I was delighted to discover that there are mermaids in Bhutan. I know them well from North Australia but hadn’t expected to meet them in the mountains.
In the Bhutanese national language, sacred sites that are visible primarily by geological or geographical features are called ney. The English translation is ‘sacred natural site’. According to experts at the ISE conference, these are ‘living and breathing natural places of retreat and worship, where enlightened masters throughout the ages have brought blessing power, and where pilgrims and spiritual practitioners perpetuate and fortify the energy until today. As a result, these revered and cherished sites have been protected from external forces that might disturb their sanctity…’
Many of the sites hold stories of how Buddhist teachers encountered and subdued local spirits, turning them toward Buddhism. To anyone sensitised to conquest in settler societies, the story of take-over looms large, and the history of Buddhism in the Himalayas and Central Asia is indeed a story of competing religions. The stories are everywhere. When Deki, Dechen and I walked in the hills to visit the rock painting of Guru Rimpoche (a notable demon-subduer), we crossed a suspension bridge, as discussed in a previous essay. We were just up-stream from a rock formation that testifies to the efforts of a goddess to cross the river to meet the Guru. Her bridge was destroyed by a demon.
And yet, now that a millennium or more has passed, the outstanding aspect of these stories is how inclusive and protective they are.
And indeed, the need and desire for protection are never done with. A ney is a place where nature, culture and spirit all come together. The wider story concerns a sacred geography that continues to offer respect to local deities (nep). These figures, resident in mountains, rivers, stones, and other ‘natural’ features, remain on earth and guard their local areas. One type belongs in and protects water. All lakes in Bhutan are sacred, and mermaid-goddesses inhabit and guard them. We visited one such lake, Baritsho (bari = bamboo; tsho = lake) within the Royal Botanic Gardens. Here people of the region gather to make offerings of respect and to enjoy blessings.
Mermaids’ benign protection is not only for lakes. A number of the temples we visited had a little pond with mermaids outside the entrance. Perched in tiny artificial lakes, they bring their protective presence to temples too. The temples themselves, with their geographical positioning adjacent to flowing water and with their mermaid and other presences, testify both to Buddhist teaching and learning as well as to the local area with its unique guardians.
Over the past few years Bhutan has conducted a formal survey of ney. According to Sangay Dhendup of the ‘Division of Cultural Properties, Bhutan’, 197 sites have thus far been recorded. The objectives of this admirable project were spelled out in his fascinating conference presentation: to better understand history and heritage; to assert the value of cultural practices; to preserve little known traditions that are important to local communities; and to provide a reference point for the future. He linked with these sites with biocultural conservation. As explained in the conference booklet: ‘… these revered and cherished sites … [create] important buffers and corridors for biodiversity’.
The awkward term ‘sacred natural site’ testifies to the on-going difficulties posed by the west’s nature-culture binary and the warping effects it has in the context of heritage. Cultural heritage is man-made; natural heritage is not. Where these two types converge the term ‘mixed heritage’ is used. ‘Mixed’ does not, indeed cannot, do justice to the sites it purports to categorise. At most it shows just how arbitrary and ultimately unhelpful the nature/culture categories really are. But there is another problem that twists up out of the binaries. Where is the sacred? If heritage is either natural or human, the great multitude of local guardians, demons, goddesses and protectors, along with all the Buddhist manifestations and metamorphic presences slip out of the story.
A great gem of Tibetan wisdom is expressed as a puzzle: A prayer flag flutters in the wind. Which is it that moves, the flag or the wind? Answer: Neither. The spirit moves them both.
This way of understanding and experiencing spirit carries us far from binaries and exclusive categories.
Spirit is that which moves through everything, and that by which everything moves.
I thought of this great gem frequently while I was in Bhutan where so many sites, including temples, weave geography and spirit. The action of stones, water, plants, lichens, animals and other forces combine with the actions of human history and culture, and with the activities of greater-than-everyday beings to produce sites of co-mingled power. Prayer flags and wind, prayer wheels and flowing water, mermaids and lakes and temples: such co-constitutive prayers and protection offer multiple blessings.
There was one sacred natural site that spoke very strongly to me. At this place in Bumthang the story moves across two stones and involves the subjugation of a demon. The first stone is where the demon was hiding in the form of a snake. The second stone is where the large bird took the snake and bashed it. The second stone bears the imprint of the large bird’s footprints.
Mr Balaram Gurung took a small group of us to this place, and in response to subsequent emails through which I sought to ensure that I understood the story correctly, he wrote:
“Regarding the story about the two stones, I also tried to collect as much as evidence as I could from some reliable religious people. They all say that the same story has been conveyed from generation to generation and has been taught to children by their parents who all know the story about the stones. So to add up to your story, let me elaborate a little about the names of the places where these stones lies. They say: ‘the place where the big stone lies is named as duefog (due – demon and fog – hillock, small mountain) and the single stone with garuda’s foot print is named as Jachhung thang (Jachhung – Garuda and thang – plain).”
I brought a Jachhung (Garuda) mask home with me. The more I look at it, the more I see. There is the bird who killed a snake, and the powerful Jachhung who subdued a demon, and there are stones, the hillock and plain, Mr Gurung and all the religious people he consulted, dancers and masks, and all the people across generations who told the story and kept it alive.
The story travels, too. Knowledge of Garuda moves all across South and South-East Asia. This marvellous bird — his name and iconography change, but his protective action is everywhere loved and revered. Like prayer flags in the wind, spirit moves through all.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
Acknowledgements: On-going thanks to Mr Balaram Gurung and to Deki and Dechi. Thanks as well to Mr Sangay Dhendup who gave such a terrific speech at the ISE Congress in Bumthang.
Resources: Except for information that is specifically acknowledged, most of the information in this essay came from signage at sites and from Wikipedia.