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Worship of a Mountain Deity in the Shadow of Shar-dungri: Adaptation and Survival of the Sakya Community in Shar-khog area of Amd

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by Tsering D Gonkatsang1


This paper highlights the propitiation of Palgon (Dpal-mgon), a local mountain deity who is worshipped by the followers of the Sakya sect in the shadow of Shar-dungri (Eastern Conch Mountain) in eastern Tibet. The Sakya community, who are a minority in this region, have incorporated the Bon tradition of La-btsas ritual into their own practices. In order to understand how and why this has happened, the paper reviews the region’s political and socio-cultural history in the wider context of the Tibetan cosmological worldview, and the pattern of conflict, assimilation and adaptation that has influenced relationships between local Bonpos and Buddhists.

I was born in Shar-khog and participated in the La-btsas ceremonies during a return visit to the region. The paper is therefore in part a personal record, as well as an analysis of experiences and events that turned out to be a source of ethnographic insight. I offer it in the hope that it will contribute to an understanding of at least some aspects of the complex Buddhist and pre-Buddhist beliefs and rituals that have helped the small Sakya community preserve its identity and culture through a process of assimilation and adaptation to the predominant Bon cultural traditions in the Shar-khog area.

I had left Shar-khog in eastern Tibet as a child and returned for the first time in 1999 with my wife and daughter, and got reconnected with close relatives as well as local deities, so to speak. The rituals of welcome celebrations included propitiating and thanking the Skyes lha, my natal deity for facilitating my safe return followed by a visit to the only Sakya monastery in the region, as a matter of thanksgiving and to reaffirm my religious affiliation and devotion. The visit coincided with the ‘Dbyar gnas’ period when the monks were on an extended summer retreat during the course of which women are not allowed into the monastic precincts. We were welcomed in a tent by the river outside the perimeters of the monastery, and only I was allowed to go in for the worship.

Then during our second visit in the summer of 2007, we were excited to be informed that the annual propitiation of the Yul-lha2, the local mountain deity was going to be held the very next day. But later, my wife was disappointed to be told that women were not allowed to attend this ritual propitiation of the mountain deity and bemoaned the social status of women in the very androcentric Tibetan society.3 So, this is an attempt to explore the logic of such cultural beliefs and practices and to draw out, if possible, the theoretical basis in order to demystify rituals related to the La-btsas ceremony and the worship of a local Mountain deity by the Sakya community.

1 Extract from a paper presented at the 4th SSEAR Conference, Thimphu, Bhutan. June 30 – July 3, 2011 For Tibetan language consultancy and online tuition, contact: tsering.gonkatsang@orinst.ox.ac.uk

2 Karmay, Samten G. The Arrow and the Spindle, Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet (Kathmandu, 2005), P432-450

3 See, Gyatso, Janet and Havnevik, Hanna (eds). 2005. Women in Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 436 The pervasive misogyny and androcentrism of many Buddhist texts was first explored in modern scholarship by Paul 1989. For a good general overview, see also Sponberg 1992.


Tibetan Cosmological Worldview


As a native of Shar-khog by birth, but having grown up abroad, I consider myself more of an cultural "outsider" rather than "insider" although both perspectives are equally capable of producing emic and etic accounts of the culture.


As a e n says, It’s difficult to understand the Ti etan passion for ritual without understanding of something of the Tibetan cosmological worldview. Tibetans see themselves living in a universe populated by Buddhas and deities who transcend space and time, by powerful gods and demigods who live in various heavenly realms, and by spirits who have diverse relationships to specific sites in the natural landscape. ”5 Some of these gods and spirits are of Indian origin, others are non-Buddhist in origin and were incorporated into the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon from the indigenous religious systems of Tibet and surrounding cultures. Mythic origins often explain the origin of different deities and spirits - how they were born, how they made first contact with humanity, and how they became part of religious (usually ritual) practices.6


