“Ancient Lahul and Himalaya”: In Conversation with Mr. Tobdan

This interview was conducted on 14th December 2021.

You have titled your recent book as Ancient Lahul and Himalaya? I am curious to know why.

Till now, we haven’t really placed the Himalayas in the right perspective. Our efforts have been piecemeal, resulting in a fragmented understanding of Himalayan societies. My goal is to write more about ancient Lahul, as there still exist many small cultural realities that have preserved their socio-cultural ways of being and language. Languages especially can reveal a lot about the past of these societies. What I am suggesting with this title is that to arrive at an understanding of ancient Lahul, we have to first better study the ancient Himalayas.

In all your published works, you have referred to the spelling ‘Lahul’ (लाहुल) as opposed to the commonly used spelling ‘Lahaul’ (लाहौल).  Can you elaborate on this?

‘Lahaul’ is the most commonly used spelling, and those who know the etymology of ‘Lahaul’, know its roots are Urdu.

In my writings I use ‘Lahul’, and in my first book I have discussed its different possible origins and I have also mentioned that this word is neither Bhoti nor Indo-aryan. I take the hint for ‘Lahul’ from a way of saying that’s in practice across the Kullu valley even today. In Kullu ki boli, the language of Kullu, we say लाउड़ (Laud) and a person from Lahul is called लाउड़ा (Lahuda). This is my base to argue for the spelling ‘Lahul’.  

Different people have offered different interpretations. Alexander Cunningham who visited Lahul twice (1836, 1839) wrote ‘Lahul’ though he associated the origins with Tibetan. I have gathered some evidence and will be explaining this in my future work. I am not enforcing this spelling on anyone, of course, but we do have to acknowledge its historicity.

I want to ask a question about Lahul’s ‘remoteness’. Reading your books and other critical works on the trans-Himalayas, one realizes how mobile our mountains have been. In Ancient Lahul and Himalaya you have written about the thriving Central Asian trade network and how Lahulis engaged as traders and laborers for livelihood on this route. How did this idea of remoteness come about then, of Lahulis having no contact with the ‘outside’ world? Seems this narrative of remoteness especially took shape post independence. One repeatedly comes across such categories in administrative records. These accounts do not acknowledge the historical cross border movement.

Geographically speaking, Lahul is enclosed, it is a sort of a natural bowl. Mountain ranges form our borders and high passes are our connection to other regions. Even though areas like Pangi are part of the Chandrabhaga river valley, we still have to cross the Sach Khaas pass, to access that region.

Historically, Lahulis had marginal land to ensure economic sustenance. This also meant that we couldn’t rear livestock such as sheeps and goats in large numbers. Climatically the access to land, forests and grazing grounds was possible only in summers. So Lahulis had no option but to move for livelihood. Our economic base was half within and half outside of Lahul. In summer, men traveled with livestock to Changthang and areas bordering Tibet. They would bring wool, borax, salt, even sheeps and goats. We couldn’t stay home in winter, as there was no work in the fields, so we would migrate to the South. Our culture in that sense is dual. We find references to this mobile lifestyle in our folk tradition as well. For instance, in Tod valley of Lahul, before eating, we offer prayers to the deities, and in that, we request the well being of family members, especially of those roaming in terrains far away from home.

“Be-fa be-ru,Zhi-fa Zhi ru, Tha rog ki Sal zad”

    (those on the move and those stationary, all should be healthy)

Actually, our knowledge about the historical Central Asian trade economy is very limited. The trade linkages between India and Central Asia have not been deeply researched. This thriving and important trade route network passed through Lahul too. 

I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between humans and non-humans within indigenous societies. Your recent book is full of references to the ‘non-human’, especially within the context of folk tradition and the shamanistic spiritual world. Be it the oral narratives you gathered on Raja Gepang and other deities, or the Songs of Auspiciousness ( Lha-rgyas ) you have documented in Chapter 5. As much as these folk songs and stories are about humans, they are equally about tigers, lions, fishes and serpents etc. The boundaries between the human and non human, the heavenly and earthly realm, are very blurred in folk tradition. 

