Humla. The name resonates like a hymn. Vast and humbling, remote and poor, Humla is forgotten by all but those who live there. Nestled between the sweltering Indian subcontinent in the south and the frozen plains of Tibet in the north, Humla lies hidden in the far northwest corner of Nepal, giving Humla the nickname, “The Hidden Himalayas”.
Humla’s remoteness can be measured by its area: 5,655 square kilometres or 2,183 square miles and population: barely 50,000-odd. The hardy people of Humla comprises both Hindus (the Thakuris and Chhetris) who form 85% of the population. The rest of the population are Bhotias, who are Buddhists of Tibetan origin.
For millennia, the way of life of these two groups of people is by necessity interwoven by trade (chiefly bartering), yet remain distinct. They share a land of eternally snow-capped mountains and sweeping valleys, a land as forbidding as the landscape of some distant moon. Theirs is a life of constant struggle. The yield of millet, barley, potatoes and turnips from the alpine soil is meagre, forcing them to resort to seasonal herding and trading trips to make up for the chronic harvest deficits. Trade with distant neighbors means days of driving stubborn yaks over perilous mountain trails. Winter is long and harsh, ever threatening to snuff out the warmth of life forever. Yet, as if protected by the gods, year after year, winter dies, spring is reborn. And the rhythm of life continues like a hymn that never ends.
Work and Play
The sweat of harvest labor has been wiped away, the crumbs from wedding feasts have been swept up. The songs of legends past are now silent. Like confetti, snow pigeons flutter and descend from the mountains, seeking refuge in the village. Soon the village will be swaddled in white, ready for the slumber of winter.
Caravans of the High Passes
Of Gods and Men
Humla’s religious landscape is alive with gods and spirits of the land, water, and sky. Both benevolent and malevolent, these gods control fate and destiny, harvests and fertility, and they manifest themselves through the human intermediary of the village shaman (dhami). He is the incarnation of the particular deity he represents.
The gods do not speak for the Hindus only. Throughout the last eight centuries, in overlapping migrations from Tibet, the Bhotias, Tibetan-speaking people have trickled into Humla, settling in the highlands above ten thousand feet. The Buddhism they practise is a folk Buddhism that incorporates local deities and ancestor worship, a vestige of Bon, a religion with archaic roots in Siberian-Mongolian shamanism as well as influences from Persian Zoroastrianism and Indian Saivism.
Intersection of Traditions
Faces of Humla
Photo Credits: All but one photograph in this post is from Carroll Dunham and Thomas Kelly, The Hidden Himalayas, Abbeville Press, New York, 1987.