Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
From Goddess to Mortal: The True Life Story of a Former Royal Kumari
By Rashmila Shakya
Vajra Publications (2005)
The Royal Kumari is one of the most revered figures in Nepal. The most significant of the ten kumari, she is said to be the enamation of the goddess Taleju Bhawani. During her tenure (from age 3-5 through to puberty, when she is replaced) she is treated as such, by everyone from her family (who kiss her feet) to the public (who worship her) to the king (who, in monarchical times, would bow to her). The life and customs surrounding the Royal Kumari have until recently been shrowded in mystery and intrigue. From Goddess to Mortal tells the story of Rashmila Shakya, who was the Royal Kumari from 1984 – 1991, and helps lift the veil of secrecy on a sacred institution that continues to draw strong criticism from international human rights groups.
Significance of the Role
As Rashmila outlines in her book, virgin worship has been a feature of Hindu tradition for over 2000 years. Even today, in some orthodox Hindu families, adolescent girls are still worshipped in certain ceremonies in order to attract the attentions of the deities. Only in Nepal, however, is there a widely accepted practice of worshipping a virgin girl as a living goddess, and of the ten or so kumari in Nepal, the Royal Kumari holds special significance as the most senior and powerful of all – a tradition dating back to the seventeenth century.
In addition to its historically close links with the (now abolished) royal family, the institution of the Royal Kumari has remained so strong because of its inclusive appeal. As Rashmila points out, although girls are only selected from the Skakya caste of the Buddhist Newari people, the institution is primarily a Hindu one, and thus represents a tremendous symbol of unity in a country of such diverse ethnic and religious tradition.
The Royal Kumari is thus revered by almost all Nepalese and attends all of the most important ceremonial events and rituals in the capital, Kathmandu. Despite the abolition of the monarchy in 2007, there is very little public support in Nepal for any radical alteration to what remains one of the most important institutions in the country.
From Mortal to Goddess
Rashmila’s discussion of her transition from ordinary girl to Royal Kumari is largely based on her family’s recollections, but she offers some useful insights into her selection and enthronement.
The process by which the Royal Kumari is selected is relatively complex, although Rashmila argues that it is not as difficult or obscure as is widely reported. There are essentially two components, relating to a girl’s identity and her physical appearance. A Kumari must be between 3 and 5 years and come from the Newari Shakya caste. There must be no history of inter caste marriage in the family and she must not have been through either of the two standard ‘marriage’ ceremonies (ihi and bahrah) for Nepalese girls. In terms of physical characteristics, it is legend that prospective Kumari are subjected to a rigorous physical examination for the 32 bodily perfections (battis lagchan), which range from the mundane - a total absence of scars or bodily marks – to the obscure (the body of a Banyan tree, the chest of a lion, the voice of a duck!).
Rashmila argues that, in practice, the criteria for a potential Kumari “are not nearly as strict as many people think.” In her case, for example, there was a physical examination, conducted by the wife of the royal priest and her daughter, but “it was nor particularly rigorous or intimate. I kept my underclothes on, and was looked over mainly to se if I was cross-eyed, had any birthmarks or scratches, or had lost any of my teeth.” With respect to the 32 perfections, she says, they are actually all assessed on the basis of her horoscope and (traditionally) its compatibility with that of the king.
Finally, she corrects a common misperception of the Dasain ceremony, which most books claim is a rite of passage for new Kumari, requiring the young girl to prove her fearlessness by walking through a dark room filled with 108 recently severed buffalo heads. In fact, she points out, this is an annual ceremony for every Royal Kumari and has nothing to do with the selection process; nor indeed were there more than a dozen buffalo heads, and the dim light is to protect the secrecy of proceedings. As for public concern at the scaring of young girls in this manner, she writes: “I was never afraid then, it was simple one of my many duties… There is never any deliberate attempt to frighten a Kumari, and I have never heard of one being afraid or crying.”
The Life of a Royal Kumari
Rashmila takes the early chapters to walk the reader through her daily routine as Royal Kumari, which was both elaborate and relatively fixed. She was to live for eight years in a single building which she could not leave, except for the dozen or so occasions when her attendance was required at ceremonial events, which she clearly enjoyed and offers an interesting account. She lived with a caretaker family and would see her parents and siblings only once or twice a week in a relatively formal capacity. Her days were filled with rituals such as cleansing ceremonies; she would accept visits from public worshippers seeking enlightenment or healing; and she was expected to act at all times as would a fierce and powerful goddess, namely, she should not cry or smile. She was washed and fed by her caretaker family, who were duty bound to cater for her every whim, and she would be carried or else walk only on white sheets – her feet would literally never touch the ground.
Interestingly, Rashmila always held a strong belief in her power as Royal Kumari, in particular her ability to heal the sick and influence events by her will. “Whatever my failings as daughter and sister, I never once doubted my power. The boy who could not speak was cured after about three weeks of pujas, the blood-vomiting journalist recovered after his forgiveness puja. Judging from the number of offerings I got from other grateful mothers, I must have assisted with any number of problems that I never even really knew about.”
Rashmila accepts the extraordinary nature of her life as Kumari, but of course she knew nothing else and accepted it as her duty and role in society. That said, and although her memories appear to be broadly happy ones, she clearly struggled as a child with the restraint required of a Royal Kumari and missed the normality of spending time with friends and family. Indeed, she speaks often and repeatedly of the countless dolls she had as her main source of enjoyment and, at times, her sole company.
From Goddess to Mortal
On her departure at age 12, Rashmila returned to her family as a “normal” member of society, free of the burdens and lacking the privileges of her previous status as living goddess. Writing of her last few weeks as Kumari, she notes how ill prepared she was for life on the outside. “I was becoming a little curious about what another life would be like, and I had always known that the one I was leading could not last forever. Little did I suspect, however, how totally my life would change, for the past 8 years had done almost nothing to prepare me for the hurly-burly of life in a big family, where everyone pulled their weight and no one was indulged.”
