Join our Mailing List

"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."


December 8, 2009


Photos referred in the article can be viewed at the author?s blog site

One evening at McLeod Ganj, in the late ?90s, a couple of my sarjor (new
arrival) friends from Lhasa brought Taktra Rimpoche over to my house. He
was the incarnation of the last regent of Tibet who died in 1951, or
thereabouts. Rimpoche had been a small boy when the ?59 Uprising took
place but in its aftermath he was imprisoned along with a number of
young trulkus: Reting Rimpoche, Khardo Rimpoche, Drigung Kyapgon and
others at a special laogai facility. After Deng?s ?liberalization? these
young lamas were released from prison and ?rehabilitated?. Taktra was
appointed one of the vice-chairmen of the Tibetan Buddhist Association.
Rimpoche had, of course, come from Lhasa to Dharamshala to meet His
Holiness, but he was young and outgoing and my Lhasa friends thought he
might enjoy talking to me.

It was a memorable evening. Rimpoche had a fund of remarkable stories,
and though he only drank tea, at the time, he was as animated as the
rest of us who were drinking beer or rum. Rimpoche and the other young
trulkus were held at a special sort of labor camp where they not only
dug ditches and hauled ?night-soil? (human excrement used as manure) as
other Tibetans had to. Instead the Chinese, in their typically
?sado-didactic? way, assigned them to become slaughterers, butchers and
fishermen, as a hands-on Marxist-Leninist education on the fallacy of
Buddhist compassion. Rimpoche became a fisherman and fished the waters
of the Yamdrok Lake and the great Namtso Lake in the Changtang. Among
other stories, he told us of a night when their nets got entangled with
a monstrously large creature that nearly overturned their old steamboat,
before tearing the net and getting away.


Rimpoche also talked about fishing in the district of Jun. The area was
rocky and infertile so the inhabitants fished for a living. I knew of
this district since the locals traditionally had their own opera
(ache-lhamo) company in pre ?59 Tibet. Rimpoche said he met some of the
local fishermen who used traditional nets woven out of yak-hair. He
noticed that the weave of their nets, the mesh size, was rather large,
and he asked them why they did not use Chinese nylon nets, which had
much closer weave mesh.

One of the older Jun-pa told Rimpoche that in the past the Tibetan
government regulated the mesh size of their nets. Periodically, the
district officials would come to Jun to check the nets of the
fisher-folk and make sure that a prescribed number of fingers (I forget
how many) could slip in and out of each weave. The official would also
read from a proclamation of some kind to the population, telling them
that it was important to make sure that no tiddlers or baby fish were
caught in their nets, and that the small fish should be allowed to breed
and grow. Otherwise, there would be a shortage of big fish which, in the
course of time, would negatively affect the livelihood (tsowa) of the
people of Jun. Taktra Rimpoche seemed very impressed that even after a
decade of Communist indoctrination about the evils of old Tibetan
society (chitso nyingpa) the fishermen of Jun believed in the rightness
of their old ways of doing things and the regulations of the Tibetan

I have been somewhat long-winded in telling this story, but I wanted
readers to appreciate the gritty reality of this environmental tale. We
Tibetans are rightfully proud of the fact that we were traditionally
kind to animals and did not thoughtlessly exploit our wildlife and
environment as the Chinese are now doing in their frighteningly mindless
and rapacious way. Yet at the same time we have been unable to present
this positive and admirable aspect of our society and culture in a way
that supports our demands to be allowed to rule ourselves and take care
of our own land and environment.

I feel we make the mistake of presenting our case near exclusively in
terms of religious sentimentality, of people who would not kill a
mosquito, sort of thing, largely to underscore, it seems to me, our
official ideology of pacifistic quietism. This was reflected in a cringe
making scene in the film Seven Years In Tibet where Tibetan labourers
and monks frantically rescued earthworms from a building site, and the
entire Namgyal Monastery performed pujas for the spiritual benefit of
the worm?s (?In past life, this innocent worm your mother, your father.
Please no more hurting!?). When this scene, worthy of Saturday Night
Live, played on the screen I wanted to crawl under my seat.

The Tibetan government did not just tell its subjects (mi-ser) at Jun
that fishing was an un-Buddhist thing to do. Clearly the people of this
district had to make a living, and pay their taxes. So though there was
a religious predisposition against fishing[i] an exception had to made
for the Jun-pa, and other people under similar circumstances. So laws
and regulations were put in place to ensure that fishermen (also
farmers, herdsmen, gold-miners and others) did not exploit their
resources to a degree where it would adversely impact the local
environment or the livelihood of everyone else ? and their own. The
fishermen of Jun were even allowed to sell their catch in Lhasa and
other towns and hamlets. In the interest of religious propriety, though,
the peddlers would shout ?chu-labu say? or ? water radishes for sale?.
It didn?t fool anyone, but niceties were observed. Some Lhasa folk
enjoyed a dish of nyap-jen or fish tartare (with their tsampa), spiced
with garlic and hot chilli.

