Dialogue  October-December, 2012, Volume 14 No. 2

7.      The Syncretic Cultural Legacy of the Western Himalayas

Hira Paul Gangnegi  


The great Himalaya since ages has been the meeting place of many civilizations. It has given rise to many spiritual traditions with differing social belief that has sprung up from a common origin of unknown past and created a syncretic cultural legacy amongst the Himalayan communities.

Here in this article attempt will be made to delineate some common heritage and social practices that prevails since ages. Moreover it is pertinent to mention here that the area which is dealt with is occasionally known to the scholars with a nomenclature "Western Tibet". To avoid political and regional implications the geographical term "Western Himalaya" is deliberately being used. It is also convenient for us to transgress national and international boundaries while making references to the particular area and monuments. It is strictly used in cultural context only. The areas broadly mentioned here include the Ladakh, Zanskar, Kashmir, Baltistan, Gilgit, Kumaon, Garhwal, Guge, Purang of Western Tibet, Mustang and Dolpo area of Nepal. As stated, though it is divided into National and International boundaries, nevertheless; its cultural bond is so strong that it has been taken as a single cultural unit. The western Himalaya is a living testimony of "Unity in diversity". The early Bon religious practice, which was to a greater extent akin to the later Vedic belief that gave way to the Buddhism, proved to be the greatest unifying factor in this multi-tribal society of Western Himalaya. Besides enjoying royal patronage, Buddhism empowered the ruling

* Dr. Hira Paul Gangnegi, Associate Professor, Department of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi, Delhi-110007.

class to consolidate their political authority and salvage dwindling population of livestock due to unwarranted ritual sacrifices. It has also acted as a check over the growing influence of unscrupulous village abbots on the masses.

It is believed that Buddhism was known to the Himalayan communities during the life time of the Shakyamuni himself. The mount Kailash and the lake Mansarovara was frequently visited by the Arhatas. During the time of the Ashoka in 236 BC he sent five Buddhist monks namely; Majjhima, Kashyap, Alakdev, Dundubhisara, and Mahadev to preach Buddhism in the five regions of Himalayas known as Himavant Pradesh. The area of Kashmir, Chamba and Jalandhara (Kangra and Shimla Hills) located in the west, the Kurmanchal (Kumaon) in the east and the Garhwal (Kedarkhanda) to the south. The Mahavamsa and its commentarial texts speak about these regions.

In the North-West province the Taxila was one of the important out-post of the King Ashoka. It falls on the silk route and from there Ashoka himself monitored his royal and monastic administration. Even today we can find Ashokan stupas and monastic ruins in Pakistan. At Taxila, a motorable road runs over the ruins of monastic complex that has become visible due to soil erosion caused by road-side running water. The area of Gilgit, Afganistan, Hunza, Chilas have been great Buddhist sites. Similarly in the Western Himalayas Ladakh has been a very significant place due to its strategic location and trade contacts. We do not have any tangible evidence that may suggest when Ladakh had denounced Bon practice and adopted Buddhism.

During Kanishaka period, Buddhism was one of the major religious denominations in the Himalayan region. In seventh-eighth century Buddhism was flourishing under secular rulers. Coming to late tenth century though, Buddhism in Kashmir was having waning trend even then it was centre of Vajrayana Buddhim in which Buddhist art and architecture flourished. Tibetan savant scholar Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055) along with numerous Buddhist scriptures took thirty two master artists who were employed in execution of sculptures and paintings in his newly built monasteries and shrine in western Himalayas.

The elegance and beauty of those sculptures and paintings of the Buddhas and Bodhisattavas remained trapped in these mountain valleys that survive even to this day testifying their aesthetic grandeur. The monastic complex of Alchi, Sumda and Mangyu in Ladakh, Tabo and Lhalung in Spiti, Nako in Kinnaur and Tholing, Mangnang and Khojarnath in Tibet stand as eleventh century cultural repository that opens window on Kashmiri art which has lost its space in its land of origin. With the passage of time by sixteenth century western Himalaya came under the influence of monastic institutions of Central Tibet and Kashmiri art tradition could not sustain its survival against dominant presence of Tibetan art though it too had Indian elements.

