Drokpa: Nomads of the:Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya

Bookworm Issue 76 Jul, 2010

Daniel Miller is fascinated by nomads, specifically the Tibetan/Himalayan Drokpa. His fascination is infectious. “Moving across the grasslands with their animals, their home a tent, nomads evoke freedom”, he writes in Drokpa: Nomads of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya. ‘Drokpa’ is a Tibetan term meaning ‘high
pasture people’,  an estimated two million of whom live in a vast territory encompassing Tibet and northern  Nepal, India and Bhutan. The Tibetan-speaking Drokpa, he goes on, “cherishes mobility and the liberty to roam in search of grass and water.

Nomads are constantly exposed to the elements of nature rain, snowstorms, and drought; they take these events for granted and face them with remarkable equanimity. Values that humankind admires courage, integrity, generosity are principles instinctive to nomads.” They have deep knowledge of their environment, he says, “and an amazing ability to handle animals a skill rare among most people today.”

Miller has traveled widely among the Drokpa, pursuing studies of grasslands and livestock,  and the people of the black tents who survive in the highest pastures on earth. His book is illustrated with fine black-and-white photographs as well as Miller’s first hand description of Drokpa life in the high country where he has worked for over 30 years. It is as much a memoir as it is a descriptive and well-illustrated account of Drokpa life. The book has seven parts. The Preface describes Miller’s first encounters with highland life in northern Nepal, followed by chapters on the ‘Herders of Forty Centuries’, ‘Fields of Grass’, ‘Herds on the Move’, ‘Sacred Spaces’, ‘Winds of Change’, and ‘The World of Tibetan Nomads’.

On February 9th Miller introduced his book to a packed house at Indigo Galley. He called his talk ‘Hunting the Wild Yak and Chasing Wild Ass: Sport and Adventure on the Tibetan Plateau An American Cowboy in Tibet’.  He came to Nepal with the American Peace Corps in the 1970s and was posted to Langtang Valley. There he developed a passion for yaks, high pastures and nomad people, and learned to speak Tibetan. In 1977 he toured the highlands of west Nepal, mostly in Dolpo, for 10 weeks, crossing 16 passes over 4,800 meters (15,750 ft). These experiences and his keen interest in the Asian highlands led him into a PhD program at the
University of Montana, then back to Asia, this time to northern Tibet. There he studied the grasslands grazed by yak, both wild and domestic. He also encountered the Tibetan wild ass (kiang) along with Tibetan antelope, gazelle, blue sheep, wolf, fox and brown bear.

One of the maps in his book shows where all he has traveled, solidifying his distinction as a Western researcher with perhaps the most exposure to the Tibetan highlands in modern times. His illustrated lecture dealt with all of this, but his fascinating book is focused more specifically on the nomads, their encampments, their livestock and their free spirit.

“With their homes rolled up in bundles and lashed to the back of yaks as they move across the grasslands, Tibetan nomads offer a rare perspective on life”, Miller writes. His book provides an equally rare glimpse of that life through 108 evocative photographs. It is recommended for anyone interested in Tibet, the high Himalayas, or nomads.

Vajra Publications (Kathmandu),
2008, 133pp (illus.). Price 1,600 NRs.