Persistence, decay and upheaval in the Great Himalayan Tundra: A saga of plants, fungi, deities, and people
Persistence, decay and upheaval in the Great Himalayan Tundra: A saga of plants, fungi, deities, and people
Shrabya Timsina, MF 20201
The project and the place
For decades, the Karnali region of western Nepal has produced the labour and natural resources demanded by national and international markets. Many of its inhabitants, such as those from Pere, a village nestled in the Great Himalaya Range, often spend months in the forests and tundra hunting and harvesting plant and animal products for trade. Until recently, however, Karnali’s ability to receive outside goods and capital was limited by the lack of local transportation and market infrastructure. Now, haphazard dirt roads increasingly connect even the remotest of hamlets, showering them with goods, ideas and unfamiliar people at unprecedented rates. While tractors and jeeps haul goods and people both ways, ideas inspired by Karnali landscapes are seldom offered a ride to the halls of power in the national capital of Kathmandu. The complexity and intricacy of human engagement in Karnali’s biophysical matrix lies in stark contrast to the over-simplified development narrative encouraged and fed by the prevailing state, non-profits and businesses.
Oceans away at the Yale School of the Environment, an institution that simultaneously perpetuates and criticises prevailing notions of environmentalism and development, I am awarded the opportunity to go to the land of my ancestors to conduct an ecological study of Karnali’s highly prised alpine medicinal plants. Through various acquaintances, I am introduced to the village of Pere and its Lamteli Community Forest in the summer of 2019. At the top of the world there, I am humbled by the enmeshment of human livelihoods with the realm of plants, fungi, animals, and the divine. But looking back down into the encroaching flurry of developmental activity and environmentalist fervour, I begin to recognise I am on precarious besieged cliff featuring the last surviving theatres of nuanced interspecies interplays.
One must endure three irregularly scheduled bus rides to reach Pere from Khalangabajar, the nearest town of any size. This is a day-long journey, on roads often blocked by falling boulders and landslides. The trip to Khalangabajar itself is either two flights or multiple bus rides from my home in the capital, Kathmandu. As the headquarter of Jumla district, Khalangabajar is the hub that oversees the developmental and environmental future of the upper stretches of the Karnali region. But as of late in Karnali, the state’s bureaucratic tentacles have flailed ineffectually due to an armed Maoist insurgency and the subsequent chaotic national political transition. Despite this unrest, Khalangabajar is littered with regionally powerful NGOs backed by foreign donors. The district coordinators of major NGOs often yield social influence equal to the government’s head district official. So, before heading to Pere, I study both the NGO landscape and consult with politicians of all major parties, to ensure my physical safety and gather support for my project. I also consult elders and activists at the Khalangabajar’s iconic gold-domed Chandannath temple. In spite of my preparation, I am warned not to go—the monsoon is coming, I will get sick at that altitude, I will be killed by poisonous pollen, why am I doing a project up in the mountains when most people stay around the settlements? It is becoming clear to me that I am a rare breed here. It appears, few, if any, scholars have visited remote landscapes like Lamteli, one of the largest sources of traded wild plants in Nepal. Yet, if this is the case, what basis are Nepali environmental and development institutions using to develop active national programs for the ‘scientifically sustainable’ harvesting of wild plants?
Acquaintances from a regionally active NGO accompany me on the journey to Pere in late May. They seldom introduce me as a researcher, disguising me as a state bureaucrat or an NGO staffer. People’s questions are obstacles; the wrong answer could attract too much attention and scrutiny. I sit on the back of a pick-up, still wearing the veil of an NGO employee while an inebriated local youth pours his rage over the mismanagement of Pere’s forest onto me. Like millions of young Nepali men, he had once left Pere to work abroad in India—he knew the world outside the village as much as any NGO worker. He shares his general distaste for NGOs that march into the village to meddle with local affairs. He is also enraged with his own neighbours in the Lamteli Management Committee, who he claims hold meetings and conduct activities that exclude the rest of the community. One of these neighbours, a middle-aged man called Ajaya who is in charge of my business in the village, is listening closely. Ajaya insists that the committee has been transparent and that the young man is of an inattentive nature. He tells me that the youth is bitter because the committee recently sent him to jail for cutting trees without a permit. The young man retorts, “As soon I get that permit, I am not going to leave a single tree standing” … Silence falls upon the passengers as the vehicle chugs along the steep hillsides, kicking back a storm of yellow dust that glitters in the bucolic sunset.
Foiling the conspirac[(y)ies]
Ajaya arranges accommodations for me for the night. The next morning, I follow him up a hill near Pere to get a better view of the landscape. I take notes then immediately return to Khalangabajar to remotely consult with my research advisors, which is not possible in Pere with its abysmal telecommunication infrastructure. When I return to Pere a few days later, I arrive too late in the evening for Ajaya to receive me. The pick-up driver points me to the home of the village’s de facto chief, Sashishekhar, who gives me shelter and food. I wake up the next morning to a gathering of men from the village, summoned by Sashishekhar to inform them of my presence and intentions. I learn that the pure serendipity of my late arrival has unwittingly foiled Ajaya’s nasty scheme for me. He had been plotting to employ himself and his friends in the forest management committee on my project, without letting the other villagers even know about me. After all, the drunk youth had been truthful to me: the committee is not functioning transparently.
Sashishekhar explains to the villagers that I am a research student seeking people that know Lamteli’s landscape and its alpine tundra plants. The ensuing process of selecting (and being assigned) research assistants is political and painful. My money is clearly deepening pre-existing rivalries and anxieties. Slurs are thrown across socio-economic lines in attempts to sway my decision.
