On the Way Up

From HIMAL, Volume 6, Issue 5 (SEP/OCT 1993)

As remote control switches from Islamabad, New Delhi and Kathmandu open up restricted areas for tourism, Baltis, Sherpas, Ladakhis and Lobas are suddenly spolighted. The high valleys are playing host to tourists, climbers, journalists, film-makers and scholars, many of them in desperate search of places more Tibetan than Tibet itself.

While there is some scholarly information available on the Tibetan-speakers, however, there is little discussion of their contemporary concerns, which is what made us do this issue.

From Baltistan to Sikkim, and excepting Bhutan, theTibetan-speakers are resilient people-in-waiting. They await recognition, but recognition requires a clear identity, which is why each writer has wrestled with the question, “Who is a ‘Tibetan’?” Tshewang Lama, Member of Parliament, resorts to a continuum chart, while Charles Ramble, anthropologist, decides to cut through the maze with the simple definition: ‘Bhoteys’ are really whatever they happen to beat any given time! The multiple-identities and cross-border cultural affiliations that makes ‘Nepaliness’ so ambiguous, seem also to apply to ‘Tibetanness’.

As articles in this issue will testify, there are remarkable overlaps in issues and trends across the Himalayan rimland. In Lo Manthang, as in Skardu, instant noodles have supplanted the barley diet and thukpa. STAR TV is switched on all over the Himalaya, wherever there is electricity. Roadways now transport the plains middle class of Pakistan and India deep into the high valleys. The demographic buffer provided by the middle hill cultures is no longer functional in many places. In Nepal, where road networks are still undeveloped, STOL aircraft land in Simikot, Jufaal, Jomoson and Lukla, bringing cigarettes, Indian salt and Western tourists.

The patronising attitude of educated Rongba notwithstanding, the Tibetan-speakers will probably do well by themselves. “The skill of moving with poise and assurance in unfamiliar environments”, which Cristoph von Furer-Haimendorf identified in Himalayan Traders as the specific aptitude of the people of Humla, will probably help the Tibetan-speakers all over to adjust to cultural, political and economic challenges up ahead.


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