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.
The over-arching theme of this conference was ‘One Earth for All: Regenerating Biocultural Ecosystem Resilience’. It was held in Bumthang, Bhutan, and was hosted by the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment, under the Department of Forests and Park Services (Ministry of Agriculture and Forests).
We Congress delegates were indeed among the lucky people of earth: a wonderful conference, themes that matter deeply, people from some 57 nations, the Bhutanese ethic of mutual resilience among humans, nature and the sacred, and their tremendously kind hospitality.
The logo depicts ‘the four harmonious friends’. The bird picks a fruit and drops the seed. The rabbit waters it, the monkey fertilises it, and when it starts to grow, the elephant protects it. Together they are able to reach and enjoy the fruit. One reading is about teamwork. Another is about sustainability. And yet another is that great ecological truth of connectivity – what goes around comes around, and all are well because all are taking care.
In an earlier essay I mentioned that one of the things I was looking forward to in the conference was the ‘Sung Sessions’. I had assumed that ‘sung’ was the past tense of ‘sing’, but that was not quite right. ‘Sung’ is the word in the national language of Bhutan, Dzongkha, for ‘story’. So these were story sessions, and one whole stream of the conference was dedicated to them, along with the final day which was a ‘Bio-cultural and Film Festival’. The explanation for the inclusion of the sung sessions was quite clear: Indigenous knowledge is transmitted across generations and through communities through the arts of story-telling and other performance genres. The Congress honoured these modes of communication, as well as honouring this knowledge.
ISE makes a point of including many, many Indigenous people. In their own words: ‘Supporting and promoting the critical efforts of indigenous peoples, traditional societies, and local communities in the conservation of biological, cultural and linguistic diversity has been the priority since the International Society of Ethnobiology’s (ISE) inception in 1988.’ This is possible thanks in large part to the generous support of the Christensen Fund. I want to state with deep gratitude that the participation they sponsor enriches the lives of all the delegates and our home communities, and furthers the flow of significant knowledge in the global community. Since much of this knowledge concerns keeping Indigenous biocultural knowledge alive, and working to halt the ravaging damages of the contemporary world, this flow of knowledge really matters. Heartfelt thanks are equally due to all the organisers, to the many lively and lovely volunteer guides, and to the delegates.
Along with all the knowledge benefits, I have to say as well that these conferences are really fun! It is not possible for me to summarise the congress as a whole. There were several sessions running at once, and I could not be everywhere. I missed a bit here and there, as one does. In addition to academic sessions, I danced myself into a state of wonderful exuberance, made myself hoarse shouting while dancing in the company of the delegates from Kyrgyzstan, wept with friends I hadn’t seen for ages, and (not to lose sight of academic matters) gave a paper in the session my Taiwanese colleague Professor Chih Chun-chieh and I organised on ‘Indigenous people and climate change’.
Since this report must inevitably be partial and personal, my aim is to highlight some of the main themes, and convey the flavour of the event as I experienced it. I will begin with the opening ceremony, for everything flowed effortlessly from that glorious multi-species start.
The area was a huge grassy sports field in Jakar, the main town of the Bumthang District. Mountains surrounded us. A red carpet separated the dignitaries from the rest of us. Chairs for the conference participants were set up facing the dignitaries and their white tents or marquees. Each tent was beautifully decorated with colourful appliqué designs of dragons and auspicious symbols. Ravens flew overhead, flags snapped in the breeze, dogs ambled about, and everything was bright, full of motion, and marked with dignity. The royal procession entered with drums and singing. Monks took up their places, and Her Royal Highness Ashi Chimi Yangzom Wangchuk (the King’s sister) seated herself in the centre of the central marquee. A senior monk blessed the conference with gestures of respect to the four directions and to the Princess. Every one of us was offered butter tea and a plate of rice with raisins. There were speeches of welcome, and a short but extremely sincere speech by the Princess on the importance of conservation and indigenous knowledge.
The raven is Bhutan’s national bird; to see one is an auspicious sign.
Ravens soared above the ceremony, and at one point a pre-recorded raven call was played over the sound system in a multi-species welcome and blessing. As the conference was hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, this was also an occasion to award prizes for outstanding environmental stewardship and to launch some recent publications.