Self-righteous elites and dwindling deities
Karnali is often shamed by the national and global community of elite development journalists and bureaucrats (colloquially: bikase) for harbouring the most extreme manifestations of practices categorised as archaic Hindu practices regarding caste and womanhood. A particularly graphic example is the tradition of menstruating women staying in a cowshed during menses. Predatory individuals sometimes harass women that are secluded this way. My experience with foreign aid-driven development initiatives suggests that they favour confrontation: the elites seek to raze such practices to oblivion—such as literally destroying these cowsheds that are often rebuilt once the bikase folk move on to their next source of income. Influential development non-profits do not even consider working within the local culture and cosmology. Instead, campaigns are designed to convince locals that their practices are regressive and history is distorted to demonstrate that such traditions are imported or invasive. A few weeks ago, at Chandannath temple, I had shared my experience about these cowsheds with a young man from the neighbouring Sinja valley. He was infuriated and wanted to know where these bikase people were so that he could chase them away. He asked me to understand that the cow is sacred and literally everything about it is medicative. Women can rest, during a physically distressful period with the comforting cow mother, whose premises should be kept cleaner than people’s homes. When I retell this account to some bikase-minded peers, they are disgusted that people can conjure such explanations to justify their backward treatment of women.
The ghost of secularism commands these development campaigners and as such they are driven by a cosmology of their own. Not just questionable practices, but the entire skeleton of sophisticated indigenous practices is slipping from the grasp of Nepali society that increasingly looks outwards—receiving English-medium education and being ensnared by materialistically bewitching but mundane globalist outlooks. The spiritually and intellectually motivated arguments for cultural reform and revitalisation offered by nationally esteemed indigenous voices, like the late Yogi Naraharinath of Karnali, have been systemically suppressed for over half a century in Nepal. This learned sage campaigned nationally to place actions and conduct above gender and genetic lineage in the post-hoc categorisation (Varna) of an individual’s function in society—reintroducing women and marginalised castes to rituals and practices that they had been excluded from for centuries. He stood for the preservation of local identity and cultural ownership by nurturing local traditions and beliefs to gravitate towards the equilibrium of understanding and symbiosis/sympoesis, without ideological and economic manipulation. Nepal’s endogenous capacity to resolve differences is evident in the central pantheon of Karnali’s indigenous Khas ethnicity. This pantheon is comprised of ‘Hindu’ aspects, like the 12 Masto brothers and 9 Bhawani sisters, but also includes their maternal uncle, the Buddhist monk-practitioner Lama-Vishnu—a historical testimony confirming the Nepali capacity of constructive co-existence, not just mere ‘religious/cultural tolerance’ the way it is currently prescribed by the bikase flock. Predominantly upper-caste priests still guide social rituals alongside primarily lower-caste shamans that summon deities to heal and bless. Vedic, Buddhist, and shamanic elements all fit in Nepal: the friction of philosophical contradictions feels numb once fruit-bearing cosmologies converge on the same deities and tantric/yogic practices. In the Himalaya, they have become blessed jewels of co-discovery, not empty garments of identity [politics].
Nevertheless, I can appreciate that certain ‘community-based development’ efforts have had the effect of mobilising otherwise politically disenfranchised members of society and instilling in them a sense of agency. But the unyielding ideological assault on the local social matrix can destroy the sense of pride that communities have in their collective heritage. Thus, Pere, one of the most remote villages in Nepal, already harbours a Christian church affiliated with and funded by foreign evangelical organisations. It is currently attended by about only half a dozen households, primarily of marginalised castes. If the evangelicals have it their way, these families will never look to Masto and Bhawani again. I confront Sashishekhar about the church, but the politically embroiled man can only shrug it off, arguing that he shouldn’t intrude upon another’s religious beliefs. Yet, he had not stopped to think that he may be intruding when he had asked me what caste I belonged to the night I had arrived.
The suffocation in stale colonialism
What in the world doesn’t reek of the lingering stench of colonial savagery? Still, there is nothing that hurts more than having your countrymen refer to as you ‘Sir,’ as is my fate among Pere’s inhabitants. Allowing this anachronistic colonial mental trap of entangling the assignment of respect with ‘professionality, knowledge and the English language’ eats into my soul. I refuse this title, yet no one can comfortably call me ‘brother’, as we generally do with male acquaintances.
Mines [and time-bombs] of biotic gold
Sashishekhar’s young children (who do refer to me as ‘brother’ given the absence of a financial interest in our relationships) help me outmanoeuvre the management committee. Having themselves ventured deep into the tundra, they help me weed out Ajaya’s men and select a team of three other village-men: 57-year-old Setu, 46-year-old Botal-jwain, and 27-year-old Rudra.
I am fortunate, because most able-bodied people are in the highest elevations of the alpine tundra—further north than the region I have come to study. Every year between April and June, men, women, and children across Northern Karnali’s villages migrate into the high tundra to find yarshagumba (local: kira, Nepali: jivanbuti, botanical: Ophiocordyceps sinensis), a fungus that parasitises larvae of the ghost moth. The fungus mummifies and buries the larvae into the ground over winter, and ruptures out to disperse spores in the spring. Pere’s own 8500-hectare Lamteli Community Forest has very few patches where villagers can harvest this fungus. However, the neighbouring districts of Mugu and Dolpa host expansive meadows and grasslands that teem with the fungus. The fungus has transformed people’s lives over the past twenty-five years. Demand from wealthy Chinese consumers has driven up yarshamgumba’s price, enmeshing hundreds of villages into in the cash economy.
