The Tibetan Plateau is the land of water, the place where Asia’s most important rivers, the Brahmaputra, Salween, Yangtse, Mekong and Indus, take their source and bring water from the Plateau south or east, several throughout the continent. It is the source of life for the millions who live beyond.
As one of the 4 elements, water is precious and essential, though Tibetan culture has elevated it beyond its fundamental qualities. The Bengali sage Atisha, when visiting Tibet in the 11th century, praised its water as its greatest treasure. Giving is considered an essential virtue in Buddhist ethics, incorporated into daily rituals with offerings that regale each of the five senses; beautiful flowers for sight, a musical instrument for sound, soft fabric for touch, fragrant incense for smell, delicious sweets for taste. When Atisha came at the invitation of King Yeshi O, who reigned over the Western Kingdom of Guge, he was amazed by the qualities of Tibetan water. He said that daily offering of water surpassed any others for several, practical reasons; the water would always be pure in essence, with the qualities required for a perfect offering. It was also simple to acquire, and would not distract the practitioner. Most importantly, water has no material value, and since offerings must be made with the clearest motivation free from all regret and stinginess, it would insure the purity of the offering. Thus came the tradition, visible in all Tibetan households, of offering water, poured each morning into seven bowls, neither too little or too much, and emptied each evening, the bowls wiped, ready for the next offering.Tibet is also the place of innumerable springs, many with minerals endowed with curative properties. People on the Plateau are discerning of their water as the French are with their wine, comparing the taste of this water to that one, and prizing some above all others. Like mountains, forests and rivers, Tibetans believe springs are the abode of invisible creatures who must be treated with care. The dominant ones are the Nagas, or serpent spirits who have the power to harm those who pollute their abodes. Nagas are often the object of rituals of appeasement and of purification of their water, and some monks spend months travelling from spring to spring performing rituals aimed at the restitution of its waters.