The Many Tales Around Water
Insights from Ane Butith Zangmo, Kalzang Dolma with complimentary reading from Tobtan’s book “Spiti: A socio-cultural traditions”
Spiti’s oral literature has extensive reference to water. Many ancient verses, odes, hymns, folk songs, old lore allude to water with sheer reverence, refer it as a treasure and embody ancestral affiliation within physical, ecological, social-cultural and spiritual contexts. Each narrative is deeply embedded in local space – intimately bound up with natal soil, water bodies and their complex manifestation in local geography. Each village has a complex set of rules, systems governing their natural resources and finds its reflection in local peras (proverbs), wise sayings and old chants. These oral tales deviate in their form, structure and might not offer linearity of usual stories but are nevertheless recounted for generations for wisdom. Many of these tales are deemed to be true, many filled with mythical, fantastical elements showing deeper values of interconnection and indigenous stewardship.
Photo courtesy: Kalzang Dolma
Many scholars studying Spitian literary tradition find an association of water with the name Spiti (Spyi Ti/Pi ti) itself. Sir Alexander Cunningham has explained that many terms in Western Himalaya, especially the names of rivers are added with the suffix “ti” with this significance. The word “ti” is also found in some dialects of Kinnaur and Lahual which means “water”. In Spiti, the word “ti” is interchangeably used for “chhu” which means water colloquially. This is aptly reflected in the traditional irrigation system and as recounted by many female farmers in Spiti. Owing to scanty rainfall, Spitians primarily relied on glaciers for irrigation and there are careful rules around water distribution within farming households. There are different watering stages during agricultural season, each binding their own values to the farm life: Yurma, Srak-ti, Gsum-ti, Dsag-ti, Minchu. The first watering occurs after the first month of seeding which is called Yurma – the most important watering work as during this time saplings are young and it needs careful tending. The second watering implies a more urgent need for water as the days are hot and fields parched. During second watering Srak-ti, the saplings are sun-burnt (Srak pa – burnt in spitian) and therefore in greater need of water. Gsum-ti refers to the third cycle of watering and Men-chu means watering cycle to ripen the seeds. This way, Spitian literary and cultural tradition signifies usage of “ti” (water) in layered manner and embodies rich tradition around it.
Another tale related to water that’s recounted relates to Dhankar village. It is a high elevation village in Spiti and used to be capital of Spiti before it was shifted to Kaza. The village landscape comprises flat tracts of land on high mountains, steep cliffs and sloped hills. These high settlements are located more than half a kilometer above the river bed and therefore access to river water is very difficult, the villagers mostly relied on glacier water for all their primary needs and once a local shepherd beautifully expressed his experiences of local topography in a form of Pera (local saying).
Photo source: online
Many villagers recite it orally during farming work to find solace and humor in hardwork.
"Nyi-ma shar-she snga la skyod-che phyi-ya. Lug-zi sdug-po’i gnas yin…
Brang-mkhar chhang-sa ma-ba la do-ya ma-ba. Ra ro-ba sdug-po’i gnas yin…
Brang-mkhar gyen-yur ma-ba la chhun sna ma-ba. Chhun-pa sdug-po’i gnas yin…."
It can be roughly translated as:
The sun rises here at Dhankhar early, but sets late, which makes the day longer and is cause of concern for the shepherds who have to graze the cattle and sheep at high pastures for a longer time.
In Dhankhar, there are plenty of chhang (local alcohol) but also the place is too hilly and there is too much up and down, which is the cause of great worry for drunkards.
In Dhankhar, the irrigation channels are located at the places too high and the sources too far, which is a great difficulty for the women who have to draw water for irrigation from the upper Kuls and much time is wasted in walking up and down between two distant places.
Similarly, there is a saying in Spitian tradition about a group of three villages Lari, Tabo and Poh
“Gong mtso rdol song na, chog-la yul gsum lhag”
which means “if the lake above bursts, the three villages of chog-la will be destroyed”. The lake here refers to Mane lake near Tabo.
There is then another interesting folk story related to Chandertal lake in Spiti. It is told that there was once a shepherd from Rangrik village who used to take the flock of his sheep for grazing in the meadows near the lake of Chandertal. The shepherd was skillful in playing flute and he enjoyed playing many melodious songs on the shore of the clear Moon-lake. In the lake there lived a Khandoma, a water goddess. The Khandoma could not resist the attraction of the enchanting melody of the flute echoing over the calm surface of the ethereal lake. She became a regular visitor to the lake to listen to the music.
One day as the shepherd was playing the flute the Khandoma appeared before him and spoke to him about her love for his melodies. They met regularly and soon they had a handsome boy out of the union. The Khandoma had asked him to keep their relationship a secret as the union between earthly beings and water dwellers like her from different realms are prohibited. The shepherd vowed to keep this a life long secret. But the shepherd was already married and had a wife back in his village Rangrik. One day he had
Photo courtesy: Kalzang Dolma
an argument with his wife and in fit of rage he blurted out that he has a spouse - a Khandoma living in Chandertal and before her she was insignificant. The wife challenged him to bring her home. The shepherd accepting the challenge went to the lake and started playing the flute as usual. The Khandoma appeared with the child who then was infected with a severe skin disease and was disfigured. She handed over the child to the shepherd and disappeared in the lake never to be seen again. The shepherd searched for her everywhere and tried calling her back through a series of melodies - he even tied a long rope on a wooden log and threw it in the lake to gauge the depth of water so that he could go look for her underneath. His rope fell short but it couldn’t measure the depth of the lake. And thus, the heavenly relationship of love came to an end.
Photo source: online
It is said that the descendants of the deceased child still live in Rangrik and his relics are preserved in their Cho-Khang (prayer room) and revered. Villagers still believe that she resides in her abode in the water body and routinely offers prayers, does rituals, purifies it, cleans it and maintains it as a holy site.
It is a curious tale open to different kinds of interpretations but according to local mythology, this folklore urges for the need to protect, conserve and value water. The story also portrays the community's reverence to local deities which are associated with multiple features of local geography like land (Sa- dak: protective land deity) and water (Klu: serpent deity in water). The Spitian belief system reveals complex relations between people, environment and various spirits. Land and many other natural entities are imbued with the notion of personhood and agency. It inquires deeper meaning of landscape and environment and projects how religious ethics and ecology are related.
About the Storyteller
Kalzang Dolma is from Rangrik village and she currently teaches at govt. senior secondary school in her village. She narrated the folklore related to Chandertal lake and her household Choe-khang (prayer room) still preserves the relics of the diety which is much venerated among locals.