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Anthropology: Tibetan Nomads Life Essay

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2020


Nomadic life continuously attracts us, so we are always keen to know more about the nomads. In a way, nomadic moves in the pasture and abode in the tents represent liberty. They face the severity of rain, snowstorms, and the drought with calmness. The values which we can find in these nomads are- integrity, courage, and generosity. They have very good knowledge of the environment and excellent ability to handling the animals.

Nomads can be found on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas. These nomads are known as ‘drokpa’ in the Tibetan language, which means ‘high pasture people.’ Roughly two million Tibetan speaking nomads are estimated to be spread in this big area (Miller 1).

Approximately half a million Tibetan nomads have made their abode on an isolated plateau named Chang Tang. It is a 15,000 foot high. Nomads have spread in other far areas of Tibet also. In the Chang Tang, which comes under Phala region, small camps could be found. These camps normally have two to eight tents. These nomads possess the flocks of sheep, horses, and yaks. The whole time of the year, they live in the highest places, as high as 16000 to 17500 feet. That is why they are known as the highest resident native population in the world. The nomads are found in Nagqu prefecture also, which is 4,500 meters high. It is situated on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Approximately 90 percent of Nagqu residents make their living by breeding livestock (Hays, par.2).

After the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959, the nomads’ primeval lifestyle was controlled. During the 1960s and 70s, many nomads lost their professions due to confiscation by the Chinese government. Their animals were taken away, and they were not given any place to live. They were put in the community. They had to do odd jobs for the people of the community and for which they were paid fewer wages. For feeding, they were given only goat milk. Today nomads have the same system as it was in feudal times; only the taxes are taken by the Chinese government instead of lamas (Hays, par.3).

Nomad Society

Nomads live in the tents made from black yak hair. These tents are four or eight-sided. Both elder and younger people live in the same tents, having designated areas for each other. For keeping Buddhist deities, they make an altar, and next to the altar, they keep their valuable things like jewelry, etc.

Nomads have to bear cold weather, and they have to do lots of walking. Many of the nomads travel only in summer. In the winter season, they live in valleys where they make houses with woods. Many of them have access to electricity. A three-generation nomad family consists of nine members. They have almost 70 yaks and 200 sheep. They normally earn $6000 by selling animals. For their diet, they normally have roasted barley flour, and it is accompanied with yak butter tea. This roasted barley flour is called tsampa. Having lived on such a great height, these nomads are not able to grow barley. This is brought by their animals. The nomads prefer to live along the side of spring rather than a lake since the water of the lake has too much salt, so they cannot drink that water.

Anthropologist Melvys Goldstein observed these nomads, and he was overwhelmed by seeing their efficiency.

“They perform their tasks with very little wasted motion,” he said. “When goats are milked, for example, a group of 30 or so animals is tied together, and when the milking is done, the animals are released with a simple pull on the rope. The milk itself is made into yogurt, butter, and cheese” (Hays, par.4).

On average, nomads live in the groups in which at least ten to twenty-five families are there. The tents are made with some distances to each other. In this way, the animals have enough space for grazing. The decision to move from the place is dependent on the consent of all the families in the group. The role of the nomadic women is to be in the camp and does daily routine work like weaving blankets and making butter. The role of the men is to move the animals out for grazing. In the autumn season, the animals become healthy, and this is the time when nomads sell their animals and buy supplies for themselves, which they have to keep for another season of the year. Nomad marriages are arranged by the matchmakers. These matchmakers put together the meetings of young men and women belonging to different groups. If a pair likes each other, they meet for an extended period of time and give and take gifts (Hays, par.5).

It is common for these nomads to have social arrangements with their nearby nomads, farming communities, and monasteries. Having such kind of association is beneficial for them in the time when they need additional resources as well as in the time of stress.

These nomads not only take care of animals but also they are specialized in spinning and weaving. Since the time nomads started living on Tibetan plateau, they started doing spinning and weaving along with raising sheep and yaks. They have developed the skill of making highly functional tents, pack bags, ropes, blankets, and clothing, etc. from the wool and hair of their animals. This weaving talent is continued from generation to generation, and it has become an integral legacy. Currently, the spinning of yak hair is done by nomad men. Women do the weaving of wool to make fabric for tents and other items like blankets, bags, etc. Men weave ropes, and they also do slingshots. A ten-year-old nomadic kid is even an expert in doing slingshots. He can hit a yak on its backside from a very long distance.

