Dolpo is a remote region northwest of the Annapurna area of Nepal. Immortalized by the “Snow Leopard”, Peter Mathiessesn's account of Himalayan exploration,the Dolpo is inhabited by Bhotias who embrace the Bon-Po faith, an animist religion that predates and influenced Tibetan Buddhism. Trekkers have only recently been allowed to travel in this region which has more in common with Tibet than Nepal. The Dolpo region is located in Dolpa district, the largest district in Nepal. The people that live there are called the Dolpa or Dolpa-pa.
Dolpa is the remotest and least populated region of Nepal, cut off from the rest of the country by the massive Dhaulagiri range. Even Tibetans called it the “Sbas-Yul” ("Hidden Country"). Snow leopards were studied here and yak caravans still traverse passes between 5,200 and 5,500 meters (17,000 and 18,000 feet) high to get to Tibet.
Located in the rain shadow of the Dhaulagiri range, the Dolpo region is characterized by barren brown knolls, slopes of scree, sheer cliffs, and snow-covered peaks. In the summer when some monsoon rains trickle in the bottom of the valleys are green from irrigated farms. Otherwise the land is brown and gray.
Western Nepal is the most isolated part of Nepal. Places with no electricity, roads and running waters are common and they can be more than a week's walk away from the nearest road. Here trekkers often have to bush walk through forests and scale sheer rock faces because no tracks or trails are marked on their maps. The eastern parts of Nepal are richer in biodiversity and receives more rain than western parts of the country, where arctic desert-type conditions are more common at higher elevations.
Shey Phoksundo National Park is Nepal's largest national park. Covering about 6,500 square kilometers (2,500 square miles), the park is located in the Dolpo region. Sights here include vast conifer forests, Lake Phoksumdo, Tibetan gompas, and towering Himalayan peaks (but not as towering as peaks found elsewhere in Nepal). The region is so remote it was chosen for a study of snow leopards.
The people of the Dolpo region— the Dolpa-pa — are a Tibetan people who have lived pretty much the same way for the last 1,000 years. The food they grown in their valleys is only enough to feed them for half a year. The key to their existence is the yak caravan. From Dolpa they travel up to Tibet and trade barely and corn for salt. The salt is then taken to the south were it is traded for corn, beans and rice. [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993 [☺]
The Dolpo is inhabited by Bhotes (Bhotias) who embrace the Bon-Po faith, an animist religion that predates and influenced Tibetan Buddhism. The Bhotes, or Tibeto-Nepalese, are of Tibeto-Mongol (Tibeto-Burman) origin. They have Tibetan, more Asian, features and speak Tibeto-Burmese languages. These groups have settled higher valleys and mountainous areas and are associated most with the Himalayas. The Bhotes are the main inhabitants of northern Nepal and the foothills of the Himalayas. The group includes Sherpas of mountaineering and Mt. Everest fame. The term Bhote literally means inhabitant of Bhot, a Sanskrit term for the trans-Himalayan region of Nepal, or the Tibetan region. However, Bhote is also a generic term, often applied to people of Tibetan culture or Mongoloid phenotype. As used by the Paharis and the Newars, it often had a pejorative connotation and could be applied to any non-Hindu of Mongoloid appearance. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
The Dolpa people in the high Himalayas of western Nepal are considered the highest-living ethnic group in the world. They operate regular caravans over 5,000-meter passes to Tibet and are mainly associated with the mountainous area west of the Kali Gandaki river valley. Tibetan culture found in Dolpo is considered purer and less disturbed than Tibetan culture in Tibet. The Dolpa people provided a lot of support to the Maoist rebels, who promised to address their poverty.
Dolpa people have traditionally been very isolated. A women that met geographer Barry Bishop in the early 1970s said, "You clothing is strange; you are from a distant village. Did you come on the windship I have seen in the sky?" Later she asked him if she had seen her husband. He left the village fifteen years ago to find work and never came back. "Please look for him," she said, "and tell him to return. He is needed here." [Source: Barry Bishop, "Nepal's Roadless Karnali", National Geographic November 1971 ♬]
See Separate Article HIMALAYAN AND TIBETAN GROUPS OF NEPAL
Dolpa Religion and Religious Practices
The people of the Dolpo are Tibetan Buddhists. They practice Tibetan Buddhist incorporating shamanism, animism and the Tibetan Bonpo religion and have some unusual customs tied to these beliefs. Bon-po Buddhist turn their prayer wheels counterclockwise, contrary to clockwise for most Buddhists. They also pass temples by walking in the right side. There are about a half dozen Bon-po monasteries in Dolpo. Tso Gompa is located by a spectacular lake with green water. The gompa is illuminated at certain times of the year by light from the sun penetrating a single hole in a sheer cliff.