However high-minded the religious concepts behind Tibetan ecological
practices, what is impressive is the way the Tibetan government and
religious and social institutions, implemented them in practical and
commonsensical ways: through legislation, moral codes, annual festivals
and observances, and conservancy institutions, all diligently recorded
in government archives and regularly publicized to the Tibetan people.
This probably makes Tibet one of the few nations in the world before the
20th century to undertake such long-term ecological programs in this
surprisingly contemporary manner.


The most well known way in which the Tibetan government publicized, or
made known to the populace, it laws and observances regarding wildlife
conservation and other matters, was through the ?Mountain Valley Edict?
(ri-lung tsatsik). This edict was issued by the government every year
after the New Year/Monlam celebrations in Lhasa, and copies of it were
distributed to every district throughout Tibet. Rebecca French, the
scholar on Tibetan jurisprudence, was told by ??a former clerk in the
Private office of the Dalai Lama who had himself copied it (the edict)
hundreds of time over several years?? That the work of copying many
hundreds of the document by government clerks began?right after the new
year?. He also ?confirmed that the decree was forty-five lines long and
done in the best script and on the best papers with large seals in red
ink at the top and bottom.?[ii]

When such an edict arrived at a district headquarters, the dzong-pon,
the district magistrate/administrator, would first place the folded
document on his head. He would then pass it over the purifying smoke
(sang) of juniper or sage, before opening the document and reading it.
The next day, the people of the district would be summoned, generally in
the courtyard before the dzong or the castle, which housed the district
administration. The dzong-pon would read the entire edict aloud to the
gathered populace. He would finally read out the full name and titles of
the Dalai Lama or regent in question, the Tibetan year and date when the
decree was issued, and make mention of the official seal. He would also
issue a warning that people who violated the edict would be punished and
there could be no excuses as they had all heard it read to them. The
official would then hang up the document ?under the eaves of the
district house on a wooden board.? Sometimes it might be displayed under
a canopy or within a sheltered space. Once the official had gone back
into the castle, everyone would gather around the edict, to read it or
touch their heads against it, hence receiving the blessings of the Dalai
Lama, as represented by his large red seal.

Mountain Valley Edict in enclosure. Photo: Hugh Richardson.

The document is around forty inches wide and from eighty to a hundred
inches long. It is a single sheet of seamless Tibetan paper especially
manufactured for this purpose. The main text is penned in black ink
though a few phrases are customarily written in red. The calligraphy is
invariably exquisite and always in the druk-tsa style. Many of these
edicts are decorated with paintings of auspicious symbols. One document
I saw had a golden pagoda roof on the top of the page with flower
designs growing from two bhumpa (flower pots or vases) and spiraling up
two long columns on either side of the text. A small lotus throne might
be painted under the seal of the Dalai Lama or the regent, which in turn
might be held up in the paws of a snow lion or sometimes a garuda.

The edict always has a standard introduction describing Tibet as the
?land of snows? where the Buddha?s teachings were followed, and provide
an overview of the rights and duties of every Tibetan. It also instructs
government officials, central and local, to dispense justice in an
impartial manner and admonishes them against exploiting the people. The
main text might also contain ??such details as the interest allowed on
government loans, private loans, and contracts.? One edict specifically
prohibits the charging of compound interests on all loans. This probably
makes the old Tibetan government, in this instance, a more enlightened
institution than the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

The Mountain Valley edict generally deals with wildlife conservation
towards the middle of the document. This excerpt below is from an edict
issued, coincidently, by the regent of Tibet, Taktra Rimpoche in 1944:

??for the sake of the dharma and for the benefit of all sentient beings,
the village heads, officials and governors of all districts of Tibet are
commanded to prevent the killing of all animals, except hyenas (sic:
phara or wild dogs) and wolves. The fish and otters of the water,
animals of the hills and forests, the birds of the air, all animals
endowed with the gift of life, whether great or small must be protected
and saved. Governors must see that the contents of this decree are
carried out fully.?[iii]

This second excerpt is from 1901 edict issued by the 13th Dalai Lama and
translated by Dr. Tenzing Choddak of New York.

?From the first Tibetan month of the year, the occasion for
commemorating the miraculous feats of the Buddha (mon-lam chen-po,
sMon-lam chenpo), until the thirtieth of the seventh month, all Tibetans
must strictly observe the law of the prohibition of hunting. Tigers,
leopards, brown bears, wild dogs and mice must not be killed. Generally,
birds, untamed animals, fishes, seals (sic: otters) and carnivorous wild
animals are included in this law of prohibition. In short, all
undomesticated living creatures are not to be killed. ? (though) the
official decree about prohibition will be issued from time to time, the
district officials, especially in the hinterland, should not relax the
supervision of the said prohibition policy due to negligence or personal
greed? from this time onwards, the prohibition decree must be studied,
explained and distributed without delay. The lives of all living
creatures, big or small, may not be harmed so as to promote the peace
and happiness of all sentient beings.?[iv]