The ceremony was followed by entertainment and dinner. The tents had been re-arranged, there were huge bonfires, and the dzong up on the mountain side was all lit up. We talked, listened to a great range of music, ate, and in due course leapt up from our chairs to dance and holler. Traditional Bhutanese music by Jigme Drukpa included songs of mountains, the lively music of the extremely popular Amis singer Suming (Taiwan) got us up and dancing, while the wild and wonderfully energetic music and dance brought to us by the Kyrgyzstan group was all about horses and riding, and seemed to require lots of shouting and whistling.
The more academic side of the conference started the next day. With themes on ethnobotany, medicinal plants, ethnozoology, mapping, and ecological restoration, among others, there was good representation of numerous areas of Indigenous ecological knowledge. The theme that brought it all into coherence was stated in the title of the conference: regenerating biocultural ecosystem resilience.
Michael Gavin and Joe McCarter from Colorado State University explained the situation particularly well: ‘Biological and cultural diversity both face acute extinction crises, but linkages between cultural and biological conservation programs are uncommon.’ Answers to questions of why this is so, and how resilience can be promoted formed the basis of a great number of the papers in both the academic streams and the sung streams.
These questions start to articulate one of the most fascinating issues of our moment on earth. According to western modernity’s linear and teleological timeline ideology, history is a one-way flow toward all that is bigger and better (progress). The most progressive (developed) peoples are at the forefront of history, and other peoples (Indigenous, underdeveloped, impoverished) follow behind in history’s backwaters. According to this ideology, their destiny, indeed their only destiny, is to catch up with the developed peoples. But as the west looks into a future of climate change, catastrophe, and wreckage, we are forced to realise that the ‘downstream’ people have already been here. They have lived this story, and have significant experience of surviving with their dignity and values intact. Now we see a different flow, telling us (of the west) that wisdom is to be found in exactly those places and among those people who had been classed as ‘backward’.
This complex issue speaks directly to what many of the conference participants were discussing, either directly or indirectly. As people who have been through colonisation, collapse, and catastrophe, they have had to ask the tough question that the west seems intent on avoiding: what knowledge and skills do they have for cultural and ecological survival? They have sought ways of teaching the young, promoting resilience, and forging links between past, present and future. Overwhelmingly, they are seeking out the Elders, the traditions, the knowledge, and, indeed, the joy of life.
One of the great take-home messages from this complex conference is that there is no resilience without joy.
Members of the Taiwanese Indigenous group, led by Professor Lin Yih-ren of Taipei Medical University were, I thought, particularly articulate. It was not so much that they explained joy, but rather that they performed it. Their sung session on ‘Water Resource Management: Resilience, local knowledge, and Indigenous people’s struggle for ecological issues in Taiwan’ involved short speeches, videos, mime, songs, dances, and a blessing by Reverend Adong. i managed to make a few little video clips of Amis people dancing (view here), Atayal people singing their haunting harmonies (view here), and a bit of the join-in dance which involved so many people from so many cultures and nations (view here).
Much of the dancing was open to the audience. People got up and joined the circle, and when it was clear that the room was too small the circle became a line that snaked into a larger room and reformed itself. We all became fully aware of one of the teachings of the dance: exuberance is hard physical work – you become tired as well as happy! As I witnessed and participated, my eyes kept returning to the powerpoint slide on the wall announcing ‘Water Resource Management’. I imagined bringing some of the leading water resource management honchos from Australia (for example) to participate in a day of singing and dancing. Would they understand that water is life? Would they get the point that just as without water there is no life, so too without joy and the connectivities it generates, life is barely worth living?
I will have more to say about traditions and resilience in Taiwan in a future essay, so for now I will move to another sample of the riches of the conference. The session on Ecological Restoration included a wonderful speech on ‘Caring for the “Rolling Beauty of Time”: the regeneration of Hawaiian land management system’ by Chris Oliveira (Koiake, USA) and team members Glen Kila and Lisa Gollin. Kealohanuipuna Kinney (Brown University) was part of this session, and spoke particularly compellingly about sovereignty. The richness and challenge of their presentations is not readily captured in a little summary, so perhaps I should just say that the understanding of the world’s own motion and design was brought into connection with Hawaiian people’s commitment to land regeneration, sovereignty, and the revitalisation of their intergenerational complexity.
