Hidden Gem of the Himalayas

Mount Saipal (7,031m) in Humla, northwest Nepal. Huma is the most remote district in Nepal and one of the poorest.

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

Dwarfed by the towering Lekh Dharma mountain, Chhetri children dance in the rising mist before gathering potatoes in the autumn.
Bhotia children toss drying turnips to the wind in an exuberant morning ballet on a flat rooftop. In a land of vertical mountains, flat root-tops serve the dual function of playground and workspace, ideal for drying turnips, a staple crop in winter stews.
A Bhotia woman gracefully spins wool. Isolated from machine-manufactured goods, the people of Humla rely on themselves for survival. Spinning wool is an occupation all share, whether Hindus or Buddhists. The spun wool is used to make blankets and clothes.
Using handcrafted bamboo baskets and woven headstraps, Chhetri women carry loads of valuable compose to dump on the arid soil before the plowing and planting of winter wheat.

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.

Man and animal must bear the elements together. A Bhotia man herds his horses through a stubble field in the village of Bargaon. Wrapped in a sheepskin jacket, and wearing glasses that shimmer like nickels in the cold, the herder will take the horses up in the high pastures for grazing.
A mother and daughter brave the vicious cold to clear the flat mud-packed roofs. This must be done quickly after a heavy snowstorm to prevent damage.
A young boy chipping in to help in the clearing of the mud-packed roofs.
A Chhetri girl braves the cold of the water spring to wash clothes. She gathers kindling, heats water in a brass poet, and kneads the clothes clean with her bare feet using ground-root.
Bhotia children having fun in spring amid the fragrance peach blossoms.
With a pestle older and larger than herself, this girl pounds root for shampoo. After washing, her hair will be greased with mustard oil for the Bhotia spring solstice festival, Mani.

Caravans of the High Passes

Melting mountain snow creates meandering glacial streams in the Chosa Valley basin, ideal for grazing animals. Summer settlements of stone herding huts dot the valley where Humla women spin, salt animal skins, milk cows, make yogurt and dry cheese, while the men herd sheep and head out through the mountains on trading trips.
A yak caravan trudges through rolling sand dunes created by the sweeping plateau winds. The terrain between central Humla and the northern village of Limi located on the Tibetan plateau is vast and varied. Settled by Tibetans over 800 years ago, Limi shares much of its culture with Tibet but is proud to be a territory of Nepal.
A Chhetri smokes a chillum while watching fellow traders complete deals.
Up at dawn, traders must work together to survive the bitter cold and get their animals safely home. Age and experience dictate each trader’s task in keeping the caravan moving.
Fighting a vicious wind, the Limi caravan trudges around frozen glacial ponds. Despite the piercing cold winds, thick sheepskin coats keep the men warm, an absolute necessity at high altitudes like the Nyalu Pass where this caravan is. Once they reach Limi, the men will prostrate themselves towards the Mount Kailash, the holiest mountain for both Hindus and Tibetans.
Looking down from Nyalu Pass towards Limi valley. The road was built in 2010 from Lapche pass by Lama. It’s currently a dirt track, and regularly in need of repairs in the monsoon months as landslides are common. Photo Credit: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

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.

Jampal, the Buddhist shaman (dhami) of Bargaon uncoils his locks for a ritual purification bath prior to the ceremony. The spring Mani festival cannot begin without first appeasing the gods.
Lobsong Lama, in lotus position, holds a drilbu or bell and a dorge (sceptre), ritual tools used in meditation. Lobsong was born in Kham, a region in eastern Tibet. Khampas are tall, fierce people, known for their bravery since the time of Marco Polo.
A Lama erects a lungta, a Buddhist prayer flag, in the highland summer pastures. Lungta, which means “windhorse” is said to broadcast the word of the Dharma (Buddhist law) to all who pass near.
In a playground of stone, children gather beside the village chorten, a monument erected to protect the settlement from various wandering spirits. Chortens are ‘receptacles of worship’; they typically contain relics such as bone fragments or ashes of buddhas, bodhisattvas or enlightened beings. Great spiritual merit is procured by the construction of a chorten. Merit is also gained by walking around one.
Morning contemplation. In a religious culture, time for reflection is as important as work. A Buddhist prayer flag flutters in the wind nearby.

Intersection of Traditions

A procession reenacting the marriage of a Chinese princess with th 7th century Tibetan King Songsten Gompo. One of the groom’s representative leads the bride to the groom’s house, singing songs of victory on winning the bride through cleverness and skill. Weddings give the villagers a chance to dress in silken finery and display their brocaded Chinese robes embroidered with dragons, clouds, and ocean motifs.
Generous hospitality is the custom of the land in Tibetan culture. Here, in a wedding celebration, the hostess extends her hospitality and utters her guests to “Shay, Shay” or “drink, drink”.
Mani is a three-day theatrical performance celebrating the rite of spring. Each Bhotia village has its own Mani celebration with its own style and tradition. It is simply entertainment and to express the inexpressible through shared laughter. Here, a masked performer leaps to the air in a Mani ballet as amused spectators, wearing newly woven blankets, giggle in amusement. The masked dances of the Mani festival is a also means by which supernatural forces can be brought down to the world of man.
Masked boys dangle from the best seat in town for the Mani festival
Spectators enjoying the dance performance at the annual Mani festival.

Faces of Humla

Every line in this Bhotia woman’s face tells a story of the art of survival. She wears heirloom necklaces of coral, amber, and turquoise, all acquired on trading trips to Tibet.
Chhetri sisters and relatives wear brass rings, beads, and coin necklaces from India. Hindu fashion is pragmatic: women wear chobundi shirts, designed for breast feeding.
Summer is a time for daydream. Three Chhetri brothers wearing topis, native Nepali hats, rest on a blanket beside harvested buckwheat.
A Chhetri mother holds her first-born. The average woman in Nepal gives birth to eight children, of whom six live to adulthood.
Brother and sister Kangri and Tsing Puri clown with a Mani mask made from an animal head. They are both from the Bhotia village of Bargaon, which is home to the Nyinbas – “people of the sunny valley”. A distinct ethnic group with a strong sense of identity, Nyinbas have their own unique dialect and singular style of dress. They are descendants of migrants to Humla from western Tibet and consider themselves culturally Tibetan.
Life is hard on the mountains of Humla. But the Hindus and Buddhists who live here are hardy. “We bow and touch heads like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud until our time is no more.”

Photo Credits: All but one photograph in this post is from Carroll Dunham and Thomas Kelly, The Hidden Himalayas, Abbeville Press, New York, 1987.

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