As for the religious beliefs of the nomads, they worship mountains like Mount Kailash, which is considered as sacred. The other sacred mountains are Nangchen Thanglha, Kawa Karpo, Amnye Machen, and Torgo Rinpoche. The nomads have this belief that these mountains are the abode of gods and deities, and they worship these mountains for that reason. Lakes, like Manasarovar, are also worshipped. Namtso and Yumtso are also the names of some more sacred lakes which are worshipped. The nomads believe that worshipping thee mountains and lakes can protect them and their livestock from any misfortune related to their health and wealth. They burn incense, like juniper branches. It is one of the rituals to perform for pleasing the mountain gods.

Nomadic Move

Mobility is a chief quality of Tibetan nomadic pastoralism. Managing livestock with their movements to various pastures is based upon positive grazing conditions. “Nomads do not move randomly across the rangelands; rather, the movements of their herds are usually well prescribed by complex social organizations and are often highly regulated.” (Miller 7)

Normally, nomads raise sheep, goats, and yak, and they move from valleys in winter to highland pastures in the summer. They move two to three times a year. “On average, they spend two-thirds of the year in valleys. Normally, their summer pasture homes are near to their valley homes, which are just 40 miles away” (Miller 7). Most of the nomads take care of their animals on foot or from horseback while taking them out. Some of them use a bicycle or motorcycle for this.

Tibet caravans are organized in the fall. Nomads who live at high altitudes are not able to grow grains, so they gather salt from lakes. They sell salt for buying other food supplies like barley, rice, maze, etc. for themselves. Some rituals are also carried out before a caravan starts its journey. A lama or shaman representing god gives consultation for starting a caravan. Yak butter is offered on the horns of yaks, assuming that gods are the lover of butter, and they will protect the animals from any misfortune. While starting a sheep caravan, handfuls of barley are thrown in the air. For foretelling the weather, salt is thrown in the air. If it crackles, the storm is far, and if it is silent, it means that a storm is near (Hays, par.7).

Tibetan nomadic pastoral world is extensive. All nomads have many things in common. Normally they all are found at high elevation pastoral lands where they can graze their livestock. Doing pastoral practices is similar; only the composition of animals varies. More or less, all nomads have a base, which is generally in a traditional winter area. They make the entrenched move with their herds to seasonal pastures. Throughout the region, tents made from yak hair and woven by women are used.

All nomads have connections with agricultural communities based on a lower elevation, which is the source of providing grain to these nomads in exchange for livestock. These nomads have the same language and culture. Though their local dialect is different, yet they can communicate with each other in the Tibetan language. Practicing religious and cultural rituals is also not different (Miller 5).

Nomads are a significant part of the Tibetan population. The relationship of nomads with the rest of the society has always been different; however, it has deformed during recent years. There are more misunderstanding and prejudice in the nomad’s relations with sedentary life today. Owing to their different ethnic origins, they face racism among the dominant people. They are considered as misfits among the sedentary people and who are expected to give in to a settled pattern of life. They experience discrimination in schools and streets and are considered as backward or dishonest.

Normally, there is a prejudice against them that considers them lower compare to the sedentary people. It is a common notion that nomadism is an evolutionary step between savagery and civilization. Nomads are considered as deprived, underdeveloped, and starved people in view of their precarious lifestyle. Nomads and the sedentary people both have a common disdain for each other’s’ lifestyles (Phillips 38).

Tibet is governed by communist China, and Tibetan nomadic society shares the same rules and regulations as the other sedentary people do in Tibet. Before 1959, when Tibet was not taken over by communist China, the legal system was an amalgam system that comprised of the three types of law:

  • Canon law: The origin of this law was the words of Buddha. With the introduction of Buddhism in the seventh century, the basic ethic and rules of conduct for monks became known and later recognized as the religion of Tibetans.
  • Royal law: This law was the verdict of the ruler that was definitely influenced by religious codes and ethics.
  • Country or epic law: The origin of this law is not known; however, it is defined as ‘the pattern manner of the Tibetans’. Its earliest form was the law of reprisal. It often was applied in the form of reversal behavior of the victim and the attacker. However, in the course of time, the reprisal law was revised and modified into a traditional law stabilizing society as an effective working whole. In place of violent reprisal, indemnifications and value payments were introduced. Further, direct individual action was replaced by mediation leading to agreed-upon indemnification. Thus, in the course of time, reprisal was averted, and to some extent, peace was maintained.

This amalgam was again modified under the influence of the Mongol codes and law theories and Chinese legal forms and punishments. The nomads had no distinct and unique law for them. The three-fold amalgam law system of the Tibetan society belonged to them also. However, its application was adjusted within the community. “Modifications invariably consisted of a further slackening of centralized control: escape to a degree from under royal law and recourse to reprisal or its modified version of mediation and indemnification” (Ekvall 1111).

