John Studley

Farmer family. My quest for the indigenous “wild” divinities of explicit “nature conservation” began in August 1999 next to the Upper Yangtze, in Bengda County, Sichuan Province.

It was triggered by the assertion of a Khampa farmer;

“If we take care of the local forest and animals Jo Bo will be happy and bless our community. If not he will be angry and our crops will fail, our livestock will die and we will suffer”

The farmer went on to describe the role of Jo Bo, the resources and villages he presided over and the geospatial extent of the domain he inhabited. I was surprised that the farmer spoke of a divinity being happy and blessing the community, but I realised immediately that he was describing an animistic phenomenon1.

This view contrasted with the symbolic approach adopted by one of his neighbours. She expressed her beliefs in the following statement;

“If we take care of the local forest and animals it will provide an ideal locale to “pay our respects to Lord Buddha”.

My Dilemma

The farmer’s statement left me in a dilemma. Jo Bo, meaning “Lord” in Tibetan, appeared to be a “wild” divinity who presided over a “wild” landscape. How could this be explained under the rubric of Buddhism? I thought that the local gods had all been tamed by Buddhism and lost their territories. I thought the landscape had been tamed, “de-souled” (bdag med) and re-mapped (or mandalized) on the basis of Buddhist ways of conceptualising space?

Although I realised I was dealing with an animistic phenomenon, I lacked a conceptual framework to explain it or the nomenclature to describe it. The writings of local scholars did not help much. Animism is regarded as “superstitious” by the state and as a despised “tamed” tradition by much of the Buddhist clergy.

Yuben Valley topographic mapThe word “mi-chos” is used in the Tibetan literature to describe the “dharma” or the spiritual path of human beings, but it is a literary term not understood by villagers. Nor did nature worship (rang byung yid rton in Tibetan) explain what I had encountered. Eventually, as a result of my research into western scholarship, I realised that the phenomena was best described as a “territorial cult” and was presided over by local gods. Far from being tamed, either by Buddhism or by the modern state, this ancient indigenous tradition is being revitalized by nomads and farmers as an expression of “Tibetaness” and of territorial ‘place making’ and attachment to the land.

Following my initial discovery in Bengda I was able to gather cognitive evidence of territorial cults from 86 sites scattered all over Eastern Kham and traverse a landscape that was punctuated by “cairns” dedicated to territorial divinities.

Staggering Discovery

In 2009 I was asked to write chapters in two books, one on sacred natural sites in Kham and one on place attachment in Tibet. For both studies, territorial cults were pivotal.

In the process of writing the chapters I discovered that the pre-Buddhist territorial cults affect 567,000 km2 of land in SW China. They exist not only in China, but also among the Tibetan diaspora in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, India and even Switzerland. They are also found in Mongolia and northern Pakistan.

I also established that territorial cults are presided over by a “numina” or “spirit of place” known commonly in Tibetan as a ཡུལ་ལྷ། (yul lha) or a གཞི་བདག། (gzhi-bdag), who inhabits a domain, often the upper part of a mountain, characterized by ritual protection and explicit nature conservation.

I was staggered to discover that, although there appeared to be 567,000 km2 of ritually protected sites in SW China, they were not recognized nationally or internationally even though they are examples of explicit nature conservation. I am unsure if the lack of recognition is due to monocultural myopia or just an oversight, but one of my aims since has been to address this short-sightedness. Firstly, however, I had to establish the facts and be sure that the traditions and practices that underpin territorial cults were still on-going.

A bio-cultural Audit

During the summer of 2013 CERS provided me with an opportunity to conduct a bio-cultural audit of the Yuben Valley in the Kawakarpo Mountains and examine the geospatial distribution of territorial cults in eleven villages in Zhongdian County.

Sacred Mount min tso mo, abode of a gzhi-bdag.I was able to establish that 60% of the Yuben Valley is ritually protected. The upper slopes of six snow mountains are dedicated to and inhabited by territorial divinities (gzhi-bdag) and are largely undisturbed. Grazing is permitted on three forested mountains although they are “doubly protected” from any other disturbance because their upper slopes are inhabited by a gzhi-bdag and they are “sealed” (རི་རྒྱ། or ri-rgya) by a Buddhist Lama (from Deqin).

