Encountering the people featured in a 25-year-old book that details the life and time of two of the remotest villages of Nepal All pics by Wagle. More pics will be added tomorrow
Pema Bhutti with the book published 25 years ago that features her on the cover
On a recent afternoon Pema Bhutti, with her husband on the front, was having rice with yak milk on a ceramic plate in a kitchen cum chat room that could be reached via a single and slender wooden ladder that begins from the top of the stony building. Behind her on the wooden furniture, steel utensils and the colorful thermos containing briny tea are placed carefully. The mild fire burning in the ageno between them is preventing the cold that is trying to get intensified at the beginning of October.
“Ghar ma ko chha?” [Is anybody in the house?]
As this reporter entered the cozy abode of the aging couple shouting the aforementioned question, Pema without any response to the unexpected visitor, continued with her meal. But the next question was certain to bring back all her memories. “Ama, yinlai chinnu hunchha? [Mother, do you recognize her?]” When the cover of a thick and shining book published 25 years ago was shown to her with that question, the 66-year-old stopped chewing food. She was constantly looking at the picture. “Of course, it’s me!” Pema had declared after swallowing the food that she chewed longer than average. “Old photo, I don’t have the hat now.”
In her hands, instead of the ceramic plate, now it is a beautiful coffee table book brought out on 1981 by a team of English writer, anthropologists and photographer after researching over a month and half on the fringes of Tibet and highlands of Nepal. A photo of middle aged Pema, with her red cheeks, shines on the cover of the book. For a few seconds, Pema touched and felt the book, tried to turn a few pages and again fixed her eyes on the same photo. Wearing a traditional had made up of sheep skin and wool, Pema is looking somewhere with her eyes partly closed because of the strong reflections of light coming from the snow.
Having her eyes fixed on the cover page, Pema vaguly recalls the day her snap was taken.
Pema with her husband
It was 25 years ago, in the month of April, altogether a team of 34 guides, porters and foreigners visited the Nar village situated on the northern side of Pisang peak in Manang district. And their experiences of the Bhotia people grazing their herds of yaks and the photographs taken by the visitors were compiled and then published by Time-Life Books of America. With photographs taken by Nik Wheeler, the book entitled “Cloud Dwellers of the Himalayas: The Bhotia” was written by Windsor Charlton. Along with the descriptions of the spectacular panorama of the place, the book also depicts the way of life of the people back then. Because of the special circumstance created after China attacked Tibet on 1959, Nepal had restricted foreigners to visit the northern bordering villages of Nar and Phu. However, as mentioned in the book, the team was able to visit the place because of a special permission from the late King Birendra who was familiar with the investigations and researches conducted in Nepal by a member of the visiting group- Professor Christoph Von Furer-Haimendorf.
Oblivious to the details about the book, Pema vaguely recalls a fair guy taking numerous shots of hers in his cameras. After getting married at the age of 17, Pema traveled as far as India with her husband.
After sensing that his wife was too shy to talk about those adventures, Pema’s husband who has lost many of his teeth came forward excitedly to describe the life they lived. “Back then, the world was very beautiful,” said 69 years old Sangma Chesanga Gurung. “Life was quite difficult in village but still we had fun. Today, things have got a lot easier.”
“How things have got easier, Aama?”
When asked about the changes they’ve witnessed in the past two decades, it was Sangma again excited to talk
“There is electricity and trails have become wider,” again it was Baa, not aama, doing the talk. “The mules carry provisions; we don’t have to carry loads. Everything’s better these days. Food has become better. People have become better.”
“Baa, please, how about letting aama do the talk? Aama, what makes you happy?”
Pema blushed again; her eyes wandered on the book cover. She was lost in thought for a few seconds and looked up at the “Dalin”.
“That fire,” Aama Peam finally spoke out. “That has brought me immense happiness.” The object of her joy that has brought huge positive change in the lives of the people of Nar was a small fluorescent light which lighted the kitchen. She kept pointing at the “fire” for a long time. Ever since the micro-hydroelectricity project was established in the village some fifteen years ago, Pema no longer needs to light the lamp made up of pine tree branch every night. Traveling for a week through the trails that go via steep ridges for a gallon of kerosene wasn’t practical. “The road makes me happy too” she continued praising the road from the district headquarters to Chame, which was widened in the last ten years making it easier for the mules to journey through it.
Among her three daughters, the second one lives in Kathmandu. Pema has talked to her using the telephone set up in Nar two years back. The distance of a five-day walk and a day ride on the vehicle from Kathmandu has shrunk to a phone. It has been two decades since Pema and her husband started spending six months in Nar and rest of the year in Kathmandu. “It’s good here in summer,” her outspoken husband clarified. “And there in winter. No leeches can be found here in summer.” Situated at the height of 4,110 meters on the lap of 6 thousand 91 meters tall Pisang Peak, Nar is indeed one of those highest located Nepali villages. As heavy snow starts pouring along with the chilling cold, people of Nar move to a place called Meta, the winter settlement, located at the altitude of 3,500 meters, just below the base camp of Kang Guru peak.
