Buddhism in the Hidden Valley: Heritage and Conservation in Tsum, Part 1

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Photo by Craig Lewis
Photo by Craig Lewis

Nestled in the protective embrace of the majestic Himalayas, Nepal unfolds like a timeless tapestry of ancient culture and profound heritage, luring visitors with an ethereal charm. It is an enchanted land where the whispers of its long history echo through the eons and reverberate among the towering and watchful Himalayan giants with snow-capped peaks, at whose feet a kaleidoscope of cultures, beliefs and artistic expressions flourish . At the center of this ever-changing mandala beats the heart of a 2-year-old spiritual tradition that has withstood the passage of centuries, flowing through the country's sacred valleys like the water of life. Even in the bustling center of Kathmandu, alongside the ever-changing wheels of commerce and materialism, teaching thrives, the scent of burning incense permeates the air, and every paving stone breathes the tales of devout pilgrims and a deep inheritance of wisdom.

Yet there is a world away from the incessant clamor and dusty streets of Kathmandu and the ever-present soft clicking of prayer wheels and Small pearls around the stupas and Buddhist temples which punctuate the urban landscape, notably one of the aforementioned sacred valleys: Tsum.

Photo by Craig Lewis
Photo by Craig Lewis

The Tsum Valley in western Gorkha district is one of the lesser-known gems of Nepal. It was officially opened to foreign tourists in 2008 as part of the government's efforts to promote sustainable tourism, enhance economic development and showcase the unique cultural and natural treasures of the Manaslu Conservation Area, established in 1998.

The inevitable incursions of modern tourism mean that the Tsum Valley is no longer the hidden secret it was just 15 years ago, but the valley is still far enough off the beaten track that the resplendent landscapes and isolated communities have retained the mystique of a rich and ancient way of life in Nepal's geopolitically sensitive border region with Tibet.

Starting at an altitude of around 2 meters, the Tsum Valley winds its way up towards the Tibetan border to around 000 meters, with the surrounding guardian peaks reaching even higher altitudes. It is home to 3 villages which are home to some 700 households, or a population of just over 33 people. The valley is diverse topographically and climatically. The lower elevations downstream are characterized by lush, warm subtropical forests, alive with the buzz of insects and an abundance of natural food sources such as banana trees, which help support the predominant majority Hindu population. in this region.

Photo by Craig Lewis
Photo by Craig Lewis
Photo by Craig Lewis

As one advances and rises, each step is accompanied by a progressive transformation of the environment: the air cools and the tropical vegetation yields its territorial influence to the proud and distant spiers of the forests of conifers, among whom are most of the indigenous peoples of the valley, the Tsumba, of Tibetan origin, lived practicing the intertwined traditions of Bon and Vajrayana Buddhism, long before the emergence of small territorial disputes over the regions modern borders. Here, the depth and breadth of Himalayan Buddhist traditions flourished in a symphony of spirituality amid the Spartan grandeur of the Himalayan wilderness.

Climbing even higher into the valley, even the evergreen woods thin out before retreating completely as we encounter the first stretches of the Himalayas proper. Now all that remains is low vegetation: patches of scattered brush, grasses and juniper bushes. As a protected environment, hunting and fishing are not permitted in the Tsum Valley, which is teeming with rich wildlife, including the agile Himalayan. tahr and sturdy blue sheep that gather to graze in large flocks.

The valley is also home to a number of Buddhist temples, monasteries and other unique and historical monuments. Among them: Rachen Gompa and Mu Gompa, which stand on a picturesque plateau at the bottom of the valley, Gompa Lungdang, at the foot of a conical hill, and a revered cave where the Buddhist saint Milarepa himself is said to have meditated.

Photo by Craig Lewis
Photo by Craig Lewis
Photo by Craig Lewis

In Tsum, each step through this rugged, rolling landscape, under the eternally patient but fearful gaze of the majestic Ganesh Himal, Sringi Himal and Boudha mountain ranges, is a pilgrimage in time, where the rhythm of the footsteps resonates with the hum of sacred chants from monasteries perched on menacing cliffs.

And it is against the dramatic backdrop of this strikingly beautiful, yet austere and often unforgiving environment, that we begin this short series of articles, aiming to highlight some of the unique manifestations of Buddhist culture and heritage of Tsum, the secret valley.

In particular, we will explore a remarkable heritage conservation project undertaken by the American non-profit organization Treasure Caretaker Training, led by conservator and consultant Ann Shaftel, and dedicated to preserving the remains of authentic Buddhist treasures and relics from the world.

Photo by Craig Lewis
Photo by Craig Lewis

Ann and her team of dedicated restorers worked closely with community members and under the guidance of local llamas to save a treasure trove of sculptures, please, murals, paintings and other artifacts in the aging temple of Lama Guan village. Their hope is that these irreplaceable artifacts and symbols of the Buddhadharma can survive and serve to enlighten the lives and minds of many more generations of Buddhist practitioners in Tsum.

It is here, along the winding, mist-laden ravines and gorges, crisscrossed by suspension bridges suspended precariously above the bubbling blue glacial waters that have sculpted the valley, that the soul of Tsum reveals itself : as a sacred sanctuary of Buddhist traditions closely woven into the fabric of daily life; where the hiking trails are punctuated with numerous chortens and lined with mani walls composed of thousands of carved stone slabs depicting inscribed deities and mantras; where prayer flags beat and flutter incessantly, whispering colorful prayers carried by the Himalayan winds in an embrace as enduring as the mountains themselves.

Photo by Craig Lewis
Photo by Craig Lewis

The second part of this series will be published in February.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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