“Were we Poisoned?”
The Original Warriors of S/E Tibet’s “Hidden Lands”
At the time of our 1994, 1995 & 1997 expeditions into S/E Tibet’s “Hidden Lands” it was one of the least known and last unexplored places on the planet. In addition to housing the world’s deepest gorge (almost 4 miles deep), the geologic instability and average rainfall of over 25 feet per year, coupled with its politically “off limits” status enforced by the Communist Chinese, were all effective repellents to even the hardiest explorers.
The other effective repellent was tribal. For hundreds of years the aboriginal Abor (Hill People) and Mishimi (Not Civilized) tribes straddled the southeastern frontier of Tibet. Fiercely territorial, these warring tribes attacked all who attempted to enter the Hidden Lands. They effectively thwarted Europe’s colonial expansion efforts of the mid-1800’s.
In addition, their descendants, the indigenous Monpas of the upper gorge and the Lopas of the lower gorge, possessed the same xenophobic and aggressive attitude. “Poison Cults” flourished. Several early explorers were murdered and three British military incursions were defeated and chased out of the country, further isolating the area.
Tibetan Buddhism believes the more hostile the environment, the more sacred the landscape and the faster the journey to realization. Accordingly, these Hidden Lands are referred to as, “Beyul Pemako” meaning the “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus". Tibetan Buddhist philosophy extols sacred landscapes as hidden places (beyuls) where pilgrims can greatly accelerate their paths to enlightenment. As the deepest, wettest, most geologically unstable and biologically diverse areas on the planet, the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River is Tibet’s most revered “Hidden Land”.
Ancient prophecies foretold a time when:
Men will lose sight of truth and religion and will turn to warfare and the pursuit of power for it’s own sake. Dishonesty, greed, and cunning will prevail; an ideology of brutal materialism will spread over the earth.*
*Bernbaum, Edwin. The Way to Shambhala: A Search for the Mythical Kingdom Beyond the Himalayas, (1980) St. Martin’s Press, New York
With the projected inevitability of worldwide destruction, Buddhist texts described pilgrimage routes into Pemako where those with pure karma could retreat. Here they would find Shangri La - a land with no disease or poverty, where sacred waters ensured longevity and food would grow without work. Here they would be liberated from the bondage of time. There would be no toil and inhabitants were free to master the highest science of them all, the science of the mind. Great lamas would teach true wisdom and all would accelerate their spiritual progress. This Shambhala would be a heaven on earth.
Following the annihilation of the outside world, Shambhala residents would emerge to repopulate the earth with an enlightened society.
However, the prophecies were clear - Pemako could only be reached with enormous hardship and pure intention. Those with ulterior motives or negative karma were certain to encounter failure or death.
To many Tibetans, the Communist Chinese invasion of the 1950’s was the prophesied destruction of their world. They fled their oppressors seeking refuge in the “Hidden Lands" or “Shambhala” of the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”. However, despite tremendous efforts the promised paradise failed to materialize. What the pilgrims found instead were devastating landslides, incessant rains, warring tribes, vipers, jungle diseases, blood sucking leeches, tigers, hordes of insects, dense vegetation….. in short, hell on earth.
Thousands of these paradise seekers died while some survivors made it on to resettlement camps in India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
At the time of our mid-1990’s explorations into the Hidden Lands, Buddhism and the indigenous superstitions walked a thin line. There were Monpa poison witches who practiced black magic. They were called Dugmas. It was a cult and their superstition held that if they killed you, all your positive physical and mental attributes would flow into them. But, a strict protocol had to be followed. A Monpa sorceress would make a “poison vow”. But this could only be executed on a full moon. On that night she would paint half her face black and braid the hair on one side of her head. Once committed, the Dugma was obligated to poison someone within 30 days. In the event she missed the deadline she was bound to poison herself or a family member.
Passing strangers were favorite victims, especially if they seemed strong since the purpose was to gain control over the victim's spirit and energy. The victim died after ingesting a slow-acting lethal concoction of mushroom, snake and frog toxins. The poison could be secreted in food or drink. Dugmas were also known to put the poison under their fingernails and scratch your neck while you were sleeping. Many times concerned locals would warn us not to accept offers of food in certain villages. Our porters were equally as leery and would steer clear of “poison villages”.
In 1995, Troy, Todd and I were offered peaches by a local Monpa. Though tempted, we respectfully declined. He responded with a wry smile saying, “Don’t worry… it’s not the right phase of the moon to poison you!”
It is well known that Daku Norgay - the wife of Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary’s companion on the 1953 first ascent of Everest, had been poisoned in 1992 by a Dugma while on pilgrimage in Pemako. Even the Dalai Lama issued warnings to those considering pilgrimage in Pemako.
Many of our porters were direct descendants of these warring tribal people. In 1995, it was rumored that Troy, Todd and I had been poisoned by a Dugma for swimming in sacred waters. I do know that the three of us fell deathly ill and almost didn’t make it out. We go into great detail about this in our book.
During our three forays into this hostile environment we formed strong friendships with several of our Monpa, Lopa and Khampa porters. It was on these trips that we realized the striking differences between our cultural reality and theirs. We never could get them to understand the concept of a map. Their directions were all in their heads - trails traveled since birth. And chronologic time escaped them. “We’ll meet you there at 3:00pm” meant nothing.
Their lives were lived in a sub-context of malevolent spirits and guardian protectors as real to them as maps and time were to us. The reality gaps were considerable and we had to keep reminding ourselves of this fact.
Unfortunately, the Chinese targeted this area for several hydro-electric damns and most of the locals have been relocated. This culture is now forever lost. We feel extremely fortunate to have experienced it when we did.
For this Blog post I have included a collection of photographs above of Pemako’s local inhabitants. I hope you find them as interesting as we did.