Category: Tibet

Ice Stupa

An ice stupa in Ladakh in summer 2015
An ice stupa in Ladakh in summer 2015.
Credit: The Ice Stupa Project

The Tibetan Plateau is a known for many things. Culturally, it’s the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism and has been likened to the mythical Shambhala and Shangri-la. Geographically, it’s the largest and highest plateau in the world and the nearby Himalayas have the world’s tallest mountains. Due to its altitude, thousands of glaciers have developed on the Tibetan plateau earning its nickname “The Third Pole”. In fact, these glaciers are the largest reserve of fresh water outside the poles and supply many of Asia’s great rivers. The region’s unique geography has made the Tibetan Plateau particularly vulnerable to climate change.

In summertime, the Himalayan mountains serve as a barrier for clouds to induce rainfall in a process known as orographic lift. As a result, the Indian subcontinent experiences a monsoon climate characterized by a dry winter season and a rainy summer season. As global average temperatures rise, climate models predict that this variable precipitation will become more extreme.

Farmers in Ladakh, a territory within the larger Kashmir region of northern India, are already experiencing these effects of climate change. They suffer from acute water shortage in April and May, the last months of the dry season. However, come June, the combination of monsoon and glacial melting leads to flash flooding. Sonam Wangchuk has developed an innovative solution that takes advantage of the Tibetan plateau’s unique geography and the region’s religious culture – the ice stupa.

What is a stupa?

In short, a stupa is a Buddhist monument used for Buddhist meditation. Traditionally, they served as shrines for Buddhist relics. Stupas are a focus for Buddhist circumabulation meditation, done in the clockwise direction. In the Himalayan region, stupas have a characteristic bell-like shape and are typically white in colour. Stupas are common in Buddhist countries because building stupas generates Buddhist merit for one’s next life. Fun fact: Dagoba, the planet where Yoda trains Luke Skywalker, comes from the Sinhalese word for stupa!

Boudanath in Kathmandu, one of the world's most iconic stupas.
Boudhanath in Kathmandu, one of the world’s most iconic stupas.
Credit: Nabin K. Sapkota, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Solution

In Ladakh, the growing season is rather short and ends in mid-September. Further, water is the most constrained right before the rainy season in April and May. How can you allocate water resources to times of the year when demand is the highest and supply is at its lowest? Sonam Wangchuk’s idea was to construct artificial glaciers to remedy the water issues. By freezing stream water in the winter, water can be stored for the spring season when water resources are the scarcest.

This solution is low tech and easy to set up. Water uphill is piped to a base made from a cell phone tower and wood. At night, the pipes are opened and the extreme cold freezes the water almost instantly. The gradual accumulation of ice on the metal and wood base forms a conical shape resembling a stupa. These ice stupas have even been adorned with prayer flags just like their mud counterparts.

The team behind the Ice Stupa Project and two ice stupas in winter.
Credit: The Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier Project via Facebook

However, it should be noted that this isn’t a complete solution. First, there are complaints from downstream farmers that they are being deprived of water for their winter crops. This is a diificult debate – right to water between upstream and downstream agents is one of the main challenges in water management law. Second, the infrastructure needs to be improved to better distribute and collect water more efficiently.

Faith and the Environment

Still, I’m a big fan of projects that combine faith and environmental action. I think this project is a perfect example of that melding. Ladakh is about 40% Buddhist so there is a considerable population motivated to construct ice stupas to generate good karma. The project is also partnered with the Drikung Kagyu (འབྲི་གུང་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད) Order and a local rinpoche has blessed these ice stupas.

Many religions around the world advocate for a connection with and a love for nature. Although faith around the world is decreasing, I think there’s great value in taking advantage of this advocacy to help fight climate change and environmental damage. Environmentalism and sustainability are inherently interdisciplinary and faith can be used to complement these pursuits. For example, prayer and meditation may help to aleviate eco-anxiety and a religious flavour to conservation may help mobilize people to act in a more environmentally-conscious way.

With a changing climate, ice stupas will become more and more important. These ice structures have great potential to help other high altitude desert communities such as those in Peru. But more importantly, they bring about collaboration between the spiritual and physical worlds.

For more information, please check out the Ice Stupa Project.

City by Lobsang Nyima

“City” by Lobsang Nyima via Youtube

Songs are one of the best ways to connect to a culture and my all-time favourite Tibetan song is City by Lobsang Nyima (གྲོང་ཁྱེར། བློ་བཟང་ཉི་མ། / 城市 洛桑尼玛). Lobsang Nyima already gets points in my book for looking like the fifth member of The HU but I really think this song is fantastic. It combines the traditional Tibetan lute (སྒྲ་སྙན) with a metal/blues style to create something of its own. In fact, the whole song is about mixing the old and the new and the consequences of when these worlds collide.

Although the song skillfully combines modern music style with traditional instruments and melody, the lyrics themselves portray the traditional and modern as incompatible with one another. One of the opening scenes in the music video visualizes this perfectly – a golden, upside-down cityscape looms over dark blue mountainous terrain. In essence, the song is about how urbanization and modernization are a threat to the rural, traditional way of life.