Nar Village on the lap of Pisang Peak
There are 71 houses in Nar with 11 new added in the last 25 years. Two of them are hotels targeted for tourists. Ever since the village was opened up for foreigners three years ago, quite a few tourist, leaving the popular Annapurna trail from near Chame and heading toward north-east, have visited the place. In order to save the cultivable land the dwellers of Nar live in a cluster. No wonder they know each other quite well. Thereby, turning the pages of “Cloud Dwellers” was like unveiling their own family album. On the eighth page of the book is a snapshot of a middle-aged lady holding chin with left hand and her narrow eyes focused on the camera.
Chhiring Yange with the book that displays a full page photo of her taken 25 years ago
And as the reporter inquired “Do you know her, aama?” showing the picture to an old lady who, wearing docha, the traditional shoes, was feeding her horses in the backyard, there came an instant reply: “It’s me!” Her name is Tsering Yangjee. And she has vivid memories of the time the picture was taken. “I was sitting right here and crying,” explained 68 years old Tsering as she started talking sitting at the top of her house. “They came and took my picture.” Her eyes welled up with tears as she continued remembering those days. On that week, 25 years ago, Tsering was mourning the loss of her 10-year-old daughter. Many other children of the area had also died because of smallpox along with the little girl. “I had left my hair loose as I was mourning” she continued.
In the past years, a lot of snow at the Pisang Peak has melted into the nearby Nar Khola (stream) but sorrow has stayed back in Tsering’s life as a lingering company. Only five weeks ago she lost her 41-year-old middle son. She lost her youngest son some years back while her husband passed away years ago when the children were little. Her eldest daughter is in Hong Kong while the eldest son is in Germany. The eldest son’s wife Pemba Choma is the second daughter of Pema, the cover girl. Pemba Choma’s picture covers an entire page in the book. “I was living with my son. Now that he is gone I feel lonely,” she let out her pain bursting into tears, looking at the pictures that brought back memories of her son and daughter. Having been born in the northern village of Phu and married in Nar, Tsering has lived through the slightest changes in Nar during the last two decades. “Life’s a lot better now,” she said. “We get to eat tasty food. Earlier we couldn’t get any sugar in the village. Now mules arrive with all sorts of goods. You can buy anything with money.”
This man was a kid when the book was published. There are two pics of him. Now he has a son. He was too hesitant to take photo with the book. He barred me from photographing his son.
Though illustrated in the “Cloud Dwellers” as a locale isolated from the rest of Nepal, Nar and Phu have now become more reachable and connected to the other parts of the country. Most of the people have at least been to to cities like Pokhara or Kathmandu, if not abroad. And the ones who can’t afford to send their children to city boarding schools send them to the Gumbas. The young revealed their desire to work in reliable occupations such as government jobs but have accepted farming and grazing yaks on not getting it.
Legs of Nar folks: No Dochas any more. People gather in Chhiring Yanje’s house to turn the pages of the book.
Finding Old Nar in the book: Trained as a Lama in Pokhara, Nyima Chhowang, right, was three when the book was published. Now, he has a son of that age. Inside the book is a picture of Nyima’s father, Phhuncho Rangdel (now 51,) clad in docha, cap and a traditional cloth with a tool to flatten the land. (see pic below)
“Where can we go? People like us don’t get jobs” said Nyima Chhowang, one among the small crowd that had gathered outside Tsering’s house to see the book. “It would be great if I could get a job abroad. Now I do farming and am also a Lama” he continued. After his elder brother separated from the family Nyima bears the sole responsibility of looking after his parents, his wife and son. Trained as a Lama in Pokhara, Nyima, was three when the book was published. Now, he has a son of that age. Inside the book is a picture of Nyima’s father, Phhuncho Rangdel (now 51) clad in docha, cap and a traditional cloth with a tool to flatten the land.
“We got to see things we had never seen before,” Chhowang exclaimed in surprise and excitement slowly turning the pages of the book. “It was incredible to see the pictures of the dead people and our old traditions,” he added.
The traditional village of Nar, has undergone a world of changes in the last 25 years. The changes in the lifestyle of the people are almost tangible. The stark difference is seen the clothes the villagers wear. The traditional cap worn by Pema in the book-cover has been replaced by Harry Porter scarves bought in Kathmandu and elsewhere. And the docha made up of yak skin and wool has been replaced by Korean shoes, at least in the case of one young man. “So what that I live in Nar village,’ said Dawa Chhiri, clad in a denim jacket, taking off his imported mask worn to prevent himself from dust from thrashing Koru (the only grain to be cultivated in the place).”Look at my shoes. They are imported from Korea. These trousers were also sent by my friend there.”
This story appeared in today’s Kosilee, the Saturday supplement of Kantipur daily. A shorter version of this story appeared in Thursday (Oct 26) edition of City Post, daily supplement of the Kathmandu Post.