I was told by the late Sonam Tomjor Tethong, a scholar and a government
official in old Tibet, that the injunctions against killing of predators
as wild dogs and wolves (phar-chang) might vary from year to year
depending on circumstances. For instance if herders had had a
particularly hard winter with the resultant loss of cattle, then killing
of such predators might me allowed, or in case the wolf or wild dog
population became excessive. But in certain years of national calamity
or a Dalai Lama?s ?obstacle? (kag) year, all hunting might be banned

One Western scholar on Tibet, noting the duration and specificity of
annual bans on killing wildlife, has written that consideration should
be given to the fact that the ban period ??coincides with the pregnancy
and birthing seasons for major game animals.? He further mentions that
?? several of my Tibetan informants confirmed that there was a
pre-modern awareness about prohibiting hunting during breeding and
pregnancy periods.?[v]

Excerpts from edict issued by Demo Regent. Courtesy of Tashi Tsering

The origins of the Mountain Valley edicts are not clear. A Tibetan
government website mentions that, ?As early as 1642, the Fifth Dalai
Lama issued a Decree for the Protection of Animals and the Environment.
Since then, such decrees have been issued annually.?[vi] The director of
the Amnye Machen Insitutute, the incomparable scholar, Tashi Tsering,
told me that while this could be accepted as a formal beginning for the
issuing of edicts by the government, there were textual references to
such edicts during the Rimpung dynasty and the Tsangpa rulers. Tashi la
was also kind enough showed me an old Mountain Valley edict issued in
the Wood Dog year (1814) by the second Demo trulku, (demo kutok nyipa)
who was regent of Tibet at the time.


Aside from the issuing of edicts instructing the populace, the Tibetan
government and clergy appear to have undertaken more specific hands-on
projects to ensure the protection of wildlife and the environment. One
approach was through ?sealing the hills and the valleys?, (ri-gya
lung-gya dompa). In a meticulously researched paper, Professor Tony
Huber of New Zealand, tells us that this unique ecological institution
seems to have evolved from an older religio-political system of
?Territorial Sealing? (rgya sdom-pa). But, by the 15th century, this
practice of ?sealing? had evolved into a ??more Buddhist inspired
ethico-legal institutions used to especially prohibit all kinds of
hunting and trapping of wild game animals.?[vii]

Huber also tell us that this practice appears to have become ??the
particular preserve of local / Buddhist lay rulers (usually styled khri
or chos-gyal), or heads of states such as the regents and Dalai Lamas.?
The first comprehensive examples of ri-rgya lung-gya territorial seals
to specifically prohibit hunting and fishing are found in documents
issued by the lay Tibetan ruler of Gyangtse, Rabten Kunsang (who also
built the amazing Kumbum stupa-cum-temple complex) between 1415 and 1440.

In effect, local rulers, monasteries and the (Ganden Photrang)
government put in place a system of, what in modern parlance might be
described as, wildlife sanctuaries, nature preserves, or even national
parks. A comparison could perhaps be drawn to the game preserves of
kings and aristocrats in Britain and Europe. But it should be noted
that, in the latter case, the protection of wildlife, especially deer
and game birds, was undertaken for the exclusive hunting privilege and
pleasure of the monarch or aristocrat in question. Commoners who
attempted to hunt such game were deemed ?poachers? and till fairly
recent times could be imprisoned, even hung for their crimes.

In Tibet the punishments meted out to those who violated a sealed
territory varied, but it does not appear that they were fatal or
necessarily brutal. Fines in kind (offering of communal tea, votive
butter lamps etc. to the monastery) were fairly standard but usually
described as ?offerings?. Sometimes the protective deity (choskyong) of
the monastery or area could be inducted to play a role in enforcing the
hunting ban. For instance the hunter could be made to offer his rifle or
musket to the deity?s shrine; a not inappropriate act, since weapons as
swords, spears or firearms were an acknowledged feature of these
shrines. Also the violator might be made to swear a sacred oath before
the deity, which was usually an effective deterrent, given the
reputation of such fierce deities. The establishment of ?sealed?
wildlife conservation areas was not merely a matter of issuing orders
and inflicting punishment. Individual lamas and rulers also had to be
prepared to invest their own resources in these ventures. Huber provides
the example of the famed Jigme Lingpa, who purchased and sealed whole
mountains as an act of compassion to animals.

Protection was not only extended to wildlife but often to the
environment: the forests, grasslands, lakes and streams. Lama Lobsang of
Ladakh told me of a forest outside Leh which was effectively under the
protection of a fierce deity, who effectively deterred locals from
chopping down trees, and even being mindful when gathering fallen twigs
and branches.

Huber goes into considerable detail about how such ?sealings? were put
into practice, and the different ways the sealed territories were
defined. Many such territories had precise boundaries in relations to
natural landmarks or cultural features often fixed by naming the
specifically designated territories or the nature of the frontiers,
watercourses, passes, etc. of the sealed territory. Other ways could be
less exact but perhaps effective enough and even charming in their own
way. The Seventh Dalai Lama describes the sealed monastic precinct
surrounding Demo Choede Loseling existing at ??a distance as far as the
sound of a conch trumpet can be heard?.