This about-turn to the older forms and customs was determined by the basic and cultural folkways and language traditionalism that were inherent in the nomadic society. The intrinsic nature of mobility that is characterized by inherent power and pattern of movement in nomadic society aids these communities to escape the imposition of royal law. Government regulations ‘imposition is usually effective till the time they stay in the closer to the other communities. In the areas under direct, centralized control, too, implementation of official law is disrupted within the nomadic communities. Official law can be enforced only to cases where the central authority’s financial interest is involved or which are related to the safety of the borders and movement of the foreigners (Hedin 1909; Rawling 1905 as cited in Ekvall, 1112).

Nomadic trade is a vital part of the Tibetan economy. The prosperity of the nomadic community depends on their relations with the external societies. Zodba points out that the disparity in wealth of the nomads during the 1910s and 20s is due to their location and availability of potential buyers of their products (as cited in Tuttle & Schaeffer 494).

According to Khazanov, Tibetan nomads interacted with the outside world in two ways. “Firstly, there is direct trade and barter with both agricultural and urban societies. Secondly, there takes place mediation or participation in the trade between different sedentary societies, in the form of transport and middleman services” (as cited in Tuttlle & Schaeffer 494). Tibetan nomadic pastoralists form an integral part of the country’s economy. The Tibetan Drok-pa makes the wool and meat available for the Rong-pa, or valley people who, in turn, provide barley and other goods for the nomads (Phillips 39).

Nomads have been facing many challenges due to modernization. Though it has brought some improvements in their lives and they have got lots of opportunities for making money. Many nomadic families are focusing on making better their living standards, and for that reason, they are trying to be in touch with health care services, veterinary services, education for their children, and many different markets to sell their livestock products (Miller 16).

With modernization, nomads have got a new village where they have houses made of bricks and tiles. Their children have access to education. New programs are being introduced to make them aware of a better life so they can avail of better facilities like better technology, medicines, etc. not only for themselves but also for their animals.

Summer Pasture (2010)

In ‘Summer Pasture’ movie, the nomadic life of Tibet is shown beautifully and realistically. In the film, Locho and his wife, Yama have been portrayed. They live in the grasslands of Dzachukha, which is in eastern Tibet with their infant daughter. Dzachukha is also known as ‘five most’ since this region is the coldest, highest, largest and the poorest isolated area in Sichuan Province of China (Summer Pasture).

In the summertime, Locho and Yama start living in a pasture. The pasture is situated more than 15000 feet above the sea level. Every morning Yama gets up early to milk the yaks, and then she turns that milk in butter and cheese. Locho has got the experience of herding at the age of six. His responsibility is to herd the yaks and go to the town to buy supplies. On average, his one trip is for 6 hours. The life of Locho ad Yama also revolves around their five-month-old daughter. They have decided to take her to the local monastery for keeping her name, but till then, they call her Jiatomah, which means ‘pale chubby baby’ (Summer Pasture).

By tradition, nomads have managed to survive solely on their herds, but currently, many of them are dependent on different sources of earning cash. Many nomads have sold their animals, and they have moved to towns for better income and settlement. Like, all parents Locho and Yama also want to give their daughter a better life than theirs. But the suspension of their community is making it harder for them to plan for their daughter. They believe if they send their daughter to school, it will bring lots of opportunities for her. She will also not be forced to live the life of a nomad. The couple is compelled to make a decision to choose either the life of a nomad or to move to a town for their daughter’s betterment (Summer Pasture).

Conclusion: Nomads generally feel like masters of their lives and very contented with the way of life they are living. Their mobility enables them to be open-minded, ingenious, self-determining, courageous, and witty. But they fear the sedentary life due to various reasons such as the threat to male supremacy that might affect the attitude of females belonging to the community. Communist China tried to impose commune living on Tibet’s nomads, but they have taken an about-turn to nomadic life even after twenty years of enforced commune living (Phillips 39).

Works Cited

Ekvall, Robert, B. “”, American Anthropologists, 66.5 (2009): 1110-1115. Web,.

Hays, Jeffrey. . 2011. Web.

Miller, Daniel, J. . 2007. Web.

Phillips, David, J. Peoples on the Move: Introducing the Nomads of the World, Pasadena, USA: William Carey Library, 2001. Print

Summer Pasture. Prod. True, Lynn, Walker, Nelson & Tsering, Perlo New York: True Walker Productions. 2010. DVD.

Tuttle, Gray, and Kurtis R. Schaeffer. The Tibetan history reader, New York, USA: Columbia University Press, 2013. Print

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