The alpine medicinal plants I have come to study are under the economic shade of the fungus. Though slightly less sought-after by markets in China and India, they are still threatened. The fungus has become an annual fixture for collectors and traders, moving both legally and illegally across the border with China. In contrast, the plants are a transient economic resource. They may have their permanent places in Ayurved, Amchi, Chinese, and local healing traditions, but are vulnerable to global trade bans and volatile pricing, and still lack a perennial black market. The prized valerian (local: bhultya, Nepali: jatamasi, botanical: Nardostachys jatamansi) and terrestrial orchid (local: hattijara, Nepali: paanchaule, botanical: Dactylorhizhae hatagirea) have been banned from trade for several years, through the multilateral CITES treaty. Because of these restrictions, the Himalayan yellow fritillary (local: podya, Nepali: ban-lasun, botanical: Fritillaria cirrhosa) and figwort-picrorhiza (local/Nepali: katuki, botanical: Neopicrorhizha scrophulariiflora) are the two important alpine plants harvested for trade by the villagers these days. Once the fungus-harvesting villagers trickle down back home from the high tundra of Mugu and Dolpa districts, in less than a month’s time they will leave again to collect fritillary on the tundra within Lamteli. The short window of time before this season’s fritillary harvest is the only opportunity for my vegetation sampling project in Lamteli’s tundra.
Sophisticated interactions on complex landscapes
A mighty tributary of the Karnali river system dissects Lamteli, forming a landscape of gradually ascending narrow ridges and valleys. The tributary is fed by countless spring and snowmelt-fed rivulets, each cutting into the mountainsides and creating draw terrains of their own. As such, Lamteli’s ecological gradient can be traced across elevations by two approaches. One can walk up gorges incised by the rivulets, climbing up dramatic hill faces as the vegetation changes from forest to tundra. Alternatively, one can follow the main river channel, walking up a more gradual slope through lush forests until the roaring river diminishes into a stream surrounded by expansive tundra.
But even before forested landscape begins, right at the base of Lamteli at 3,500 meters elevation, is a field where sheep, goats, cattle, and horses overwinter, looked after mostly by elderly folk. The herders smoke tobacco, and occasionally cannabis grown in their own fields, from a pipe lit by embers of resinous forest plants. Prepared elders still carry a tiny metal device to ignite fire, despite the widespread availability of store-bought lighters and match-sticks so popular among the youth. The horses have already climbed to the tundra on their own in early April. The sheep and cattle are beginning to climb up with their masters. The animals will make it to the tundra right after the fritillary harvest, which they would otherwise ruin by grazing off the young shoots.
In the wake of the bio-cultural-diversity nightmare
The open field at Lamteli is not only teeming with livestock but is also decorated by patches of wildflowers that tickle our shins as we walk. We pluck some off the ground and place them as an offering to Bagauli-Baba, whose shrine is the only material evidence of his presidency over Lamteli’s southern stretches. It features a pyramidal sanctum adorned with carved masks, metal tridents, and strips of black and red fabric offered by devotees, atop a pedestal of loosely arranged rocks. Metal tridents betray his association to Lord Shiva. Further up the Karnali, Baligara-Baba awaits us with a larger but similarly adorned shrine, overseeing the northern two-thirds of Lamteli. Whether the forest deities originally emerged in the collective consciousness already holding Shiva’s trident or whether they were armed during an appropriation by external Hindu influence appears to matter little to the local shamans and geomancers, who channel them regardless. Inside a carton-box of instant noodles, I carry two live broiler chickens – one each for Bagauli-Baba and Baligara-Baba. It would have been more reverent of me to offer non-commercial varieties, or at least fowl with red plumage. However, barely anyone raises local fowl anymore and the market only offers white broilers—one of many changes introduced by the newly built roads.
The IUCN-sponsored bio-cultural-diversity framework has belatedly recognised the advantages in reaffirming the association between natural resources and local heritages—including the ritualistic veneration of forest deities such as Bagauli-baba. It is unfortunate that we need to wait for the global and Nepali elite controllers of environmental governance to come to ideological maturity before reinforcing such village traditions that ask for endemics, local breeds, and cultivars to be conserved for cultural purposes. An example is the Chandannath temple in Khalangabajar, which owns paddy fields behind its main complex. In these fields, maarsi (a nutritious rice cultivar said to have been brought by the sage, Chandannath, from Kashmir in medieval times) is sown and harvested annually to be used as an essential daily offering at the temple. As longs as the temple stands and the offerings continue, the maarsi cultivar will perpetually have its own dedicated seed bank—without and despite the Development-Environmental-Aid-Complex.
Spirits [and beliefs] of the soil
I take the risk with the broilers, since I am generally respectful to deities otherwise. I had already been forcefully waking myself, trembling in the dead of night, out of enchanting dreams featuring a looming ethereal figure. My field crew had told me about a woman who had arrived a few years earlier with a new-born child to visit the alpine Baligara lake in Lamteli. She climbed alone, leaving her child with the villagers, never to return. An ascetic had wondered off into the same direction and only his clothes were ever found in a cave nearby. A white foreigner met his death near the copper mine in Lamteli’s tundra and his body was helicoptered off. The villagers often see the deities in the form of deer or children across the Karnali river, both in his actual territory and in their dreams.
Back on one of the jeep-rides between Pere and Khalangabajar, I had met a Mahayani Buddhist monk who’d grimaced at the thought of me ‘having to’ sacrifice the chickens but agreed the deities would be offended without an equivalent offering. His understanding of the deities emphasizes what elites and outsiders often will not, or cannot see about Nepali indigenous practices. We all acknowledge that these (local, regional or universal) deities govern aspects of our material and mental experiences. Whereas the markedly Buddhist monk may accept the deity as a mere ally on the journey to higher consciousness, Lamteli’s shamans may ride the worship of their deities for a glimpse into the euphoria of the ultimate truth. In the final moments of daylight, we offer Bagauli-Baba one of the chickens and buckwheat-bread just before sunset and paint his sanctum with its blood. As my field team cook and eat the sacrificed bird, they explain to me that broiler chickens were more likely to get them ill (compared to local fowl), especially while foraying out in the forest. They pair the meat with village-made spirits and branded Tuborg beers purchased from a livestock-herder who also sells snacks and cigarettes from his makeshift plastic tent.