Indigenous Tibetan classification of these pantheon include the bipartite Lha and ‘dre (god and demons) or the tripartite category of Sa bdag (site spirits), Klu (nagas) and Nyan (mountain spirit). There is also the scheme of classifying them into ‘Jig-rten las ‘das pa’i lha (supra-mundane gods)and ‘Jig-rten pa’I lha (mundane gods) both operating within the human realm. However, the key difference is that whereas worldly spirits intervene in both positive and negative ways, enlightened beings, by definition can only work for the welfare of others. Another such division is the distinction made between local and trans-local where y Buddhas and tantric deities are characteri ed as “translocal”, while the mundane deities that Ti etans associate with mountains, lakes, woods, rocks are characteri ed as “local”. Mountain deities like Palgon of the Sakya group of Shar-khog belong to the mundane class of local god who are propitiated for personal and communal wellbeing, prosperity, success and protection from illness, obstacles, spirits and misfortunes and so on.


Another important underlying belief of propitiating the god and spirits like the mountain gods is the assumption that the boundary between the divine gods and spirits and the human world is permeable so that there are various ways of cross communication between the two worlds through emanations, visions, dreams, prayers, propitiations and supplications for interventions to grant boons or create favoura le conditions for success in worldly pursuits. It’s a common for Ti etan elievers to ask the rhetorical question, “ an it e deduced that what is invisi le is necessarily non-existent?” This statement reflects the inherent conviction in the super-natural phenomenon like the existence and the agency of gods, deities and spirits. In the context of Shar-khog, the Tibetan rituals in general and the La-btsas mountain cult in particular, has the socio-cultural and political function of oth preserving and reaffirming one’s identity - at the personal, local, religious, ethnic levels in ways that differentiate oneself from the others, especially the predominant Han and Hui and Qiang ethnic groups who dominate the socio-economic and political life of the region. Many of these Tibetan myths, beliefs and traditions represent the authentic,

4 Harris, Marvin (1976), "History and Significance of the Emic/Etic Distinction", Annual Review of Anthropology 5: 329–350.

5 a e n, os OUP. 2010 op. cit p 3

6 See: Karmay, Samten G. op.cit. 2005, The Appearance of the Little Black-headed Man. p. 245-281


autochthonous religious system of the Ti etan people for which Stein coined the phrase, “the nameless religion”7 rather than being an essential part of Bon or Buddhism or any religion per se.

As Schrempf notes, “... the case of the former Sino-Tibetan borderlands of eastern Amdo, where both a historical consciousness of past order relations with the hinese and of a marked “Ti etan-ness” prevail today, reveals just how complex and shifting these interactions and encounters between Chinese and Tibetans were and still are. In the borderlands in general, one can find not only a specific territorial and ethnic self-assertion on both sides but also imaginative and often mutual assimilations of cultural traits of the “other.”9

Shar-khog and its history: a predominantly Bon cultural area

In the last two decades or so, a number of Tibetologists have begun to focus their study on the people, culture, language and religion of Shar-khog region of Tibet (Minjiang in Chinese) and is part of the Aba and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture within Sichuan province.

Gedun Choephel, the Tibetan historian suggests that the Tibetans in the Shar-khog area are the descendants of the Tibetan imperial army mobilized from Central Tibet sometime in the 7th century. According to a Dun-huang document, the Tibetan army penetrated the area first in AD 701.10 However, there is evidence in the Tang Annals11 that the Tibetan forces of Songtsan Gampo had attacked the present day Minjiang area which was then known as Sun-trig. The Tang Annal records, “In the eighth throne-year of Tai-tsung (AD 634), ... Songtsan, upon hearing that the lords of Dru-gu and A’-zha were each granted a princess as bride, despatched a mission to establish matrimonial alliance ut the Emperor refused. The envoys returned and

reported, “The Emperor received us with high honour and was favourably inclined to give a princess as bride. But as the King of A’-zha appeared there, we didn’t get her. Possi ly he is culpa le. Songtsan was enraged and launched an attack on A’-zha with the forces of Zhang-zhung. A’-zha capitulated and many escaped towards Koko-nor region. Tang-zhang and Pe-lan-jung were defeated. And with a force of 20, 000 ransacked Sun-trig (Sung-pan).” Sung-pan, an important border garrison town between Tibet, was known as ‘Sung Krig’ in old Tang dynasty documents.

