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Tales from the Middle Land: my time collecting stories and songs in the Himalayas


Since 2015, I’ve been travelling to Spiti to record music, local lore, legends, etiological narratives and fairy tales from the area. I played my highest altitude gig in Kaza in 2018. Known as the “Middle Land” between India and Tibet, Spiti is a high-altitude desert in the Indian Himalayas, 3,800-4,600 metres above sea level. It is the home of the snow leopard, the blue sheep and the ibex and is an area of stunning natural beauty. Spiti has one of the oldest monasteries in the world, at Tabo, and one of the highest, at Komic. Here are a few of my favourite stories and songs from the area:

Spiti is a point of cultural convergence. It is religiously linked to Tibet, but it is geographically and politically linked to India.

- The Nono of Spiti, Kaza, 30th July 2016

Biyul


The Himalayas are scattered with accounts of sbas yul, or hidden lands, which are difficult to access, enchantingly beautiful and often contain magical entities. Spiti is no exception, and has plenty of biyul, as they are called in local dialect. I’ve been told there is a biyul on the road from Kibber to Tashigang, one at Rangrik and, according to some, the village of Demul was previously hidden. In Kibber, I was told that those of us who are para momo (people who have fear) are more likely to see and enter biyul than those who are para thonbo (people who do not have fear). If you are para momo, you are also more susceptible to spirit attacks, though, so it’s a mixed blessing.


Buchen


Pin Valley (known as the Valley of Clouds) is home to the few surviving Buchen (performing Lamas). During the summer, the fields are lush with pea and barley crops and there is an abundance of wild flowers. The Buchen are followers of the fourteenth century saint Thangtong Gyalpo (described to me as the king of empty spaces). They play the dumgyen (khopo in Spiti Valley), a willow instrument whose strings go into the mouth of a carved horse’s head. The horse is very highly regarded; even when the Buchen dance, the horses’ head leads the way. Buchen songs are based on Namthar (long religious stories).


Here, Chheten Dorje, the Head Buchen of his group of dancers in Sagnam, performs one of their songs:


How the Kibber God became more powerful than the Chicham God


Kibber and Chicham are neighbouring villages. During my first two visits (in 2015 and 2016), the journey to Chicham involved crossing a 300m-deep gorge via a terrifying ropeway-and-basket-pulley combination (pictured below). Chicham is a beautiful village well worth visiting – but I used to hate dangling precariously over the gorge in the basket. Now there is a bridge connecting the two villages so you can keep your heart in your chest on the journey.

Thamchen, the local god of Chicham, is a protective god and he rides a he-goat. The story goes that Thamchen was more powerful than the Kibber god, but not so devious. All the local gods were building a monastery, but needed mardung for the roof, which Thamchem was able to get. On the journey, the Kibber god asked Thamchen to look after his horse while he relieved himself, but actually went ahead to tell the other gods that he had obtained the mardung himself. After that, the Kibber god became the most powerful.


Gyalshung


Gyalshung are stories, usually of a war between good and evil, told by song. They are usually sung in winter, when snowfall prevents work and there is a need for entertainment. Very few people know them now.

Here, Devi Dekit of Sagnam performs one of the songs:


Celebration Songs


Tsering Gatuk sings a New Year song in Kungri:


Peacock Song (Cha Cha)

Yang Chen Dolma of Kibber village sings this song about a peacock:


Balu Thukangbu


The story of Balu Thukangbu is one of my favourites. At one point in 2015, I derailed the whole investigation to try to track down this wish-granting legend. There are stories about Balu all over the Himalayas, but in Spiti it is said that he comes from a place just above Gete village. He is one foot tall, wears a hat that is one foot tall and carries a stick that is one foot tall. He is invisible to some people, although if you are para momo, you might stand a higher chance of seeing him. He can grant wishes, but first you must overpower him and take his stick and his hat – and he has the strength of a bear. On the plus side, though, there are no strings or tricks attached to the wishes, unlike the crossroad deal stories you find in parts of the US. I was told that someone in Kibber caught him once and kept the hat and the stick under the kitchen sink, forcing Balu to do the housework – but I wouldn’t be so cruel. I would just ask for my wealth and fame, let him go, and be on my way.

“Surely the Gods live here!” said Kim, beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep and dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. “This is no place for men!”

- Rudyard Kipling, Kim (writing of Spiti)


Himalayan Storm


I wrote Himalayan Storm in Kibber in 2015. The images in this video will give you a sense of what life is like in this special area of the world and an idea of the beauty of the scenery. Enjoy!


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