NOMADS, LORDS

AND ESTATES IN THE

TRADITIONAL SOCIETY

WE SPENT NUMEROUS HOURS SIPPING BU17ER-TEA IN SMOKY TENTS talking to elderly nomads about the "old society" as they now refer to the traditional period before 1959. Trinley, the 63-year-old nomad Page53_1.gif (108461 bytes) mentioned earlier, was one of our best sources for this topic.

In the old society, we nomads of Pala were part of a large political entity (estatelfief) called Lagyab Ihojang that consisted of contiguous nomad groups belonging to (His Holiness) the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama owned all the pasture areas here and appointed officials from among us (the nomads) to oversee conflicts and collect taxes. He was our lord, although he never came here himself. I have never seen him... but we were under his rule.

The Fanchen Lama was one of Tibet's greatest incarnations or incarnate lamas, second in stature only to the Dalai Lama himself. Tibetans, as Buddhists, adhere to the view that all sentient beings are part of a process of repeated reincarnation that spans eons and eons, but they go further than other Buddhists in believing that it is possible to identify the specific person who is the reincarnation of a great spiritual leader. They maintain that after the death of an incumbent incarnation, his "essence" selects a fetus to emanate or reincarnate into, this child being the new incarnate lama. The incumbent's followers search for this individual, guided by signs, portents, prophecies, as well as by tests that certify authenticity.

Once a spiritual leader is designated as an incarnation, his incarnation line continues over time-the current Dalai Lama, for example, is the 14th in his line of incarnations, and the Panchen Lama who died in 1989 was 10th in his. The property of incarnate lamas is passed down from incumbent to incumbent and accumulates over the centuries, the most famous incarnations becoming extremely wealthy and powerful. The Panchen Lama headed a huge fiefdom that had its own monk and aristocratic officials and controlled numerous farming and nomad estates (like Lagyab lhojang), whole districts, and thousands of subjects.

The nomads of Pala, therefore, were the subjects of a religious lord, the Panchen Lama, to whom they paid taxes and provided corvee labor services. Their lord appointed the top officials in the area who, in turn, were responsible for maintaining law and order. Disputes that could not be settled on the local level were taken to the lord and his higher officials and, in theory, could ultimately be brought to the central government (headed by the Dalai Lama) if the lord could not satisfactorily adjudicate them.

The nomad families in Lagyab Ihojang owned their herds, managing and disposing of them as they wished. But they were not free to leave the estate and move with their livestock to the estate of another lord, even if that lord welcomed them. They were hereditarily bound to Pala (Lagyab Ihojang) and to their lord. If a situation arose where a family felt compelled to take its livestock and flee to a new lord (for example, due to a te with the lord's officials), the receiving lord would normally have to negotiate a payment to the original lord to compensate for the loss.

The feudal-like "estate" system present in Lagyab lhojang paralleled that found in Tibet's agricultural areas, both existing to ensure that religious and aristocratic elites (and the government itself) had a secure labor force to exploit the land they controlled. In essence, all land ultimately belonged to the central government in Lhasa, but over the centuries, segments of it had been granted to aristocratic families, great incarnate lamas, and monasteries for their upkeep and support.5 Since land alone, be it agricultural farm land or pastoral grassland, was not a means of support without the presence of laborers to work it, the Tibetan system made things easy for lords by attaching laborers to these land grants, in essence granting the lord an estate or fief much like the manorial estates of medieval Europe, Tzarist Russia, and feudal Japan.

Being "bound" to the estate of a lord, however, did not mean that one could never leave one's village or encampment. So long as the obligations to one's lord were fulfilled, and families could hire others to accomplish this, members of the household were free to go where they liked, including visits, trading trips, or pilgrimages. Lords were interested in maintaining the flow of goods from their estates, not in micro-managing the daily lives of their subjects.

To be a subject ("serf"), moreover, did not imply poverty. Many of the Panchen Lama's subjects in Lagyab Ihojang were wealthy, some owning very large herds of several thousand sheep and goats and many hundred yaks. Given this, it is not surprising to find that traditional nomad society contained important class distinctions. A stratum of poor nomads, for example, worked as full-time servants and hired laborers for wealthy nomads, even though both were subjects of the Panchen Lama.

