Preserving the Abodes of Tibetan Buddhist Deities

Under increasing climate pressures in Northeast India, monks and monasteries safeguard local lakes and forests.

A singular, seventeenth-century thangka painting adorns the central hall of Ganden Namgyal Lhatse, the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India. The painting depicts a haggish figure with pendulous breasts, flaming eyebrows, and red hair standing on end. Palden Lhamo, the fearsome protector deity in the painting, commands supreme reverence in Tibetan Buddhism. As the protector deity of the lineage of Dalai Lamas, Palden Lhamo is known to assist senior monks in the identification of the next Dalai Lama through a series of visions on the bank of the sacred Lhamo La-tso — “Oracle Lake” — in a remote location southeast of Lhasa, Tibet.

Tawang Monastery in Arunachal Pradesh

In the mid-2000s, monks in Tawang’s Ganden Namgyal Lhatse monastery (pictured) took note of the potential deterioration of nearby sacred natural sites and took it upon themselves to care for them. Photo by Arkadipta Chandra.

Due to her association with Lhamo La-tso lake, followers of Tibetan Buddhism consider Palden Lhamo to be the goddess of the sacred lake and believe that she resides in a number of other lakes scattered in the Himalayan region.

Every year, Phuntsok Wangchuk, a monk in Ganden Namgyal Lhatse monastery, spends three months visiting these lakes, which are tucked amid snow-clad mountains a few miles from his monastery. The 39-year-old lama isn’t seeking visions or seclusion. Rather, he’s there to guide and care for the Buddhist pilgrims who visit the lakes, locally known as Bhagajang tso, and believed to be the abode of various other divinities.

The Bhagajang sits more than 14,000 feet above sea level in Arunachal Pradesh, the easternmost state in India, near the border with Tibet. It is a high-altitude wetland of 20 lakes, along with marsh, meadow, fen, and peatland. It is home to musk deer, wild dogs, red fox, and scores of plant species. “We need to look after these sacred lakes,” Wangchuk says, “and see that they are clean and that the deities aren’t offended.”

The sacred lakes, along with other features of the mountains, are under increasing threat. Over the past few decades, the region has faced severe climate impacts, including the drying up of springs. It is expected to see major temperature increases in the coming decades. The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development projected in a 2016 study that the mean annual temperature here will increase between 2.2 and 3.3 degrees Celsius by 2050. This will exacerbate other environmental impact from heavy use that has been a threat for decades.

In the mid-2000s, monks in Tawang’s Ganden Namgyal Lhatse took note of the potential deterioration of sacred sites and took it upon themselves to care for the abode of deities. Wangchuk has since been looking after the Bhagajang lakes, which attract a significant number of pilgrims from across Arunachal Pradesh and neighboring Bhutan. Over time, Wangchuk and other lamas from his monastery have found innovative solutions to address increased pressure of tourism on the ecosystem.

One of the first things he did was prevent pilgrims from throwing khadas — traditional silk scarves of religious significance — into the lakes as offerings, which helped clear up the wetlands. “As an alternative, we’ve had wooden hangers made where pilgrims can place their khadas,” he says. “If we hadn’t done that, these lakes would have been choked up by khadas.”

As the number of pilgrims visiting these lakes has increased, trees were felled for fuel, denuding the landscape. To stop this, in 2012, the Ganden Namgyal Lhatse monastery, sometimes called the Tawang monastery, banned the extraction of firewood from the area and arranged high-efficiency kerosene stove facilities, with support from World Wildlife Fund-India, where the pilgrims could cook during their stay instead. Additionally, the monastery authorities also work to ensure that non-biodegradable waste is removed from the area.

Pangateng Tso Lake

The high altitude wetland Bhagajang is believed to be the abode of various divinities. The sacred lakes contained in the wetland, along with other features of the mountains, are under increasing threat. Photo of a lake in a a neighboring wetland in Arunachal Pradesh by Amit Rawat.

These efforts seem to have worked. Today in Bhagajang one finds miles of undulating ridges carpeted with rhododendron and juniper shrubs, along with a range of birds, from thrushes and finches to rare species. “Even the rarer golden bush robins and Tibetan blackbirds are seen scurrying across the grass every now and then,” says Kamal Medhi, the landscape coordinator for the WWF-India’s Western Arunachal Landscape program.

Other monasteries, or gompas, in Arunachal Pradesh are increasingly focused on the protection of forests and biodiversity. These efforts are motivated by a combination of the current global climate emergency and the remaining traces of animist Bon religion in the Tibetan Buddhism here. “For example, a folk deity called Ghepo Namsey from the older Bon religion is considered to be the owner-god of animals, humans, plants, water, and other natural resources,” Wangchuk says. “And mindless destruction of natural resources is thought to draw ire of Ghepo Namsey — something everyone wants to avoid.”

“The gompas often anchor their conservation initiatives on Buddhist and local cosmological beliefs associated with a place,” says Lobsang Tashi Thungon, an ethnobotanist and conservation worker from Arunachal Pradesh, himself a Buddhist, “which enhances the effectiveness of these measures, because people tend to respect restrictions when they are embedded in religious lore.” He adds that while these efforts seek to protect sacred forests, “the initiatives are also driven by an increasing recognition of the degradation of ecosystems due to climate crisis and anthropogenic pressures.”

Lhagyala, a seventh-century monastery located in an area called Kalaktang, has conserved through its customary jurisdiction rights an area of 85 square kilometers covering temperate and sub-alpine forests. “This gompa is believed to be associated with Khandroma Drowa Zangmo, a female deity, and the forests around the gompa are thought to be her domain,” says Thupten Pemson, a lama in the monastery. “We have urged the local people here to look after the well-being of these forests as it is our duty to safeguard the abodes of our deities.”

“It’s like killing two birds with one stone,” Lobsang says. “The people can earn merit by safeguarding these sacred forests as per their beliefs, while also helping protect a precious habitat of species such as red panda, alpine musk deer, Asiatic black bear, and pheasants.”

The monks are not only doing social work, however. They have on occasion entered the political arena. In 2016, for example, Tibetan Buddhist monks from Tawang monastery organized resistance to a proposed hydropower project that threatened habitats of the rare black-necked crane. Locally known as thung thung karmu, the black-necked crane is deeply tied to the region’s religious lore: It is a holy symbol associated with the Sixth Dalai Lama, who was from Tawang. Its sacred status compelled the monks into protesting the project. Demonstrations led to police firing at protesters, killing one monk. The project was ultimately suspended.

Whether it is political or social, the monks and their monasteries in this region remain committed to protecting the environment — for themselves and their deities. “I do all I can to preserve the abode of Palden Lhamo,” Wangchuk says. “You may call that conservation.”

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