During a full moon in August Dolpa-ba converge on sacred Crystal Mountain and walk the 16-kilometer (10-mile) route around its base three times in as many days. The twisted and folded mountain with vertical sedimentary layers and veins of quartz is believed have been created by Tibetan lamas riding on a magic snow lion. [Source: Joel Ziskin,"Pilgrimage to Nepal's Crystal Mountain", National Geographic, April 1977 ☻]
Dolpa houses are purified by smearing a layer of cow dung on the floor Evils spirits are kept out with seven balls made from sacred rice and cow dung and placed on top of the doorway.☺ To solve a problem a Dolpa shaman told one man to take a handful of blessed rice and put half of it on the beam above the entrance to the house and spread the other half on his goats and sheep before a caravan leaves. He then was required to sacrifice a lamb to the god of the forest and bring the shaman back a temple bell from Tibet.☺
Most people of the few thousand people who live Dolpo reside in villages at 3,960 to 4,270 meters (13,000 to 14,000 feet). For a long time the region was virtually untouched by the Nepalese government or the modern world. There were virtually no teachers, officials or police in the area. Places didn't even have names on Western maps until English scholar David Snelgrove visited the region in 1956. Matthiesen visited the area with renowned wildlife biologist George Schaller, who came to the region to study bharal (Himalayan blue sheep).
In some parts the Dolpo fires are still started with flints, yak-dung is the only fuel, villagers worship gods of the mountains and the wheel is virtually non existent. Four month out of the year the valleys are closed off by snow in the passes and the nearest airport is a ten day walk. Until fairly recently children almost never went to school.☺
Dolpo hamlets consist for two-story houses with inward sloping walls made of mortared stones and air dried earthen bricks. Attached is a shed for tools, food and yak dung fuel. Men dress in short cloaks. Women wear long dresses made colorfully striped woven cloth fastened around the waist. Their hair is plaited and lopped into dozens of tight braids. The wear silver and turquoise earrings, and necklaces and bracelets made of coral, seed pearls and coral.
The Dolpo like to tell bawdy jokes. Many children are conceived outside marriages. They practice polyandry. When drinking alcoholic chang or tea, people in the Karnal and Dolpo regions have the custom of smearing rim of the cup with rancid butter and emptying the cup three times. ♬
Before a Dolpo horse race can begin the horses have to ride over a consecrated juniper fire. In the Karnali people say "When winter snows turn the Jumla white, the people turn black." In the chimneyless homes they burn pine logs which covers everyone and everything with oily soot. In the 1990s, a “japan panosanic” (cassette player) was worth three sheep and a “seeko” watch was worth two or three.☺ ☻
Dolpo Shaman and Health
Shaman are still consulted for medical advice. Journalist Dianne Summers witnessed a pre-caravan ritual with a shaman who was dressed completely in white and had a long braid coiled in a knot on the top of his head. The shaman "rolls his head from left to right, yawns, and grimaces. He jumps like an animal around the primitive wooden statues. The bell in his hand rings erratically as he shakes. His braid falls to his waist...The shaman takes a handful of rice which he pours into the other hand.” He “starts to speak in a high pitched voice, as if possessed by the god." [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993 ☺]
On the caravan Summer's daughter Sara became very ill with a high temperature. To figure out what was wrong a village doctor threw a couple of dice and pronounced that demons had seen her nice cloths and possessed her thinking she a rich girl. He recommended that Sara take the name of a blacksmith and wear miniature tools to trick the demons into thinking she was low status. At a monastery lamas donned demon masks and threw paper images of demons into a fire in attempt to exorcize them. For whatever reason Sara eventually recovered. ☺
Joel Ziskin witnessed another shaman ritual in the Dolpa. To exorcize a blue mermaid-like demon from a young man the shaman went into a trance, howled, bent over and sunk his teeth into the man. In another folk treatment an ailing woman is treated by a lama who cauterizes a vein with a red hot iron and herbs. If the treatment doesn't an exorcism like the one just mentioned will be performed. [Source: Joel Ziskin, National Geographic April 1977 ☻]
Describing yet another shaman ritual Marcia Liberman wrote in the New York Times: "The shaman was sitting on his haunches, shaking up and down, beating a drum and chanting in a high-pitched voice as he called forth the malevolent spirits. His back was hung with small animal skins and bells that jingled as he shook. Great black feathers were stuck in his turban. Periodically he lowered the drum, showing his face, glistening with sweat, and altering the pitch of his voice; sometimes he rose and strode about for half the night. When he left the next day, a string of white sticks hung over the door, to keep the hostile forces from returning."