While talking about the Buddhism in Himalayas Snellgrove in his ‘Buddhist Himalaya’ holds, it was part of India’s religious experiences changing, adapting and developing through the centuries, yet at the same time retaining certain continuity and dependence in its traditions.

The cultural heritage of western Himalayas is a beautiful blend of three major religious traditions in India, namely; the Bon, Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism) and the Buddhism. The mount Tise (the Kailash) and the celestial lake Mansarovara through their four rivers have given rise to popular civilizations such as the Harappa, Indo-Ganges and the Yarlung in Tibetan context as their holy spots. The Olmo lung ring for the Bonpos is the mount Tise and its surrounding area and Tise is the centre of the earth. Tibetans worship it as Gangs Rinpoche or mere Gangs Tise, the glacious mountain.

Mount Kailash is a sacred mountain for the major Indic religious traditions. Buddhists believe it to be the residence of Samvara and the operational area of the Guru Padmasambhava. Jains hold that at Ashtapadi (just close to the mount Tise), Rishabhadeva attained Kaivalya (liberation) and ascended heaven; whereas, for Hindus it is the home of the Shiva-Parvati. The Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak visited this place and meditated in a number of caves. As mentioned, Bonpos identify Tise and its nearby region, specifically western part of Kailash with the sacred Olmolungring of Tazig. The area is also known as Zhangzhung the kingdom of Bonpos with (khyunglung ngul khar) the ‘Silver castle in the valley of Garuda’ as their capital. Besides birth place of Shenrab, Mount Tise also represents the ‘nine tiers of the universal Bonpo teachings’ (yungdung gu tsegs).

Thus, Mount Kailash is a sacred symbol of interfaith harmony where pilgrims of different religious affiliations, nationality and ethnic groups take collective circumambulation for the common goal that is to transcend this mortal world.

Though, the available Bonpo literary sources do not have the antiquity they claim and do not go beyond early tenth century AD., nevertheless, the Dodui, Zermig and Zijid are the Terma, the hidden literature belonging to both Bons and Buddhists. These scriptures throw ample light on the life of its founder the Tonpa Shenrab.

History and the culture of western Himalayan region has remained subject of curiosity for both the scholars and students due to its fabulous legends and mythical communities like Kinner, Kirat, Guhayaka and Yakshas etc. Very scanty literary sources are available on the life and social institutions of these Himalayan communities but we do have abundance of folk tales, folk-lores and folk-songs available in native dialects. Some of them bear the historical importance for popular historical accounts.

Occasionally Kinnars are also known as Ashwamukhi or Kimpurushas. The Guhayaka are known for their invisibility. Yakshas are the lord of wealth and the Gandharavas are Skytravellers. Shamvara is accepted as the King of Kolas, Asura and the Kiratas. Nilamatapuran suggests the Nikumbha as the lord of Pishachas whereas, the Mahabharat speaks of him as a king of Danavas. Similarly the Kuber is known more as the Yakshadhipati, the lord of Yakshas and also the Guhayakadhipati, the king of the Guhayakas. Sometimes he is also referred as the king of the Demons the Rakshasraj. Nilamata suggest both the Yaksha and Rakshas are siblings.

It is said that Yakshas lived near Kailash towards the western side. Alkapuri is the residential palace of the Kubera, where the hero of the Kalidas’s Meghduta lived. Earliest references of the same are available in the Rigveda, Ramayana, Mahabharata etc. Kalhana in his Rajtarangini holds, that Yakshas were the inhabitants of north-eastern border area of the Kashmir that lies west of the mount Kailas. During the time of Kalhana, Kashmir might have been populated with Yakshas and later on started their westward migration. The Neelmatapuran records, in Kashmir their king lives in the mountains and in winter descends in the valleys and causes problem to the native Naga community. The Nagas keep them pacified by offering food and shelter. Tradition continues even to this day that the Kashmiri panditas observe the Khechi mavasa.