She writes of the emotional difficulties of adjusting to a new life, of her guilt at crying, of her pride at handling money, of how she desperately missed her former home and of her embarrassment at schooling with girls much younger than herself. However, she cautions the reader not to overestimate the difficulties of her readjustment, noting that her emotional imbalance lasted only a year or two and that she had caught up in school by age 16 and went onto college and ultimately to gain qualifications in computing. Indeed, she claims that her time as Kumari did not significantly harm her development: “Of course, I knew very little of the outside world at the time, but that could be said of any number of Nepali children who grow up in isolated mountain villages…. Except that I never quite learned to cope with the English language I cannot see that the experience harmed me in the long run.”
Rashmila lays blame at the door of the local and international media for perpetuating myths as to the life of the Kumari and exaggerating the difficulties Kumari have in adjusting to life afterwards. It is the media, she argues, and their constant attempts to sensationalise the institution, that has led human rights groups to raise questions of child abuse and bring calls for its ending. These calls, she argues, are based on a misunderstanding of the tradition and the effect it has on young women. “I am not trying to claim that everything is perfect about the Kumari tradition. There are many aspects of that can, and should, be criticised, but the criticism must come from an informed stance. A campaign to stop locking up a child in a room full of buffalo heads is likely to accomplish little when nothing like this happens in the first place.”
As to the notion of girls being “imprisoned” in the Che Kumari, Rashmila finds this “confusing” and suggests that some perspective and context is needed when addressing these concerns. “You do not have to look far to see child rights and human rights issues on the streets of Kathmandu…. The daily appers give us countless heartbreaking examples of the plight of the children of our country, some of whom are sold into virtual slavery or trafficked to brothels in India… Compared to them, Kumari is only one girl whose only problem is that she is overly pampered… True she is separated from her family… yet parents continue to send their children to boarding schools, and no one complains of human rights violations.”
Further, Rashmila argues that the institution has in any event undergone significant modernisation in recent years, noting in particular that the higher quality of education a Kumari receives, enabling a much smoother transition to school life. Indeed, not only does she have “absolutely no regrets” with regards to her experience, Rashmila states that, with certain small changes, like the provision of counselling to girls prior to entry and departure of the Che Kumari, to help prepare them better for the outside world, she would have no issue with offering a daughter of her own as Royal Kumari in future.
From Goddess to Mortal is a very quick and easy read, but stands largely apart from the mainstream literature on the subject. This is not merely because it is the first book written by a former Royal Kumari, but because it offers an ultimately positive view of an institution that has received so much criticism in recent years. With the abolition of the monarchy and the enormous such socio-political upheaval in Nepal over the past few years, many commentators are predicting that the present Royal Kumari, Shreeya Bajracharya, may be the last. Rashmila argues that letting the tradition die would be a mistake and, given how strong a symbol of national unity, continuity and stability the Royal Kumari offers the people of Nepal, it would be sadly ironic if this institution is a casualty of the difficult times the country faces.
Rating: 1 out of 5
Sunday, 26 October 2008
On Friday afternoon, Mark had sent round an email to the group with a link to a weather warning. An arctic storm was approaching Scotland and winds on Ben Nevis were expected to be high, gusting to hurricane levels. Most of us were too busy in last minute preparation to give it much thought and no-one mentioned the possibility of cancellation. We were committed and would fly out that night as planned.
We all arrived at Glasgow International airport, met our driver and were on the road by around midnight. The journey to Ben Nevis was marred by a serious car crash a few vehicles in front us, where a car had flipped and hit a tree. Dozens of firemen, police officers and ambulance men were on the scene, and attempts were made to cut free a man trapped inside, but the looks on the faces of the relatives who arrived on the scene told us it was too late for him. It was a truly haunting image and one that I struggled with as we pulled away almost two hours later.
Our van arrived at Ben Nevis at around 4.15am, none of us having slept. We quickly disembarked and put on as much clothing as we could, complete with head torches and glow sticks. “You haven’t got a bloody hope in hell lads”, our no-nonsense driver Craig said, as we made final preparations.
The mood was sombre but filled with a sense of quiet determination and we set off at around 4.30am. It was pitch black but we made good progress for the first hour or so and stuck together as a team. Things got more difficult as we reached higher ground set above the tree lines on the surrounding hills that had sheltered us up to that point. The rain was now torrential and the howling wind was at our backs, literally carrying us up the mountain, step by step. Our clothes and shoes were soaked through, we were getting extremely cold and everyone was just focusing on the next step.
At our first group huddle, about half way up, we decided unanimously to continue upwards. Conditions were awful, but we remained in good spirits. About 40 minutes later, things were beginning to get very serious. The wind was now hurricane force (80mph gusts) and the rain was coming at us from all angles, making it impossible to see or hear anything. We all agreed it had simply become too dangerous and any attempt at the summit could be disastrous, so we reluctantly but sensibly turned back. The brutal descent against the headwinds was extremely tough and at points we had to hold onto each other to avoid being blown off the path. Getting back below the tree line was a relief in itself, although Hillsy probably overstated the matter when he grabbed me and screamed “It’s like f****** Barbados” in my ear.
We finally reached base at around 8.30am, battered, soaked and fairly broken. Over breakfast, we discussed whether we should continue, but with no dry clothing left and reports of similar weather at Scafell Pike, we all agreed to abandon the exercise and head home. As we journeyed back to London we began to hear reports of the hundreds of fell runners who had been caught in the same storms on Scafell and it became clear we had made the right decision.
And so it was that, for reasons beyond our control, the three peaks ended up being half a peak. But this was unimportant. We had all made it back safely and the lessons learned from the experience will stay with us for a long time.
Full credit to the Tenzing boys for showing great spirit throughout the trip and many thanks in particular to G and Laura for making such a huge effort to organise the weekend. It was an adventure none of us will forget.
Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Book Review, October 2008
Warrior Gentlemen: “Gurkhas” in the Western Imagination
Warrior Gentlemen: “Gurkhas” in the Western Imagination
By Lionel Caplan
By Lionel Caplan
Berghahn Books (1995)
Berghahn Books (1995)
Warrior Gentlemen is an academic exploration of Western perceptions of the Gurkhas viewed through the prism of historic and contemporary literature. In essence, Caplan argues that there is no such thing as the Gurkhas; that the Gurkhas are not a people capable of accurate description and that the image of the Gurkhas and their character, as depicted in literature on the subject, is both demeaning and simply a product of Western imagination. It is a complex piece that is far too full of complex ideas to retain any clarity of thought and the logic of the book is lost in places. That said, it stands as one of the most controversial works on the Gurkhas and is worth a place beside traditional regimental histories, memoirs and coffee table books on the subject.
In reviewing the voluminous literature on the Gurkhas, Caplan identifies a number of themes and ideas that he links together to paint a picture of the Gurkha as it has been commonly understood in the West. He claims that it is a broadly uniform image of a warrior race of natural fighters, unflinchingly brave in combat, deeply loyal to the British Crown and sharing a strong affinity with British soldiers and officers through their sense of fair play and honour as gentlemen.
Caplan argues that this image of the Gurkhas is founded on rewritten history and deeply rooted in outdated ideas of the nineteenth century, picked up and practised by British officers in school and recycled in military literature. Furthermore, he claims that, while the Western perceptions of the Gurkha are superficially positive, they are so bound up with the prejudices of the nineteenth century that the picture we have of the Gurkha from military literature is in fact a demeaning and patronising one.
Creating a People
Whereas the term Sherpa (capital ‘S’) denotes a specific group popularised by generic descriptors, Caplan notes that the opposite is true of the Gurkhas. The term – a British creation, with no equivalent in any language in Nepal – simply refers to those Nepalese men recruited to the British army over the past two centuries. This is not to say that ethnicity is irrelevant to their identification. Indeed the British traditionally selected only men from certain ethnic groups, namely the Magars and Gurungs (generally the poorer working castes) to the exclusion, for example, of the “NBCs” (Newars, Brahmans and Chetris). But it is to say, for Caplan, that our perception of the Gurkhas as a people is wrongheaded, given their ethnic, linguistic, geographic and other diverse attributes; a diversity which he claims the British officer was ignorant and Western authors unwilling to note in order to preserve the myth of the Gurkha.
Caplan’s analysis here is shaky. It is something of a stretch to claim, as a factual matter, that the British officers who came into contact with the Gurkhas – poor, working men all from the middle hills of Nepal – could not have made legitimate general observations as to their character and habits, at least as opposed to the British themselves and other peoples (such as the Indians). More importantly though, a central contention of the book is that the British moulded the Gurkhas in their own image (as brave young gentlemen, interested in sport and hunting, honourable and loyal to the British army). Yet, however misguided this exercise might have been, and whatever prejudice it exposed, it is entirely plausible that the Nepalese men who served all their lives in the Gurkhas might have adapted to imitate or at least bear resemblance to the ways of the British officers who commanded them. By way of example, the fact that the Nepalese had no real history of hunting or sport before the arrival of the British army (a point noted by Caplan), does not in any way question their enjoyment or aptitude of sport once it had become a part of their daily lives as members of British regiments.
In other words, Caplan fails to appreciate that what might have begun as imaginary may have become real over time – and it is no less real because it was once imagined.
Who Invented the Gurkha?
Whether or not the Gurkhas are capable of general description, Caplan’s central thesis is that the British had a broadly uniform view of the Gurkha character that took shape in early military literature and has remained fixed over time; a view which Caplan claims is highly derogatory and continues to underpin modern writings.
As to what it means that the Gurkha was created in the image of the nineteenth century British officer, Caplan explores the mindset of the average British officer in the nineteenth century. He notes that public schools educated virtually the whole of the English upper and upper-middle class throughout the colonial period and that it was assumed that only the public schools could produce the right kind of officer, socially and morally. Imperialism, he suggests, was the dominant national ideology and the public schools educated boys to share the assumptions prevailing throughout this period about the Anglo-Saxon destiny as a governing race.
He writes: “British officers who served with and wrote about the Gurkhas during the late-nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries emerged from the same social backgrounds… attended the same schools, read the same adventure stories as well as the same poets of imperialism, and generally were subjected to similar kinds of cultural influences, thus sharing these feelings of patriotism and empire.” This, he argues, led to a confluence of attitudes towards other peoples, including the Nepalese, which became firmly entrenched in the British mindset as those views were recorded and repeated in early military literature.
So, to return to the question ‘Who invented the Gurkha?’, Caplan’s answer is that it was a product of the imagination of a close-knit, public school educated, upper class of British men serving in the colonial military, sharing strong feelings of empire and patriotism and whose attitudes towards foreign peoples were determined in large part by dogmatic theories of biological determinism.
For an author disinclined to generalise character traits in a class of Nepalese people – albeit from different ethnic backgrounds – this is fairly strong stuff in respect of the British.
Inventing the Warrior Gentlemen
Caplan argues that the qualities attributed to the Gurkhas in Western literature were not so much observed as they were assumed to be found – that is to say imagined – by the British officers who commanded them, as a result of those officers’ prejudices and views. In particular, he notes the widespread acceptance amongst the nineteenth century military establishment of martial race theory, which has at its core the notion that certain peoples make better soldiers than others due to their race and environment. Caplan notes that the hillmen of Nepal were regarded by the British as of martial race, a designation which out of which derived the British perception of the Gurkhas as brave and loyal natural warriors. It was this perception which, he argues, drove the British affection for the Gurkha, because he was believed to share similar qualities to the British.