Natural resources: fruit, timber, medicine and wildlife
Beyond Lamteli’s livestock-field lies an orchard of local varieties of cherries, peaches, pears, walnuts, and horse-chestnuts. The trees provide fruit for the village community and their seedlings are used to generate root stocks for less-hardy commercial varieties grown on private orchards. As local populations decline due to emigration, much of the cultivated land near settlements has been recolonized by forest. Fruit orchards are increasingly seen as attractive low-input uses of this fallow land. The village of Urthu, few hours downstream, has seen its image transformed from a marginally productive agrarian village to a wealthy apple-farming hub in the past decade. Situated much closer to Khalangabajar than Pere, the new roads have given Urthu’s people access to fruit markets in urban Nepal and India. Inspired by this transformation, two of my crew members (Setu and Rudra) are planning to grow orchards on their own properties.
Further up the Karnali from the orchard, oak-conifer forests flank the main river channel and its rivulets. This forest type, comprises most of the tree-covered landscape of Lamteli, and provide lumber, firewood, resin, mulch, fodder, and fruits for the community. Sashishkehar manages a wood workshop of his own and is currently overseeing construction projects for government buildings in Pere using local timber.
Lamteli’s lucrative resources—the medicinal plants and timber—have become subjects of tense debate. Hillsides closer to the settlement extensively feature haphazardly denuded patches of forest because of unaccounted extraction of timber trees. Furthermore, Lamteli’s territory has to be constantly patrolled to deter neighbouring villagers from harvesting the medicinals. The forest management committee had already sent the agitated young man, from the conversation in the pick-up truck, to jail for his infringement. The committee itself is under intense scrutiny for misappropriating and stealing community funds. Rather than seeing Lamteli slowly degrade beyond their control, some villagers like Setu prefer it be declared a protected site with restricted access.
Ironically, Setu is Pere’s most prominent hunter and the last surviving member of the crew of sharp-shooters he grew up with. He would have brought his gun along on our trip, were I not vegetarian. He stops us, often, on our path, to nostalgically narrate his kills, pointing upwards to the ridges that the hunters would run along and the slopes where he had chased and shot deer and wild sheep with his rifle. He had carried bags for our late king, Birendra Shah, who used to helicopter into Lamteli to hunt. He had also met Karnali’s own Yogi Naraharinath, many times over decades. When I inform Setu that Yogi had passed away sixteen years ago, he refuses to believe that our guru, who always appeared young and as strong as a bull, could die. I wish he was right, but Yogi Naraharinath’s burial shrine is right by my house in Kathmandu.
In the oak-conifer forests, we pass two villagers who have been camping here to weave baskets out of bamboo from nearby patches (Fig. 1). One is also a shaman who can channel Baugali-Baba, so my crew naturally advises me to consult him. He reads the grains of the rice I offer him and correctly determines I am on an investigative journey. He tells me that I will discover what I’ve set out to seek, but I will suffer a period of illness in doing so. Without my prompting, he also says that in the more distant future, I will never have much money, just enough to sustain myself. As soon as we leave, my crew tells me that he isn’t the best geomancer around, but personally, I find him charismatic and flattering.
Dugara is the first harvesting site we sample in the tundra of Lamteli. It takes four hours to climb there from our rock shelter at the base of the canyon. We move up along a rivulet that feeds the main Karnali channel, past yet another forest type (the rhododendron-birch forests), before witnessing the breath-taking expanse of the Himalaya’s tundra at 3,800 meters. The tundra spreads across the relatively flatted land atop the cliffs of the canyon but beneath the snowy mountain peaks, and encircles a stream originating from a spring situated within. Most plants in Lamteli’s tundra and forests have ethnobotanical (medicinal and/or culinary) uses. Setu, the oldest in our crew at 57 years, knows most plants, as well the local uses for half of what he can identify. He often makes fun of the younger crew members, asking them to identify a plant, and laughing when they get it horribly wrong. When we find a locally unnamed or unfamiliar plant, we give it a name. Rudra, one of my other assistants, asks me to produce a booklet of the plants with their photographs and names. Local children are not taught about plants in their schools. With the increasing provision of biomedicine, they may never have to learn about the less-lucrative species at all. In fact, during the fungus season, the children are absent from school for months and the administrators do not attempt to work around this. The village has increasingly invested more time and resources into harvesting the more marketable species, entangling themselves and their lands to the volatile machine of global trade. However, in this process, the younger generation receives neither a robust formal education, nor do they inherit the heritage of ethnoecological knowledges and practices developed in-situ over centuries.
Though the areas of tundra that we are sampling are intact, a few fritillary bulbs on the lower edges of the tundra had been dug up and stolen already. My crew suspect they were taken by the women from a neighbouring village we had run into on the way up. They had given my crew an unconvincing excuse for entering Lamteli. But my crew cannot act without evidence and know very well that their own villagers may have rushed to harvest the fritillary before it flowered and seeded through mid-July. They bemoan and ridicule the ineffectiveness of the patrols sent out by the committee to precisely prevent these thefts.
My sampling approach covers most of the fritillary and the orchid’s known range within each tundra site—in the gently sloping or trail-laden lands where quantitative study is feasible for me. But harvesting of other medicinals, such as of the valerian and figwort-picrorhiza, extends to peaks, crannies, and vertical slopes inaccessible to unprepared outsiders. Combined with the fact that these two species are rhizomatous and thus regenerate more rapidly, my crew believes it is the population of the accessible and sexually propagated fritillaries and orchid that are in trouble. They note that the density of their regeneration has severely plummeted in the recent years.
