Himalayan Mountain Cults:

Bookworm Issue 73 Jul, 2010

Himalayan Mountain Cults is a richly crafted study of Tamang religion in the hills of Nepal, by anthropologist Gabriele Tautscher. It is a book about ancient rituals in the mountains where Tamang live at the northeast of Kathmandu Valley. We hear a lot about the sanctity of high Himalayan peaks, but attention here is on the natural and supernatural features of the northern mid-hills, particularly on ceremonial practices and beliefs associated with the lesser mountains of Sailung and Kalingchok east of the Arniko highway to Tibet, and the sacred lake of Gosainkund north of Helambu. Each is a prominent pilgrimage destination and the focal point of Tamang ritual and communal identity. The book is packed with myths, legends and history, clan origins, communal feasts, death rites, nature deities and spirits, the melding of shamanism with Buddhism and Hinduism, and more. Tautscher’s writing is strong and evocative, and her photographs (97 of them) are remarkable.

Tamangs are the largest and most widespread Tibet-Burman speaking ethnic group in Nepal (5.6% of the population). Their history is closely linked to old Buddhist Tibet and to both the Malla and Gorkha (Shah) rule in Nepal. It is a history of adaptation over many centuries to changes in the surrounding social, religious and political environments, during which Tamang ties to the natural/supernatural environment have remained steadfast. Tautscher also provides one of the best overviews on the origins of Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples in the Himalayan hills (from Tibet).

The book has four parts: (I) Tamang History, Social System and Concept of Space, covering clan structure, language, geography, gender and marriage, and communal relations; (II) The Five Tamang Ancestors of the Sacred Mountain Thulo Sailung, describing the ritual landscape and Shamanist and Buddhist practices, fertility and wealth, the ancestors, and a reordering of the ‘Lords of the Land’ over the past two centuries; (III) Kalingchok and Thulo Sailung: A ‘Female’ and a ‘Male’ Mountain in Tamang Tradition, examining the geographic unity of Kalingchok and Sailung, ethnicity, festivals, a benevolent Mother Goddess, and Hindu-Buddhist rivalries; and (IV) Tamang Offering at the ‘White Lake’ of Gosainkund, revealing the significance of Gosainkund to Tamangs and the Nepalese at large, as well as feasts and offerings at the lake, and legends about Gosainkund and nearby Bhairavkund, the ‘Black Lake’. There are also endnotes, a bibliography, lists of terms (Tamang, Nepali/Sanskrit and Tibetan), and a map.

Tautscher’s photographs are as important to this book as the printed word. They dramatically capture the joy of Tamang marriage and family life, the ecstasy of the ritualists and villagers on pilgrimage and at worship, and the symbolism of mountain shrines, all set in an overwhelmingly beautiful landscape. Most are of shrines and communal events, but near the end of the book there are also photos of a Maoist procession and a stage performance through which they spread their message of martyrdom for the ‘new Nepal’. One is of a ‘Maoist Bard’ dressed in white with a headband emblazoned with the red star, strumming his guitar in memory of those who have “died for Nepal’s history”. He and his comrades are also devotees of a form of cult worship that blends Nepal’s unique brand of Maoism with familiar traditions.

In the Epilogue the author brings the story of Tamang culture full circle, ancient to modern and back, and makes an important contribution to the contemporary anthropology of Nepal. Just as Himalayan/Tibetan Buddhism, which arrived in the Himalayas with Padmasambhava in the 8th century AD, subjugated and incorporated key features of the pre-Buddhist shamanism, so too Maoism (since 1996) binds elements (in this locale) of Tamang religious passion and symbolism into their message. Ancient traditions are hard to ignore and not easily dismissed. And although Tamang youth experience a tremendous disconnect when they encounter all that is new and fascinating in the outside world, their core identity remains deeply rooted in Tamang ritual symbolism, clan allegiances, and the ancient mountain cults.