The study also notes that the proclamations and decrees of the Tibetan
government from the 15th century onward, displayed a notable development
towards enumerating the classes and species of wild animals to be
protected, as well as those to be exempted. An excerpt from one decree:
?This legal protection is further extended to include lesser creatures
of harvest and control, such as birds, fish, otters, and even bird?s
eggs and bees. The stock phrase is ?all creatures great and small
dwelling on dry land and in water? (srog chags skam gsher du gnas pa che
phra thams cad).?

One interesting historical/legal conclusion that Huber draws is that
?Establishing a ri-rgya klung-rgya territorial seal became a legislative
act. Indeed, we gain almost all our detailed knowledge of later ri-rgya
klung-rgya type sealing from historical Tibetan legal and administrative
documents, including codes of monastic regulations or monastic
constitutions (bca?-yig), public proclamations and decrees (rtsa-tshig,
bca?tshig, bka?-shog, etc.), and state law codes (khrims-yig)

Even areas of Tibet not under the central government, where political
control was fragmentary and law and order often absent, seemed to have
somehow adopted similar practices, though perhaps in less comprehensive
ways. Informants from parts of Amdo and Khams told Huber of local forms
of ?sealing? which they described as ?ri-trims? (mountain laws) or
?ri-gya? (mountain seal).

Namkhai Norbu Rimpoche noted the use of customary territorial sealing
when visiting the pastoralists of Dzachukha and Golok Sertha in 1953.


Among his many observations of Tibetan national character Charles Bell
noted that ?Most Tibetans are fond of birds. Certainly the Dalai Lama
was. Whenever I visited him, there was always a bird or two, not far
away, perhaps a talking myna from India?.? In the many stories and
anecdotes I heard from my mother and other older Tibetans, there would
be constant references to the birds of Tibet especially the crane
(tung-tung), the lammergeyer (jha-goe) and the cuckoo (khuyu). They
would sometimes mention a special shrine dedicated to birds somewhere
near Tsetang, south of the Tsangpo, at the head of the Yarlung valley.

I first came across a written reference to this unique place in the
Guide to Holy Places of Central Tibet by Jamyang Khyentse, the previous
incarnation of my root guru, Jamyang Chökyi Lodrö. Khyentse Rimpoche
mentions that this temple, the Yarlung Jha-sa Lhakang, is ?famous? and
houses the great image of rNam snan (Vairocana) made by the order of the
Chogyal Pel Khortsen.[viii]

Professor Tucci, who traveled in these parts, provides us a little more
information on the temple in one of his books. ?Chasa (Bya sa), an
ancient Sakyapa lamasery. On the lintel of the door, perhaps as old as
the temple itself, eleven animals were carved.?[ix]

Yarlung Jha-sa Lhakang. Photo: Hugh Richardson

But it was that intrepid explorer and one of the earliest Tibet experts,
Sarat Chandra Das, who gave me the information I was seeking. ?We forded
the Yarlung river?and passing to the villages of Yangta and Gyerpal, we
came to the old sanctuary of Yarlung, called the Chyasa lha-khang or
?the resting?place-of-birds temple?, for the vast flocks of birds which
pass here in their migrations making it a resting-place. It is situated
on the banks of the Tsang-po, and is a finely built and well-kept
edifice, with a courtyard and beautifully frescoed walls.?[x]

A more recent reference is in a guidebook by Keith Dowman, who provides
us with some historical information. The temple was built by Chogyal Pel
Khortsen, the grandson of the Emperor Langdarma, at the end of the 9th
century, and it ?was renowned for its statue of Nampar Nangdze
(Vairocana)?[xi]. Dowman also tell us that the site of this ancient
monument ??one of the oldest foundations of Tibet?, and carefully
preserved till 1959, ??now consists of small heaps of rubble marked by a
tharchen pole.?

But in pre ?59 Tibet, on the fifteenth day of the third Tibetan month
(early May) a special ritual and celebration took place at this temple
to welcome the cuckoo, the king of the birds, and all the other birds
migrating north from across the Himalayas. Two officials were dispatched
from Lhasa to welcome the king of the birds. In a park (lingka) by the
temple, all kinds of grain ? barley, wheat, peas and so forth ? would be
spread out on large felt sheets and mats. Tables would also be set up
where butter tea, barley ale (chang), Tibetan cookies (khapsay), dried
fruits and nuts would be served and where two special votive butter
lamps called the khuyu chome or ?cuckoo lamps? were lit.

It is claimed that the cuckoo does not fly directly to the temple, but
stops at the Shel Drak or Crystal Rock before the Vulture Plain (Jha-goe
Lingka), a few miles south of the temple. There he rests, preens his
feathers and otherwise prepares himself for the coming event. The cuckoo
king also dispatches a scout or emissary bird (khu-da), to reconnoiter
the area ahead and check that preparations for the festival had been
made and everything was in order.