He suggests that, to the British, the Gurkhas were similar, but they were not equal. They were in effect a pale reflection of their British officers. Indeed, he argues that, putting together the various character traits and habits identified by military authors, Caplan argues that the Gurkha concept was essentially made in the image of the British officer qua gentleman. “Their courage, along with a sense of humour, good breeding, honesty, sportsmanship, courtesy and relaxed attitude to religious practice, taken together, added up”, he claims, “to a portrait of the Gurkha soldier as a young gentleman. Indeed in the way he is depicted [in most of the literature] the Gurkha conjures up an image of a late-nineteenth and early twentieth century British public school boy.”
But, crucially for Caplan, what this meant was that the Gurkhas were similar, but not equal. Distance and hierarchy with the British were maintained by disallowing the Gurkhas the status of full adulthood. “The Gurkhas remain forever boys, playful but simple, needing the firm hand of control and leadership…. They can be gentlemen – with the requisite qualities of courage and refinement – but remain forever juveniles and thereby subordinate.”
No primary evidence is used to support this contention, but the literature quoted does appear to lend some credence to this notion. This is not ground breaking stuff. That the British created worlds abroad as they imagined them at home, and sought to make their subordinates in their image to some extent – bound up as they would be with the prejudices and attitudes of the day – is a well-documented feature of colonial life. Which is not to say this is not an interesting angle; simple that it is not new.
The Ghurkas as Courageous and Loyal
The most confusing part of the book is Caplan’s assertion at the outset that he does not in any way seek to question the objective validity of the characteristics attributed to the Gurkhas, but rather to expose such attribution as creative (rather than descriptive) and derogatory. We can take his discussion of the courage and loyalty of the Gurkha – two commonly noted characteristics – as examples.
Caplan argues that whatever courage and loyalty the Gurkhas were considered by the British to possess was perceived to be of a lower quality than that held by their British officers. Reviewing the literature, Caplan argues that, in respect of the Gurkhas’ loyalty, this was not perceived to be the same kind of honourable loyalty a British soldier showed the Crown, but a more base sense of allegiance by a men respectful of those who exercised firm control over them. He writes: “Implied in the description of Gurkhas – and other martial groups – as simple, uncomplicated warriors was the notion that they are apolitical and unquestioning in their allegiance.”
So too with the Gurkhas’ legendary bravery, Caplan argues that this was viewed by the British not as the courage of a noble, thoughtful officer, but as the animalistic, passion-driven bravery of a simpleton or child. “Most descriptions of Gurkha courage in combat conform to the model of the solder who attacks in a violent frenzy, risking almost certain death to rush forward and kill the enemy… When others use rifles and more sophisticated weapons, the Gurkhas seem to draw only their khukuris – short curved knife – which is a general utility instrument in the Nepalese countryside, but is represented in the discourse as the national weapon.”
In so far as the book merely makes observations as to how writers on the Gurkhas expose Western prejudices in their depiction of them, there is little to criticise, given how extraordinarily well-researched it is. But Caplan goes further and questions not only the prejudices underlying the perceptions, but the validity of the perceptions themselves. In respect of the Gurkhas’ loyalty, for example, he attempts to evidence a lack of loyalty in the Gurkhas to the British (citing, for example, the trouble the British initially had in recruiting from the Nepalese and the fact that the majority of the Gurkhas chose to join the Indian army after the Second World War). Equally, in respect of the Gurkhas alleged extraordinary bravery, he looks to evidence of medals collected and cites the diaries of certain officers who commented on acts of cowardice of the Gurkhas.
The point of this is not clear. Perhaps Caplan took the view that discrediting the notion of the Gurkhas as a warrior people, endowed with courage and loyalty, would strengthen his argument that this depiction of the Gurkhas must have been originally imagined (rather than observed), but it is poorly considered and confuses the message of the book. It is one thing to suggest that the British may have been predisposed to an image of the Gurkhas, and one thing to argue that any generalisations as to character may be inappropriate, but another entirely to question their validity without serious research, of which there is little here. For entire books to have been written studying the officer-soldier relationship, and the loyalty it generates, it is not enough to dismiss as fraudulent the notion of Gurkha allegiance by reference to one or two historical facts relating to their recruitment and retention.
There is far too little space to explore the myriad of complex ideas in Warrior Gentlemen, a book that takes time and patience, but is well worth the read for anyone interested in the subject and open to new perspectives on it. This is an unabashedly pro-Nepal blog and whilst previous reviews have favoured summary over critical analysis, the comments offered above are necessary to balance what can be read as a highly insulting account of a part of the British armed forces that has contributed so much over the past 125 years.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Sunday, 28 September 2008
My day started badly, waking as I did to a combination of a nasty flu and stinging hangover. On my taxi ride to the meeting it got immediately worse, with my driver ultimately succumbing to my demands to use the bus lane and hitting the car in front of us. Having arrived at the meeting in a replacement taxi, somewhat late, a little shaken and feeling like death, the day soon got a lot, lot better.
The meeting was bubbling with enthusiasm and passion and the talks reflected just what an enormous effort Wes and Kirt have put in to get the project to where it is today. They have really covered all the bases and the expedition plans are hugely impressive.
On a personal note, I was honoured to be given the captaincy of Team Tenzing, and delighted that G-man got the vice captaincy. G has been awesome in organising our fitness regime and other activities for the team and I can't wait to work with him in shaping Tenzing into the well oiled fundraising and cricketing machine it promises. Congratulations also to Glen and Jules who will lead Team Hillary; both great guys and fully deserving of their positions.