Perhaps the most sobering presentation was by the group from Kyrgyzstan. This session was framed around ‘re-thinking revitalization’, and the printed discussion by Erjen Khamaganova and Ken Wilson (both of the Christensen Fund) sets out very clearly a number of issues for post-soviet Central Asia: ‘The history of the nomads of the post-soviet space of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan and Siberia) means that traditional knowledge and practices of sustainable and effective livestock management have been significantly eroded. The problem is not just the sheer loss of traditional knowledge, but may be much deeper, namely the loss of the sources of knowledge (people’s ability to learn with and from the land). With the disappearance of the traditional institutions of transferring knowledge from generation to generation, and the loss of direct interactions of elders with younger generations of herders on the pastureland the foundation of relations between people, landscapes and livelihoods including its core spiritual dimension has been undermined…. The discussion will thus involve the deeply challenging issues of the re-creation of the sources of knowledge in a new living tradition and will address common problems in revitalization of bio-cultural systems.’
These delegates, the men splendid in their tall hats, were utterly inspiring in their honesty and their love of their homeland, horses, falcons, and way of life, and in their commitment to rebuilding their shared lives in the wake of loss followed by colonisation and collapse.
One final sample: The sung session on well-being was inspiring in quite a different way. Session chairs Gary Martin (Global Diversity Foundation, Morocco) and Octaviana Trujillo (Northern Arizona University) explained their aim of opening a dialogue between Bhutan and co-thinkers elsewhere on the topic of the ‘growing global movement [that] is basing the search for alternatives to mainstream development approaches on the core value of human-environmental wellbeing’. This session aimed to open discussion around the fact that ‘a wellbeing-focussed framework can provide robust alternatives to current neoliberal paradigms’. Participants were invited to reflect on their experiences of wellbeing initiatives, and to offer guidance for enhancing and establishing such initiatives around the world.
The clear and explicit message of many of the sessions, both sung and academic, was this: resilience is achieved through collaborative interactions between young and old, the living and the dead, the human and the more-than-human including animals, plants, sacred sites, ‘natural features’, spirits, deities and ancestors. Resilience starts with values, not with problems to be solved. And the values that matter in the work of biocultural resilience emphasise that which is good for all, not simply that which is good for (some) humans, or good on the basis of a calculation of the greatest good for the greatest numbers. Here, too, the conference slogan ‘One Earth for All’ was shown to be deeply serious, and truly challenging.
A second take-home message from the conference is that there are indeed thriving alternatives to the neo-liberal paradigm. They involve mutualism, and they are widely inclusive.
The conference closed as it had begun: with speeches, food and drink, music and dance. The final dance was Bhutanese. We joined the circle, our arms gesturing in farewell, and danced to the hauntingly beautiful song that traditionally is the last dance.
Postscript: I will be including more photos and videos in this essay once I have been given permission from the people involved. I will also include more website links as they become available. I n addition to this essay, I am including accounts of ideas and events encountered at the Congress in several other posts.
Resources: For an excellent account of revitalisation of medicinal plant knowledge in the wake of soviet rule, see the video made by Professor Karim-Aly Kassan and his team (view here). This website has numerous fascinating case studies in video format.
One of the great songs of the Amis people of Taiwan, performed by Congress Delegate and popular singer Suming, is available on YouTube (view here).
There are a few YouTube sites with songs by Jigme Drukpa, with varying quality (view here).
The plane swooped into Paro like a bird on a thermal. We followed the valleys, banking and turning, coming lower and lower. Between mountains and cliffs, alongside high-altitude fields and forests, past temples and prayer flags. A road came into view along the valley floor, beetling with trucks and cars, and then there was the fortress. At the last minute the runway appeared, and we were landing. We waited for the royalty on our flight to descend, and then it was our turn to put our feet on the ground, breathe the thin air, and take in the fact that we were now in Bhutan.
A banner in front of the airport welcomed us. We were participants in the Fourteenth Congress of the International Society for Ethnobiology, and we were welcomed again and again. At strategic sites along the roads we travelled, more banners announced our presence and our welcome.
During the coming weeks I will have more to share from my precious trip, but I decided to start with a short report on two of my favourite topics: dogs and happiness.
Bhutan is famous throughout the world for its commitment to ‘Gross National Happiness’.
The term makes a pointed reference to GNP or ‘gross national product’, defined as ‘the market value of all the products and services produced in one year by labor and property supplied by the citizens of a country’. Bhutan’s emphasis on happiness aims to hold economic growth within a philosophy of relational values that include spheres of the inter-human and the nonhuman.