 

The subjects of lords had rights as well as obligations, and so long as they fulfilled their obligations to the Panchen Lama, he could neither evict them nor refuse them access to his pastures. And although this was clearly no democracy, and could be oppressive when a lord and his officials were greedy, corrupt, and arrogant, generally the system was lax and the lord did not intrude into the nomads' daily lives.

Beneath the lord, the key institution in Lagyab lhojang was the family Members of a family shared a tent, cooked and ate together, and jointly managed their herd, decisions being made by the family head. Sharing and cooperation within the family contrasted with a norm of fierce independence between families. The ideal for nomad families was to be self-contained units, and they preferred to hire individuals from the class of poor and indigent nomads rather than negotiating with neighbors to share tasks such as herding.

Authority in the family was (and is) generally exercised by parents. Respect for parents is strong, and Tibetan ideals hold that one should show gratitude to one's parents and obey their wishes; parents also normally control their family's activities-for example, where to pasture on a given day, which livestock to sell or slaughter, and even when and whom to marry. The story of Drolma's cancelled marriage is a poignant illustration:

When we returned to Pala in April 1988 after a,few months stay in Lhasa, one of the first people we visited was our friend Norsam, a widower whose household included his 31-year-old daughter Drolma and two sons, one 20 and one 10 years old. As we caught up on events since our departure, we learned the sad news that Drolma's betrothal to a nomad from another group had been broken. While Drolma alternated between pumping the bellows, refilling our tea cu s, and tossing handfuls of sheep- and goat-dung pellets on the fire, her father explained.

About a year before, a 35-year-old nomad from another district asked Norsam for permission to marry Drolma. She approved of the man, and her father, after considerable thought, also agreed to the marriage but only on certain conditions.

Page56_1.gif (100434 bytes) Parents in Pala generally still arrange the marriages of their children, particularly their daughters. Normally, all daughters and all but one son leave their parents' usehold at marriage, so that the ideal family consists of parents, unmarried children, and one married son with his spouse and children. If parents have no son, they try to secure an "adoptive groom" for their daughter, that is to say, to find a male who will marry their daughter and join their household, adopting their name. However, there are no rigid rules regarding who marries out, and parents sometimes decide to keep a daughter in their household even when they have sons. In reality, they evaluate which of their children will take the best care of them as they grow old, and decide on that basis, rather than by following an unvarying "custom." In this case, Norsam decided to keep his daughter with him, and stipulated that the prospective groom had to move into his household and become his live-in adoptive groom. When we asked Norsam why he insisted on this when he still had two other unmarried sons living with him, he replied:

She is the best of my children -the one most likely to look after me well when I am no longer able to work... She obeys me; she never argues with me. She has real deep love for me ... My (20-year-old) son Shibum does not respect me well, and (10-year-old) Rinchen is too small for me to know how he will turn out.

The prospective groom, however, had other ideas. He was employed as a messenger at the Tsatsey district headquarters three days' ride south of Pala, and was looking for someone to live with him there. Accepting Norsam's terms would have meant living alone in Tsatsey most of the time and visiting Drolma occasionally while she remained with her father. He, therefore, countered with a proposal that Norsam shift to a base camp just a day's horseback ride from Tsatsey where visiting would be easier. Norsam ultimately rejected this since he felt the change in the mix of grasses in the new area would harrn his herd-and the groom responded by finding another bride.

Drolma abided by Norsam's decision, although she really wanted to marry the man. Had she defied Page57_1.gif (174051 bytes)

 her father and simply gone to marry him, no one would have stopped her, but her respect for her father was too strong. She could not bring herself to disregard his wishes-so she put his feelings ahead of her own. Although we felt sorry for Drolma, we found Norsam's assessment of the personalities of his offspring very astute and had to agree that in terms of his own welfare, Drolma seemed his best bet.

Parents, however, are not always able to enforce their will. Two years earlier, Norsdm hdcl given another son (three years older than Drolma) permission to marry if he brought the prospective bride to live in his household. A feisty single mother, she refused, informing Norsam's son that she would only marry him if he came to live in her camp, i.e., with her parents. The son, tom between the two, finally disregarded his father's wishes and went to live with the bride's fancily. The father and son hardly speak to one another anymore.

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