From our meeting place at the Plough, we moved to Sheen Park for the official Tenzing v. Hillary warm-up Twenty20 match, where we were treated to perfect blue skies and bright sunshine. The energy and belief in the Tenzing camp was incredible and when I won the toss the decision to field was an easy one. The plan: to get up close and on top of the Hillary batsmen and use the noise and spirit in the field to create panic in the top order. The result: with G, Chris and Tooves steaming in from each end, we ended the fifth over with five wickets for 10 runs. To their credit, Hillary put up some resistance in the middle, with a good knock in particular by Jamo, and they finished on 95 all out. But this was damage limitation; the calm before the storm that was Tenzing's demolition job with the bat. Led by the impressive Joe Williams and the experimental General, the 95 total was chased down in 12 overs without loss.
G rightly got man of the match, but note must be made too of JC's unbelievable direct hit from square leg to take the fourth wicket, which was 'play of the day' by some distance. Overall, it was a privilege to captain such a great bunch of guys and cricket players and I can't wait to see the team develop further. Although we'll take confidence from the game, playing on Everest will be a different experience altogether and I will make sure we are ten times stronger come April 20.
After the cricket, we settled in for some Pimms at the pavilion before heading out for a few shandies. I slipped off relatively early to get some rest and look forward to the stories from the night.
But what a great day, both for Tenzing and more importantly for the expedition as a whole. The events provided a huge lift to all and, with only six months left to go, the challenge really starts now.
Saturday, 6 September 2008
The Sherpas of Nepal: Buddhist Highlanders
By Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf
John Murray (1964)
The Sherpas are not an easily identifiable group to foreigners, evidenced by the historic use of the term (sometimes capitalised) in a generic sense to refer to Nepalese mountain guides and porters. This usage is confusing, both because mountaineering is not and has never been a defining feature of the Sherpa people and because in recent years guides on Everest and surrounding peaks have increasingly been comprised of non-Sherpas (often Tamang, Gurung, Chettri or Magar). In terms of identifying the Sherpa people, Furer-Haimendorf notes that the Sherpas are “largely indistinguishable on clear ethnic lines” from the Tibetan-speaking people of Eastern Nepal and the Bhotias (the Tibetan-Nepalese people of the Kathmandu valley and middle ranges), but does not concede that Sherpas can be defined simply as the Tibetan-descended inhabitants of Solu, Khumbu or Pharak. What the author observed was a people of marked culture and social practice, who “stand out as... distinctive in their character, their civic sense”, separated from other groups by their “combination of a high standard of living, spirit of enterprise… social polish and general devotion to Buddhism.”
The core of Sherpa society is based on the clan, which acts as a social and ritual unit. Various other groups make up the population, mostly Tibetan immigrants in one form or another, from third generation to recent refugees to groups in which Sherpa clansmen have intermarried over the years. While none of the other social groups is equal in status to the clansmen, outside groups have been absorbed and assimilated remarkably easily, reflective of a culture accepting of difference and a society “for the greater part unstratified.” Two groups in particular, the Khamendeu Khambas and the Yemba (descendants of slaves) are afforded lower status, but no class of person is excluded from the social and spiritual life of the community. “The comparative ease with which members of neighbouring populations can be absorbed and assimilated recalls a similar flexibility of certain tribal societies which have remained untouched by the influence of Indian ideas of caste.”
Furer-Haimendorf found this sense of equality to exist not just between clans and social groupings, but in smaller social units too, including the family. Marital relationships are entered into freely between two equal partners, each of whom retains the right over the property he or she contributes. “The independent position of a Sherpa wife would be incompatible with the subservient role of a daughter-in-law in a Hindu joint family.” Between husband and wife, while there is a “very clear demarcation” between their respective spheres of activities, this distinction between their tasks and interests “does not involve any valuation.” Divorces were and remain freely attainable by either party and attitudes towards sexual exclusivity are relaxed. “Sherpas have never developed the feeling that there is any inherent merit in sexual exclusiveness. Just as husbands do not mind sharing their wife with a brother – or a wife sharing her husband with a co-wife – so they do not look upon extra-marital sex relations with the horror other societies have of adultery.”
The values of civic responsibility and equality, combined with a distaste for material wealth and power (considered admirable only in so far as they are used for religion or social projects), are reflected in the political organisation of Sherpa communities, characterised by autonomy from wider government and internal decentralisation. As Furer-Haimendorf observed: “The guiding principle for [village] government is that authority is vested in the totality of its inhabitants.” It is tradition that local officials are elected for limited period, usually one year, on rotation between villagers, and are guided on decisions by public gatherings. But the functions of officials are strictly circumscribed and “large spheres of social life lie outside the jurisdiction of these officials”, with most disputes left to private mediation. Indeed, "the inability – or unwillingness – of the village community as a whole to assume authority in dealing with such matters is one of the peculiar features of Sherpa social organisation”.
One clearly defining aspect of Sherpa culture identified by Furer-Haimendorf is the people’s religious devotion. The Mahayana branch of Buddhism practised in Tibet is of central importance to the Sherpa, who typically sees great social and spiritual merit in religious practice, financial support of lamas, monasteries and temples. “It would seem”, the author notes, “that among the Sherpas, as among Tibetan Buddhists, the religious impulse is so strong that any margin of resources left after essential needs have been met is largely devoted to religious purposes.” Although Buddhism has been well established in Khumbu for at least 350 years, the foundation of monasteries and nunneries and construction of temples took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. Furer-Haimendorf argues that this was driven by the extra time and resources available to the Sherpas by the introduction of the potato which, he claims, “revolutionised Sherpa economics” by enabling the highlands to support larger communities and permitting a greater number of people not engaged in food production to devote their time almost entirely to religion.