According to one account I read, happiness in this context starts with basic freedoms – from fear, indignities and want. Beyond the basics, happiness becomes more nuanced. It includes love of life and consideration of others, and is a way of living rather than a state of being. We had the privilege of listening to the great monk Khenpa Phutsok Tashi who wanted us to understand the connections between wisdom and nature. In his words, ecological diversity and resilience are part of happiness because of the interweaving of human minds and the natural world.
Contentment surely contributes to happiness, and the dogs of Bhutan excel in the arts of peaceable living.
For the first few days in Paro we stayed at the Tashi Namgay Resort hotel. The dogs there, both residents and visitors, had their favourite places – grassy havens in the sun, and corners where they could curl up and be protected by walls.
Down in the town of Paro, the dogs were perfecting their relaxation techniques. They stretched themselves out on sidewalks and at the edges of the street. Very few were tied or chained, although some clearly had their special places in homes and businesses. Apparently they were being fed, for these were not sad and sickly creatures, but rather for the most part were handsome, well fed, and protected.
Up at the Dzong (temple /fortress/district administrative centre) the dogs patrolled the exterior and, from time to time, wandered into the premises.
Paro may have been a special case of contentment. In Bumthang, far to the east in the centre of the country, our volunteer guide Kinga told us that we should be a bit wary of the dogs. Some of them were not happy, he told us, and in fact were actually angry. This was owing to a policy of castrating the males in an effort to keep the population in check. In spite of the policy, reproduction was still happening, and it was delightful to see puppies in numerous neighbourhoods.
Sacred sites in Bhutan include many, many natural areas. The Bhutanese concept of ‘sacred natural site’ speaks directly to the conjunction of nature and culture in places of significance that are ‘natural’ in origin. ‘Burning Lake’ is one such site. It includes a gorge with an area where the river widens out in the manner of a small lake. The main story of its significance is that Terton Pema Lingpa, a 15th century incarnation of Padmasambhava, had a vision of the sacred treasures that Guru Rimpoche had hidden within the lake centuries earlier. To prove his claims, Pema Lingpa held a butter lamp in his hand as he jumped into the lake. He re-emerged carrying treasure, and with the butter lamp still burning.
The dogs were very much at home here. A travelling sage named Guru Baza was living somewhere in the vicinity of this site, and he told us that in the stone of the area there is the footprint of a black dog. The black dog who was in residence at the time was happily sporting a neckerchief made of a prayer flag.
From a perspective formed in dog-human relations, happiness in Bhutan is an interspecies project. Nevertheless, not all creatures are thriving. Bhutan is home to about fifteen endangered species, including charismatic creatures such as takin, Himalayan black bear, clouded leopard, musk deer, tiger, and red panda. One endangered species is the Indian wild dog, also known as dhole (Cuon alpinus). Its life in Bhutan may be as tenuous as elsewhere in its precarious range. According to the IUCN website, ‘In Bhutan, there have been recent press reports that dholes have recovered from a government-initiated mass poisoning campaign in the 1970s’.
A recent study explains that the poisoning was an attempt to protect livestock from dhole predation. With the dhole population drastically reduced, the wild pig population soared, and damage to crops rose accordingly. Now that dhole populations are recovering, pig populations are reduced, and thus crop damage is reduced. Current conservation initiatives emphasise co-existence rather than killing, and it seems hopeful that that the days of poisoning are well and truly finished.
To return to the more familiar dogs of streets, homes, temples and farms, I should note that most of my photos are of dogs at rest: conference dogs, hotel dogs, road works dogs, restaurant dogs, sacred mountain dogs, and dogs that hung out with ravens on the grounds of temples where they were regularly fed. This is a bit unfair. Out in the countryside the dogs were vigilant, and we saw many working dogs. And in general, whatever humans were doing, dogs were there too.
I should also note that along with a life free from persecution, dogs in Bhutan experience another great boon. In this country, as elsewhere in the region, cannabis grows wild.
Happiness has many dimensions. It circulates amongst selves, sites and species, and there are rough edges, as the dhole experience shows. At the same time, happiness in the Bhutanese mode has the capacity to expand the goodness of life through the gifts of shared sentience and consideration.
Recent dhole study: ‘Seasonal diet of dholes (Cuon alpinus) in northwestern Bhutan’, Mammalian Biology – Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, Volume 76, Issue 4, Pages 518-520; Phuntsho Thinley, Jan F. Kamler, Sonam W. Wang, Kinzang Lham, Ute Stenkewitz, David W. Macdonald