According to Muge Samten, a respected Ti etan scholar from the region, “In the upper part of Zing chu, in the past, there were three community divisions (Ru sde) .. Those were known as the three Khri skyong (Commanders of Ten-thousand soldiers). In the past, at the time of war between Tibet and

7 Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. 1972. p. 191

8 For an overview of Bon, see Per Kvaern, The Bon Religion of Tibet, Serinda Publications, 2001. pp 154; S G. Karmay, The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 62–63

9 Schrempf, M. Hwashang at the Border: Transformation of History and Reconstruction of Identity in Modern Amdo. Contained in JIATS, no. 2 (August 2006), THL # 2721, p 1 10 J. Bacot, F.W. Thomas and Ch. Toussaint, Documents de Touen-houang relatifs au Tibet, Paris, 1940, p 39 11 Thang yig gsar rnying las byung ba’i Bod chen po’i Srid lugs. Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 1983. p. 9-10 4

Tang China, the Mgo dpon (general) who commanded the three, ten-thousand armies Khri dmag which defended the border, was given the name Khri skyong.12

Following the triumph of Buddhism over the prevailing Bon influence in the Imperial court in the 8th century13, many Bonpos were forced to retreat to outlying parts of the country, and to ensure the survival of their religion, developed institutionalised elements modelled on Buddhism, such as

monastic life, religious texts, philosophy, liturgy, and iconography. This could explain their existence and survival in the periphery of the dominant Buddhist cultural dominance in Central Tibet as Bon heritage and followers are found scattered in the border margins of Mustang, through Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Yunan, Shar-khog, Gansu and Qinghai. For example, the Dkar chag of Dmu-ge Gla-ro G.yung drung dgon records, “Historically,

the ancestors of the people of Dmu-ge area are is said to come from the Sa-dkar, Dmar and Nag areas of Zhang-zhung. During the time of Khri-srong lde btsan, when the Bon communities were exiled and scattered, a group came towards Dmu ge area, led by Stag-lha rje and Dbal gsas skyabs.”14 In the last decade, Tibetologists have begun to pay attention to the Shar-khog area. Huber15 has drawn attention on the Bon pilgrimage and holy sites that abound in the area surrounding the holy Shar Dungri16 or Eastern Conch Mountain which is revered as a holy mountain by the Bon as well as Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists.

During our first visit in 1999, my wife and I joined the large stream of Chinese eco-tourists to visit the Gser-mtsho (Golden lakes) below the holy Shar-Dungri.The sanctity of the place was commercialised with the hordes of tourists taking pictures and enjoying the natural beauty of the landscape and scenery, oblivious to the religious history and connotations of the colourful calcified lakes, the imposing snow-covered peak of Shar-Dungri and the many hermitages dotted around it. Shar Dungri’s importance as a sacred site has been systematically corroded by the ever increasing influx of

12 Dmu dge bsam gtan (1987:303f). Local Bon po monastic histories, however, interpret the name Khri skyang as the throne of Skyang ’phags, the famous lineage holder Skyang’phags chen po who propagated Bon in the area; see Huber (1998:189, n 21) and soon afterwards in the Hare year (775) the foundation of bSam yas monastery, the first foundation of Buddhist monastery in Tibet was laid by Acarya Boddhisattva. 13 P Wangdu and Diem erger. D a’ hed the Royal Narrative oncerning the Bringing of the Buddha’s Doctrine to Ti et. 2000. “... in the pig year (AD 771) a doctrinal debate was held between the Buddhists and Bon in which the later lost and since then Bon funerary rites proscribed, including animal sacrifice. pp. 61- 62.

Also see: Bon po Tantrics in Kokonor Area by Tsering Thar. ” Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines, no, 15 (November 2008): 533-552.