Dolpo Agriculture and Livestock
About the only grain that will grow in the Dolpo is barley and there is hardly enough water to go around. Every April before the plowing begins the men in some Dolpo villages engage in a dice a game that determines who will get how much water. ☺
Men plow the fields with primitive plows. Women doing weeding and other chores. The people in Karnali use stone plows with wooden handles similar to those used in Greece 5,000 year ago. At an elevation of 2,745 meters (9,000 feet) they tend some of the highest rice fields in the world. To achieve this, rice kernel are first germinated inside stone hot houses that use fire instead of the sun to produce heat. ♬
Almost every part every part of the yak is utilized for something. It backs is used for carrying loads up to 45 kilograms (100 pounds). Milk provides yoghurt, cheese and butter for tea; the hide is used for leather shoes; the wool is spun into blankets and clothes; and the dung is used for fuel in a treeless land. ☺
Caravans crossing the Himalayas still operate between Tibet and Nepal. Nomads, who live at an altitude above which the grain can not grow, gather salt from beds near Tibetan lakes and trade it for barley, buckwheat, rice and maize with caravans that come from up Nepal and Bhutan. Sometimes things like kerosene lamps, Indian cloth and even bicycles are carried in. [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993, ☺]
Salt caravans with 150 or so yaks have been operating in Tibet for more than 2,000 years. Caravans between Tibet and the Dolpo area of Nepal have been traveling the same route for more than a thousand years. Within Tibet, caravans have been replaced by trucks. The trucks able to reach the salt-producing lakes but still can not take the salt over high mountain passes into Nepal. Thus there is still a need for the caravans.
Salt is used in the preparation of meals and, more importantly, to feed it animals. In some places it is still used as currency or as a commodity to barter for rice or other commodities with lowland people. For people in Nepal, salt from Tibet is considerably cheaper than salt from India.
Caravans are usually organized in the fall so herders and grain growers can get supplies to last them through the winter. Caravaneers in the Dolpo only raise enough grain to meet about half of their needs. With the money made by trading salt they buy additional grain and things like tea, sugar plastic bowls, and tools. Members of the caravan usually deal with same trading partners year after year. Trust is important. Salt and grain are measured out in sacks or wooden khekours. Typically two measures of salt are traded for five measures of grain.
Dolpo Sheep and Yak Caravan
The salt caravans traveling between the Dolpo region of Nepal and the Chang Tang region of Tibet are made up of sheep who wear 30 pounds saddlebags. The sheep wear the bags even when they are sleeping so the nomads don't have to waste time taking them off and putting them on. At night the caravan members sleep in make-shift yurt-like tents made from canvas stretched over a circle constructed of piles of sacks and other equipment. Meals are prepared over fires made inside the tents.
The salt comes from the bottom of shallow lakes in the Chang Tang region. It is raked it in heaps which dry out in the sun and then sewn into huge sacks that are loaded on the back of the animals. To keep from getting frostbite the caravaneers wrap their feet in woolen rags. And to prevent snow blindness men wrap their long braids over their eyes and women smear black roots under their eyes."♠
Twice-a-year yak caravans ply a route between the Tsangpo river valley area of Tibet and the Tsangpo upland valley in Nepal. The caravans move with one man following behind four yaks. Each yak carries about 150 pounds placed in two sacks, one hanging on each side of a wooden saddle placed on the yak's back. The journey takes about 10 days. Yaks from Tibet carry salt, animal fat and wool, which is exchanged for grain and sometimes lowland goods like rice, pears and sugar. The governments of China and Nepal tolerate the caravans because the people involved depend on the caravans for their survival.