Chinese Imperialism

While we might think of modernization as undoubtedly a good thing, it is less clear cut from the Tibetan perspective. Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s, China has put in a lot of effort to “civilize” Tibetans and their land. In some ways, this development has been beneficial – for instance, nowadays fruits and vegetables can be grown in Tibet thanks to greenhouses. However, there remain tremendous costs to this progress and prosperity. Like the colonial powers of old, China has not only encouraged Han (汉) Chinese migration into Tibet, but actively suppressed the Tibetan religion, culture, and language and exploited the natural resources of the plateau. Many westerners have the idea that the days of colonialism and imperialism are behind us but that isn’t true. China very much fits the oppressive and exploitative nature of bygone empires.

The Old and the New

Lobsang Nyima uses a lot of contrasting language and imagery in his song to illustrate the dichotomy between the old, Tibetan way of life and a modern, Sinicized one. For one, there is the literal language – in the original music video, subtitles in both Tibetan and Chinese appear at the bottom of the screen. There’s also a contrast in the way colour is used to describe urban and rural life. Compare lines like “Skies bluer than turquoise” (ནམ་མཁའ་གཡུ་ལས་སྔོ་བའི།) and “Clouds whiter than yogurt” (སྤྱིན་པ་ཞོ་ལས་དཀར་བའི།) to “The street is a rainbow drawing” (ལམ་ནི་འཇའ་ཚོན་རི་མོ།). The rural is depicted as monochromatic and pure whereas the city is kaleidoscopic and tainted.

Lobsang Nyima also describes the loss in morals that comes with city life. He used to have a “compassion great and wide” (བརྩེ་བ་ཁ་ཞེང་ཆེ་ས།) and “got along with the vultures” (ཐང་དཀར་རྒོད་དང་འགྲོགས་པའི།). However, since moving to the city, he’s felt there are “hearts without bridges” (མི་སེམས་ཟམ་པ་མེད་པའི) with “no place to give your feelings to” (བློ་ཕུག་གཏོད་ས་མི་འདུག). While city environments tend to have less social trust than rural areas, these lines also speak to the depravity that comes as a result of a dying culture.

The City

The most powerful message comes in the music video itself. Being from Kham, the easternmost region of Tibet, Lobsang Nyima has probably experienced firsthand the changing culture and landscape of his hometown. In the beginning of the music video, he is dressed in a big traditional chuba (ཕྱུ་པ་) in an open mountain pasture. Suddenly, he’s transported to a city – dazed and confused. The bustle and newness of the city is alluring as Lobsang Nyima exchanges his chuba for a leather jacket and a pair of jeans. Comrades in identical attire join him in a city street. To me, this part represents the assimilation into urban living. It’s easy to forget who you are when everything is so new. In the same vein, Chinese development projects are so flashy – who doesn’t think bullet trains in Tibet are cool? But there’s a hidden cost to everything, whether it’s a loss in a simple way of living or an entire culture. Soon enough, flashbacks of a chuba-wearing self start popping up – a reminder of how things used to be.

This realization ties in with the lyrics about losing who you are as a person. A compassion for others tossed away like the chuba you once wore. The lack of human connection. This all drives Lobsang Nyima to heavy drinking and nihilism. The lyric “The great ocean that is this mortal life” (འཁོར་བའི་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ཆེན་པོ།) really speaks to the feelings of futility in his drunken state.

When I watch the music video, I like to imagine the part in which Lobsang Nyima is back in his chuba sitting on a rocky crag as a dream. A dream in which he’s back to the old, rural way of life and the city is merely an abstract thought. Images of the city flash by in his head, but the views aren’t from the ground. They’re high up without any indication of people or the city bustle below. The taint of the city is cleared by the purity of turquoise-blue skies and yogurt-white clouds as an electric guitar riff melts seamlessly into a traditional Tibetan wail. For a moment, things are exactly how they used to be. The music video finishes with a cut back to the leather-clad Lobsang Nyima reminiscing about the days before the city.

Urbanization and more

The song City is about Chinese urbanization in Tibet. The whole Tibet issue is really tricky – there are certainly good things that have come out of Chinese development in Tibet but there also have been absolutely horrendous tragedies. I’m of the opinion that the good doesn’t outweigh the bad and China in Tibet is a instance of modern day colonialism. However, as much as I think a song critical of Chinese development is a good enough reason alone to merit being a good song, what makes City a great song is more than that. Yes, I want to steal both of his outfits in the music video. Yes, the combined music style is really cool. But I think the biggest thing for me is that the song is about longing for the past.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa looms over a modern street
The new and the old. The residence of the Dalai Lama for centuries, the Potala Palace, looms ominously over a busy street in Lhasa.
Credit: Xuyu Chi / Unsplash

Nostalgia in City

Don’t we all long for simpler times? When things weren’t so complicated and life just went by slower? Nostalgia is a universal feeling we all experience from time to time as citizens of a dynamic world. It is this universal appeal to nostalgia that makes City a great song to me. I don’t want to minimize its message of Chinese encroachment on the traditional, nomadic, rural way of life. But, I can relate to the lyrics of how things were better back then – in the past, skies were a bit bluer and clouds a bit whiter. I can’t be the only one who thinks snow had a little bit more magic when I was little than it does now. As someone who has recently started working, I can also relate to the hustle and bustle changing me as a person. It’s been harder to make friends post-graduation and sometimes I do feel like there’s “no place to give you feelings to”. While I’ve never experienced the gradual disappearance of my culture’s way of life, with all the changes going on in our world, it does feel like my childhood and past only exist in my dreams and memories.

For further reading about the song, please check out High Peaks Pure Earth and the Australia Himalaya Research Network.

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