14 ‘Gla ro g.yung drung dgon’ in Zing chu rdzong Bod-brgyud Sangs rgyas Chos lugs dang G.yung drung Bon gyi Dgon khag So so’i Dkar chag Published 1992 p. 254

15 ‘Ritual Revival and Innovation at Bird emetery Mountain’, In: T. Hu er (Hg.), Amdo Ti etans in Transition: Society and Culture During the Post-Mao Era (Leiden, Brill Academic Publishers), 2002 pp. 113 -145

16 For details about the sanctity of this holy mountain and the Bon and Buddhist temples in the vicinity see: Gnas chen Shar dungr ri dang Dgon sde du ma’i Dkar chag mthong ba don ldan zhes bya ba bzhugs so. Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 2006. pp. 347 5

Chinese tourism since its mid 1980s when the area was transformed into the ‘Huanglong Nature Reserve’. On this process and the history, see Hu er 200617

At the entrance gate of the Huanlong Nature Reserve, there were a small number of local Tibetans holding stalls of curious and mementos for the tourists but all the big commercial interests such as the hotels, restaurants, large shops and transport was managed by non-natives. Though the literary language is the standard Tibetan for both Bon and Buddhists (also called Ban de and Bon po), the local dialect of Shar-khog18 is distinct from the dialects of other areas of Amdo region. My wife and I have been able to learn and sustain the local dialect to from the elders of our family in exile, and people were surprised to find that we had no problem in communicating in the same Shar wa dialect.

Mona Schrempf19 has investigated the socio-religious economic processes of the revival of Bon monasticism and ritualized sponsorship of the annual Cham dance in Shar-khog since the 1980s and in another study20, argues for understanding the Sino-Tibetan border not just in a geographical, multiethnic, and historical sense but also in a relational sense of boundaries of identity re-construction between neighboring Tibetans and Chinese who consciously or subconsciously are negotiating past and present through ethnic, sociopolitical, generational, professional, and personal relations.

There have been times of conflict, often violent ones, between the Tibetans and Chinese as well as between the Bons and Buddhists. For example, the head lama of Ri-ba monastery Kun blo Sprul sku Rin chen dbang phyug (1431- 1496) proved to be a great scholar and was invited by the Emperor to Peking. He had submitted a memorandum to the Emperor21, “Both Chinese and Tibetans are settled in my native area. Due to wicked motivations, each harms the other. And so the mutual resentment is ceaseless. Despite all (my) peaceful mediation, It’s hard to pacify the conflicts and fighting. Therefore, I beseech your Majesty, Lord of Men, issue a firm decree as hard as lightning from the sky, marked indelibly by your Royal seal (so that peace prevails).”

“The Emperor, gave him a gold seal the si e of one hand span with the edict: ‘Chinese and Tibetans, live in peace!’ written in hinese, Mongolian and Ti etan on a large silk cloth measuring three full squares. An annual stipend for Ri ba monastery was instituted and since then peace and harmony prevailed between Chinese and Tibetans and the strife and arguments between the Bon and Buddhist followers also ceased. However, later in the sixteenth century, it is said that the former Bon monasteries in Dmu-ge area were forcibly converted to Buddhism, and later in the Wood-Bird year

17 Huber, T- "The Skor lam and the Long March: Notes on the Transformation of Tibetan Ritual Territory in Southern Amdo in the Context of Chinese Developments", Journal of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, 2, August, 2006. pp. 1-42 18 For variation of the local dialects see: Suzuki, G. Tibetan Dialects Spoken in Shar-khog and Khopo khog. p 273 - 284 in East and West. Vol. 59 No. 1-4 (Dec 2009)

19 M. Schrempf, “Victory Banners, Social Prestige and Religious IdentityRitualized Sponsorship and the Revival of Bon Monasticism in Amdo Shar khog,” in New Horizons in Bon Studies, Bon Studies 2, ed. S. G. Karmay and Y. Nagano (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2000), 317-57. I remember being taken as a child to witness the cham performance at sNang zhig dgon pa, sometime in 1954 -56.

