How do age, gender, economic standing, and pedigree affect a person's options? In what ways do familial obligations conflict with individual aspirations, and how are such conflicts resolved? This work highlights the search for meaning in daily existence, whether in the pursuit of eternal truths or in the mundane struggle for survival. Because the choices that individuals make, and the consequences of those decisions, make far more sense when viewed in an ethnographic context, I have included considerable cultural, social, and historical detail, while simplifying the theoretical foundations.
In addition, I have tried to present the ethnographic detail in a way that is lively and entertaining, and that does not require either training in anthropology or access to Tibetan society to understand. Finally, the footnotes have the dual function of relating the ethnographic descriptions of Nubri to the academic literature on Tibet and of directing the reader to further sources of information. The accompanying bibliography is by no means exhaustive, and is naturally more inclusive of works in some disciplines e. Anthropologists study everything from culturally specific symbolic systems to the ways in which group identities are formed and maintained.
The main purpose of my own field research was to investigate the relationship between population dynamics and resources. Tabulating births and deaths is the task of the demographer; interpreting these events is the work of the anthropologist.
Although the collection of empirical data was a vital part of my study, I quickly came to realize that true understanding required situating the quantitative, demographic side of the analysis within an indigenous perception of the life cycle. The life cycle, in anthropological terms, is a series of social statuses that an individual passes through during a normal life span.
Marriage, for example, marks the departure from adolescence and entrance into adulthood. In Tibetan societies, too, the quest for sacred knowledge through pilgrimage often signals a transformation in status from mundane householder to spiritual adept.
Even death can be considered a rite of passage, for the Tibetans believe in reincarnation and therefore perform ceremonies to help the deceased person find a suitable rebirth. However, anthropologists do not see the life cycle as something that is programmatic or predictable; in that sense, it is distinguishable from the life course—the diversity of experiences that set people apart from one another. Not every individual undergoes the same series of passages that contribute to a full and meaningful social life.
Tibetan Diary From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal
Circumstances at birth can inhibit a person's ability to marry, leading to the socially ambiguous status of bachelor or spinster. Personal ambitions may lead an individual to reject the career of householder in favor of a life as a solitary hermit living at the very margins of society. In this book we will examine the cultural rules that define the normal succession of life cycle events, as well as the flexibility that permits and even accepts, though not always without conflict, life courses that depart from the norm.
From birth to death and back to birth again: that is the inevitable and interminable progression of existence according to the tenet of reincarnation that is so central to Buddhism. This book examines the life cycle in one enclave of Tibetan culture, and is oriented around the life course experiences of humble people whose stories would normally slip into obscurity. The first two chapters provide an introduction to the people and landscape of the Nubri Valley. Thereafter, the book is organized according to stages in the life cycle, commencing with birth and concluding with death and reincarnation.
Each chapter is dedicated to one stage in the life cycle, such as adolescence or old age, and the rites of passage associated with that stage. Concerns specific to each juncture of the life cycle, for example a desire to attain religious knowledge through pilgrimage or to generate sufficient merit in old age to assure a fortunate rebirth, are highlighted in relation to individual life trajectories, and contrasted with social obligations and familial expectations. Taken as a whole, the vignettes of everyday life present a picture of a complex society in which cultural ideals and individual aspirations often collide.
The search for meaning in any society is often guided by historical precedence. For Tibetans, actions of the ancestors offer a model of behavior that can be used to assess people's conduct in the present. In this book, temporal depth is provided by contrasting events in the present with tales from the past. The deeds and accomplishments of the ancestors resonate through time, kept alive in the collective memory by written records and oral transmissions.
Tibetans have a distinct sense of history and continuity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the stories they tell each other while sitting around the fire on a cold, snowy night. Although it would be tempting to call this book an accurate portrayal of Tibetan village life, a few cautionary remarks are in order. First, it is nonsense to generalize about Tibetan culture based on information gathered from a single setting. Although unified to a great extent by a common language or dialects thereof , a common religion with all its localized idiosyncratic manifestations , and to a lesser extent by a common ethnic identity or interpretations thereof , Tibetans are a diverse group whose social practices and cultural beliefs vary from region to region, from valley to valley, and in some cases from village to village.
The details of social life contained in these pages describe life in one specific Himalayan locale, and should not be interpreted as a universal statement on Tibetan society. Another caveat involves the authenticity of representation. Bear in mind that observers of human behavior, myself in this case, are prisoners to some extent of their own life experiences. Observer bias is the tendency for a researcher to see more of what he wants to see the longer he stays in the field.