Then the cuckoo would fly to the temple and after calling three times,
alight on the table and partake of the offerings. Flocks of other birds
would also alight and begin to feed. The local population would observe
the ceremony with reverence and, possibly, gratification. The timely
arrival of the birds was considered a good omen and a promise of a
bountiful harvest. The Lhasa officials along with the officials of
Tsetang Dzong and the sacristans of Jasa temple and the headman of Jasa
village would preside over the ceremony. The Lhasa officials would read
from a document which would instruct the birds to abide by the laws of
the Buddha?s teachings, and for the cuckoo king to enforce the laws

It is not only Tibetans who have regarded the cuckoo as an avian monarch
of sorts. Aristophanes in his play, The Birds, went one further and made
the cuckoo the king of Egypt and ?the whole of Phoenicia?. But, royalty
or not, the cuckoo has been a welcome bird in most cultures, a harbinger
of warm weather and the easy time of the year. As the mediaeval English
song goes: ?Sumer is icumen in, Laud sing Cuckoo.?

As might be expected, the cuckoo has also found a place in Tibetan
religious symbolism. A fundamental Dzogchen text, The Six Vajra Verses,
is also called The Cuckoo?s Song of Total Presence, ?as the cuckoo?s
first call is the harbinger of spring, so the six verses introduce the
total presence of the nature of mind.?[xiii] I would, personally,
recommend a charming and wonderfully Jataka-like folk story, of how the
birds of the Himalayas met under the leadership of the cuckoo on a holy
mountain and how they were instructed in the Buddhist way of living and
thinking. Written by an unknown Tibetan lama three centuries ago, and
translated by the late Edward Conze as The Buddha?s Law Among the
Birds[xiv], the book is available in a revised Indian edition (2002)
with a preface by Professor J. Bacot.

Reting Monastery. Photo: Hugh Richardson

One month after the event at the Yarlung Bird Temple, a similar ceremony
took place at the monastery of Reting, founded by Atisha?s chief
disciple Dromtonpa in 1056. This important Kadampa center is located in
a beautiful valley eighty kilometers due north of Lhasa. Rakra Rimpoche
of Switzerland told me about the bird festival that took place there on
the fifteenth day of the fourth Tibetan month, which was called the
Reting Khuyue Choepa or the ?Reting Cuckoo Offering?. The monks of the
monastery also performed a special cham (religious dance) for the
occasion and a feeding of the birds also seemed to have taken place as
at Yarlung.

Charles Bell points us to where another such bird festival might have
taken place. ?It is believed that every year the birds hold their
parliament at a large lake north of Lhasa, where justice is administered
by their king, the cuckoo. The saying runs that law and justice will
prevail among men and women for so long as there is law and justice
among birds ? so he (the Dalai Lama) sends a yearly deputation to this
parliament of birds. A lama addresses them on the importance of law and
order, and at the same time gives them a present of food.? [xv]

Namtso Lake and Nyenchentangla range

One cannot be certain but the ?large lake north of Lhasa? is most likely
the great Namtso Lake in the Changtang, 190 kilometers due north of
Lhasa. This highest body of saltwater in the world is home to countless
birds, resident and migratory, who lay their eggs on the shore and breed
there. The wildlife in this area was once exceptionally varied and
abundant, but has been greatly depleted due to commercial fishing and
hunting by the Chinese. This entire area is said to be under the
protection of one of Tibet?s oldest mountain deities, Nyenchenthangla,
ruler of the ?Trans-Himalaya? as Sven Hedin has described this range.
The goddess of the lake, Namtso Chugmo, was considered to be the consort
of the mountain deity.

The largest monastery in the area, at the north shore of the lake, was
the Jha-do gompa, or ?bird confluence monastery?, which was shut down by
the Chinese in 1959 when its monks supported a nomad resistance movement
in the area. It was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution,
and efforts to rebuild it have been consistently blocked by Chinese
officialdom. This monastery, or the area immediate to it, is possibly
the site where Bell?s ?parliament of birds? convened, and where some
sort of annual festival and feeding took place.

One traveler has recently written that the lake ?was the object of an
annual government sponsored ceremony called mTsho rdzes (Riches for the
Lake). This ceremony was also sponsored by the Accounts Department in
the Po ta la and officiated over by the monks of the rNamrgyal grwa
tshang. Its purpose was to ensure the well-being of the people, the
growth of crops and the fecundity of the nation?s livestock. It took
place after the break up of the winter ice-mass.?[xvi]

Jha-sa Temple in Yarlung, Reting monastery, and the Jha-do monastery by
Namtso Lake form an almost straight line on the migration path of birds
flying to the Changtang from Mon, or the Arunachal Pradesh area. So it
is conceivable that these festivals were a way of aiding and supporting
these exhausted migrating birds on the way to their breeding grounds in
the north, and also of making the local public aware of this important

Jha-sa Monastery near Phari. Photo: L.A.Waddell

Another ?flyway? for birds migrating to Tibet appears to be from across
Bhutan and Sikkim, through the vicinity of the Chomolhari mountain near
Phari. Thomas Manning came across the lake Sam-chu Pelling around the
Phari district near Chomolhari, and wrote that it was ??half frozen but
well stocked with wild ducks and geese. He also came cross herds of
antelope and kyang. Interestingly enough, Manning and other early
English travelers to Tibet mention the existence of a Jha-sa Gompa
(Chatsa and Chassa Goombah) or ?bird sanctuary monastery? in this area.
Wadell locates the monastery on ?the flank of Chomolhari.?[xvii] and
adds that Captain Turner?s mission lodged there in 1783.

