Politics and religions in the Himalayas and Central Asia

Tabo Gompa, Spiti. By Michael Scalet, 2007 (Flickr cc-by-sa)

The European Society for Studies of Central Asia and Himalayan Regions (SEECHAC) held its 2011 International Colloquium in Rome, at the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, on the 10th and 11th of October 2011. This year’s theme was “The political and religious expression of sovereignty in the Himalayas and Central Asia: rituals, texts, representations and institutions, from antiquity till now”.

Most contributions approached the topic from an art historical perspective, but other historical approaches were also present, as well as one contribution, by Christian Jahoda, which drew together historical elements and fieldwork data from Western Tibet (mainly Purang) and Spiti. Here is a section of the detailed abstract of C. Jahoda’s talk, entitled ‘Festival and ritual traditions in key religio-political centres of Historical Western Tibet (mNga’ ris skor gsum)’:

An important aspect of religio-political power was related to the cult of protective deities. rDo rje chen mo, a female protective deity (srung ma), seems to have held a particular position as she was installed in this function in the case of several prominent monasteries which were founded during the period of the late 10th-early 11th century by power-holders such as Ye shes ’od (founder of Tho ling, Nyar ma, Tabo), ’Khor re (’Khor chags) and ’Od lde (Shel).
In all these monasteries and places which at least in the case of Tho ling, ’Khor chags, Nyar ma and Shel also constituted key religio-political centres of Historical Western Tibet, there is evidence for an ancient (and still ongoing) religious cult of this deity which included remarkable popular and public dimensions. These were (and in most cases still are) expressed on the occasion of festivals and rituals in the form of public appearances by trance-mediums and / or by way of material manifestations. Both phenomena are often accompanied by the performance of a type of religious dance by lay people or monks personating rDo rje chen mo. Other religious as well as secular dimensions of power can be seen in the (self)designation of this deity as owner (bdag po) of the monastery where she resides and in a corresponding system of socio economic organisation and of economic provision for maintaining the monastery on the part of the lay population.
Based on extensive field research in recent years in these places, in particular in ’Khor chags (Purang County, Ngari Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region) and Tabo (Lahaul-Spiti District, Himachal Pradesh, India), selected examples of major festival and ritual traditions associated with this protective deity, such as the Nam mthong festival in ’Khor chags and lCags mkhar festival in Tabo, will be discussed.

The complete abstracts can be consulted here.

 


Nicolas Sihlé

Nicolas Sihlé, a sociocultural anthropologist, is researcher at the Center for Himalayan Studies, a research unit of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) based in Villejuif (France). He specializes on Tibetan religion and society, and is the author of Rituels bouddhiques de pouvoir et de violence : La figure du tantriste tibétain [Buddhist rituals of power and violence : The figure of the Tibetan tantrist] (Brepols, 2013). His current work focuses on post-Mao socioreligious transitions in and around the famous communities of non-monastic specialists of tantric Buddhism in northeast Tibet (Amdo), and more generally on the comparative anthropology of Buddhism.

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