Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The disappearing traditional ways

All around the world traditional indigineous cultures are disappearing as fast as you can say Coca Cola or McDonalds. What are we losing to this "progress"?

The salt-men of Tibet

In the upper reaches of Nepal, and in Tibet, there is a culture of people who make their living by mining salt from various lakes around Tibet. Salt doesn't naturally occur in the diet of the Himalayan peoples, because they are so far from the ocean. So over the millenia of living on this land, they have developed a full set of traditions and activities surrounding the harvesting of salt, and commerce to trade the salt with other peoples who can grow grain.

With the encroaching modernity, these traditional ways are disappearing. I have found a couple resources that show some bits of these peoples lives.

The Caravans of the Himalayas: This book is a glossy coffee table style book published by the National Geographic Society. It is an intimate portrait of the lives of these Himalayan tribes. The book covers far more than the salt gathering trip, but their year-round lifestyle.

Life at this altitude is very hard. It is well above the treeline, and the vast majority of plants that grow is the grass the yak's feed on. Everything circles around the yak herds, feeing them, sheltering them, using them for food and clothing, and more. The altitude is high, the food scanty, the weather cold, the work is hard, yet these are the peoples who developed spiritual traditions of such great depth as to inspire the whole world to spiritual exploration and the journey to enlightenment.

The Saltmen of Tibet: This DVD is an intimate portrait specifically of the trip to gather salt. All the words and singing are by the tribal people speaking in their native language, subtitled all the way.

The movie begins with the preparations at home. Making and repairing ropes. Gathering the salt gathering crew and animals. Collecting and repairing the tools. The consideration of which person in the crew will take what role on the journey.

Then as the men, for women do not take this trip, set off we learn that it is a month-long journey just to get to the salt lakes. Rituals abound around this journey, from various superstitions over why the salt availability varies from year to year, to a special language that is spoken only after a specific point in the journey. It is a month long journey of daily herding the 160 yak's, pitching tents, cooking meals, drinking tea, and more.

We members of modern societies have to honor our ancestors, for we can see that life was very hard for everyone, and that it wasn't all that long ago when everything was done manually in the nature we see in this movie. Without the work of our ancestors, we would not be here today.

Interspersed with scenes of the men gathering salt by hand, is scenes of lorries gathering salt. Everybody needs the salt, and in the modern eye one thinks "does it matter how the thing is done?" and "does it only matter what the result is?". That is, salt is salt isn't it? Or is it?

We see in the salt men's style of gathering a great reverence for the earth, and the task of gathering the salt, and great thankfulness for the salt lake in providing their gift of salt. Truly, the salt they are gathering literally means life (or death) for them, because without the salt their bodies would not function. As they gathered the salt, songs and prayers of thankfulness were sung. As they finished the salt gathering task, special rituals and prayers were done. Also yak figurines were left as an offering to the Goddess who watches over the lake.

Is salt that means life, salt that is gathered with such great reverence, is that just any old salt?

And, what if the earth, our planet, really does respond to such reverential prayer? Do you think me mad for suggesting this? Well, consider what is being learned scientifically about the power of prayer. The many scientific studies of prayer for the sick show that prayer and other forms of spiritual healing have a positive effect on those who are prayed for. It's not too farfetched, then, to consider that other things, when prayed for, also benefit from the prayer.

It is interesting how every indigenous society holds great reverence for the earth, and directly prays for the health and wellbeing of the earth. Do they know something that we, with our jet airplanes, have forgotten? I pray that we remember before it becomes too late.