Samuel Turner calls this lake ?Rhamtchieu? and provides a detailed
account of the bird-life in this area: ?The lake is frequented by a
great abundance of water-fowl, wild geese, ducks, teal, and storks,
which, on the approach of winter, take their flight to milder regions.
Prodigious numbers of saurasses (sic), the largest species of the crane
kind, are seen here at certain seasons of the year, and they say, that
any quantity of eggs may then be collected; they are found deposited
near the banks.?[xviii]

When Spencer Chapman attempted the ascent of the sacred mountain in
1937, he noted that when the expedition was proceeding toward the Jha-sa
monastery for the ascent of Chomolhari, he saw ?Brahminy ducks flying
noisily over us from the south, and very high up we saw a buzzard with
pale head and tail, several vultures and the usual horned larks and snow

Jhomolhari and Rham-chu Lake: Photo: Ernst Schafer

Manning makes it fairly clear that the area was an official sanctuary
for birds and other wildlife. He notes: ?We should have had excellent
sport, but for my friend Paima?s scruples. He strongly opposed our
shooting, insisting that it was a great crime, would give much scandal
to the inhabitants, and was particularly unlawful within the liberties
of Chumalhari.?[xx]

Further east of Chomolhari and Kanchenjunga we have the Mount Everest
region. It is hard to imagine why birds would use such an inhospitable
and perilous area as a possible crossing point, but I recall a nature
documentary about birds attempting to fly across the Everest range, and
succeeding ? after a couple of desperate attempts. Was it possible that
even in such a desolate and remote part of Tibet some sort of official
protection (perhaps even support) was traditionally accorded to the
wildlife there?

When Charles Bell asked for Tibetan government permission to climb
Everest in 1921, the Dalai Lama gave him a strip of Tibetan paper, which
contained the name of the district and location and other details of the
mountain. This note made by one of his staff read ?To the west of the
Five Treasuries of Great Snow Mount (Kangchen Dzonga), in the
jurisdiction of White Glass Fort (Shelkar Dzong) near Inner Rocky Valley
(Dza Rong Buk) monastery is the district called ?The Southern Country,
where Birds are Kept? (Lho Chamalung).?

Later Bell had a conversation with ??that alert and widely read man, the
Peak Secretary.? The Secretary told him ??that the Tibetan name for the
mountain was Kang Chamalung, adding that Chamalung is short for Cha
Dzima Lungpa. (It is the usual practice in Tibetan to shorten names in
this way.) Kang means ?Snow Mountain?; Cha means ?Bird?; Dzima means
?taken care of? Lungpa means ?Country.? Thus the name at length means
?The Snow Mountain in the Country where Birds are taken care of.? Or
?The Snow Mountain of the Bird Sanctuary.??

Bell also writes ??The Peak Secretary told me that an old and well known
book, the Mani Kabum, records that in the times of the kings of Tibet,
during the seventh and eighth centuries of the Christian era, a large
number of birds were fed in this district at the expense of the

Rongbuk Monastery 1922. Photo: Capt.J.B.L.Noel

Captain Noel, who was the photographer for the first two Everest
expeditions provides a translation of their Tibetan passport in his
account. An excerpt: ??We have requested the Sahibs to respect the laws
of the country when they visit Chomolungma and not to kill Birds and
Animals.?[xxii] Captain Noel also mentions that the area around Everest
was called Chamalung or ?The Sanctuary of the Birds? and that ??all wild
creatures live there unharmed and untouched?.

Rongbuk Monastery 1981. Photo: Galen Rowell

Observing the cheerful monks at the Dza Rongbuk Monastery, Noel writes
that Tibetans were fun-loving and ?laughter is universal in
Tibet?although they lead as hard a life as any of the human race.? He
also makes this observation: ?One thing about the lamas that catches
your immediate sympathy is their gentleness. On the whole they and the
Tibetans at large are extremely kind. They are almost fantastically
humane towards animals, especially wild creatures.?[xxiii] This and
other reports from the expedition about birds and wild animals accepting
food from the hands of hermits and lamas, created a lasting and positive
impression in the West. The fact that Noel?s two films and accompanying
lectures and slide-shows were, at the time, major media events on both
sides of the Atlantic, almost certainly contributed to a fresh Western
perception of Tibet as a magical and utopian idyll. It replaced, to a
considerable degree, the previous image of the country as a barbaric,
xenophobic, priest-ridden backwater, which British travelers, before and
around the period of the Younghusband expedition, had managed to create;
in some cases clearly as a rationalization of the military invasion ? a
casus belli.