In due course, the Yakshas covered Himalayan region from Kashmir to Kali-Gandaki river valley and went even far to the Kurdistan. Rahul Sankritayana believes that Yakshas were non-human beings for the Aryans and thinks that Khashas were the Yakshas. Deepavamsa mentions Yakshas being initiated into the noble religion (Aryadharma), the Buddhism. Yakshas fall into the category of Demi-gods, but their position is diminutive (kshudra devta). Like Kinnar, Yakshas too lead simple and sensuas life. Meghaduta describes their highly impressive description of palace and women living within.

The Guhyakas and their habitation is more or less the same as that of the Yakshas because they are also the subject of the Kubera and devotees of the Lord Shiva. Guhayakas were mystics whereas, the Yakshas were simple in nature. Guhayakas were known as skillful architects and sculptors. They were master bridge builders and architects. It is said the King Ashoka employed Guhayakas in building Chaityas. The Kashmiri king Damodara got many bridges constructed through them. It is believed that in eleventh century AD, these Guhyakas helped Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055) in construction of his 108 Buddhist shrines all over the Western Himalayas during the second phase of development of Buddhism in Tibet. Many forts and garrisons in the Himalayas are said to have been built by the Guhayakas. Their amazing skill and mastery in bridge-building architecture termed them as demigods. In the Shambar and Pradyuman battle, the shambar is stated as mystic Guhayaka, who had capability to create deceptive appearances.

Yet another very ancient and popular communities of the Himalayas are the Gandhrava and Apsaras. Both of them, though belong to a same category with gender differentiation; Gandharva as the male and Apsara as the female. Occasionally, they are considered as a distinct groups. It is believed that offspring of the Arista and Kashyap were called Gandharavas whereas, the children of Kash and Kashyapa became known as Apsaras. In their society the marriage is not a sacred but a mutual convenience, free from rigid formalities. Boys and girls pick up their partner and parents give their consent. Contractual marriage is also in vogue (Ref. Uruvashi narrative). Thus, the Gandharava marriage is one of the eight kinds of recognized Vedic marriages. By nature, they are peace-loving and joyous. They are fond of fine arts, specially, the music. The Gandharava king, Chitrarath himself presented hundered horses to Yuddhishthra on Rajsuya yajna. He also taught knowledge of invisibility and art of swift movement to the Pandavas.

Since the time immemorial the Himalaya and its water bodies have been the arteries of the Vedic culture in different colors and hues. Amongst many ethnic groups of Indo-Aryan race the Khash had a dominant cultural pattern among the entire Western Himalayan communities having cultural proximity with the Bonpos.

It is generally considered that the Bon religion had evolved out of the obscure tribal cult but the sources claim otherwise. The followers of Bon believe that the Shenrab Mibo of Tazig was the founder of this tradition. Literal meaning of the Bon means ‘recitation’ because they lay more stress over the chanting of mantras for the accomplishment in magical powers. The proficient priest is called Shen. A distinctive class of Shen occupied important position in royal house as the Raj Purohita in Indian statecraft. For Bonpos, Sky is the Heaven and reverse Swastika is a sacred religious symbol. Similarly they adopt anti-clockwise circumambulation and dancing movements.

In classical Bon literature, we come across number of Sanskrit words that suggest Indo-Aryan connection. The Himalayan Khash community is also considered as Vedic Maruta of Indo-Aryan race. They are also known as Khasia, Khosiya, Kosa or Khasir. Basically, they were nomadic pastoral community, rearing sheep and goats as their occupation. Therefore, Chinese called this region as Xitsang or Chiang which may mean Dogpas, the nomadic pastoral community in Tibetan language. They live with nature and enjoy open space. The Dogpas of Tibet, Bakarwal and Bangujar of Kashmir, Gaddis of Chamba, Uniyals of Uttarakhand and Shepherds of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh are known for their nomadic pastoral life having a common occupational legacy of tending sheep, goats, yaks and buffaloes.