The domains of the gzhi-bdag divinities in Yuben Valley appear to be refuges of biodiversity (both alpine and temperate) with recognized geospatial extents. There is even evidence of volunteer patrols in Yuben and the Kawakarpo range by local people who seek to protect the environment.

It appears that eco-spiritual wisdom and the protection of ritual territory is still being passed from generation to generation. I am concerned, though, that the transfer of indigenous wisdom and culture is being undermined by tourism, globalisation, remote formal education, the “closure” of a monastery and the introduction of a possible road. Until recently Yuben had a viable school and the school master still lives in Yuben, but now students must travel a long distance to town to attend a new boarding school. Such is the cultural erosion in Yuben that it took me a week of persistence to discover that the “Glacial Lake” known as Bing hú in Chinese is known in Tibetan as “Quiet Residence” or shi ba gnas ma. Several Han Chinese tourists in Yuben commented that the Tibetan tour guides in Shangri-la were ignorant of their own culture.

In Yuben topocosmic harmony with the gzhi-bdag appears to be maintained by self-regulation and lay rituals. No priests or lamas are involved in incense (bsang) burning or chanting of scripture (bsang yig), which are conducted by the entire community on the 15th June and 15th July, and by individuals on the 11th and 15th of any month.

A number of people in Zhongdian County mentioned the role of a “Cangba” as an intermediary between the villagers and their divinity. I am unsure if the Cangba is a deity medium, somewhat like a shaman, and if the divinity actually “descends” on them.

Hunter turned eco-spiritual conservationist.In contrast, mountain sealing (ri-rgya) appears to be associated with Tibetan Buddhism and areas close to holy mountains (གནས་རི། or gnas ri). Although the practice is found throughout the Tibetan world it is not often associated with territorial cults. I am not sure how much longer the three mountains in the Yuben Valley will remain sealed, as the lower slopes are becoming contested as potential sites for cutting timber for hotel construction.

Territorial cults appear to be widespread throughout the Tibetan world on the basis of a review of the literature and my own observations. Of eleven villages I visited in Zhongdian County, most had three mountains dedicated to territorial divinities, with some domains up to 60km in linear extent.

The domains of territorial divinities are generally recognized as biodiversity “hotspots” even though a number of these sites in Zhongdian County are still recovering from tree felling during the Cultural Revolution and during the 1980 and 90’s. As a result of this past disturbance there are not always noticeable differences in biodiversity between the domains of the divinity and adjacent land. Several interviewees in Zhongdian County, however, mentioned the presence of “nabi” or tufted deer in the domain of a divinity. Nabi are a good indicator for biodiversity because they are often hunted or caught in snares set for other animals.

As a footnote I should point out that sacred natural sites are not always protected. Sacred can equally apply to sites that are unmanaged or even over-exploited with little biodiversity.

Yuben’s defunct School.It is ironic that when I started my quest in Bengda I had gone there to explore ecotourism in the context of a protected area recognized by the World Conservation Union, IUCN. In reality it was just a paper park created by outsiders without reference to the local people, who had no idea it even existed. Conversely IUCN ignored the presence of a ritually protected territory that was an exemplar of biodiversity.

Ways must be sought to enable outside interests to build on local examples of nature conservation, rather than ignoring them.

Territorial cults need to be recognized because they are part of the cultural heritage of the Tibetan lay people. They address “Tibetaness”, ethnic identity, community cohesion, attachment to place and biodiversity.

International protection should be provided for the ritually protected domains of the territorial divinities that are examples of explicit nature conservation.

Tibet’s wild landscapes and wild divinities cannot be ignored if we are serious about viable exemplars of earth-care and the enhancement of bio-cultural diversity in the 21st century.

1Animism is predicated on the assumption that spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, rocks, and natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, and other entities of the natural environment