20 Op cit.. ‘Hwa shang at the Border: Transformations of History and Reconstructions of Identity in Modern Amdo. JIATS, no. 2 (Aug 2006), THL. no. 2721, p. 32 21 Ri ba dGon: in Zing chu rdzong Bod brgyud sangs rgyas chos-lugs dang G.yung drung Bon gyi dgon khag So so’i Dkar chag. Published 1992 p. 189 6

(1585), the forces of Stong skor bla ma Yon tan Rgya mtsho had attacked and burnt down the only surviving Bonpo monastery A-sngar Khyung tshang, along with many of its monks.22

Asserting Tibetan Cultural Identity through the Mountain Cult of La-btsas ritual

Confronted with inevitable evolutionary as well as revolutionary changes brought about through Government policy initiatives that affect the political, socio-economic and inter-ethnic relations of the Shar-khog area, the local Tibetans continue to preserve their distinct national, cultural and religious identity23 though maintenance of the local dialect, religious practice, dress, housing and most significantly the ancient myths and ritual traditions such as the mountain cult of La-btsas ceremony.

The earliest recorded use of the term La btsas is found in Lde’u chos ‘byung where the word is used to mean ‘land-mark’ as in ferry toll or mountain-pass “toll”. In a Dung-huang manuscript it is used to refer to a kind of ‘fee’. In later ritual texts, other synonyms used for La-btsas are ‘Dpa’ mkhar’, ‘gSas mkhar’ and ‘Lha mkhar’.24 Others say they originated from the custom of burying the Tibetan warriors on mountain tops and depositing their swords, arrows and valuables at the site from the time of King Khri ral pa can.25

The central theme is the belief that the mountain in question is the abode of a spirit called the Yul lha, “local deity” or Gzhi-bdag “owner of the land” often regarded as the ancestor of the local population. These mountain spirits are usually classed as the Gnyan category in the Bon po cosmogony, and are usually represented in iconography as a warrior mounted usually on a horse, but also other animals such as lion, deer and tiger. This cult celebrated in various parts of Amdo is believed to be indigenous or of pre-Bon origins, going as far back as the mythic times after Gnya khri btsan-po, the first king of Tibet who is said to have descended from heaven on Mount Lha ri Gyang tho in Kongpo.26 According to the origin myth, when Gnya khri descended from heaven, he was accompanied by, among others, three ritual experts, each of whom was assigned by the Kings father, a specific order to guard and protect him, and to purify the path since “the land of men is impure and polluted.”

The myth reflects the system of beliefs centred around the sacred nature of the divine king with experts empowered to perform rituals to protect and purify the King. This Bon belief has gradually evolved and assimilated by the Buddhists in varying forms of ritual propitiation either as a Yul lha

22 Ibid. 1992. Gla-ro g.yung drung dgon’ p. 248

23 See: Mountain Cults and National Identity in Tibet by S. Karmay, pp 423-431 and The Cult of Mountain Deities and its Political Significance by A. M. Blondeau et al. pp 432-450 contained in The Arrow and the Spindle by S. Karmay.

24 Karmay, S. ‘A omparative Study of the Yul Lha Cult in Two Bon po Areas and its osmological Aspects’ in The Arrow and the Spindle. Vol II. pp. 65-66.

25 For this and other theories of the origin of the cult of Lab btsas see: Mkhar-rtse rgyal’s ’ ig rten mchod bstod. Krung go’i Bod rig pa’i dpe skrun khang.2009. pp 350-352

26 See: Mount Bon ri and its Association with Early Myths contained in The Arrow and the Spindle. Karmay. S. 2000. pp 228-239 7

presiding over a Gnas ri (holy mountain) or as a local mountain deity responsible only for the protection and wellbeing of more localised group of tribes or villages.

The difference between the cult of the Gnas ri (holy mountain) and the cult of Yul lha (Local mountain deity) is nicely exemplified y the difference in people’s elief, attitude and response to the two. Shar-dungri as a Gnas ri is believed to be spiritually empowered by a host of deities as well as historical persons such as holy persons such as Vairocana, Skyang ‘phags and Ras-pa Dam-tshig rdo rje who visited and remained in retreat there, left footprints or marks, or where sacred objects are believed to be hidden there protected by mountain guardian spirits, and often have a Dkar chag (catalogue) with geographical descriptions and accounts of holy men associated with it, both Bon and Buddhist, and people circum-ambulate such mountains on pilgrimage.