P.C Kashyap in his book, Traditions of Himalayas quotes Atkinson, "the Aryan left their Central Asian home in search of land and pasture for their domestic animals and divided themselves into three groups. One group marched to west and wandered towards Europe as far as Western Europe up to Spain. The other moved to South-East and came to be known as Indo-Iranian. It was the third branch that crossed Pamir, moved to Kashgar and then entered Kashmir and slowly established itself in the mid-Himalayan valleys subjugating and subduing the aborigines, capturing hills and valleys of Kashmir and slowly establishing themselves up to Kumaon and Nepal. This important branch of Aryan came to be known as Khasa who are considered to be Ksatriyas"

Kashyap further writes, "Western Himalayan Khasas, particularly of Rohru, Kinnaur, Lahul and Ladakh are excellent traders and travel far and wide. They were frequent visitors to Tibet and China (when the border was open) and Central Asia. Yarkand and Kashgar were familiar as mart next door. In fact, there is a tradition in well-to-do families to nominate the intelligent member for trade. He would be out for most of the year marketing in foreign lands. Till very recent years, Kinnauras and Lahulas of Himachal Pradesh brought Yarkandi horses and Central Asian carpet for sale at the Lavi and Dussehra trade fairs. Their to and fro movements was through the passes in Central, Western and North-Western Himalayas to reach Tibet and Central Asia. Most of the passes are at great height and difficult to traverse. The Rigvedic traders too had to undertake hazardous journeys through mountains and face terrible cold and blizzards on the way." Thus this Khasa community of Himalayas practiced flourishing trade with Central Asia for many milennia.

The ancient Bonpo belief system comprises of three basic components called the Dung (story-teller), De’u (riddle singer) and the Bon (primordial religion). The Dung are the master narrators who tell stories and sing songs extolling the mystic power of Bon religion. They also make forceful narration of the wisdom and exploits of their ancestors and eulogize their commitments and relationship with gods and ancestors. Most of these stories and Mollas relates to the origin and spread of their clans, tribes, genealogy of rulers, myth of creation of universe and other social ceremonies.

The De’u (riddle-singer) are expert in chanting riddles that unfolds the secret and mystical issues related to the universe and living beings and genealogy of divinities. The fascinating riddle relates to the ‘legend of egg’ out of which numerous clans and their rulers emerged. It also speaks about the evolution of the Universe and cosmology consisting of three realms, the Lha on the higher realm of gods, in the middle Nyanpo and under earth is the Lu the serpents. The human being belongs to the middle realm.

The Bon is considered as the primordial religion. It is also called Yungdung Bon Chos (universal Bon religion: Sanatana Bon dharma).The Tonpa Shenrab systematized this ancient primordial religion and became teacher of present era, such as the Shakyamuni for the Buddhists. Similar to the Buddhists, Bonpos too have concept of three Buddhas of past, present and future namely, Dagpa, Salba and Shepa. Shenrab was promised by the gods (lha) to assist and Sridpa Sangpo gave him words to maintain the cosmic order. All these three (Shen, Lha and Sridpa) are called Bonpo triad. Probably in later period when the Buddhism became dominant religion, the Bon religion was understood as the worldly or religion of human beings (mi chos), whereas Buddhism was designated as the divine religion (Lha chos).

Like many other primitive belief systems, the Bon too believed in the animistic religious practices, where the nature and the natural forces were deified and propitiated. It reminds us of the early Rig-vedic cultural pattern in which the gods and goddesses are the symbolic representations of the nature and its many other manifestations. They were invoked and propitiated for mundane progress and prosperity for one’s own clan and its live-stock and gradually it flourished as Sanatan Dharma in Indian context.

