Places of Power

Slide030Trail across a cliff between Gokyo and Phortse

 Prayer flags flutter at a notch in a jagged, rocky ridge. Our group of Sherpas and foreign trekkers has trekked carefully down the narrow track made slippery by snow, ice, and mud.

 At the pass is a cairn with prayer flags, a labtsa. Each Sherpa companion places a small stone from the path onto the cairn, giving thanks that our trekking group has safely finished this part of our journey. I follow suit.

 Further down the trail, we turn our backs to gusts of wind. In the fury of blowing dust, we hide our faces inside our jackets. Though I see only the ground before me, a vision fills my mind — a hard impact on the back of my head, and then a sudden void.

 I react by taking two steps forward…

 In that instant, a thick board blown off a nearby hut hits the back of my ankle. Shocked, I feel the pain in my ankle ebbing with the realization that the board would have struck my head if I had not stepped forward.

 After the incident, Sherpa friends explain my premonition. “Khumbila, our local mountain god, protects all of us in this Khumbu valley. He may have sent the vision to help you move from harm’s way.”

 Two weeks later, I ask Tengboche Rinpoche about the suggestion that the incident was protection from Khumbila. He is quiet for several minutes, and then says, “Yes, Khumbila helped you by bringing that insight. This means of protection works forthe Sherpas because we understand the power of this place. Although you are not Sherpa, you have lived here long enough.”

 For years, I have heard of Khumbila, the spiritual guardian of Khumbu, but I have never really understood how he protected the valley’s inhabitants. Wondering about recent disasters, I ask, “How about the giant flood last year? Where was Khumbila then?”

 “The flood reminded us to cherish our land. It was going to happen, but very few people were killed. Perhaps Khumbila’s influence held the flood until a day when many people were at a festival high in the yak pastures. Imagine if the flood had happened in October when the trails by the river would have been crowded with Sherpas, porters, and trekkers. Khumbila protected us from that disaster.

 Pic043 Khumbila, the protector of the Khumbu valley Pic045

“Khumbila cannot protect everyone from everything. His protection depends on karma, the impending consequences of our behaviour. If your work here was without merit, if you had not been open to our Sherpa way of seeing the world, you may not have been able to see the vision Khumbila offered.”

 As a Westerner, I had tried at first to intellectually understand this other way of seeing the world. Being with people with different perceptions and assumptions, I gradually learned to perceive and accept other cultures and ways of life. The total immersion in Sherpa culture led not to a rejection of my culture, but to a realization that other ways of being work for people in different geographic situations.

The people of the Himalaya believe the mountain peaks, ridges, passes, fields and homes are the abodes of deities representing the power of the place. The prayer flags, ceremonies, and little rituals of everyday life in these places acknowledge some greater power.

 The Sherpas’ lives embrace extremes: folk belief and a profound spirituality, loneliness and social obligation, deprivation and abundance. The existence of one extreme doesn’t rule out the possibility of its opposite.

 For the Sherpas, Khumbila is the short name of the Khumbu-yul-lha, “Khumbu country- god”. He is the protector of the land, people, and religion of the Khumbu. He is shown riding a great white horse and carrying a tall banner. Rinpoche says, “Khumbila wears the traditional turban-like headgear that men wore in the old days.

 When I was a boy, the mountain had a ring of snow, like the headdress, at its summit.”

Rinpoche tells how the Sherpas’ ancestors brought books from Tibet describing the mountain and a valley that would be a refuge for people fleeing trouble in Tibet. At the centre of this valley is the mountain Khumbila, the abode of the protector deity.

 Sherpas and Tibetans also believe that Everest is the abode of the goddess Jomo Miyo Langsangma. This lovely resident of the earth’s highest place is one of the five Long-Life Sisters inhabiting peaks of the Himalaya. Tengboche Rinpoche describes her:

Pic044 Jomo Miyo Langsangma resides on Everest.

She is the goddess of humans and rides a red tiger. Miyo Langsangma is very pretty. Her skin is orange and bright, flowers wreathe her head, and she wears many colours of silk cloth. She holds a long bowl of food in her right hand and a mongoose that spits out wealth in her left.”

 Legends say this goddess distributes wealth and good fortune. In modern times, expeditions and treks to Everest have brought affluence to many Sherpas. At the start of each expedition, Sherpa crews perform rituals to appease the goddess before entering her abode.

 Pic023The Khumbu Icefall above Everest Base Camp

The Tengboche monks are conscious that the ridge where the monastery sits is the abode of a minor female deity, a lhamo. This day is the annual ritual at the cairn on the ridge to honour the goddess of this place.

