RE 190 Indigenous Religious Traditions
03 November 2012
The Hidden Valleys
This past summer, I spent a month in the Khumbu Region of Nepal with ColoradoCollege. We trekked through the Himalayas meeting and creating relationships with the Sherpa people. The Himalayan Mountains are indescribably beautiful and magnificent. Their peaks appear above clouds in the monsoon season of the summer only in the very early morning, and if you’re lucky, on a clear afternoon. When they did appear, my jaw dropped in amazement of the amount of beauty that they hold. Their beauty is incredible, but what also struck me was the amount of meaning attached to them in the Sherpa culture. For example, Mt. Everest, also known as Sagarmatha or Chomolungma to the Sherpa, isn’t just a beautiful mountain to the Sherpa, but is the home of a special deity. The whole Khumbu valley, which is part of Sagarmatha National Park, is filled with sacred, traditional, and religious objects. The trails are full of spiritual things such as thousands of prayer flags, huge boulders with prayers written on them (mani stones), stupas, and prayer wheels. Khumbu valley is a sacred land, called a beyul. As a sacred land, the beyul, or “hidden valley”, is protected by many different organizations, as well as by the Sherpa people with their Buddhist ways of living and interacting with nature. Because of the increase of western influences, however, the beyul of Khumbu is at risk of losing its unique and extraordinary significance.
Beyuls, or sacred hidden valleys, are located in Buddhist regions throughout the Himalayas (in Tibet, Nepal, India, and Bhutan). They are areas set aside by Padmasambava, the Indian saint who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. He set aside these areas to be places of peace, retreat, and refuge for Buddhists. All of the beyuls have not yet been found, however the ones that have been found were discovered by “tertons (treasure seekers) following discovery of terma (secret treasures i.e. ancient texts), which describe the access to these sacred lands” (Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, Sacred Beyuls and Biological Diversity Conservation in the Himalayas, 101). Only people with pure hearts are able to find a beyul, and the place is usually marked by a key (like the one below).
The beyul of Khumbu, located in Sagarmatha National Park (a world heritage site), is uniquely marked by its biodiversity. The problem that has arisen is the disturbance of sacred land, which also constitutes environmental problems focused on the protection of its unique biodiversity. The influx of outside influences, such as “globalization, nationalization, education, cultural assimilation, domination, and tourism appear to impinge on these indigenous belief systems” (Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, Sacred Beyuls and Biological Diversity Conservation in the Himalayas, 104). These outside influences are impairing the cultural, sacred significance and power of the beyuls.
One main component of the problem is the huge increase of tourism in Khumbu. The main attraction is obviously Mt. Everest, and many tourists visit Khumbu solely to conquer the mountain and do not pay attention to, or even care about, the Sherpa culture and their sacred land. To Sherpa, the beyul is full of sacred meaning, spirits, and deities that are constantly thought about and prayed to throughout the day. Many tourists are unknowledgeable of the sacredness and spirituality of the beyul, nor do many of them even know that Khumbu is a beyul, or what a beyul even is! They are ignorant to the sacred land that they walk on. Tourism is a complicated industry for the Sherpa because, over the years, it has become essential to their economy, yet tourists disrupt their religious and cultural traditions and beliefs. In the words of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, “dramatic increases in the number of annual visitors has stimulated the local economy but has also brought an increase in the degradation of the region’s fragile ecology and cultural traditions” (UNESCO, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/120).
On our trip, we had the great opportunity of meeting and dining with Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, who is like a celebrity in Khumbu. Lhakpa (for short) is one of the main scholars and patrons of the valley. Among many accomplishments, Lhakpa is the author of the book “Through a Sherpa Window” and is a senior fellow with the Mountain Institute. From 2005-2009 he served as Co-Director of The Mountain Institute’s Himalayan Program and “developed and implemented an integrated cultural conservation and livelihood improvement project in the Sagarmatha National Park” (http://www.mountain.org/senior-fellows). We talked extensively with Lhakpa about the affects of tourism in the Khumbu Region of the Himalayas. He expressed his concern about the increasing focus on tourism and western influence as taking away from traditional practices and beliefs of the Sherpa people.
I remember Lhakpa also telling us that oneof the main problems that has arisen in connection with the beyul is that modern education is failing to teach the younger generations about traditional indigenous practices and beliefs, such as the concept of the beyul. He writes that “modern education…generally does not integrate the wisdom of traditional indigenous knowledge” (Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, Sacred Beyuls and Biological Diversity Conservation in the Himalayas, 104). In the movie, Beyul: the Sacred Hidden Valleys, many Sherpa of the younger generations were asked what a beyul was; none of them knew the answer. The affects of globalization and tourism are causing the Sherpa tradition to slowly fade away. In one of Lhakpa’s articles, Sacred Beyuls and Biological Diversity Conservation in the Himalayas, he writes that ”managers, government bureaucrats, and scientists need to learn more about the role of sacred natural sites, such as beyuls, in conserving biodiversity, and in doing so develop a stronger appreciation of such sites” (Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, Sacred Beyuls and Biological Diversity Conservation in the Himalayas, 104).
To protect the sacred land from being further harmed and disrupted by tourism and other western implications (such as airports and hotels), there have been many different regulations laid out by the different organizations that manage Khumbu. Sagarmatha National Park, established in 1976, is managed by many different organizations that work to protect the biodiversity and the sacred land of Khumbu. These organizations include the “National Park and Wildlife Conservation Office, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Ministry of Forests, [and the] Government of Nepal”(http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/120).
According to ICIMOD, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, there have been many achievements in Sagarmatha National Park in relation to continuing and maintaining the protection of the biodiversity of the sacred land. Some of these achievements include “high levels of community awareness in maintaining WHS standards as indicated by Park protests” against certain renovations and implementations that would disrupt the sacred land, and “minimal poaching and illegal slaughter of animals by local Sherpas due to cultural and religious significance of non-violence“ (ICIMOD, http://lib.icimod.org/record/22642/files/c_attachment_183_1664.pdf). Another main and local way that the beyul has been protected for so long is the connection of the Sherpa Buddhist morals and ways of life that respect the land and their surroundings. For example, Buddhists generally refrain from killing. Because of the unique biodiversity in Khumbu, the National Park has certain regulations and laws for both the people living in Khumbu and also the increasing amount of tourists that visit the area.
The sacred land of the beyul in Khumbu is not necessarily a land needing reclaiming by the locals, because they have not lost it. It is, however, in need of regaining its cultural and traditional qualities from outside influences, mainly tourism. The beyul needs to be protected by the people and organizations such as the ones I mentioned above. Khumbu is an amazingly magnificent place, and tourists need to realize the sacredness inherent in the land. The beauty, concept, and knowledge of the sacred land of the beyul will be diminished if more regulations are made in educating the people of the importance of its upkeep and conservation. Khumbu is home to many spirits and supernatural beings. Mt. Everest is not just a mountain to conquer, but is the home to a very special deity close to Sherpa’s hearts; It is not just land, but sacred land that needs protecting.