The most visible hallmark of this religious tradition lies in the ritualistic nature of Sherpa culture, a theme touched on in a previous review. The author goes into extraordinary depth on the subject, painting an elaborate picture of social and religious ceremonies and rites, while relating the acts to social function and meaning. Among the more amusing details, he spends two pages listing out some of the objects usually placed on the altar at major rites such as chilhapso (for protection of the village), including the three cups made of human skulls containing the mera offerings of beer and blood. In noting the good humour of the Sherpas, he goes on to describe how “invariably there are numerous pauses in the proceedings where lamas are served tea, beer and food... with light-hearted conversation and even the most ribald jokes”, recalling one ceremony during which an 80-year old lama entertained in the intervals with stories of his youth. “No one thought it odd or shocking when he related the most intimate details of a love affair with the mother of another lama who was participating in the service”, all of which talk was considered “neither irreverent nor in bad taste”.
Despite its importance, religion and morality are relatively distinct spheres in Sherpa culture. Sherpas believe every act of virtue (gewa) adds to an individual’s store of merit (sonam), whereas every morally negative action or sin (digba) decreases this store. Good and bad deeds make their marks on a person’s record. Yet, unlike the object of socially approved conduct in the ideologies of many other societies, “there is no promise of well-being and prosperity in this life as the result of sonam-gaining actions, but the promise of bliss or release in the world beyond.” This should not be confused with a belief in a personal deity to whom man is responsible. “Sin is not seen as an act which offends any particular deity, but as an offence against a moral order existing independently of any of the gods whom the Sherpas worship.” Indeed, irreligiousness itself is not inherently sinful; it is viewed rather as foregoing an opportunity of acquiring sonam rather than as a breach of the moral code.
By contrast to many Western and Asian societies, religion is a moderating force and there is a pragmatism to Sherpa morality which helps prevent extremism. Sins are tolerated and accepted as a part of life, so long as those who commit such sins make up for the loss of sonam by undertaking meritorious work. Further, and more fundamentally, the strong belief in reincarnation tempers society’s involvement in private conduct. Basic to the world view of the Sherpa is the notion of the individual as a free moral agent, responsible for his actions and capable of moulding his fate in the next life. “In a world where every action creates its own reward or retribution men need not feel emotionally involved in the rights and wrongs of their fellow men’s doings… Man’s morals are considered his own affair, and the Sherpa is more inclined to smile at his neighbour’s shortcomings than to condemn him publicly.”
This general tolerance towards others, combined with a strong sense of civic responsibility, renowned hospitality and courtesy, help make up a distinctive character to which most foreign visitors have immediately warmed. The Sherpas did not come to mountaineering; climbers came to them, and not because they were the only highlanders available. "It is not accidental", Furer-Haimendorf notes, "that Sherpas have become the trusted guides and companions of innumerable foreign mountaineers”. In understanding this, we see the distinction between Sherpa (the people) and sherpa (the guide).
While maintaining the objectivity of a serious anthropologist and often pointing out the inconsistent, unremarkable and unattractive features of Sherpa life, nevertheless the author’s admiration for this people shines through. That no general anthropological study on the Sherpas of importance has been published since 1964 is testament to the depth and integrity of his work, evidenced by the voluminous and meticulously detailed fieldwork papers available at SOAS in London. This is a fine record of a remarkable people whom the Everest Test team is proud to support.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Thursday, 28 August 2008
Things got off to a poor start as I realised I'd left my spikes at home; a school boy error in the circumstances, those being torrential rain and an uncovered pitch. The rest of the Drovers coped fairly well, however, and, in this Somme-like reenactment, G-man delivered the early wickets and the team spirit was high. But mistakes, including a woeful dropped catch by yours truly at deep midwicket off the none too pleased Cuzza (unmoved by my claim to have lost it in the air), took their toll and the Hookers finished with a decent 226.
Batting at three, surely there was time for a between-innings shandy, I mused, as I wandered back to the pavilion (/ tree, park bench), but before I'd finished tightening the laces on my slicks, Ed had fallen for a golden duck and I was back out in the middle. With Hillsy out almost next ball to an outrageous inswinger, we were looking shaky and I needed to take charge. After a comfortable three off two balls, this seemed possible and Charlie B and I felt confident we could man the trenches for some time. But a quick single called by my brave comrade was our downfall; something I realised when we passed each other barely three feet outside my crease, as I ran on the spot in cartoon fashion. The ensuing direct hit was unfortunate, and even our team mate Cuzza at square leg umpire couldn't swing that one for me. It was '3 run out' on the score card. Not quite the ship-steadying performance I had in mind.
Brave batting by our lower order almost clawed the game back, but our comically bad start to the innings had cost us the match and we fell to the Hookers with two overs to spare. The last game of the season for the Drovers, but not for the Everest Test. Tenzing and Hillary will be battling it out in a warm-up match on September 27th at Sheen Park.
Friday, 8 August 2008
Book Review, August 2008
Blood Against the Snows: The Tragic Story of Nepal’s Royal Dynasty
By Jonathan Gregson
Fourth Estate (2002)
The mystique of the crown and the loyalty it commanded among ordinary Nepalese had firstly to do with the association of the Shah dynasty and the nation state itself. Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha raja and first Shah king (Mahārājdhirāja), who had formed the state of Nepal by his conquests of the Malla Kings of the Kathmandu Valley in the late 18th century, had actively worked to promote the concept of nationhood to a territory which, while ruled centrally from his time onward, was and remains a land of unrivalled ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. So it was that the linkage of the Shahs and the state of Nepal became entrenched. Second, and more importantly, the Shahs were no ordinary kings, nor even kings chosen by God (as in Europe and elsewhere), but were considered to be partial reincarnations of Lord Vishnu (the preserver and protector of the universe). The Shahs were truly god-kings to their people, a status that enhanced any claim they might make to absolute rule.
In Blood Against the Snows, Jonathan Gregson, a respected commentator on the Himalayan region and the only foreigner to have interviewed King Bidendra Shah, seeks to tell the story of the Shah dynasty and in particular to explain how a monarchy with such apparently strong foundations managed almost nothing but survival during its tenure.