Peter Hopkirk. the popular writer on Tibet, Central Asia and the ?Great
Game?, touches on this lasting contribution to the Tibet fantasy that
the early Everest expeditions were possibly responsible for. ?The silent
valley (Dza Rongbuk), untouched by the passing of time, ran wild with
small creatures which showed no fear of man. Perhaps it was the climbers
accounts of this lost Tibetan valley and its monastery which inspired
James Hilton?s Shangri La in Lost Horizon.? [xxiv]

In a previous essay, I wrote that this particular representation of
Tibet, for which Hilton?s novel has been the principal inspiration and a
wellspring for fantasy fiction of this kind, cannot be dismissed out of
hand by hostile critics of Tibet, or wished away by Tibetan realists.
Yet it is important for us to ensure that what was real, and positive
and admirable about Tibetan civilization, not be turned into fantasy,
cuteness and mush, as is unfortunately happening in all too many cases.

Many Western travelers writing about Tibetan kindness to animals, tend
to focus on the unusual and bizarre, unintentionally lampooning this
national virtue. Even an old friend such as Heinrich Harrer exaggerates
the conduct of Tibetans in this regard. I mentioned the business of
earthworms earlier, but Harrer also talks about Tibetans going into a
panic when a fly falls into a teacup. Granted, one or two of Harrer?s
aristocratic lady friends might have done that, but most other people:
farmers, nomads, muleteers and so on, would have just poured out a bit
of their tea along with the fly (trying not to kill it, of course), and
gotten on with their breakfast, without any fuss.

Nearly all British travelers have represented Tibetan antipathy to
hunting and fishing as a product of religious superstition ? people
believing that wild animals and birds were reincarnations of their dead
parents or grandparents. This is, of course, simply nonsense. None of
these travelers seem to have asked themselves if Tibetan religious
belief restricted parental reincarnation to wildlife and not
domesticated animals. When these same travelers write about banqueting
with Tibetan officials or their Tibetan friends, consuming dishes that
presumably contained mutton or beef, no mention is made of reincarnating
parents or metempsychotic cannibalism.

There is a general folk belief that the ruling deity of certain
mountains and the nagas of certain lakes or springs might punish those
who hunted or fished in those areas. There is also the belief that
polluting certain bodies of water would bring about punishment in the
form of sickness and ill fortune. But this ?superstition? does not seems
to have been entirely capable of restricting Tibetans from fishing (as
in Jun) or hunting, when they had too. Tibetans were fond of guns, and
hunting, in spite of the religious injunctions and prohibitions, was
fairly widespread in Tibet. It was particularly popular with young
people in nomadic areas, in Eastern Tibet and with the poorer sections
of society who often supplemented their diet with game.

Of course the laws and injunctions against hunting definitely helped to
limit and curb the practice, and therefore they were not just decorative
expressions of theological sentiment, but served an important and useful
ecological function. Also, at some point in most people?s lives the
Buddhist injunction against taking life did make itself felt. Stories of
hunters giving up their weapons and taking to a life of spirituality are
fairly widespread, in literature and real life.

Besides the superstitions and folk-beliefs that existed within
traditional rationalizations for protecting wildlife, we must take into
special consideration the Buddhist recognition of the sacredness of life
in all its forms. For Tibetans, taking the life of a creature is wrong
because the animal has as much reason and justification to exist, in and
of itself, as a human being does, though it might be on a lower rung of
the evolutionary or karmic ladder. It is clearly at variance with the
standard Christian/Western view that animals were created to serve man.
In Genesis God tells Adam and Eve, ?Be fruitful and multiply, and fill
the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and
over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon
the earth.? Hence, the most commonly expressed rationale in the Western
world for protecting wildlife and endangered species, that ??our
children and grandchildren won?t see them in the future.? would appear
somewhat grotesque and self-centered to Tibetans.

More recently, some Western interpreters of Tibetan culture and New Age
Tibetans have attempted to depict the Tibetan attitude to nature, or
environmental philosophy, in terms of primitivism. Comparisons are made
to primal or aboriginal beliefs and practices, particularly those of
Native Americans. ?The earth is my mother, the sky is my father? sort of
thing. For all their good intentions I think that such comparisons are
neither helpful nor accurate.

The iconic Claude Lévi-Strauss, ?the father of modern anthropology?, who
died just a month ago, argued that the mythologies and cultural thinking
of primitive tribes displayed remarkably subtle systems of logic,
showing rational mental qualities as sophisticated as those of Western
societies. But Lévi-Strauss also made sharp distinctions between the
primitive and the modern, focusing on the development of writing and
historical awareness. It was an awareness of history, in his view, that
allowed the development of science and the evolution and expansion of
the West.

Tibetan efforts at wildlife protection and environmental conservation,
might therefore be viewed as a proto-modern endeavor, undertaken by
governmental and religious institutions through environmental
legislation, the establishment of wildlife sanctuaries, and even through
regular ?public-relations events? to teach and remind the people of
their spiritual, national and ecological responsibilities.