On the other hand, the local mountain deity or Yul lha or the Gzhi bdag are worshipped by locals only as a worldly deity propitiated for mundane benefits such as health, wealth, prosperity, success, fame, power, glory, victory, abundance of crops, protection of from ill health etc. but certainly not considered a holy mountain as such that pilgrimage would result in cleansing of bad karma or accumulation of positive merit. This belief that one needs the protection of the Yul lha is autochthonous and there is no spiritual motivation in it as there is in the cult of the Gnas ri or holy mountain. There is no expectation of any spiritual reward because mountain deities like Palgon are considered this ‘Jig rten pa’i lha (S: Laukika) deities of this world and not worthy of seeking refuge for spiritual benediction.

The number of Gzhi bdags vary that are said to dwell around the holy mountain of Shar Dung-ri28. They are, in the west is Dmag dpon Dgra ’dul dbang phyug, in the east is Gter-bdag kun grol srid rgyal; and further east in the conch-gateway is Gtsang rigs dpal mgon; in the north is Lha btsang king chen and in the south is Bka’ blon Ra thabs can.

The annual propitiation of the Palgon La-btse

Palgon (Dpal mgon)29 is the minor local Mountain deity propitiated by the group of four Sakya villages - Mda’ sna, Shog thang, Nyi tshe and Sera at the very edge of the Tibetan cultural world. There is a Chinese village in the valley below. Other Sakya villages of Atong, Ruwa, Yang teng, Go kye, Dgon phung have their own local Mountain deity. The festival date can vary according to the astrological calculations as well as pragmatic decisions based on weather forecasts made by either the local head-man or the head-lama of the Sakya monastery. In the year 2005-06, the Palgon La-btsas was dynamited. Some members of the local Chinese village were suspected to have done that in expectation of unearthing precious and valuables hidden as treasures in pots under the La-btsas cairn. Without evidence to incriminate anyone, and for the sake of unnecessarily vitiating local ethnic relations, a new cairn was built.

27 Karmay, S. “ oncepts of Territorial Organisation and Their Transformation into Buddhist Sacred Sites”, contained in The Arrow and the Spindle, Cf. Vol II. pp. 34-35

28 Gnas chen Shar gnyan dung rtse dkar po’i dkar chag gnas yig prepared by A-tses rtogs ldan Yon tan Phun tshogs at the behest of bla ma Shes rab Blo gros. No dates given in the colophon.

29 The iconography of Dpal mgon is described as: “A white man astride a white horse bearing a lance, conch- coloured armour, helmet, and boots; golden saddle, bridle and halter; and the host of deities and followers in attendance.”


In the year 2007, when I went to join the La-btsas ceremony to propitiate Palgon at the mountain-top, the weather was overcast and foreboding. It was as well that my wife was not going to join me the horse-ride up the steep climb up the mountainside, about three kms. Never having ridden a horse before, I was entrusted to a gentle mule led by the bridle by my nephew riding ahead of me. He was carrying the Mda’ rgod, an symbolic arrow of about two meters length fashioned from beech, adorned with a red prayer flag30 of mantras and a white scarf.

The progress was very slow with the mule huffing and puffing under my weight. It took us nearly an hour to get to the mountain-top and our lateness delayed the group from starting the proceedings. The men had een there for a while and the horses gra ing around, and their ceremonial ‘arrows’, temporarily planted all around the old cairn full of ‘arrows’ from last year. The sky was overcast and a fierce wind blew. I was introduced to the Headman as people prepared the fumigation31 pyre with juniper branches, fragrant plants and covered it with multi-coloured kha tag, ready to begin the Bsang gsol32 (fumigation ritual) ceremony. Some even added to the pyre, old strips of multi-coloured rlung rta33 cloths strung horizontally, perhaps to be burnt and cleansed rather than left rotting. Others just waved new rlung rta cloths over the fire to be cleansed. There were some fifty to sixty men, all wearing traditional Phyu pa-s and carrying a shoulder pouch filled with rtsam pa, sweets, medicinal ingredients and Kha tags for the fumigation ritual. Everyone had brought several boxes of rlung rta (paper wind-horses) to scatter to the wind later on. Some were scattering them in advance of the proper ritual.