Dolpo-Tibet Tibetan Caravan Rituals
Before a caravan begins, a consultation with the gods using a lama or shaman as an intermediary takes place and yak butter is placed on the brow and horn tips of each yak with the understanding that gods like butter and will protect the animals to show their gratitude. Wives also dab butter on the heads of their husbands. These rituals are believed to offer protection from rock slides, blizzards, falls from cliffs and dangerously cold and wet weather.
When a sheep caravan is ready to embark on a journey to the lowlands, the event is heralded with handfuls of barley thrown into the air and chants from lamas and honks from conch shell horns. The leader of the caravan thrusts his arm into the chest of a slaughtered sheep and draws out a cup of blood, which he drinks slowly. This is done to protect him from malaria and dysentery.
Instead of saying grace before a meal some everyone dips their forth finger into their tea and flick the droplets in the four directions. To forecast, the weather salt is thrown into the air and then tossed onto a fire. If it crackles it means a storm is far away if it stays silent it means a storm in near.
The caravaneers sing and chant during their journey in a "salt language" known only to themselves and the Buddhist deities that are important to them. If an accident occurs, the caravan will not continue forward until the spiritual cause of the accident is found and something is done to atone for it, even if it means falling behind schedule and risking getting caught in a storm. To appease spirts, a lama or shaman may recommend making 108 little cakes as offerings or making effigies of people who have been injured and who are ill. The effigies are throw down a gorge to fool the spirts that they are the real people.
Travel With a Dolpo-Tibetan Caravan
The lead yak in a yak and sheep caravan has a red tassel hanging from it ear and prayer flag tied to its coat. Other yaks are adorned with pom poms and bells. Slow beasts are urged on with rocks slung from a slingshot and calmed with clicking noises.
On sheep caravans the saddlebags on the animals have to constantly be adjusted. On the narrow trails an off-balance, lopsided bag can send a sheep hurtling over the side of a cliff. During the night one of the caravan members stays up all night to make sure the sheep don't get picked off by leopards and jackals."
When its time to go to sleep men, women and children disrobe and sleep together under the same blankets and on top of the same goatskin mattress. The mainstay of a caravaners diet is tea flavored with rancid butter and salt. "Tea is the horse of the traveler" a saying goes. "It gives us energy and keeps us going."☺
When an unexpected snow storm hits, small yaks are forced to return and large yaks are relieved of their bags so they can break a trail for the rest of the caravan. Describing a snowbound caravan heading Nepal to Tibet, Christine de Cherriey wrote in Smithsonian, "It is an arduous hike. Sometimes Chusang [the caravan leader] has to walk in front of the yaks in snow up to his thighs. The men shield their eyes from the sun; those who do not have glasses cover their eyes with their braids. Two thirds of the way, one of the yaks collapses on the path, exhausted, and is unloaded by Lobsang and abandoned."
“Four days later, we stop some 14,000 feet above sea level at the last camp in Nepal...The next day when we reach the pass. The weather turns foul again, but this time the men are no longer worried. They are back in their own country and from here on the trip will be downhill or on flat land. The high-lying plateaus of Tibet stretch out before them in the distance. It will take six more days for the caravans to reach their villages."
Himilaya, the Film
The December 1993 National Geographic article by Valli grew into the film “Himalaya” (2001), also known as “Caravan”, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 2002. The fictional film about the real-life yak caravan between Tibet and the Dolpo region of Nepal that trades salt for grain. Directed by French film maker and photographer Eric Valli, it is a joint French-Nepali-Swiss-British production in a Tibetan dialect and subtitled English.
“Himilaya is shot in the Tibetan Dolpo region. It is about a caravan leader who is prevented from leading a caravan because he was held responsible for the death of a son of a village elder. The plot revolves around generational differences and an effort by the young herder to take over the caravan.
Dramatic moments in Himalaya include crossing a 4,875-meter (16,000-foot) pass in a blizzard; losing a prize yak after it falls off a cliff; and clashes between the chief and the caravan leader. Himalaya was shot over a nine month period employing mostly non-professional actors — residents of the Dolpo — and using a script based on real events in their lives. Much of the equipment was transported around using yaks. The scenery is spectacular and the story is engaging and plausible enough.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022