One key structural weakness in the crown was the strict form of primogeniture established by Narayan Shah. This brought about successive kings too young to govern which, combined with the absolute power of the crown (breeding temptation in others), the lack of established precedent (by virtue of the newness of the institution) and the general instability of the country (one without even stable borders), gave rise to a “a political culture based on fear and self-interest… that was to have grave consequences for future kings of Nepal.” The massacre of 2001, a tragedy without question, was but a reflection of the far more turbulent and bloody years of the 19th century during which factionalism and intrigue led to sporadic but regular assassinations of nobility, court staff and royal relatives, enforced sati (the suicide of a wife, and often her maids, on the funeral pyre of her husband) and the regular exiling and imprisonment of political opponents. Hundreds of lives were lost. Gregson writes that: “Not in the goriest of Jacobean tragedies does one encounter so many futile deaths.”
Ironically, what saved the crown then, as in the early 1990s with the Spring Awakening, was the emergence of powers that forced the Shah kings into conceding political authority. Throughout their 240-year reign and whatever the political compromises of the day, the Shah kings, almost without exception, showed a clear preference for maintaining total political control over Nepal, to the exclusion of all others. And yet, as Gregson points out, the dynasty was always at its strongest the less power it had and the less influence it exercised. In times of apparent weakness, “the absence of responsibility contributed to the popularity of Nepal’s monarchy”, because the king “could not be blamed when things went wrong.” Given the appalling poverty and squalid social conditions of the peasant masses, contrasted with the corruption and wealth of the ruling elites, distance from the people and their problems was a matter of necessity.
True to its early history, the Shah dynasty was ultimately dealt its strongest blow from within, with the massacre by Crown Prince Dipendra – then first in line to the throne – of ten members of the royal family, including King Bidendra Shah. “Imagine”, Gregson writes, “it happening in Britain: Prince Charles would have had to shoot dead Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, his brothers Edward and Andrew, Princess Anne, his own sons William and Harry and, to end it all, himself, leaving only (at that time) his aunt, Princess Margaret, to assume the throne.” These events, which took place on a single night in the grounds of the royal palace in April 2001, were caused primarily by the deep frustrations of the Crown Prince at the unwillingness of King Bidendra Shah and, to a larger extent Queen Aishwarya, to permit him to marry his love, Devyani Rana. Dipendra was a young man of Western education and broad cultural experience who was trapped in the bizarre “Alice in Wonderland” world of the palace and the antiquarian rules of the court. His actions were likely fuelled in part by alcohol and drug consumption, but the reason for the extent of the killing spree is unclear and Nepal remains rife with conspiracy theories as to the killer’s motives and identity. Whatever the truth, this was, as Gregson notes, “the bloodiest, the most complete massacre of any royal family ever recorded” and an unimaginable loss to the Nepalese people.
As of 2001, fifty years after it had opened up to the outside world, Nepal was in crisis. To ordinary Nepalese, “the royal family’s self-destruction was a symptom of a broader malaise affecting the entire nation”; a theme pushed successfully by the Maoist insurgents, whose agenda of social and economic development was finding resonance in rural areas. In a modern era of instant communication, press coverage, diplomacy and popular politics, maintaining a king above the law and in control of the army was becoming increasingly difficult. So too the magic of the crown was slipping and the king’s status as a deity in the eyes of the public could no longer be taken for granted, not least for a man such as Gyanendra, who took the throne through the junior (cadet) line of succession. The monarchy was fighting for survival. And yet, as with almost all Shah kings before him, Gyanendra’s instinct was to consolidate power in the crown. He simply could not cast off the “culture of absolutism that had supported the family for so long”. The historic lessons of disentanglement from politics – of freedom from responsibility and blame – were ignored. Under pressure from his own and foreign governments (the U.S. had, after 9/11, branded the Maoist rebels a “terrorist group”), Gyanendra went into bat for the establishment against the Maoists, ordering the Royal Nepal Army to move against them.
Of Gyanendra’s decision to side with the government, Gregson argues that this strategy would be an all or nothing one: “If the Maoist insurgency is quashed and there are signs of real progress in Nepal, its monarchy will endure. If not, King Gyanendra’s willingness to take up the challenge means that Nepal will not be a Kingdom for much longer.” Written in 2002, this was prescient commentary. Gyanendra went even further than expected and assumed all powers of government and after years of sporadic but intense fighting a ceasefire ensued in which Gyanendra surrendered power to a reinstated parliament in which the Maoists would later form the largest group. True to its manifesto, a bill for the abolition of the monarchy was duly passed and on May 28, 2008 the 240-year old Shah dynasty came to an end. Nepal was now a secular federal republic and Gyanendra was given 15 days to leave the palace. He did so on June 11, 2008.
Nepal’s political situation remains precarious during this interim two-year period while the constitution is rewritten, but the country is largely peaceful for the time being at least. Time will tell if it can heal and the world watches in hope that the government can deliver on the promise of social and economic development that has been made and broken so many times in the past. In the meantime, the work of charitable organizations such as the Himalayan Trust UK remains as crucial as ever.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Sunday, 20 July 2008
Touching My Father’s Soul: In the Footsteps of Sherpa Tenzing
By Jamling Tenzing Norgay
Random House (2001)
Ostensibly a record of Jamling Norgay’s successful Everest expedition with the IMAX team in 1996, Touching My Father’s Soul is much more than this. It is a deeply thoughtful autobiographical account of the journey of personal development of a young Sherpa man struggling to find his identity in the complexity of the modern world and the long shadows of his father’s greatness.
Norgay, the fourth of six children, was born in Darjeeling and educated there at an elite private school, Saint Paul’s, before studying at Northland College in Wisconsin. At age 17, he had ambitious plans to become the youngest ever man to climb Everest with an Indian expedition team, but his father, a distant and often absent figure in his life, refused him. Norgay's appetite to emulate Tenzing continued unabated however, and in 1995 he agreed to join David Breashears and his team in their extraordinary bid to record an Everest expedition through an IMAX camera lens, for production of the film Everest.