In folk narratives, emotions and opinions are often expressed in a manner that seems detached from the ‘real’ that we see and experience otherwise. There are of course no lions in Lahul, but they were absorbed into the cultural imagination by our ancestors. They imagined the Snow Lions inhabiting our snowy peaks, evoking them in songs and prayers. Another reason could be that animals are rare in Lahul, as many cannot survive the harsh climate. Those that survive must be exceptionally strong, like the Ibex. Maybe owing to the strength of these animals, our ancestors might have considered them worthy of human care and respect. 

“In the beginning may there come auspiciousness!

Yes. He has reached there over the glacier.

May he come. May he come over the glacier.

May auspiciousness come over the glacier.

May the man come in. May the man come.

This is the place of sitting for the Great Lion. 

May he come in the middle over the glacier above.

May he come. May he come. 

He has reached at the place of sitting in the middle over the glacier above.

May he come. Pronounce auspiciousness!” …2
(Page 70, Ancient Lahul and Himalaya

In the same chapter, you also say that the Great God of these songs is the “spirit of the firmament high above” and this “God has no name and form”. I found this intriguing and so relevant for the context we are living in right now. Can you elaborate more on this formless idea of spirit as understood within the Lahuli folk tradition? 

Our ancestors did not have a defined religion or a religious thought per se. There was no tangible image or the idea of a God. But we gradually developed thoughts, patterns and ritual practices informed by our cultural world. We formed the idea of a deity as a spiritual power higher than ourselves. We laid out the ways of inviting them respectfully in various stages, establishing them within our homes and villages. We imagined an invisible spiritual power as guiding us on the right path. 

Why do you think Lahul hasn’t found its place within the ‘Himalayan Studies’ space so far? 

Compared to Lahul, there is significant literature on Spiti. Those who want to study Lahul, will find the culture ‘strange’. Strange in the sense that there are no base studies to begin with. He/she will have to start from the beginning. That’s a major reason why researchers overlook Lahul.

There were the Moravian Missionaries of course, but they had their own missionary perspective. There have been anthropologists and scientists who have studied Lahul, but in my opinion Lahul cannot be presented as a monolith. ‘In Lahul live people with sharp noses or flat noses’. This kind of analysis is absolutely useless to us. There are so many cultures within Lahul, each with its own linguistic features and ethnic differences as well. Another major hindrance is that even if one wishes to study one particular culture or pocket within Lahul, it might be seen as too small a sample. I am not sure how much research legitimacy small field sites hold. Some anthropologists have done it but their findings are easily challengeable. 

Our people are not interested in documenting their own history. Until and unless, we don’t generate an interest amongst ourselves, we cannot expect non Lahulis to come and research. We have to first start writing about our own languages, our own village, and our family histories. 

 …to be continued.

Works in English by Tobdan

Devy, G.N., and Tobdan, eds. 2017. The Languages of Himachal Pradesh: People’s  Linguistic Survey of India. Volume Eleven. Orient Blackswan.

Tobdan. 1984. History and Religions of Lahul: From The Earliest To Circa A.D. 1950.  Delhi: Books Today.

———. 1993. The People of the Upper Valley: The Stodpas of Lahul in the Himalayas. Delhi: Book India Publishing.

———. 2008. Cultural History of Western Trans-Himalayas: Bashahar Kinnaur. Aryan Books.

———. 2011. Exploring Malana: An Ancient Culture Hidden in the Himalayas. Indus Publishers.

———. 2015. Nathapanth in Western Himalaya. Delhi: Kaveri Books.

———. 2015. Spiti: A Study in Socio-Cultural Traditions. Delhi: Kaveri Books.

———. 2019. Zong Gonpa of Village Tinno. New Delhi: Kaveri Books.

———. 2020. STodpa Language of Lahul in the Himalaya. Delhi: Kaveri Books.

Tobdan, and C.Dorje. 1996. Historical Documents from Western Trans-Himalaya. Lahul, Zanskar and Ladakh. Delhi: Book India Publishing.

———. 2008. Moravian Missionaries in Western Trans-Himalaya: Lahul Ladakh and Kinnaur.Delhi: Kaveri Books.

One thought on ““Ancient Lahul and Himalaya”: In Conversation with Mr. Tobdan”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *