Yangzom Tsering’s Life Story

Tashi Tewa Dolpo | August 5, 2020
Photo: A Gendered Barley, Tashi Tewa Dolpo

It had already been more than two months since I’d begun interviewing 79-year-old Yangzom Tsering about her life. I was a student of gender studies, which emphasizes the significance of the experience of diverse women, speaking to the complexities of the socio-cultural, religious, economic and political domains of society that affect social agency. The story of how the life of an elderly woman from Dolpo (in Dolpa, Nepal’s largest district) is shaped by her surroundings is yet to be written about in academia. That the exercise would be empowering for Yangzom Tsering was reason enough for me to interview her, but her old age and deteriorating health interrupted the final round of interviews. I wanted to complete our interviews, yet I also wanted her to be in the best possible shape, as proper health would complement her memory. We decided to wait for more than two months and later, I was glad to finish the interviews with her full consent. The presence of her grandson, Phurwa Tashi, comforted her, and his questions also clarified her responses. Over her 79 years, Yangzom Tsering has not only lived in a remote Himalayan indigenous community in Dolpo, she also worked as a lead actor in the Oscar-nominated movie, Caravan (as the wife of the protagonist played by the late Meme Thinley Lhundrup). Yangzom Tsering has also been a witness to the many changes that have taken place in Dolpo, bordering Tibet, and home to more than 7,000 people. It proved challenging for me to capture her life story, and the story that follows is a compilation and condensation of interviews that lasted between four to five hours.

I’m old. Age is defeating me, but I’m trying my best to continue the struggle I started from my village, Tarap, 79 years ago. I was born in Tarap. I’m the youngest daughter of my parents, Jamyang and Yangchen. My father loved me the most, whereas my mother rarely found time for love, and always scolded me. I liked playing outside, which my mother did not approve of. Maybe my mother already knew my fate, what her daughter would have to go through in that remote village.

Tarap is one of the communities within Dho valley. When I was young, the village was different, though I remember the local chorten, and a few yaks and dri-mo (female yaks). Most of the young girls in the village still remain in the house and are involved in daily household chores and farm work. When you ask what has changed in Tarap, I have to struggle to remember everything. But I remember that the locals used to employ yaks when they journeyed for their trans-Himalayan trade. Now they use dhey (mules). Before, the locals used to gather in Tingyu village at the bentsang, or the gathering of the venerable monks, to barter and exchange goods. People from Jumla used to come there with rice, and people from Tibet used to come with salt. Now, people from Jumla and Tibet rarely come to the bentsang or to Tingyu for that purpose. The custom of barter, which relied on trust, has been replaced by cash. On the other hand, the locals have increased their contact with non-Dolpo people from the lower region of Dolpa District.

I never saw a school when I was young. The Crystal Mountain School was built in Tarap when I was in my late thirties (in the early 1990s), already married and living with my husband in Tingyu village. Development came late to the doors of Dolpo. It still takes two full days of walking from Dho to reach Dunai, the district headquarters of Dolpa. Our lives have moved on without waiting for modernity.

I had two brothers, who have passed away, but who never failed to support me. My brothers, Thinley and Karma, helped me and our family by looking after the livestock. They were both herders who looked after yaks and sheep. Later, I would collect grass from the fields and place it in the shed to feed the livestock. My responsibilities grew when we lost our mother, Yangchen. I remember my mother’s last days. She was taken to the traditional doctor Amchi Tenzin, yet she struggled against the disease, and passed away within two or three days. It was a very hard blow for me.

Yangzom Tsering’s eyes fill with tears as she reflects on the tragedy.

My father also passed away six or seven years later. No death could ever be so brutal. It is difficult to move on from these inevitable losses, even if you have prepared for them.

When my mother passed away, I still had a hard time preparing roasted flour, and did not even know how to make khora (bread). I had to ask for help, and invited my relatives, such as (my father’s sister) Aani Pema Bhuti.

When I was only ten years old, my legs started to hurt because of the cold. In the fields, too, Nature was not on my side. It was difficult to find grass when there was no rain. Four or five yaks and a few horses died of hunger because of snow when I was sixteen. I continued with my chores, including fetching water, as a daily routine. The hardest part of these chores was to find winter pastureland and to stay there for nearly one and a half months, at least, at a time. Some of those monsoon-to-winter stays were at Shuldey, Ghoglung, Thayung, Tara and Dhaywa. I was horrified by how tiring this work was. I can share both my sorrows and joys from these stays with you.