A lama and an assistant monk from the Sa skya monastery began to recite something, probably, a Bsang-mchod (fumigation liturgy) while the men thronged waited standing. After a while, the headman announced the order of events- after the liturgy, they were to circle the La-btsas, plant the Mda’ rgod, start the fumigation ritual and then end it with the scattering of the rlung rta papers into the wind. The men sat down cross legged forming a rough circle including the two lamas. None of the men seemed to know or join the monks in this religious side of the supplication to the deities.

Traditionally, for both the Bonpos and Buddhists of this area, the mountain cult celebration was an all male affair originating from the early times of martial community organizations. Participation in it unites the community and reinforces shared values such as identity, values, culture, beliefs and sociopolitical cohesion. This was the occasion when the monks representing the clergy from the local 30 The colour of the cloth is chosen has to correspond to the element of one’s irth (’Byung ba).

31 The purification rituals are ased on the notion that the deities and the environment have een ‘defiled’ (’phog pa, ‘bag pa) as result of man’s own impure nature and activity. In other words, the deities are offended by what man does to himself and to the environment. Consequently, they become estranged and withdraw their favours. Man must therefore, accomplish purification rite each time he has committed an impure deed. Karmay, S. The Local Deities and the Juniper Tree: a Ritual for Purification (bsang); in The Arrow and the Spindle. p. 380-412 32 The wordbsang’ is to e understood as a ver ‘cleansing’ or ‘purifying’ rather than ‘offering’ as attested by the verse: “de ring nyams grib thams cad bsangs/ de ring khon drib thams cad bsangs/ de ring mnol grib thams cad bsangs/ grib dang mi grsang thams cad bsangs/ bsangs kyis mi bsangs gang yang med/” (May all the defilements of samaya violations be purified today, May all the defilements of resentment and anger be purified today, May all the defilements of contaminations and filth be purified today, for there is nothing that fumigation cannot purify.) 33 Karmay argues that the rlung rta is a transformation from the original Klung rta (river horse) based on the Chinese idea of Lung ma, (dragon-horse) which carries on its back the eight Spar-kha (geomantic) figures. f. ‘The Wind Horse and the Well- eing of Man’ in The Arrow and the Spindle. pp 413-422


Sakya monastery and the laity - the men folk representing each of the homesteads from the neighbouring villages join together in a non-religious, secular rite that appear to be a fusion of Bon and Buddhist ritual characteristics parts of which seem to fit what harles Ram le calls ‘civil religion’.34

As soon as the recitation was over, the men pressed around the fumigation altar and as the fire was stoked, on cue from the headman, all burst out with war-like shouts of “Ki-ki-So-So, Lha rgyal lo!” (Glory be to the Deities!) at the top of their voices and began to individually recite different invocations whilst stoking the fire, adding more ingredients like juniper leaves, rtsam pa, dry herbs, rice, barley, sugar as well as sprinkling Chang, alcohol and even Coke and Pepsi to create more smoke. Fire-crackers were lit and a great din and commotion was created, as if to draw the attention of the presiding deity Palgon. Some threw Rlung rta papers into the wind as they shouted their invocations whilst adding more ingredients to the fire. It was not organized in that sense that each man was free to shout and recite the invocations. The two monks were conspicuously absent at the beginning part of the propitiation.

