Visiting Tsum Valley

Features Issue 82 Jul, 2010

In May 2008 a team of Nepalese researchers visited the remote Tsum valley of upper Gorkha District near the Tibetan border to conduct an assessment for sustainable tourism planning. These are some of the author’s personal observations of the landscape, economy, culture and people in this remote part of the upper Budi Gandaki river valley.

The western hills are silhouetted in orange, a pleasant northern breeze is now pricking our tanned skin, the hymn of Budi Gandaki with its swirls and slumps is escalating, lush woods nearby are covered in the blanket of darkness. Our Tsum Valley Exploration Team has gathered in the thatched shelter flanked on one side by bhhatis in a line and tents pitched on the other side.

Inspired by this unsullied surrounding and changing landscape, the team is now ready for a review after three days of journey from Kathmandu. The gorge cut open by the Himalayan river Budi Gandaki over thousands of years is a geographical wonder. Rustic Gurung settlements are perched atop the deeply narrowed  rock faces of vertiginous height. Some trails here are hewn through the cliffs and cross over turquoise pools on suspension bridges at the base of streaming waterfalls. 

As the river meanders on its course, the valley opens up at the confluence of Yaru Khola. Since the place provided ample camping grounds and view of snow clad peaks, we decided to settle here for a day. We all know something of the Budi Gandaki valley, which leads to the famous twin peaks of Manaslu, so our exploration this time is of the valley that branches off to Tsum and makes a significant half of the sacred ancient Beyul Cora (a religious circumambulation).

Tsum is one among several ‘hidden valleys’ (beyul) in the Himalaya that are open only to those with a pure mind and heart. Beyuls are believed to have been established by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) himself to protect important Buddhist scriptures from the intermittent war in Tibet. Padma-sambhava was the 9th century Indian sage who brought Buddhism to Tibet and the Himalayas. Here, in these hidden valleys, ancient forms of Buddhism have flourished for centuries without much change.

Beyuls have always been a haven of peace, prosperity and spiritual progress. So is Tsum, which is also known as ‘Kyimolung’, the ‘Valley of Happiness’. The name ‘Tsum’ derives from the word for ‘vivid’ in Tibetan. After reading a booklet on Tsum Valley handed out by Sonam, the secretary of Tsum Welfare Committee and a participant of Tsum Valley Exploration Team, I wondered  how to write about the valley’s diversity. Should it be characterized more by the archaic monasteries and their practices? Or  by the trans-Himalayan features?—as the region distinctly sticks out to the north, deeper than other part of Nepal. Or, by its exclusively beautiful snow peaks? Eventually I found that all of these traits fused in perfect harmony to fetch the name ‘Tsum’ as ‘vivid’.

To start with, as we followed the Tsum Valley that branches off the Budi Gandaki in the north of Ganesh Himal massif, the valley began to open wide. The land there is flat and arable, though wedged between the Churke and Sringi mountain ranges.  The advent of villages was marked with the procession of chortens and mani walls (prayer walls) whose length indicate the prosperity of the village, one longer than the other. Unlike many other places, the stone-work is prominent here with its rudimentary characteristics, untainted with modern beautification. Stone plates and rocks inscribed with chants, auspicious signs and various deities piled up in mani walls bring welfare to the passersby.

The uniformity of each mani wall is punctuated by groups of bulging cylindrical chortens symbolizing the body, mind and speech of the enlightened being. All trails merge at the outer boundary of the village and enter the kani, a spiritual gate, to ward off evil spirits. The ceiling of each gate is painted with a momentous mandala.  Each villages is self-sufficient. The houses are made of rough stones, often two storeyed with the ground floor opening towards a courtyard that is used to shelter livestock. Each cobblestoned courtyard is swathed with fodder, fenced by a stonewall and topped with firewood collected for winter.

A locally made table loom seems flung in one corner with intersecting threads jelling into fabric. A Buddhist flag raised over the courtyard on a long pole is a sign of the prosperity of the family. Each house floor under a stone-tiled roof is dominated by a remarkable kitchen with its well decorated cupboard. Shiny brass pots and goblets deck the shelves. There’s a private altar on one side, a fireplace in the center and low benches to the side. The traditional costume of Tsum deviates in certain ways from the Tibetan style. It has a long wrap-around cloth tied at the waist that goes with special pantaloon.

Well decked out in the traditional attire, Nima told us, however, that the indigenous workmanship is fading. It used to be all woven locally.The Himalayas have been a refuge for seekers of inner peace for thousands of years. This is a mythical land where even predators are believed to shun violence. Fortunately, this remarkable oasis of serenity has been detached from the turmoil we live in, given its remoteness. Sensing that same serenity in the Lungtang Gomba (monastery temple) was like visualizing the odyssey of a sage written in a few hundred pages. 

A strange sensation arose when I saw Ani Dolma, a local nun, treating an infectious wound on a calf with full compassion at the gomba. All lives have equal worth here. Even obstinate ignorance is gently subdued. One wonders if compassion brings peace or if it is peace that implants compassion in every dweller of this serene land. We pitched our tent in the courtyard of the monastery, in a rhorodendron grove at an altitude of 10,850 ft (3300m). The view out the monastery gate was of the snow peak of Ganesh-III.

A series of  stone shelters for Buddhist nuns flanks the monastery towards east, with Ganesh-I as a backdrop. A few other mountains of Ganesh Himal complete the scene. Across the arc at the end of the valley a glacial moraine marks the place where expeditions to the Ganesh Himal sometimes set up base camp. Typical to other alpine settlements, the houses here are built close together, accessed by narrow alleyways. From a distance, each settlement appears as a fort. A monastery usually stands out in the midst of each village, marked by its flags and large size. Cultivated fields glistening with staple crops of wheat or buckwheat, in season, are seen all around.

This particular fold in the Himalayas provides better living conditions than other trans-Himalayan regions, for it has ample greenery, arable land and an amiable climate. A legacy of nonviolence among the Tsumpa (inhabitants of Tsum) has also augmented the wildlife diversity in the region. As the valley climbs up towards Tibetan plateau, the  high pastures are sometimes dotted with wild animals. Higher up, the high passes are easily accessible and are main thoroughfares for trans-Himalayan trade in and out of Tibet. When our exploration team reached as far as the Tibetan border, we found to our surprise that even this hidden valley was not untouched by the new ‘Yarsagompa culture’—the passionate harvesting of that rare high altitude medicinal herb.

Our thoughts of serenity and remoteness were troubled a bit by this new economic invasion. If exploited properly, however, this new Himalayan culture will add yet another dimension to Nepal’s tourism sector. After our exploration of several weeks, we headed back to Kathmandu, full of wonderful memories. With high hopes in our heart, our report emphasized development of a type of tourism that will sustain the region’s fragile nature and culture. Tourism has already created employment and other income-generating activities to benefit local communities, but it also accounts for some social and economic injustices. It should, therefore, be carefully monitored and developed in a planned way to assure equal distribution of income and other opportunities among local people.