Life around Norlha

For rural Tibetans, maximum leisure comes with winter. The harvest long over, farmers turn to other occupations and the bare pasture keeps the nomads in winter settlements, their animals nearby. For centuries, this meant time for other pursuits, the main one being investment in the state of their next rebirth, a goal which demands the accumulation of merit. For most, the simplest answer to this quest is a pilgrimage to the holy sites. For those with little time and few resources, a visit to the nearby religious centers is most popular, spending a few days in each, circumambulating the monastery reciting mantras and making incense offerings to the local gods, for luck and good relations and butter lamp offerings to the higher, ‘beyond the world’ deities, for acquiring merit. Visiting Labrang in winter, one can see a multitude of pilgrims in thick sheepskin robes, from the furthest corners of the Plateau praying alongside the local regulars, often retired nomads from the nearby areas come to finish their lives preparing for the next.

For those with time, there is the journey of a lifetime, that of prostrating to a holy site. It can be closer or further, the most exalted destination being Lhasa. This journey can take several years and sometimes, there is no turning back. Last year, I met a monk in Ganden who had the characteristic bump of the seasoned prostrator on his forehead. He said he had prostrated to Lhasa from his home in Amdo in the 80’s and had never gone back. He radiated contentment, looking after the butter lamps, lovingly dusting the statues and cleaning the temples.

For those with time and some resources, there is the annual or one time trip to Lhasa from everywhere else, one that lasts several months. A Lhasa resident told me that its population shifts with the seasons. Its usual inhabitants find the winter too cold and go to Chengdu or Kunming for the winter. Nomads from the Northern plains find its weather pleasant and warm and move in for several months, in areas that they occupy every year. They can also do a little trading in the Barkhor to fund their trip, which includes a tour of all the holy sites in Southern and Western Tibet, Samye to the East and Tashilhunpo and Sakya to the West. Tibet in summer is a country of landscapes, while in winter, it is one of people.

Clouds roll over the Plateau bringing rain and snow. In summer or early fall, when the air is humid, they often lie low creating a blanket of fog which starts thick in the morning and sometimes dissipates, revealing a bright blue sky. Nomads don’t like fog; animals disappear from view and become prey to wolves and foxes. Elders love to tell tales of devils and fairies that snatch children in the fog, which delight them and make them shiver in spite of the warmth and safety of the kang they are snuggling on. The fog makes our photo shoots at Norlha unpredictable. If we seek it, it may not come, but if we don’t it could suddenly roll in from a clear sky. We make do, for interesting results.

Tibetan nomads have lived in their black yak hair tents for as long as anyone can remember. Depending on the area they live in and the condition of the pasture, they move with their animals every few weeks or months in the summer and build a more permanent camp in the winter, which in most areas has now been replaced by houses.

A Tibetan nomad tent is a not comfortable dwelling. While a Mongolian gher affords some comfort, in some cases upgraded with wooden floors, glass skylights and wooden doors that shut out the wind, the Tibetan baku is a drafty, smoky affair with a grass floor and a drippy ceiling that doesn’t hold off the rain. It may have had a certain charm in the old days when the large families lived in spacious bakus furnished with altars and low tables. People would huddle around the hearth to hear stories at night, the walls of the tent lined with skin sacks full of food and suppliesand, and their earth over graced with ornate teapots and brass pans. These days are over, the families smaller and the ones who still stick to their baku do it out of nostalgia. It is heavy and hard to transport and has to be maintained, replacing one twelfth of the fabric, which the families wove themselves from yak hair, every year, so that the whole tent would be renewed after twelve years. The pasture which used to be dotted with black tents is now the site of the white or green specks of military tents, easier to handle for the now smaller families and lesser number of hands.

When Yidam Kyap created Norden camp, he wished to base its lifestyle concept on the baku, which he successfully transformed into a living area offering all the comfort one would wish for. He elevated the ceiling, made it waterproof, provided a stove pipe for the hearth and added wooden floors. Norlha furnished the Norden tents with carpets and felt soft furnishings.

The Lungta Cooperative, near Norden provides an example of a grand tent of the old days. Its walls are lined with traditional skin bags, woven blankets and skin covered wooded boxes used to store supplies, as well as the wooden cupboards used for altars or the family’s porcelain cups and the low tables where visitors would be entertained. The center of the baku is dominated by the earth stove that was built and rebuilt every time the family moved camp.

Every year, Ritoma holds the ceremony of throwing the ‘Torkya’ or Ritual Cake. Triangular in shape and over four feet high, torkyas are red and surrounded by butter molded flames. Destined to serve as bombs against harmful forces, the torkya throwing ceremony is performed at the end of the year, directed against all obstacles that would taint the coming year.

The monks, in their ceremonial garb, file out of the monastery to the site of the burning. Present are the men representing the local clans, holding the clan arrows and dressed in white lambskin chubas. The master of the ceremony announces that all harmful forces are to be sent back to where they came from. As in the case of other wrathful rituals, he begins by meditating on compassion aiming to stop the negative spirits from accumulating bad karma. He aims not at destroying the spirit itself, but the ignorance within it.

Straw is placed around the torkya, and the ceremony culminates with the lighting of the fire and the throwing of fire crackers, for effect. No doubt a new addition. This ceremony takes place in most major monasteries in Tibet. In Lhasa, it happens at the end of the Monlam or Great Prayer Festival, after the new year.

There are 13 million yaks on the Tibetan Plateau. Before the age of trade and globalization, they were the center of Tibetan life, providing milk, butter, yogurt, cheese, meat as well as hair to weave into the nomad’s dwellings and khullu to use as insulation. The yak’s benefits didn’t stop there, though. Yaks were also used as load animals to transport goods from one end of the plateau to the other, travelling in large caravans and as mounts, especially during the long journeys people undertook when trading or going on pilgrimage.

Though yaks still dominate the pasture and are the main provider of meat and dairy products for the nomads, they have lost their place and purpose as an animal of transport. Nowadays, there are buses, cars and motorcycles and most of all, roads, to get from one place to another, and yaks may be sure footed, but slow. They can’t be used for racing like horses, that continue to be a status symbol. They remain on the pasture, a symbol of the Tibetan way of life.

Yaks are central to Norlha, and we love to shoot our products around them, or make them the focus of our themes. We have our favorites yak models, usually tsethars, animals whose lives were spared, and who pose for us year after year.

The photos in this album are a mix, though all from the same area in and around Labrang; the black and white ones, from the Gribenow Archive, date back the the 20’s and 30’s, others are from the last ten years, of instances where yaks are still being used as pack animals. Some represent the themes in which we stage Norlha products around the yak, and finally, there is the photo of the truck nomads now use for transport when shifting camp.