Similarly, the Bon belief emerged, developed and dispersed in broadly three stages. The initial phase was known as Dol Bon, the Revealed Bon which is also considered as Bon of the dark ages because of violent rituals and mystical rites in propitiating gods and appeasement of evil forces. Keeping hearth in the house free from pollution is their primary concern. The second stage is called Khyar Bon, the Deviant Bon. During this period Bonpos initiated outside contacts by inviting proficient priests from the Kashmir, Gilgit and Asha (Kokonor) to perform funeral rites of the king Digum Tsanpo who died unusual death in the battle-field and thus like his forefathers could not escape and climb celestial rope leading to heaven. The third stage is called Gyur Bon, the Modified Bon when the Terma or the hidden treasure of Bonpo literature came to light. This brought a perceptible change but soon the Thi Srong detsan issued royal edict asking all Bonpos to renounce their faith and follow Buddhism.

It is said, afterwards Bonpos began appropriation of Buddhist teachings in their own Bon scriptures. During early 9th century, Bonpos gained popularity under Lang Darma’s regime but that could not survive for longer period and the highly centralized religio-political set up of the Land of Snow became fragmented into numerous principalities. A chaotic situation prevailed in the region till early 10th century and the subsequent development had great impact on the neighboring Himalayan communities.

Langdarma was childless at the time of his death, but, his concubine was pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy. To protect the new born from imminent danger of stealing and being killed by the queen, she kept the boy guarded with lighting lamps around him so that any unusual movement of light could be alarm of intruder. Thus, the boy was named Od srung, ‘Protected by the light’. In the meantime, the queen adopted a child and insisted that she has given birth to him. Though high officials and ministers objected but her insistence prevailed and the baby was called Yumten. ‘Insistence of the Mother’. When, the boys became adult, increasing rivalry began for the inheritance of royal throne. Yumten like his foster mother was ambitious and crafty. The straight forward and honest Od Srung realized that his father’s persecution of Buddhism had lost public sympathy. So he took initiative restoring Buddhist religious activities. Yumten on the other hand, obstinately carried on Langdarma’s policy of persecution.

This mutual opposition and feud in aristocrat class finally led Tibetan kingdom to fragmentation and that gave rise to public unrest. Yumten became ruler of Ui ru (Lhasa) and Od Srung ruled over Yos ru, but both of them remained engaged in long years of hostility.

Moreover, in their feudalistic political system, common people were forced to work and were deprived of personal freedom. The monk and monasteries were already dependent upon peasants. On the other hand, the peasant class was oppressed under heavy duties, military services and also exploited by monastic officials and aristocratic families. They were compelled to back breaking labor in agriculture, stock breeding and many other jobs like construction of irrigation ditches (channels), building houses and royal mausoleums.

Except for a few well to do families, rest of population was poverty stricken. Because of lack of resources for income and over exploitation, they usually went bankrupt during any of important social ceremonies like, birth, death and marriages etc. On being unable to pay back, their status became that of bonded laborer or slave. The conditions of bonded laborers were worst than those of peasants. Their bodies were branded to identify their social status. Sometimes, they were slaughtered as sacrificial animals at the grand oath taking ceremony. Buddhism may not have directly instigated, but certainly made aware of their existence and taught about equality not only amongst human beings but also amongst living beings. Some of the common people probably proved instrumental in seeking, if not equal right, at least for a humane treatment of poor and slaves. Nevertheless, an environment was generated in which hatred for ruling class was manifested. Soon that too became part of struggle for power by ruling classes. This sometime coincided with the intricacies of religious sectarian rivalries of later period. The socio-political system prevailing in these Indo-Tibetan border areas during pre-independence was more or less same and closely interconnected and influenced each other.

When Palkhortsan was killed in revolt, his son Kyid de Nimagon fled to Ngaris Korsum. In ancient time, this region was known as Zhangzhung and later during Buddhist period the area shrunk and became small pricipality known as Guge. Here Palkhortsan was given refuge by Gyeses tsan, the ruler of Purang (Taklakot). In due course of time, this refugee prince was accepted as son-in-law for two of his daughters.