 The ridge above Tengboche is 3,000 feet higher than the main Khumbu villages and surrounded by mountains. It rises from forestedslopes to a jagged summit plastered with finely fluted snow. At a low crest of the ridge is a large cairn with prayer flags. This lhapso is a monument acknowledging the power there.

Today, the monks are preparing new flags to place on the lhapso. In the gonda courtyard, two monks are printing flags. The first monk brushes ink onto a wooden block etched with the reverse image of a religious image. He positions a piece of cotton on the block and holds it in place while the other monk runs a roller over the cloth. The image prints onto the fabric. Two older monks stitch the flags onto long bamboo sticks.

 Pic037Two young monks bound back into the courtyard after the twenty-minute trip up and down the mountainside to deliver flags to the lhapso site.

 Each boy grips another armload of bamboo poles against his chest, gingerly balancing the sticks twice as tall as themselves. As they scuffle up the hill, they are careful not to desecrate the flags by letting them touch the ground.

 Monks carry low tables, cushions, ritual instruments, and Thermoses of tea up the ridge. They arrange the cushions and tables along the edge of the forest. A middle-aged monk places sculptures of tsampa (barley flour) and butter, called torma, on a ledge on the cairn. The flat ground by the lhapso becomes an outdoor temple.

 This lhapso is a stone and plaster cairn six feet high. Standing on top, the prayer leader removes old flags and carefully pushes the new flags’ bamboo poles into its earthen top. Other monks pile the old flags and green juniper boughs onto a smouldering fire. Fragrant smoke billows from the juniper. It signals that the ceremony is ready to start. Half an hour later all the monks finally arrive at the site.

 The monks sit facing Khumbila to the west, across the gorge from Tengboche. Behind them, large yellow rhododendron blooms cover the trees. The monks blow horns, clatter cymbals, and chant prayers to the deity of the ridge, who personifies the power of this place.

 In the ceremony, Rinpoche recites the prayers with intense concentration. Afterwards, he describes the prayers: “The prayers connect the spiritual with the physical. Our thoughts connect with the power of nature. We restore the harmony between us, nature, and spiritual beings.”

 Slide051Creating harmony with the environment through prayers at TengbochePic011It is not easy living in these mountains. On the narrow trails or in the fields, the immense power of the land can harm or kill. Sherpas do not tame nature; they accommodate this power that is beyond their control. Ceremonies to harmonize humans and nature give people a way to understand their environment.

 Sherpas explain the power of their environment through a view that everything exists in two forms: the physical and the spiritual. They may see a god either as a real personality living on a mountaintop or as a symbol of nature’s power.

  Their beliefs embrace tiers of explanations with deeper and deeper meanings, but all these rituals and objects of everyday life — the ceremonies, prayer flags, and Mani stones — acknowledge some greater power.

 To quote Tibetan writer Thubten Jigme Norbu:  “You find prayer flags on hills, mountains, by lakes and always on the crest of passes. It does not really matter whether these spirits exist. What matters is that through these stories we have come to believe that everywhere, all around us, at all times, there is some power that is greater than ourselves.”

Pic010Some power greater than ourselves — glaciers on Nuptse

 The ritual on the mountainside draws to a close, as the monks’ prayers and horns merge with the whistle of the wind. Smouldering juniper incense mingles with wispy clouds condensing around the mountainside. Pic016Smoke from juniper incense mingles with clouds above Tengboche.

As chants and wind seem to merge the metaphysical and the everyday, I appreciate that moment when a metaphysical being might have intervened in my everyday life.

 

 

 

1 Thubten Jigme Norbu and Colin Turnbull, Tibet: Its History, Religion, and People, Penguin Books, 1968. Pg. 32.

From ‘Gaiety of Spirit: The Sherpas of Everest’  copyright: Frances Klatzel 2009

 

THE POWER OF FIVE RUPEES

“She is too poor to be in the group,” said several women in a microcredit group as a woman in tattered clothing carries a huge load of straw past our meeting place. They had just said that they are the poorest women in the village.

WomenGroup_Sap01_25aNow, the group secretary explained that the woman cannot afford the stipulated monthly saving amount of Rs 50 because her few rupees all get spent before the meeting. Plus, she was too busy as a day labourer to attend the monthly meetings.

This incident, several years ago, was a key to the thinking for CORE’s saving-&-credit project, “A Hand-Up”.