Foraged foods and packaged goods
It is possible to survive a few weeks in Lamteli just on foraged greens, berries, and roots, and little-to-no supplemental food from the settlement. However, as far my crew knows, only one man, now deceased, has ever done it. We mostly eat breads of village-grown millet and wheat, rice and beans, and cornmeal cooked using firewood over a pit of loose stones. Oak and birch wood impart an enticing smell onto the food and our clothes, and burned slowly, keeping the camp, a rock shelter, warm throughout the night. But in the higher treeless tundra, we need to use shrubs that burn off as soon as they are thrown into the fire and pop off embers that melt our clothes and skins. But the tundra's herbaceous meadows also offer us the lush delicious greens. Rudra forages Rugha-saag (Megacarpaea polyandra), a delicious green that helps alleviate colds. He also gathers Dhoka (Arisaema sp.) and the rhubarb Akchya-chuk (Rheum sp.), which Setu carefully combines and cooks to neutralize their astringent effects and eliminate the poisonous calcium oxalate. This sour and soupy stew is the most delightful vegetable dish I have eaten in my life, even though it is seasoned only with salt.
Uninvited guests at lunch
During lunch on our first day in Dugara, a herd of two-dozen yaks begin descending, in a line from over the mountain peaks down into the tundra we are sampling. Two men follow the herd. No one in Pere owns yaks; this is a herd from a neighbouring village. Pere’s settlers do not mind the yaks’ intrusion into their rangeland at this time of year, since the yaks do not seem to eat the medicinal plants. In parts of the Tibetan tundra, certain grazers like yaks perpetuate grassland systems that would otherwise fall apart in their absence. However, they can compact and erode soils and irreversibly overgraze vegetation in ecosystems that originally excluded them. We don’t know how the ecology of Lamteli’s tundra is precisely driven by such animals, but Pere’s livestock and wild ungulates have been present here for centuries. In fact, Pere’s people seem more worried that these herders would steal their fritillary bulbs under the pretence of grazing yaks.
After cooking, we have fresh ash in the fire-pits. In the mornings, we scoop out a few pinches and clean our teeth and gums with it by rubbing with a tooth-brush. Setu also swallows larger amounts to alleviate coughs. He smokes so much tobacco from his pipe that he coughs quite regularly. He is a chimney—constantly smoking before and after meals, while walking to/from our plots, in the midst of taking measurements and recordings, first thing in the mornings, last thing before bed, and whenever we meet other villagers in the field. The tobacco used in his pipe is grown on his own fields. Most tobacco-smokers face breathing difficulties at high altitudes, but Setu suffers no such problem. Botal-jwain is much less addicted to tobacco and preferrs to smoke classy artisanal cigarillos, made and sold locally. Along with Setu and Botal-jwain, some other villagers are so addicted that, even in the heat of the conflict following my arrival, the arguing parties were passing around cigarillos among each other!
They both love branded cigarettes for their harder and satisfying hit. But they cannot afford them, and also find cigarettes to be much harsher on their throats and lungs than the pipe. Pipe smoke can be cooled and filtered by wrapping a wet cloth around the mouth-piece. Rudra’s addiction is the most horrifying. His vice is Megha-Shri—a nasty chewing mixture of betel-nuts with slaked-lime and tobacco—which has created an unacknowledged addiction epidemic in South Asia. His teeth are now permanently reddish-brown and visibly corroding from the constant assault by the mixture. It is the same story with my relatives and neighbours all over Nepal. Rudra runs his own small shop in Pere where he mostly offers fast-moving consumer-goods produced in Southern Nepal and India, including Megha-Shri. He buys them wholesale from a regional supplier but also eats them wholesale—sometimes twenty packets a day.
Trails in the forests and tundra are littered with the packaging of Megha-Shri, branded cigarettes, and instant noodles. If Rudra ever disappeared into the woods, you could just follow his litter trail to find him. But the entire village creates the pollution to a certain extent. Setu gathers the plastic waste around our camp and throws it in our cooking fire. I tell him we are breathing burnt plastic and cleaning our teeth and gums with contaminated ash. He feels my anxiety regarding the toxicity of plastic is unfounded.
Communist insurgency and ideological infiltration
After meals, Rudra or Botal-jwain immediately collect our eating and cooking utensils, scrub them with ash and rise them off using a bucket of stream-water. The eldest of my crew, Setu, jokes that when villagers venture into the forest, they make the younger ones do all the tedious chores such as washing dishes. In fact, even Botal-jwain delegates exhausting tasks, like chopping and carrying firewood and fetching water from streams, to the younger Rudra, who does not even protest at the discrepancy in the volume of work he is asked to do or the weight he is made to carry. Pere features clusters of neighbourhoods that are related to one another, and marriages between the clusters create an environment where the whole village feels comfortable referring to one other using familial terms such as ‘father’, ‘aunt’ and ‘nephew’. Thus, even though my team members are not so closely related, they feel comfortable ordering each other around.
Initially, when I tried to wash my own dishes, they insisted I leave it for them clean up. The selection process in the village had unleashed an initial phase of sycophantism among my crew such that they collected my dishes immediately after we were done eating. One day, when the bucket of stream-water is right beside me, I quickly start washing my dishes. Rudra teases me, saying, “That is nice, Sir! You should have a communist outlook on work.” He is referring to the communist ethic of doing one’s own menial tasks. I agree with Rudra, but not because I adhere to teleological communist ideology—particularly not the ideas that were drilled into the people of rural Karnali, during the devastating Maoist insurgency of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Of course, I understand and despise the problematic ongoing conversion of peasants and the urban poor into a class of labour reserved for the socially unproductive tasks designed to comfort and entertain the elite. Rudra talks endlessly about his life-long journey of seasonal work at resorts and bars frequented by the urban rich of India and Nepal, and shares his disgust at their public display of wealth and sexual depravity. But Maoist insurgents have done more than just enable Rudra to frame his objection to elitist behaviour. They’ve also stripped, from him and his children, the opportunity to learn about their heritage by destroying indigenous centres of learning, like the popular Sanskrit school in Chandannath Temple. They singularly targeted Sanskrit as the language of the oppressive elite, despite the fact that it is the root of most indigenous languages of Nepal (including the Khas dialects prevalent among the geographically marginalized people of rural Karnali). They similarly categorized Hindu heritage as an addictive opiate that encourages female oppression and a classist caste structure.