It is interesting to note that so far it was understood that Kyid de Nyimagon on reaching Ngaris built a royal castle named Nyizungs in Purang appears, that the Central Tibetan Government had nominal control over Ngaris, probably due to its wilderness, and remoteness. Therefore, it might have enjoyed semi-independent status and was ruled by a peace loving, weak ruler, Gyeses tsan away from the influence of political upheavals in Central Tibet. and held the kingdom. This gives us an impression that prior to Kyid de Nyimagon’s arrival Ngaris was not ruled by anyone or it was an uninhabited area. This was unfounded. Moreover, it should be remembered that prior to seventh century, Khyung lung ngul khar (the silver castle of Khyung lung) was an independent and a great centre of political power with numerous principalities in and around Manaskhanda. It

Kyid de Nyima gon, with the help of his followers and his military abilities, soon strengthened the kingdom of his father-in-law. He built fortified towns and forts in strategic places. He subdued rebel chiefs, unruly nomads and professional robbers. Even till early twentieeth century, this region was known as the place of ‘saints and robbers’ Kailas Manasarovara region was infested with robber (Jag pa). The Italian explorer and traveler of the Himalayas G.Tucci and his colleague Ghersi were instigated to name their travellougue Santi e briganti nel Tibet ignoto in 1937.

Kyid de Nyima gon extended his kingdom from Lo man thang, Jumla, to Handza. He subjugated, Mon, Sin, Yaskin and Tibetan speaking regions down to the Baltistan. He had divided his kingdom amongst his three sons. They are known as ‘Three Lords of upper region. (Tod kyi gon sum). The eldest son Pal gyi gon received Maryul (Ladakh), an area between Rudok to Zo ji la. The middle son Tashigon received Purang, that includes, Manaskhanda, Guge, Jumla and Lo Manthang. Whereas, the youngest son Detsug gon was given Lahul, Spiti, Pichog and Zanskar. In the kingdom of Palgyi gon, many monasteries were built. His kingdom flourished with peace and prosperity. There was a free exchange of culture and intermarriage with Gilgit (Bru sa) and Uddyana (O-rgyan).

The second son Tashigon, who was ruling in Purang, had two sons. Srong nge (Dang sron de) and Khor re (Khor lo de). The King Srong nge doubted the purity of religious practices prevailing in his kingdom. He issued ordinance (ka shog) to religious heads and abbots to maintain sanctity of Buddhist practices and later himself became monk along with his two sons Devaraja and Nagaraja. Hence he became known as Lha Lama Yeshe Od. (Devaguru Jnanaprabha). He sought ordination in front of the statue of the Buddha and also abdicated his royal throne in favor of his younger brother Khor re. Lha de, the son of Khor de, had three sons Od de, Zhi ba Od and Jang chub Od. Od de succeeded his father. Zhi ba Od became the first royal monk translator (Lo tsa ba) and Jangchub Od also joined monastic order. He joined Yeses Od, Lha de and Od de in attempt to invite Atisha Dipamkara from Vikramshila Mahavihara to Tibet for propagation of Buddhism.

With the collective insistence and efforts of the royal inmates, venerated monks, Atisha conceded to visit Tibet despite his advanced age of sixty. With assistance of senior native Buddhist master Rinchen Zangpo, alongwith generous hospitality extended by the royal monk Jangchub Od, revival of Buddhism in Wrestern Himalaya gained further momentum. Prior to Atisha the Lha Lama Yeshe Od and Rinchen Zangpo had already initiated reformation of distortions into the sublime teachings of The Buddha. During this period besides construction of numerous monastic institutions, large numbers of classical Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit were systematically translated into Tibetan Language.

In accomplishing such stupendous task more than hundred Indian Buddhist masters, mostly from Kashmir and central India, went to Tibet and hundreds of Tibetan disciples came down to Indian plains for both study and pilgrimage to Buddhist sites. Thus Indian religions and philosophy survived in these Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan regions since ages. The Western Himalaya provides a window to our national legacy of composite culture. It is holy and revered because it has provided sacred space for many ethnic groups, religious traditions and native belief systems which is our national identity of which every Indian feels proud.

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