The story of the expedition is cleverly interwoven with anecdotes and narrative of the 1953 climb, offering readers a useful insight into the ways in which climbing has changed over the years. The contrast is a stark one, from the technological advances in equipment (the front-end crampons, the lightweight refillable oxygen bottles, aluminium ladders, navigational equipment, etc.), to the number of camps placed (nine then, compared to four now), to the sheer uncertainty of route and terrain faced by his father and Sir Edmund Hillary. If proof were needed that modernity has not tamed the mountain, however, it came with the storm of May 10, 1996, which famously trapped and killed eight members of the preceding expedition teams. The events of the tragedy are vividly recalled by Norgay, who witnessed them by telescope and radio from Base Camp. While avoiding casting blame, Norgay notes that the storm itself was only a part of the reason for the disaster, compounding mistakes already made by the expedition teams, resulting in part from the pressure on commercial expeditions and individual egos and emotions. Throughout the book, he stresses the importance of approaching Everest with humility, respect and patience. “My father knew before he ever set foot on the mountain that it had to be approached with respect and with love, the way a child climbs into the lap of its mother. Anyone who attacks the peak with aggression, like a soldier doing battle, will lose.”
The historical perspective of the book also provides a contrast of the Nepal of 1953 and today, in particular the effect of modernisation on the Sherpa culture and people. Norgay, somewhat generously perhaps, does not lay blame for the erosion of Sherpa traditions with foreign visitors per se, but rather on the failure of the Nepalese government to use the moneys generated by climbing royalty fees to invest in social projects in the Sherpa communities, and on the emergence of new cultural reference points in the form of Asian satellite television, the Hindi cinema and the distractions of Kathmandu. Indeed, Norgay argues that foreign visitors (“Mikaru” or “white eyes”, to the Sherpas) and the influx of capital over the past fifty years have in some ways helped preserve Sherpa heritage, for example in areas such as Khumbu, where monasteries have flourished as a result of Sherpa families being able to afford to send one of their sons (usually, the third) to become a monk. He credits too the work of the Himalayan Trust in the building of the Khumjung School and argues that the key to the protection of the Sherpa way of life is to provide the Sherpa communities with the quality schools needed to avoid the rush to Kathmandu and abroad for education and opportunity.
Perhaps most interestingly, the book describes the highly ritualistic and spiritual manner of the Sherpas, reflected both in their everyday lives and in their approach to Everest (or “Chomolongma”, to the Sherpas): from the lighting of butter lamps at the Great Stupa of Boudhanath, the spinning of prayer wheels at the Dwoche monastery, the prayers, meditation and chanting of the puja ceremonies at Base Camp, to the stringing of prayer flags at the summit and the special cremation ceremonies for the dead at Chukpö Laré. Norgay admits his initial mixture of curiosity and scepticism towards these rituals, and of his uncertain faith in the Buddhist deities, in particular Miyolangsangma, the goddess of Everest and one of the Five Long-Life Sisters who reside in the Himalaya. In the book, Norgay recalls, however, that as the expedition progressed and as the team in particular confronted the horrors of the May 10 tragedy, his faith strengthened enormously. “[O]nce I arrived in the lap of the mountain, surrounded by Sherpas who believed, and confronted by a rich history of death – and death itself – I could no longer remain cynical.”
The book records how, with each step up the mountain, Norgay found that the Buddhist teachings he had learnt as a child, in particular their simplicity and focus on the essential elements of life, seemed to make sense. “One reason why people go into the mountains is to experience the purity of these elements – these goddesses – in their unobstructed form. In the mountains, worldly attachments are left behind and in the absence of material distractions, we are opened up to spiritual thought.” The expedition opened Norgay to a spirituality he had lost in his Western education and childhood. He recalled with some pride how his mother, when she travelled to the U.S. with Tenzing, would sit outside the hotels they stayed at and sell her Himalayan trinkets to passers by, and clearly felt the need not just to connect with his family roots but to embrace his faith and find the peace of mind that she had attained through her Buddhism and the compassionate works she did in their community.
The expedition also allowed Norgay to understand what had led Tenzing to Everest, and to gain a sense of connection he never had while his father was alive. In the book, he describes the feeling of “walking on Tenzing’s back”, seeing what his father saw and understanding what he must have experienced back in 1953. Norgay felt the force and spirit of his father guiding him up the mountain and recalls seeing a vision of him at the summit and speaking to him for the last time. It was only then that he was able to emerge from Tenzing’s shadows. “Stepping on the summit of Everest freed me from the confinement of my ambitions. And it freed me from following my father, from searching for him.” Finding his father and finding his faith “launched me”, Norgay writes, “onto my own path.”
As great an achievement as it was to reach the summit in 1996 with the IMAX team and record the astonishing footage captured at the roof of the world, the book explains that, for Norgay, the expedition was ultimately a means to an end. What was to most climbers a physical challenge, a rock to be conquered, had become for him a “pilgrimage to Miyolangsangma”; a journey of enlightenment that led to a sense of freedom and self-identification for the first time in his life.
Today, Norgay works with the American Himalayan Foundation, a nonprofit organisation based in San Francisco and Kathmandu, dedicated to improving conditions in Sherpa communities through grass roots social projects. In the last chapter of his book, Norgay laments thus: “Thousands of people visit the Himalaya each year, and hundreds promise to help the local people. But only a few of them actually return to do something.” This is no doubt true, and a sad reflection of the fleeting charitable interests of modern tourists and travellers. Fortunately, this cannot be said of the Everest Test 2009. Whatever else happens on the trip, members of the Everest Test expedition can take pride in the knowledge that they will be doing something to help, whether or not they return.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Thursday, 3 July 2008
For those wanting to learn more about the expedition, how to donate to the good causes or get involved, please visit: http://www.theeveresttest.com/.