interest to anthropologists of the region is the suggestion, based on the claims of an elderly informant, that “the early Dhyatan of Thasang … were the genuine forebears of the modern Tamang Thakali, and that they were probably Magars (and Gurungs),a view not shared by other Tamang Thakali of his generation”.
That the relatively low status accorded to the Dhyatan derives from their membership in an indigenous stratum which was incorporated into the emergent Thakali people is a suggestion that, to my knowledge, has not been advanced elsewhere. Another interesting contribution is the description and summary of a bem-chag (in this case, a sort of chronicle) said to be from Cimang (Appendix B).
A Cimang bem-chag has already been published in facsimile and translation by Michael Vinding and the present reviewer (Kailash 1987, vol. 13), but Rai devotes several pages to the version obtained by him on the grounds that it contains “some elements not accounted for in the translation by Ramble/Vinding”. There do indeed appear to be substantial differences in the structure and content of these two works, which in my opinion would have justified an even more extensive treatment of the subject by the author. A number of variants of this bem-chag have come to light in different villages of Panchgaon, and it is to be hoped that the author includes photographs of the text (as he does of several other inscriptions) in any future editions of this book. As it is, Rai´s summary provides useful accounts of relations between neighbouring principalities in the region.
The prosperity that came from the lucrative customs contract resulted in raised standards of architecture and wood-carving, and the author gives credit where it is due. But for the most part he is bitterly critical of the wealthier Thakalis´ abandonment of their older faiths, Lamaism (Buddhism and Bon) and the indigenous religion. “Tamang Thakali culture was already meeting its death at the hands of those who nurtured it, and it is quite unlikely to be revived through the existing policy of the government of Nepal”; “the increasing Hinduistic pressure on the traditional Tamang Thakali culture, resulted in the dereliction of the indigenous Thakali civilization”; the partyless Panchayat system “denied the religious and political aspirations of the non-Hindu people who constitute more than 70% of the total population of the country. …It is in accordance with democratic principles that Nepal be declared a ´secular´ state”.
And if these excerpts do not make the author´s political alignment sufficiently clear, we may note his preference for the term ´Kirati´ (“an ancient people (who) were the legitimate rulers of Nepal” over ´mongoloid´, “which is a vague anthropological expression”. Interestingly, Rai includes within the category of Kirata the Gurung, Thakali, Tamang and Bhutia. Foreign academics who deplore the changes in the Thak Khola and other Himalayan communities have usually been dismissed as neo-colonial romantics; but the critics will obviously have to find a new rhetoric to deal with the growing number of native writers such as Ratan Kumar Rai, whose readiness to invoke, in scholarly works, the politics of cultural oppression, far surpasses the gentle laments of their Western predecessors.