Finally, I think that it should be borne in mind that Tibet is not your
tropical (or even temperate) paradise. Agricultural land in Tibet is far
less fertile and water-accessible than that in China or nearly anywhere
else in the world for that matter. The Tibetan plateau is arid,
windswept, in many places close to desertification, and at elevations
that can only be described as exceptionally extreme. The powerful
kingdom of Guge in Western Tibet practically disappeared in the 17th
century because of (among a couple of factors) a drop in the water table
of the region. Areas in Central Tibet have been constantly threatened
throughout history with desertification. The countryside around Samye is
surrounded by actual sand dunes, like a desert, and the local farmers
fight a constant battle against nature to hold on to their patch of

Tibetan farmers have over centuries developed sophisticated yet
sustainable and non-intrusive agricultural techniques, and the Tibetan
system of irrigation (on which agriculture is near totally dependent) is
as much a marvel of traditional technology as of a sophisticated
framework of official and communal regulations, which allow the
efficient and cooperative use of the system. Somehow these things
haven?t received much attention so far, but I hope to write a bit more
about them some day. I have made a passing reference to them today to
suggest that a possible additional reason for Tibetan ecological
sensitivity might stem from a hard practical awareness of the fragility
of the ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau, and perhaps even of the world
we live in, the realization of which most modern nations are only now
beginning to come around to.

This preliminary grab bag of research and writing was posted to coincide
with the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. I don?t think the
confab will do anything for Tibet, or global warming for that matter,
but I hope this piece will provide Tibet related environmental activists
with a cultural and historical counterpoint to the growing and very
disturbing body of information that we now possess about China?s
?ecocide? on the roof of the world.

[i] Western travelers frequently write about the Tibetan religious taboo
against eating fish, pork or chicken (and eggs), similar to the Muslim
or Jewish ban against eating pork. There was a kind of ?folk-belief?
that these three meats were unclean and that giving them up
(nga-phag-gong sum pangba) was an act of merit, but it was not
considered sound theology. There was also an assumption that it was less
harmful to eat beef, since only one large animal like a yak had to be
killed, while many chicken and fish had to be killed for the equivalent
meat. But few people took this very seriously.

[ii] French, Rebecca. The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist
Tibet, Cornell University, Ithica, 1995. p 208, 209 & 213.

[iii] Tibet: Environment and Development Issues (1992): Wildlife
Conservation Decree Issued by Tagdra Rinpoche the Regent of Tibet in
1944.) DIIR CTA, Dharamshala 1992.

[iv] Chhodak, Tenzing Dr. The 1901 Proclamation of H.H.Dalai Lama XIII,
The Tibet Journal Volume iii No.1 Spring 1978. Library of Tibetan Works
& Archives, Dharamshala. p 31

[v] Huber, Toni. ?Territorial Control by ?Sealing (rgya sdom-pa): A
Religio-Political Practice in Tibet.? (PDF). [ZAS 33 (2004)]


[vii] [vii] Huber, Toni. ?Territorial Control by ?Sealing (rgya
sdom-pa): A Religio-Political Practice in Tibet.? (PDF). [ZAS 33 (2004)]

[viii] Ferrari, Alfonsa (translator). (completed and edited by Luciano
Orientale Roma XVI, ISMEO, Roma, 1958. p 54.

[ix] Tucci, Guiseppe. To Lhasa and Beyond, Snow Lion Publications; 2nd
edition, Ithaca, 1987. p 144.

[x] Das, Sarat Chandra. Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet, (Royal
Geographical Society), John Murray, London, 1902. p 234.

[xi] Dowman Keith. The Power-Places of Central Tibet: The Pilgrim?s
Guide, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1988. p 162-163.

[xii] This account of the annual festival has been put together from
discussions and interviews with older Tibetans, and from a brief report
on a tourist website. It seems very likely that this particular report
was originally written in Tibetan by a native scholar, then translated
into Chinese and finally into this near unreadable pinyin dense, English.


[xiv] The original Tibetan title is Bya chos rinchen? phren-ba, or ?The
Dharma among the Birds, a Precious Garland.?

[xv] Bell, Charles. Portrait of a Dalai Lama, Wm.Collins, London, 1946,
p 169

[xvi] Bellezza, John Vincent. Divine Dyads: Ancient Civilization in
Tibet. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamshala, 1997. p 251.

[xvii] Waddell, L.A., Lhasa And Its Mysteries, Methuen & Co., London,
1906. p 117

[xviii] Turner, Samuel Capt. An Account of an Embassy to the Court of
the Teshoo Lama in Tibet, G.W.Nicol, London. p 212.

[xix] Chapman, F. Spencer , Helvellyn to Himalaya; Including an Account
of the First Ascent of Chomolhari, Harper and Brothers, New York and
London, 1940. p 222

[xx] Markham, Clements R. narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to
Tibbet and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, Trubner & Co.,
London, 1876. P 71-72.

[xxi] Bell, Charles. Portrait of a Dalai Lama, Wm.Collins, London, 1946.
p 277-278.

[xxii] Noel, Captain J.B.L. Through Tibet to Everest, Hodder &
Stoughton, London,1927. p 101

[xxiii] Ibid. p101

[xxiv] Hopkirk, Peter. Trespassers on the Roof of the World,John Murray
Publishers, London, 1982. p 210
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank