The fragmented filming and research—which for now has taken the shape of this brief article and five short videos— was conducted over two years. We first filmed the Bagh (mask) ritual of Kardang village in January 2017, returning again in the summer of 2017 to gather more information. Our initial plan was to document the ritual in the winter of 2015. But that year (pre-tunnel), we couldn’t reach Lahul on time, owing to the erratic winter helicopter service and miscommunication over precise dates with my grandmother’s family in Kardang.
The Bagh ceremony of Kardang, we were told, is unique and one of the few remaining remnants of Lahuli folk tradition. Those aware of the ritual cited it as a living case of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist symbiosis in the valley, and also informed us about similar bagh based rituals elsewhere—like in the villages of Jobrang, Goshal and Yor in Miyar valley—both in the trans-Himalayas and across Western Himalayas. We were specifically cautioned about the strict codes and conducts of this village-bound ritual. No one outside of Kardang village is allowed to witness the ritual unless one enters the village before Kuns, the local new year, commences. In such cases, those who enter the village can leave only once the bagh ritual concludes. The rule to not cross the village boundary applies to Kardangpas as well. People from the neighboring village of Gozzang, however, are allowed, but not via the main pathway that cuts through the village. The only permitted access for Gozzangpas during this time is the route that runs along the village boundary.
In 2017, when we finally managed to reach Kardang on time, it was after four consecutive days of waiting at the airport in Bhuntar, hoping for the helicopter to show up. First day, there was an issue with air pressure; on the second day, the then Chief Minister was touring Kangra with the same helicopter; on the third day, it was supposedly off to Chandigarh for servicing. Finally, on the fourth day, we took off at 3 p.m. from Bhuntar airport to Stingri (the nearest helipad to Keylong). That year, we finally witnessed the night of Halda (wooden fire torches) in Kardang, followed by the three days of bagh ritual.
Following, you can see the first of the five video series we have composed. The narrating voice is of Uncle Dorje, who warmly welcomed us in his house. Along with other Kardangpas, Uncle Dorje brings out Halda at night, gathering again in the afternoon the next day for mangs-alcha, opening of the masks, or the “opening of the dream”.
Aawa (father) and Aama (mother) bagh are considered embodiments of male and female deity. Any unwanted actions and impurity are likely to offend them, as well as Tsoro, their seven children. Adults continue to partake in the ritual for several reasons: from not disrupting the annual village ritual calendar, the ritual’s village centric character, to being guided by reasons of faith, belonging, fear and loss. For children, it offers the possibility of collective play, dance and fun. The very act of kyorbi, to play, remains central even in the ritual’s current manifestation, as told to us by an aging Palmo Karpa (89 years old when we interviewed her), and affirmed by the young kids of Kardang who wait eagerly to tease and provoke the bagh family.
Palmo recalled the ritual’s elaborate character from her younger days, the entire village swarming out of their houses despite the biting cold of January. Now she says people have various means of entertainment, but the three-day ritual continues. The second video of this series opens with Palmo meditatively weaving us into the second day of the ritual.
Late anthropologist Elisabeth Anne Stutchbury’s account tells us that inter-village codes were still well intact in the early 1990s, her doctoral research years in Kardang. In her thesis titled “Rediscovering Western Tibet: Gonpa, Chorten and the Continuity of Practice with a Tibetan Buddhist Community in the Indian Himalaya”, she wrote about the little success in convincing Kardangpas to allow her to witness the ceremony. Chapter 8, says:
“[…. my persistent enquiries about the mask dance “aroused suspicion” back then, and I was often told that “it wasn’t good to talk about such things”. I could not witness the mask dance ceremony as my interest to document it for my research was not entertained by the people in Kardang.”
Which families can assume the role of the father and the mother is strictly defined (Stutchbury’s thesis discusses these rules and associations elaborately based on the traditional layout of Kardang village).
Fear was a binding thread in all the conversations we had. Norbu Karpa’s (90 years old when we interviewed him) son Nawang Chhering grew up listening to stories about the ‘shakti’ (power) of the bagh. He recollected untoward events of the past perceived to be aided by the bagh. One such instance was his father’s wrist fracture upon assuming the role of mother bagh. Two major episodes were attributed with their ‘protective’ and ‘destructive’ nature: a fire accident in the Ang Kyantse family and a death in the Yuas family.
Late Tshering Dorje, too, had shared his thoughts on fear and hierarchies. The arrival of Buddhism in Lahul targeted what were seen as elements of ‘fear’ and ‘superstition’ in the local belief systems. Those violating the codes within this system of ethics devised in the form of deities were reprimanded. In this way, he had opined, the majority population within a village or an area entered into a dominant relationship with the cultural Other. Notions of inferiority and superiority also solidified as the valley kept fluctuating between different political powers, witnessed migrations of diverse cultural and religious groups over the course of history, and with sedentary agriculture becoming a common mode of survival (personal communication) (also see Tobdan 1984).
Filming Lahul was interested in documenting this peculiar ritual for several reasons. Our initial interest was to observe the coexistence of folk beliefs and practices alongside Buddhism and Hinduism in Lahul. 2017 was also a generative point for the Lahuli community, for conversations had begun on a wider scale on the possible revival of ‘lost’ rituals, bringing them ‘alive’ for promoting cultural tourism with tunnel’s onset. This meant, at that point, we couldn’t disconnect questions of ritual preservation and continuity from the ‘connectedness’—then still in making—of the Rohtang tunnel. Tourism was and is still seen as a potent ground to showcase the ‘true’ culture of the valley. The other aspect we were interested in understanding was to see ways in which young Lahulis are responding, shaping, and actively participating in these unfolding processes of cultural revival, engaging in conversations of identity, belonging, as well as understanding the social design of rituals.
In 2017, we also had the first impromptu screening of the previous years’ filmed material for Kardang villagers. In 2018, we screened a shorter version of this film in a community screening in Manali by Samgh Foundation.
In post tunnel Lahul, those skeptical about folk revival solely from the tourism point of view feel that folk rituals shouldn’t be reduced to as ‘objects’ or ‘performances’ to be ‘showcased’ to the Other. This sentiment was clearly expressed in 2017 by Kardangpas as well and the recent decision of the Sissu panchayat to suspend tourism activities during the winter ritual period for deities comes in light of such an introspection. The much publicised ‘Snow Festival’ organised across Lahul generated diverse responses and emotions. We also saw a few other independent community-led celebrations which were different in character than where the administration outrightly posed itself as the ‘savior’ of ‘dying’ traditions.
As we publish this article and short videos, we leave our readers with some questions and issues to think about: What are gender and caste dynamics of this unfolding cultural regeneration in Lahul? In what ways are our local belief systems also exclusionary? Who decides what aspects of culture or a ritual are to be preserved and in what form? In Kardang bagh ritual, the role of the father can only be performed by the men of the Manepa family, and the two Manepa families cannot assume the role of the mother. Whereas, the role of the mother can be performed by men of every household, except the Dalit families of the village. Tashi who belongs to the Blacksmith caste cannot wear or touch the masks. His family’s role is restricted to their customary role as drummers to perform the ritual specific ragas. We then ask: how can the folk world in its current manifestation, its sensibilities, its spirit be made equal? Will the ritual adapt itself, or people, or both? Can we collectively “open a dream”, nurture a folk future that is non-hierarchical?
Lal Chand Dhissa, a Lahuli Dalit activist from Jahalma village is critical about this process of ‘saving’ Lahuli culture. In what ways will tribal dalits benefit from ecotourism when they have unequal access to resources like land, or cultural tourism when there still exist deep seated hierarchies? His comments also come in the light of the huge gaps that exist between the tokenist efforts of the state to promote and celebrate the artistic skills of the pahadi dalit communities and the harsh reality of everyday discrimination (personal communication). His views resonate strongly with those of Tashi in the final video of the series, who sees a bleak future for rituals such as bagh, if caste based divisions in the ritual world persist in Lahul.
Stutchbury, Elizabeth. 1991. Rediscovering Western Tibet : Gonpa, Chorten and the continuity of practice with a Tibetan Buddhist community in the Indian Himalaya.
Tobdan. 1984. History and Religions of Lahul: From The Earliest To Circa A.D. 1950. Delhi: Books Today.