As the headman was making his offerings of milk to the fire and reciting the invocation to the local deities, the rest of the men began to circle the main La-btsan cairn in a file, each carrying his Mda’ rgod, and intoning some common invocation, shouting something like ‘Ho-Ho-Ho’ in unison. At this point, I could hear the two monks joining in with the distinct tingle of the ritual bells. Some men had their hats off and both sleeves drawn in reverentially. After three circumambulations, the men started to plant the Mda’ rgod on to the La-btsan cairn. Once all the Mda’rgod were planted on the cairn, the two monks began to recite another liturgy accompanied with the ringing of the bells and the trumpeting of the Damaru. Then a long strip made up of rlung rta flags tied together to symbolize a Dmu thag g.yang thag35, was brought up and several men standing around the cairn, bind the mDa’ rgod together. One set of the many rlung rta cloths had the verses of eulogy to goddess Tara. In a similar setting, Bon pos would have prayer flags dedicated to their pantheon of deities and circumambulate the La btsas cairn anti-clock wise and incant Bon liturgies. Otherwise, there would be no other visible differences.

Some sprinkled grains of barley in worship as the Mda’ rgod was being bound. This was followed by more individual recitations and shouts of invocation accompanied by the scattering of the rlung rta paper into the sky and the strong wind carried them fluttering high and far. Most men had brought boxes of such rlung rta papers. Then, climbing the spur of the mountain-top they continued to scatter the rlung rta papers while reciting the invocations at the top of of their voices, as though vying with each other for attention and immediate benedictions. Some knew the liturgy in full while others just repeated a few formulaic verses again and again. The headman was one of the most articulate ones who could recite the invocations to the natal-deities as well as the local mountain deity for health, prosperity, good fortune, success and so on.

Next, the men sat down forming a circle extending from either side of the two lamas, and each brought out the food, drinks and snacks that they had brought and started the lunch. The wind howled

34 Ramble, C. The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. OUP. 2008. pp. 391

35 On mountain gods and heavenly rope Dmu thag see: The Mythology of Tibetan Mountain Gods: An Overview by Xie Jisheng. pp. 356-359 http://journal.oraltradition.org/issues/16ii/jisheng 10

fiercely overhead but the men were warmly wrapped up in traditional Phupa with warm undergarments. A couple of songs were sung after which one of the Headmen stood up to make a speech expressing joy and satisfaction that the even had gone well and offered thanks to the two Lamas and a welcome to me for not only coming home from afar, but also having managed to come right to the mountain top for the Palgon propitiation ceremony. As expected, I responded with a largesse for community fund. When a native who has done well economically and returns home from afar after a prolonged period of absence, making donations to the community and the local monastery is something expected though not necessary.

He announced that they should drink, eat, sing and dance to enjoy themselves before returning home. His suggestion was welcomed with resounding claps of approval. Then I made a Kha-tag offering to the Lama and received his blessings. I made a token donation to the community fund and was thanked for eing “united with the community oth in heart and in speech”. The two Headmen turned out to be excellent singers and after the singing, communal circle dance ensued. The theme of the songs and dances are secular and mundane and not related to the mountain deity or any deity at all. Finally, the headman made few announcements and then people prepared to pack up and return home. When the group reached a level part of the road, they organized a couple of horse races after which they galloped off homewards.

Thus, the rituals of collectively performing the fumigation ceremony, planting the Mda’ rgod, scattering the rlung-rta slips of paper into the wind, eating and drinking, singing and dancing together culminating in a horse race, all have the social as well as political function of uniting and reasserting the participants’ common national, cultural, linguistic and religious identity.

Furthermore, it appears that the Sakya community, like in other Buddhist areas, adopted aspects of the indigenous or traditional Bon rituals, apart from changes like having the Lamas recite Buddhist liturgy, printing Buddhist prayer texts on the rlung-rta slips and banners, and circum-ambulating the La-btsas cairn in a clock-wise direction. Otherwise the fundamental principles and belief systems remain the same as that of Bon pos. The two ‘cultural poles’ - the local Sakya monastery represented by the two monks and the mountain deity Palgon considered the ancestor of the locals, serve to unite and enthuse the community of working for their common interests in the face of challenges and dangers to the individual, family and community in terms of health, wealth, identity, culture and socio-political cohesiveness.36


36 More ethnographic accounts are found in S. G. Karmay, “Mountain ults and National Identity in Ti et,” in Resistance and Reform in Tibet, ed. R. Barnett and S. Akiner (London: Hurst and Company, 1994), 112-20



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