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Quite simply, a higher degree of involvement in the daily life of a community can lead to greater subjectivity. Because I was interested in specific research problems, I tended to focus on certain aspects of Nubri society at the expense of others. A Tibetan or even another ethnographer describing life in a highland village would certainly emphasize aspects that I have glossed over, and perhaps not even mention many features of social life that I find so significant.
Some of my personal predilections will no doubt become obvious to the reader. Then again, this book is in many respects as much about gaining insight into the workings of another culture as it is about a particular Himalayan society. The ethnographic endeavor is truly an adventure, both as an intellectual exercise and in the traditional sense of an exciting or dangerous experience.
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My perceptions were molded by social interactions that were heavily conditioned by my status as a male anthropologist working in an alien environment far from home, where, initially at least, I was an outsider and an unknown entity. Excluding my own voice from the narratives would be misleading, perhaps even dishonest. Similarly, my status affected the ways in which people interacted with me, both positively and negatively. The ability to read Tibetan placed me in the advantageous position of being considered an intellectual peer of the high-ranking lamas of the community.
Literacy in traditional Tibetan societies is generally reserved for the clergy and nobility, not for the commoners and especially not for women, except for nuns and a few privileged members of the aristocracy. My interest in historical texts, administrative documents, natal horoscopes, and other types of literature eased the process of establishing rapport with many of the prominent male figures in Nubri society. At the same time, being male meant that some female domains of knowledge were beyond my grasp. Although I was able to obtain data on reproductive histories, I was often prevented by notions of propriety from asking questions centering on the culture of childbearing.
For such topics I generally had to rely on information from men, whose perspectives differ radically from those of their wives, daughters, or sisters. The task of writing a book that appeals to a broad audience entails a bit of creative license. Although I did take some liberties in the process of editing both written and oral accounts, I can and will vouch for the authenticity of the narratives.
I have strived to maintain the integrity of the narrators' voices and to faithfully convey the thoughts and emotions expressed to me by the speakers themselves. Finally, a note on Tibetan names. Most Tibetans do not have surnames but rather two given names, conferred by a lama shortly after birth. These men, although their second names are identical, do not belong to the same family.
Because of this naming custom I feel it is misleading to treat a second given name as if it were a surname. Therefore, in the notes and in the list of references I cite works by Tibetan authors using both of their names e. The same convention applies to high-ranking clerics who have honorific titles by which they are known to their disciples and which they use in their written works. I cite these works according to the authors' formal titles e. Finally, I cite the works of those Tibetans who do have recognized surnames generally members of the hereditary nobility according to Western conventions e.
As usual, the porters lagged behind. Weighted down by large packs bulging with reference books, reams of paper, and other necessities for my field research, they made slow and ponderous progress on the mountain trail. The footpath was often precarious, narrow and steep, with sections washed away in landslides caused by the frequent monsoon deluges. It was day nine on the trek from Kathmandu, the day that would bring me to my new home in the ethnically Tibetan village of Sama, a remote Himalayan settlement in northern Nepal's Nubri Valley—a place I had never visited and where I knew not a soul.
In contrast to the physical exertion expended by the two hardy porters, my own burden was more psychological, induced by nagging doubts of an uncertain future. I was an anthropologist entering the field for the first time, embarking on a rite of passage from graduate student to practitioner of the discipline. Until now, the sluggish pace of the trek had afforded a welcome postponement of the inevitable hardships to come, a reprieve from the unavoidable questions that lay ahead. How would I be accepted by the people of Nubri?
Would I be embraced or shunned? Would I be able to handle the physical and emotional trials and tribulations that surely awaited me? More to the point, what was I getting myself into? Eventually I crested a ridge. Stretching before me was a wide plain situated more than two miles above sea level and surrounded by lofty snow-clad peaks. At 26, feet, Mt. Manaslu, known to the valley's inhabitants by the Tibetan name Pungyen Ornamented Heap , commanded the entire scene.
A translucent plume of smoke arose from a distant hollow, marking the village of Sama. The moment of truth had arrived. On reaching the fields bordering the village, I came across a coarse stone wall that served to separate the herds of ravenous bovines from the villagers' life-sustaining crops. I decided to wait for my guide, Karma, who was also my companion and confidant. He knew everybody here; I was a complete stranger.
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I slung my pack to the ground, happy to be relieved of the encumbrance for the moment, but also knowing that this would be the final respite before having to explain my presence to these isolated mountain people. While I stood reflecting on my impending entrance to the village, an old man trudged into view.
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He carried a bamboo basket and a hand-axe, crude implements needed to cut and gather fuel for his hearth.
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