Pre-empting the Maoist insurgency, Yogi Naraharinath had published a booklet called Vaidic Samyabad (Vedic Communism) to channel insurgent fervour into a realization that our indigenous philosophies already envision a classless utopia, where individuals and communities govern themselves and society’s resources under a merely symbolic leader. However, the Maoist insurgents came to power with the help of the Indian establishment in 2008, a few years after Yogi had passed away. They conspired to share power with the pre-existing political elite, dethroning the 300-year-old monarchy that founded our modern nation-state. They instated a federal republic in its stead and secularised the only officially Hindu nation in the world. Since the transition, political parties have encouraged or wilfully ignored the loss of native Hindu, Buddhist, and shamanic culture through conversion to Christianity, Islam, and Indian-origin cults. Having already denigrated the study of Sanksrit during the insurgency, they went even further and instituted English as the primary medium of instruction in public schools, including those in Pere. Ignoring Yogi’s position that children should be taught using the languages/dialects prevalent in their communities rather than the standardised national Nepali language, the new state has ironically pushed a more unfamiliar and problematically non-phonetic language. Karnali’s children will, now, neither fluently speak in their local dialect nor in the national language. The dearth of educated locals, fluent in English, guarantees that qualified teachers will remain rare. The prevailing Western school system, irrespective of the medium of instruction, already disrupts the incubation of ecological awareness in children’s minds. But they will most definitely generate a fantastic ‘unskilled’ workforce for the elite and become excellent consumers of commercial entertainment (like Bollywood) and fast-moving consumer-goods that arrive from India on precarious dirt roads.
The long way home
After our first day of sampling in the Dugara tundra, Rudra wants to collect wild bamboo for the local basket-weavers to make baskets for his household. So, we take a different trail back to our camp. This trail has been abandoned for years and is now recolonized by thorny Rubus brush. We sing along the way to deter the Himalayan black bear. Botal-jwain is the best singer among us. He tries to convince us he would have become a famous singer had not something come up on the day of his audition for Radio Nepal. Rudra has a less melodious voice but he sings the most among us. Setu does not really sing, he just talks about how he knows the forest better than most, and how he is still faster and stronger than us despite his age.
It is significantly more treacherous for me in my street-shoes going downhill, and the night descends upon us in the midst of the oak-conifer forest. There is no time for bamboo. The trail meets its end here as well, the main river channel has washed it away and now all we have was the steep canyon wall. What would have been minutes, becomes hours, as we press our stomachs to the wall and inch onwards on tiny footholds, with the roaring Karnali beneath us. With my weak solar torch as the only source of illumination for all of us, we creep along the canyon’s wall. My crew is infinitely more worried about my life than theirs. They had promised to keep me safe, despite my shortcomings in the mountains. They feel guilty about taking this hazardous alternate route. At the worst point in the night, Rudra is flat against the canyon wall, two fingers of his right hand holding on. He extends his left hand to help me pass through. I clasp his hand and push forward, but lose my footing and begin lunging down into the narrow riverbank. Rudra roars in excitement, still only two fingers on the wall, as he clasps my slipping hands and dangles me mid-air. As he gently swings me down by the bank he remarks, “he feels light!”. My field team loves to emasculate me, announcing that no local woman would marry me because I am neither strong nor clever. It is truly beyond my scope to verify their characterisation of their female villagers, but if this true, then these women are more empowered than those in Kathmandu’s elite circles and even parts of the Western world.
Something in Karnali’s water
Rudra is strong. My whole crew is. They each carried over 35 kilos of food, utensils, and sleeping and research equipment from the settlement to the rock shelter, and will continue to do so for the next month as we move from one rock to another. The best I have managed is a few kilos of notebooks and pressed plants, and the remaining chicken for Baligara-Baba. The only reason Rudra is here with me and not collecting fungus in the high tundra is because his wife had just given birth and was weakened by the surgery she required. Otherwise, Rudra was one of Pere’s most prolific harvesters. Even at the altitude of 5,000 meters, he boasts he’d make thousands of rupees collecting and selling fungus during the day only to spend it away on gambling and alcohol on the same evening. As the youngest and strongest, Rudra does most of the strenuous work for the crew: chopping trees and uprooting shrubs for firewood and fetching buckets of water from the snow-melt streams. One must hope the strength comes from Karnali’s water and the agrarian lifestyle, because the diet in the village has changed. Rudra grew up eating maarsi rice, local corn, millet, wheat, barley, and buckwheat. Now his generation increasingly sells the more nutritious and lucrative local production for cash, while his children eat and prefer polished white rice and instant noodles trucked from India and the southern plains of Nepal.
The next day in Dugara, we find a man who claims he was deserted in the mountains by the two yak herders we had just met yesterday. He suggests that they probably did so to steal Lamteli’s fritillaries—something he would have objected to had he been around. Even as my crew doubts the veracity of his account, they feed him to his satisfaction and wish him luck on the long trek to his village.
The next day, when we move up the main river channel heading to the next tundra site, we pass by returning fungus harvesters. Villagers, not only from Pere but all over Jumla district, use Lamteli as a passage to access the higher tundra in Mugu and Dolpa districts where the fungus is more abundant. It had been a horrible season this year. While Rudra once collected 600 individuals per season in recent years, some of these harvesters had not even found 30 this time. The first returning group we meet is of two young boys from another village. Hours later we encounter one of Pere’s patrollers hot on the chase for those two. Lamteli is fighting against hundreds of people that use its passage to harvest fungus elsewhere but steal fritillary on the way back.
