The Sun Returns Home for the Mother Bird in Spiti’s Classic Tibetan Farming Calendar
Spiti Valley has a remarkable ancient agricultural heritage that has sustained several thousand people in the remotest corner of high and arid Western Himalayas—one of the most inhospitable and climate-sensitive regions in the world—for more than a thousand years. The enduring sustainability of agriculture in Spiti Valley rests with its farming calendar. The calendar uses stories, evocative names for months, and traditional knowledge to guide the timing of local farming activities according to the unique natural rhythms of “Spiti, the Valley of Gods” (Piti Lhayi Lungpa).
The natural rhythms of Spiti Valley are captured in Spiti’s calendar with unique timing and names of months, which are different even from neighbouring Tibetan Buddhist regions of Ladakh and Kinnaur. In addition to local timing and names of months explained below, the calendar is used with other local and Indigenous practices of telling time. For example, Spiti farmers mark sunrise and sunset over stone cairn markers atop high mountains and note shadow lines on mountainsides to identify important days and times, such as the solstices and equinoxes. Farmers also use their observations of colours, sounds, and rhythms of local plants and animals to tell time, such as observations of brightness and colour of the sky when birds sing at dawn.
Photo courtesy: Prasenjeet Yadav
For Spiti farmers, the year begins early in winter with rest and celebration after a hard year of work in the field. The first month is called Losar or “New Year” and is celebrated three months before the Tibetan new year. Losar is celebrated early in Spiti, usually around mid-November of the Gregorian calendar, because the valley, including the villages and pathways, will soon get covered under layers of snow for months. The timing is ideal for Spiti farmers who have customarily completed all essential seasonal livelihood activities, and are now ready to turn their attention to the important family, communal, and religious gatherings of the Losar month.
The second month is called Jhama or “Mother Bird.” The bird here is Gharog or raven. Raven is a bird of augury and protection in ancient Spiti and Tibetan beliefs, like in many cultures around the world. It is said that once upon a time the divine bird, Gharog (raven), was unable to hatch chicks from eggs despite its many attempts because its body was excessively warm for incubation.
Devastated by this failure, the raven prayed that it would be able to hatch chicks from golden eggs during the coldest winter months. That is the reason ravens prepare their nest on a mountain cliff during the second winter month and the month is named Jhama. There is a local saying that describes Spiti’s coldest winter months: "Jhama Jhama zerna Jirug a-chu-chu." This saying suggests one shouldn’t complain about Jhama’s cold weather because Jirug, the following month, is even colder.
The coldest winter month is called Jirug or “Baby Bird” because it is the time when ravens lay eggs and hatch their baby birds. References to divine birds are common in Tibetan calendars. For example, the 2008-09 farming almanac of the nearby region of Kinnaur notes the following during Spiti’s Jirug month: “the divine bird has completed 30 days, if this is followed by snowfall, the divine bird will lay golden eggs, and there will be bountiful agro-pastoralism in Tibet.” It is also important to note that Jhama and Jirug are named not only for mythological reasons but also, and more importantly, to categorize seasonal times based on timely behaviour of natural environment. Researchers, for example, have found that common raven egg-laying and brooding behaviour begins in February, which comes during Jirug month.
The first spring month is called Degya (‘de rgya), which means to "soak in the Sun's energy" as days become warmer and longer with the spring equinox. As snow cover begins to melt and days become brighter, blue sheep and ibex nibble on dormant plants on distant mountains, often under the lurking eyes of hungry snow leopards. The month is named after the Sun’s warming energy during this month because it is crucial for melting the snow from the fields so that farmers can start Spiti’s short growing season early next month.
The second spring month is Shingdeo (zhing ‘debs) or “cultivate the fields.” On the chosen auspicious day of the month, the farmers gather a few loose rocks on their fields, between which they burn juniper leaves to make smoke offerings. This is followed by offerings of libation drink carefully wrapped in a white scarf and marked symbolically with a dab of butter called yar. Yar-butter is marked on the foreheads of people, on horns of the yaks, and on the ploughs. And all through the ploughing period, the ploughman sings songs and prayers which may guide the yaks to turn, stop, or continue ploughing, or pray for absolution of sins that may come from harming insects and bugs in the process of ploughing.
Spiti comes alive in bright colours during the final spring month of Na-ngon Sa-ngon, which means “blue skies blue earth.” This name invokes the beauty of lush green fields under bright blue skies. Yaks graze freely on the mountains for the rest of the year until winter snowfall to produce the main source of energy for the village economy: dung for fuel and manure. During this month, farmers count and wait forty days from seeding to first watering, guided by traditional knowledge, to ensure ideal conditions for seed germination in local soil, water, and weather conditions. Then expert women farmers do the first “mother watering” or Yurma, with Tirping, an irrigation tool made of blue sheep horns that ensures greener crops.