First, the stipulated saving amount excluded the poorest people, so we ensured that there were not any stipulated minimum saving amounts to hinder very poor people from participating in the group.

Secondly, the poorest people survive on day wages that are usually just enough for their basic needs of that day. With demands for food and shelter, they have a hard struggle, if at all possible, to keep enough rupees for a saving group.

DSC00353With our Nepali partner organisation, Society for the Urban Poor (SOUP), we have the facilitators visit the group members each day to collect their few rupees of daily saving whether 10, 30, or 100 rupees.

With the power of even just five rupees per day, most members have gradually increased the amount that they can save each day and built up a saving account that they had never dreamed possible.

Most members (mostly women but a few men) report that they feel a much greater sense of satisfaction and empowerment from saving than from taking loans. Several studies and much larger programs have verified this finding.[1] Each of them knows that their families survived on loan after loan in the villages. But, saving a hundred dollars’ worth of rupees is a real accomplishment to them.

The saving amount of each member then serves as collateral for small loans to meet emergency needs and for capital to purchase more stock or equipment to improve their small enterprises. The loans come from both the saving fund of the group and a revolving fund provided by CORE.

Our stipulation is that the loans are small so that they can be readily repaid and so that the funds are available to more of the members. Some women have taken up to seven rounds of loans, which they repay and then borrow a somewhat larger amount if they need it. Gradually, some of these members join a larger group or cooperative to have access to larger loans.

Most of the ‘graduating’ members stay members of the ‘Hand Up’ group for the sense of solidarity with the other members. But, their moving on for bigger loans is our greatest satisfaction. 

 

Remembering the mountain of people and supplies who made the summit possible

IMG_0058 IMG_0266 IMG_0260 IMG_0107ImageFrom Khumbu to London, celebrations the week of May 29th, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the first ascent of Everest. The celebrations often focus on the two summiteers, Hillary and Tenzing, belying the fact that the actual climb was truly a team effort. While Tenzing was the lead climbing Sherpa, an often forgotten figure is the sirdar, the foreman of the expedition.

“Has my grandfather been completely forgotten?” asks Tashi Sherpa of Tengboche as we sort through a bag of old photographs.

As the then renowned sirdar (foreman) of the 1953 Everest Expedition, Tashi’s grandfather, Dawa Tenzing of Khumjung managed the virtual mountain of supplies, porters, Sherpa high altitude porters, and logistics. He ensured the safe transport of over seven tonnes of supplies and equipment from Kathmandu to Khumbu. The porters he employed represented the wide spectrum of ethnic peoples of eastern Nepal as seen in old expedition photographs.

At the time of the ’53 expedition, Dawa Tenzing (also known as Da Tenzing) was over 40 and was already a veteran of several Himalayan expeditions. Having gone from Khumbu to Darjeeling in search of work as a young man, Dawa Tenzing had memories of the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Everest in 1924 according to his bio on the Royal Geographic website.

There is no existing record of his expeditions before 1952, but from 1952–63 records show that Da Tenzing was on several expeditions — reaching the South Col twice in both 1952 and 1953. He was sirdar of the 1955 Kangchenjunga expedition, and again went twice to the South Col with the American expedition of 1963.

During the 1980s, I lived with his daughter’s family at Tengboche where Da Tenzing spent his final years, half paralysed after being injured in the bus accident that killed his wife. One foggy afternoon after his death in 1985, his daughter (Tashi’s mother) emerged from the storage room carrying a large dusty old cardboard box. “Since I cannot read, will you go through this to sort out what might be useful and what we can throw away…”

In the afterglow of the 1953 expedition, the British Alpine Club had made Da Tenzin an honorary lifetime member. His remote address had not escaped their mailing list and months later all alpine club mail had duly arrived at Tengboche.

In among the brochures advertising anything from crampons to electric kettles were letters and photographs from the previous generation of climbers from around the world. These included Lord Hunt, with whom he had managed the ’53 expedition, and others from George Lowe to Reinhold Messner.

The photographs revealed Da Tenzing’s close relationship with dozens of expedition climbers from the 1950s onwards. Some showed his attendance at celebratory functions in Britain clad in traditional Sherpa dress and still sporting a long braid wrapped around his head as he met the Queen.

Da, Tenzing spent his last years hobbling around Tengboche monastery as best he could with complete Buddhist devotion. According to his Royal Geographic Society biography, he had “earned respect for his character and his performance as climber and sirdar, and affection for his wicked sense of humor.”

In these 60th celebrations, let’s remember the mountain of men (and some women porters) who made it possible to reach the summit.

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