We have now entered the deity Baligara-Baba’s dominion—the upper two-thirds of Lamteli—and the second chicken meets its fate (Fig. 2). We had feared the chicken would die on the journey, and had even lost it for a day, but it survived for me to pay my respects to the forest and tundra guardians. I have been coughing persistently the past few days, but I still have the energy the next morning to make a pilgrimage to yet another shrine—one covering a naturally manifested Shivalinga and Yoni (aniconic representations of the universal father Shiva and mother Shakti, respectively). It takes hours of climbing uphill on an empty stomach to reach. Unlike at the shrines of the Baugali and Baligara dieties, who are also local associates of Shiva, animal sacrifice is prohibited here. The rock under the Shivalinga had cracked when a devotee had sacrificed a goat upon it, and since then the understanding has been that Shiva, here, does not accept such offerings. I offer white cloth and rice grains, as well as cashew nuts that my mother had packed as a treat. Having not eaten for hours, I promptly devour the entire packet of blessed nuts.
My cough grows worse, and now my stomach is also roiling with acidic and oily cashew sludge. We cannot reach our next rock-shelter on time and have to set up a tent by the trail. My parents had prohibited me from carrying a tent from the capital, because they wanted me to return to the relative safety of the settlement every night. Once I was in Jumla, I quickly realised this was not logistically feasible. I was fortunate to gain the trust of local don-cum-developer and entrepreneur in Khalangabajar who convinced a hotel manager to lend me a tent. This is the only night we’ve ever used the tent, preferring the openness of the rock shelters instead. The skies are pouring rain, as I curl up inside the tent, drinking glass after glass of hot water steeped with turmeric and the inexplicably bitter Katuki root that Rudra and Setu had foraged for my cough. But afterwards, my body purges itself repeatedly, causing me to zip open the tent and find somewhere to relieve myself in the soaking rain, over and over again. The next day, unable to move, I sleep outside in the sun until I recover from both the cough and the cashews. The shaman’s prophesy has come and passed, my moment of suffering in Lamteli, the cost for offering the white broiler chicken. A passing patroller makes a rather nasty comment: “These people [researchers/bureaucrats] are so stingy. Instead of letting us do the work, he came to do the research himself in this climate, and got sick.” Writhing in pain, I cannot tell him about the cashews or any of the academic reasons that require I be here myself.
Rock to rock
We continue by the main river channel until it diminishes into a stream surrounded by a vast lush herbaceous meadow (Fig. 3), referred to as Khandi after the defunct copper mine nearby. Our shelter here is a giant free-standing cavernous white rock (Fig. 4). Rudra had once seen a snow leopard kill a wild sheep right next to it. The leopard had abandoned its kill after noticing him, leaving him to eat it. The rock is so large, one night during our stay here we share it with twenty fungus harvesters that came seeking shelter. Another day, the pre-monsoon winds bring so much rain we cannot not leave the rock at all. It takes several hours to walk from the shelter to the sampling locations. Getting wet can lead to sickness and possibly death, since the nearest human settlement is at least a good day’s walk. But in the late afternoon, the clouds clear up and the forest deities bless us with the romantic sight of joyful horses galloping after one another in the meadows. Free-roaming but not feral, they all belong to a single villager who trades them at the southern border with India.
Next, we sample a hill-face called Bijara-bhitta. It is a collection site for the Hattijara orchid and the only place in Lamteli where one can find the Himalayan trillium (local/Nepali: satuwa botanical: Trillium govanianum). The trillium is limited to the understory of a small 200-meter-long stand of Himalayan birch, encircled by meadow. A few days later, en route to our next tundra site, Bijara, we pass the Bijara-bhitta hill-face again. We are appalled to find almost the entire trillium population dug up and stolen. The soil looks freshly disturbed, so Rudra scouts the vicinity to apprehend the culprits and charge them a hefty fine. But he returns to our new rock-shelter in Bijara with no success.
I have not talked to my family in 20 days. There is no cellular connection anywhere but at the peak in Bijara. We have been asking returning fungus harvesters to deliver letters to the village head, Sashishekhar, requesting him to let my parents know I am safe and asking him to delay the fritillary harvest at the sites we have not sampled yet. When we reach Bijara and finally connect with my parents, they inform me they are coming in less than a week’s time, to take me back to Kathmandu. They are bothered by the fact that I am out of reach and have had enough of my adventurism. My parents, the villagers’ fritillary harvest, and the deathly monsoon are all on their way to end my study.
Lake of death
Within the next six days, we finish sampling at Bijara and the next tundra site at Shankarkhola. Thanks to some fungus harvesters that offered us their extra food, our rations also last perfectly. On the last day, coincidentally also my birthday, my crew encourage me to take a detour to visit the alpine lake at the neighbouring Baligara tundra site, where the mysterious woman and the ascetic had met their fates. Rudra has already returned to Pere because most of the villagers are now back home from the fungus harvest and, so, he has to keep his shop reliably open. His uncle, Lakshman, is here to guide me to the Baligara lake, while the rest of the crew descends from the tundra directly back into the oak-conifer forest with all our bags.
Lakshman and I climb to the ridges lining the current Shankarkhola site, to pass over to the tundra around the Baligara lake. We pass by a rotting wild sheep skull, the only sign of mammalian wildlife I had the fortune to see. I wanted it as a souvenir, but Lakshman seemed disgusted so I left it on the tundra. The ridge is magical; the clouds envelope us at once and then disappear just as quickly. Wildflowers and neon lichen teem around rocky springs that birth streams that turn into mighty rivers. We descend downslope into the Baligara tundra and find the pristine aquamarine lake. Lakshman sends me ahead to offer a white flag at a shrine on the lake’s mouth. He is digging up some valerian, growing on the slopes, for me to take as a gift. This site is swarming with so much valerian that Lakshman believes it can never be depleted. The villagers would carry down hundreds of kilograms every year when the trade was still legal.
I walk alone towards the mouth of the lake. To my surprise, I find a herd of yaks by the shrine—the same one we had seen in Dugara, now a month ago, but with no herders around. I fear they’ll crush me to death if I get too close, so I sit on a comfortable-looking rock a few hundred meters away, admiring them from the distance and waiting for Lakshman.
The lake is on a bowl-shaped valley and my rock is on perched one of the steep slopes encircling it. Suddenly, all but one of the yaks run to the opposite bank of the lake. I assume they are uncomfortable with my presence. Just as I am wondering why one of them has stayed behind, it disappears into nowhere. There is no way I could have just missed this massive creature crossing over to join its herd. I reckon it still has to be somewhere, perhaps just tucked away from vision, underneath me downslope. Recognition dawns. It’s the bull! I stand up just in time to see it charging uphill towards me at full speed. This monster chases me from my perched rock and I backtrack clumsily along the slopes for two hundred meters shrieking “Mama!” (meaning ‘Uncle’, the appropriate term now that Rudra and I had become brothers in this journey). Lakshman laughs at the whole scene. He thinks the yaks do not recognize us as humans, because they’ve been left alone, without their herders, since we’d seen them at Dugara a month ago. He whistles and gestures at them until the bull rejoins his herd across the lake. I find the courage to plant the flag on the shrine.
We descend from the lake, passing a massive cave that attracts wild Himalayan sheep looking for shelter. The villagers place baits and check on the cave regularly to see if they can cull an individual from the herd. The valerian follows us downhill, just as far as the shade of the rhododendron-birch forest. As we reach the oak-conifer forest, it rains, but not as weakly as in the days before. The monsoon has arrived and is pouring relentlessly. I slip at every turn on wet mud and rocks. Lakshman is annoyed by my clumsy downhill movements. We eventually find our crew by the main river, waiting with warm fire and hot rice and beans. The sheep and goats, that were mostly in the field at the base of Lamteli a month ago, are now quite far up into the oak-conifer forest. We would have stunk as bad as the creatures, were it not for the smell of campfire on our hair and clothes. Fearless Rudra was the only one among us who had bathed in the past month.
An unceremonious and ominous Farewell
Back in Pere, I hear the news that an NGO had come to establish a sustainable-harvesting certification program through the forest management committee. They had left without ever having bothered to study the vegetation in Lamteli. Their program is a new layer of governance and resource control. Its masterminds scheme together standards for what is fair and sustainable for the world, in the headquarters of powerful conservation organisations of wealthy nations, in languages and terms unfamiliar to the people of Pere. This gives birth to third-party certification companies that are deemed eligible to enforce the standards set by the unelected legislature. Herbal-product industries that have a large eco-conscious consumer base benefit from premiums and increased sales offered by the third-party certification of the sustainability of their products. Regional and national NGOs scout harvesting communities, to train them on the world-wide standards involving harvest management and labour practices, while promising to ‘improve business capacity and market connectivity’. Precisely, this translates to facilitating and legitimising the access of multinational herbal industries and certification companies to products collected and owned by rural harvesters. Members of the forest management committee have many incentives to work with the NGOs, since they become the ones to communicate (and control) the new unfamiliar order of governance. They also hope to network with city folks from the NGOs and opportunistically acquire employment. By design, these certification systems prioritise the livelihoods of commercial herbal industries, certification companies, and intermediary NGOs. Private third-party certification programs view the fate of harvesting communities outcompeted in this process of bearing the financial and administrative burden of these regulatory frameworks as an unfortunate by-product of their sincere mission for sustainability. They are unconcerned about the local herbal-medicine vendors and consumers that are out-priced by multinational suppliers and new wealthier cosmopolitan enthusiasts. In its most extreme manifestation, this is the continuation of the monopolistic colonial extraction of primary products from rural communities. It takes advantage of both the lack of genuine local guardianship against imperial and bourgeois intention, as well as the proliferation of unsuspecting consumers relentlessly programmed to respond to product labelling.
Meanwhile, my parents had arrived at the village hoping to find me, but had already retreated to the urban comfort of Khalangabajar. I want to see Rudra and Setu’s fruit orchards to figure out a business plan to get their produce to market. But I have to immediately return to Khalangabajar, to be with my parents on the two-day journey back to Kathmandu. Unfortunately, Pere’s cellular network is so horrendous that Sashishekhar is the now only person I can ever reliably get a hold of. I think and hope it is just enough, otherwise I will have to return unannounced to hand over a published booklet of Lamteli’s alpine plants, and to work with Rudra and Setu on their plans.
As I leave Pere, I think about the shamans and Balibagara-Baba and Bagauli-Baba, and wonder what they will do about the recently-established church in Pere; the traders and NGOs hovering around Lamteli’s rangelands; the villagers’ grand dreams to build a highway connecting China and Khalangabajar through their main river channel and the gorgeous Khandi tundra with its horses; their dreams to attract tourists; food security, nutrition and livelihoods that tell stories of many species; the teleological and dualizing notions of development and conservation; and the rural and poor-urban plant-medicine users that will be outpriced by the fad-following rich. I think, then, about the millions of Nepali people who neither know nor care about these miraculous plants, places, and traditions—leaving them behind in the rush towards a well-cemented, prosperous Nepal.
Mountains away in Kathmandu, I begin to unravel deeper and more bizarre underworlds of international biopiracy and patenting of biological resources, locally facilitated by the usual culprits: sustainability-peddling NGOs. Again, oceans away at Yale, my environmentalist peers hurtle, starry-eyed or reluctantly, to help globally entrenched technocracies monopolise and weaponize science and commerce, disrupting every aspect of people’s way of life. Having gazed above the murky waters onto the lonely flickering divine light in Lamteli, I struggle to see what can stop the flood from taking everything we have.
Timsina, S. 2020. Persistence, decay and upheaval in the Great Himalayan Tundra: A saga of plants, fungi, deities, and people. Tropical Resources 39, 00–00.
Shrabya is a Master's of Forestry graduate, from Nepal, interested in the integrated management of forest and agricultural resources, for the purpose of enhancing resource sovereignty, cultural revitalization and biological diversity.↩