One of the hardest tasks for me was to prepare butter and yoghurt, which I later mixed with water, out of curd. Our way involves churning a human-sized wooden dhoon-shing for at least an hour in a cylindrical base, which is filled with curd. We prepare curd by boiling milk, and then storing the boiled milk in a cold place in a room. Some add yoghurt while preparing curd, but others skip this part. I remember preparing yoghurt during the monsoon-to-winter stays. I also prepared lawu (a mixture of solid curd and whey) after boiling yoghurt, and later filtering the solid parts to make chhurpi (hard cheese). I used to mix the remaining chur-ku (whey) with grass to prepare fodder, which I then fed to livestock, and also to the local dogs. I also remember sleeping outside when it was warm. The sun was such a blessing in the cold wintertime.

I got married when I was eighteen years old. Twenty-five year old Karma Tenzin, my husband-to-be, was a trader of yaks, and he used to come and stay in Tarap for about four days at a time on business. He had a friendly nature. Businessmen must have an ability to speak well. The locals of Tingyu had to pass through Tarap when going to the lower parts of Dolpa District, where they exchanged their goods for rice and other basic supplies.

The trust that derives from friendship, as well as prestige, still transcend money and geography in certain villages in Dolpa.

Karma Tenzin’s frequent visits eventually led to a conversation between us. I was shy, but my parents never discouraged me from speaking up. I also had other friends, Kinzom and Bhuti, who were friendly with everyone. Our newfound interest in each other prompted Karma Tenzin to ask to meet my parents for a marriage proposal. It felt awkward for me to be married, and even after our wedding, I stayed on in Tarap for another two years. That time passed very quickly. In the end I had to leave my home and my village, Tarap, for Tingyu.

The short journey to my husband’s place in Tingyu was not hard, because we had a horse.Still, it took nearly five hours to reach the place where I would spend so many years.

My husband’s joint family is affluent. The income of the house was strengthened by their frequent visits to Jhyang, in Tibet. Uncle worked the hardest for the house. From the day after my arrival, I became involved in the household and farm work. Though I was the second-youngest among the eight members of my new house, I did not see any reason to rest.

This early realization might have prepared me to face the many tragedies I later suffered. I lost two of my children when they were only six and four years old. Their passing left me depressed. To be a mother is not easy, and when your children pass away, it becomes extremely painful to continue in that role. I was only twenty-two years old when my second child expired. Both of their deaths were caused by diarrhea and fever. Even the amchis, including my husband, who was also an amchi, could not save them.

Dolpa District’s fifteen-bed district hospital was built only around fifteen years ago in Dunai, after the National Health Policy was adopted in 1991. It is three days’ walk to Dunai from Tingyu. The hospital is often without doctors and the beds lie empty. The Annual Report 2071, prepared by the District Health Office, notes that the posts of District TB/Leprosy Assistant, Health Education Technician, and Administrative Assistant are vacant. Most of the posts of Health Assistant, Senior Health Assistants, Assistant Health Worker and others remain unfilled, too.

These tragedies nearly broke my spirit. I felt very lonely afterwards. I did not get much support from my husband’s family, and living in Tingyu did not help. I even tried to leave the house. It was hard for me to just sit there, and harder for me to contemplate what I had gone through. So I went to Sumna, which was only a few hours away from Tarap, my maternal home. I walked all the way to Sumna, only to return the same day to my husband’s home. The realization of the chains created by my marriage overpowered all thoughts. I did not go any further.

Since you’ve asked me what really happened, I’ll tell you: after a few years, I was pressured into giving birth to a son. My husband tried to force me to do so. I eventually gave in.

A family with a son has higher social capital in Dolpo. The presence of a son improves the sociocultural and economic prospects of rural families, as agrarian and trans-Himalayan trade
economies rely on masculine prowess. In addition, men do not want their wealth to move away from the household. Patriarchal culture and gender discrimination continues to thrive here.
Yangzom Tsering’s grandson Phurwa Tashi, who helped me during this interview, said that women are seen as machines to produce babies in the community.

I eventually became a mother to six children: Bhuti, Bhumjok, Chukey, Norbhu, Penjok and Thinley Norbhu. I was thirty-three years old when I gave birth to my last child. Among those children were two boys. I was happy to give birth to these boys. It was a moment of victory in a long fight. “At last, she made it,” my husband must have thought.

But my husband, who drank, would not stop drinking even after this. You ask me why he drank. My husband was both an amchi and a monk of Dralung Monastery, in Tingyu village. His forefathers had looked after this monastery for almost six hundred years. Those who led the monastery’s rituals there are revered. He was invited to attend pujas in every household. Every house offered him their local brew, and he never turned down an offer. Alcoholic drinks from China also damaged his health, and he grew thin, and later lost his life.

This was another setback for me. My husband was never there when I needed him. During our life together, he was away most of the time, crossing high mountain passes. He never really had time to spend with me, though his desire to have sons did rekindle the love we had earlier lost. I still remember the love he showed me when we were newly married. But with his busy life out in the mountains and his many pujas, he never really made it back home to me, later on. I was fifty-eight years old when he passed away. After that I lived alone till my son asked me to come to Kathmandu to stay with him.

Yangzom Tsering’s youngest son, Tenzin Norbhu, is now a renowned Thangka artist, practicing an art that dates back more than four hundred years. He has risen to fame with many international exhibitions, including at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, and at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris; his thangka paintings were featured prominently in Eric Valli’s movie, Caravan, which was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.

Yangzom Tsering also played a lead role in the movie, as the wife of the protagonist, played by late Meme Thinley Lhundrup, who was from Saldang VDC in Dolpa. In the opening scenes, Yangzom Tsering gazes longingly at Thinley Lhundup as he masterfully leads a yak caravan to Tibet, risking his own life. Her gaze captures the challenges faced by a wife each time her husband leaves her alone to undertake a perilous trans-Himalayan journey.

I had a small role in the movie. How did I even get selected for it? Eric Valli was alright at first. I first met him in Tingyu. I gave him tea and tsampa (roasted barley flour) when he stayed in our village. Out of three women, I was selected for the role, and had to go to Chharka village, an almost full day’s walk from Tingyu, across the Mo la pass.

I do not remember seeing the movie when it came out. In fact, I do not remember watching the movie at all.

I found this surprising. Her memory sometimes betrayed her, but most people would cherish few memories more than being part of a movie shot in a sacred region over many months. Of course, one could barely find a television in the village at that time; but Yangzom Tsering also passed on the opportunity to watch the movie when she was in Kathmandu. Maybe she did not care about it anymore.

Indeed, many of the locals who were part of the movie later felt betrayed by the director, Eric Valli. In Chharka, where a large portion of the movie was shot, the locals still regret the trust they placed in him. They claim that he promised them much but delivered nothing. As Ken Bauer noted in his 2003 book High Frontiers: Dolpo and the Changing World of Himalayan Pastoralists, “The filmmaker and marketers downplay its ‘Nepaliness’”. Locals say that the film’s effect on them was negative.

By then the Maoists had come to Bentsang, Nangong, Dho and Chharka valleys. Many people were scared to death of them. I was also terrified when I heard about them. This fear later turned to surprise when I saw that the Maoists were no different from us. Our physical commonalities brought back my courage. I remember feeding them in our house. The Army barrack in Suligad is half an hour away from Dunai. This distance kept us safe from the fighting that took place later on between the security forces and the Maoists.

I concluded my interviews with questions about her first journey to Kathmandu, and her experience during the earthquake of April 2015.

I was in Kathmandu, in my son’s house in the Tinchuli neighbourhood, when the earthquake struck. I immediately felt that I was going to die. A lot of people thought they were going to die. I was rescued by my son Tenzin, whom I had spent the afternoon with. Later, along with the rest of our family, we found an open space next to the Bayroling Monastery. We slept outside for nearly a month.

Nowadays, my stays in Kathmandu are very different from how I remember my first visit to the capital. That was twenty-four years ago. I came down to Kathmandu through the northwestern part of the valley, Chharka. For a month, I walked down with six or seven other people. Most of them were my relatives.

I came on a pilgrimage. I stayed for a month in Kathmandu, in Boudha. I visited several huge monasteries: Khyentse, Thrangu, Thaaru, Urgyen Tulku, Daabsang and many others in Boudha, Swayambhu and Pharping. These sacred places always infused me with compassion and affection, and always motivated me to further develop these values. Though the pollution and crowds of Kathmandu bothered me, I even went to Namobuddha, Budhanilkantha and other sacred places around Kathmandu. And then, with my relatives, it was our ritual to always do the kora circumambulation in Boudha, mainly in the morning and evening. How many? I do not really remember.

One month was enough for me to realize that this city was much better than my husband’s village, Tingyu, but not as good than my maternal village, Tarap. I feel this way for religious reasons. I find the stupas of Tarap much more beautiful than the houses of Kathmandu – but these houses are better than those in Tingyu.

Even after all this time, I can never really forget Tarap, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life.

The writer would like to acknowledge Manjushree Thapa and Phurwa Tashi for their support in putting together this tribute to Yangzom Tsering, who passed away in January 2017. 

This interview was first published in print in La.Lit Vol. 8, the translation issue.

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