In 1991, anthropologist Elisabeth Anne Stutchbury completed her Phd thesis titled “Rediscovering Western Tibet: Gonpa, Chorten and the continuity of practice with a Tibetan Buddhist community in the Indian Himalaya.” i The community she carried out her research with happens to be the Lahaulas of Kardang village. The Lahaul of early 1980s was the focus of her study. In specific, she studied the continuity and revitalisation of Tibetan Buddhism of the Drukpa Kargyu tradition by understanding the interconnections between religious life at Kardang gompa (monastery) and the village “against a dynamic social and cultural change” in the 1980s.
Given the paucity of in depth anthropological research on post-Independence societal transformations in Lahaul, Stutchbury’s work is a valuable resource. This critical work on religious and socio cultural transformation and continuity in the region argues that post independence social analysis is mostly limited to a superficial administrative documentation of religion, society and culture. Such a linear, homogeneous and statistical account of religion, society and culture, for instance overlooks the diverse ways in which religion is lived and experienced differently by people inhabiting a same geographical space. ii In fact, the absence of critical academic knowledge on Lahaul is a recurring concern in Stutchbury’s thesis as she then hoped that educational access would inspire younger generation of Lahaulas to further research on the area like Mr. Tobdan, a local scholar from Tod valley who in the 80s offered her crucial insights into the religious history of the area.
Her research is a valuable resource for Filming Lahaul under many aspects. Given that sacred landscape and diverse manifestations of everyday lived religion is one of our interests, Stutchbury’s research allows us to historically situate our questions and concerns in framing a critical contemporary visual portrait of Lahaul. On the question of religious continuity and change, interestingly, her research tells us that as the region and its people gradually assimilated with mainstream India in the 1960s and 1970s, many discerned a religious and a cultural ‘crisis’ even back then. The outward movement of Lahaulis to lower altitudes of Kullu and Manali with the advent of the road in 60s, rising incomes through cash crops like potato, employment and business opportunities, simultaneously triggered local collective responses against a threatened Buddhist identity and cultural degradation. Through the case of Kardang, she tells us about the creative ways in which Kardangpas responded, for example by building a common village chorten (stupa) in the 80’s as a way to “reaffirm the villagers’ adherence to Buddhism” (Stutchbury, pg 86).
The questions that Stutchbury posed in the eighties are more than relevant today. Concerning ‘change’, the community is at a crucial juncture. The mountains that compose and guard this robust landscape are much more mobile today- there is a flow of different people, ideas, culture, information, technology etc. What newer socio-economic and cultural scenarios will different ‘projects of modernity’iii then introduce? The under construction Rohtang Tunnel which promises year around connectivity to the valley currently dominates the local socio-political discourse on change. Will local ideas and responses manifest in newer forms to reinstate a religious and cultural identity as it happened back in the 80s?
In such a context, this short video of a peculiar ceremony called ‘Shakspa’ in Keylong (Gar valley) is interesting. Every year after Halda (new year) and Gotsi (thanksgiving) in the month of February, the people of upper and lower Keylong visit Shashur monastery for what could be called a day of confession. 71 year old Dawa Dolma, says that Shakspa is central to the wellbeing of farmers. The unintentionally committed sins in the previous agricultural season have to be confessed in order for a prosperous agricultural season in the following year. “We are not very attentive to life under the soil while working in our fields. We end up killing many keede mukaude (insects) with our agricultural implements or crush them to death by simply walking on them. We have to ask our deities for maafi (forgiveness)”, she remarks. Lama Sonam Dawa from Yourdong gompa says that on a more personal level, Shakspa is for any action an individual might not be happy about for which a confession is made to Mahasiddha Drubchen Dewa Gyatso who is said to have founded Shashur monastery in the 17th century. iv Shakspa can then be considered necessary for maintaining an environment of harmony, both external and internal. To a Lahauli farmer, its value is to reaffirm their relationship with their land and all that composes it. The ways in which these traditional practices of sustainable living that are deeply embedded in local religious beliefs and practices will shape themselves as the socio economic face of Lahaul changes remains to be seen.
i Many thanks to Tsunma Nawang Jinpa for introducing us to works of Elisabeth Anne Stutchbury. We were deeply saddened to hear of Stutchbury’s untimely death this July. Stutchbury’s research gives an extensive historical account of Kardang gompa, and the period of religious revitalisation in Lahaul by the Lahauli disciples of Shakya Shri, (1853-1919) namely Norbu Rinpoche (1885-1947) and Kunga Rinpoche (1883?-1967), followed by the lineage holders of Shakya Shri in the 1980s.
ii“Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environment in the Himalayas”, a project of the India China Institute of the New School, New York- session on debates and concepts.
iii Shafqat Hussain, Remoteness and Modernity: Transformation and Continuity in Northern Pakistan, Yale Agrarian Series, 2015
iv Garsha, Heartland of the Dakinis: A mirror into Lahaul. Sacred time and space, Young Drukpa Association, 2011.