Photo courtesy: Dr. Tashi Tsering
Photo Courtesy: Deepshikha Sharma
The young, irrigated crops begin to flower in early summer which is why the first summer month is called Metog or “flower”. Metog is indeed a flowering month as all kinds of flowers bloom throughout the valley during this time. The second watering called Rhakti or “watering the sun-burned” plants happens during this month. Farmers allow ten days to pass between the first and the second watering, making young crops dry and sun-burned. This practice teaches the young crops the value of the nourishing powers of scarce water, making them absorb more water in the future. These farming practices follow stringent customs based on the calendar, such as the yearly “ban on the use of sickle” or ban on cutting plants from summer solstice (June 21) until harvest season to ensure maximum plant biomass growth on Spiti’s arid landscape.
Photo courtesy: Prasenjeet Yadav
By mid-summer, the farmers’ labor bear fruit as grains begin to grow on the barley ears. This is the reason the mid-summer month is called Drebu or fruition of one’s labor. Farmers wait for the grains to become ripe for harvest next month. As tufts of bristles grow on barley ears, farmers irrigate the fields with a special technique called Kirchuyi. Now watering is done after carefully preparing irrigation channels and sluices in such a way that water will flow to all parts of the field by itself after it is released from the main sluice of the field. Another name for this convenient method is Minchu or seed-ripening water.
The last summer month is called Selda or “harvest month.” Unlike new commercial crops, traditional crops like barley are harvested methodically according to ancient customs. After the crops are cut, the sheaves are laid out in the field in neat rectangle-shaped patches to cover the barley ears from drying under direct sunlight. It is only when the crop sheaves are brought to the threshing ground that the ears are exposed to the sun for drying. The importance of observing this practice is told in the story of Jhojho Druguma.
Photo courtesy: Prasenjeet Yadav
Jhojho Druguma was a rich woman who did not bother to dry her barley sheaves in the proper manner. As a result, the ears and grains became too dry, and they fell off when the sheaves were carried from the field to the threshing ground. That is why, to Spiti farmers, the stars of the Milky Way are spread out the way they are so spectacularly over Spiti’s night skies. The stars of the Milky Way are Jhojho Druguma’s grains that fell on her way to the threshing ground.
The first autumn month is named Khuyu. Khuyu is the Spiti word for circular threshing that is done to separate the grains from the husks. The process involves tethering yaks and other animals to a sturdy central pole and making the animals trample over harvested crops in a circular fashion. When the animals go round and round, tromping the husks and the grains, farmers use wooden pitchforks (zar) to mix, push or spread the husks so that the grains are properly separated. The whole process is blessed with Khuyu songs that can be heard from distant corners of villages.
Photo courtesy: Stanzin Dorjai (Gya)
The penultimate month is called Nyirug. “Nyi” is a short for Nyima or the Sun. “Rug” means to gather, specifically to gather animals back home before sunset. As such, Nyirug is the month when sun sets early, and days become shorter when farmers gather their horses and yaks back from the mountains in preparation of the oncoming long and cold winters. Farmers also follow stringent customs to ensure that there is enough winter stock of barley flour, dung, and fodder in their households during this month.
The last month is called Nyikhyim, which refers to the twelve zodiac houses of the sun in Tibetan astrology. “Nyi” means sun and “khyim” means house or home. Nyikhyim here refers to the Sun’s return home after completion of its annual cycle. For Spiti farmers, however, the Sun returns home to fulfil the mother bird’s prayers. This is expressed in the local proverb, “nyima garlog, jhama yin”. The Sun returns home so it becomes cold enough for the mother bird to arrive and hatch chicks. As such, the story of mother bird comes to a full circle at the end of the year along with the sun’s annual return home, while in anticipation of “Spiti’s deep cold winters when even yak-horns crack into pieces.”
In sum, the farmers of Spiti Valley practice a calendar that integrates local economy and ecology into a cosmic unity filled with wonderful stories and ancient wisdom that is perhaps more relevant today than it ever was.
Photo courtesy: Prasenjeet Yadav
About the Author
Dr. Tashi Tsering
Dr. Tashi Tsering is a Lecturer at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. He is grateful to the people of Spiti Valley, particularly the elders and farmers, for their kindness and for sharing their stories. He hopes that the younger generation of Spiti people will cherish and uphold their rich culture, particularly their language and agricultural heritage.