Location, Land, and Climate
Some 1,200 Nyimba live in northwest Nepal, in the Humla district near Tibet. The sunny, agriculturally productive valleys of the region have been home to several generations of families, who trace their origins to western Tibet and Tibetan speakers in Nepal. The Nyimba culture combines elements of both Nepal and Tibet.
The Nyimba are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingmapa sect. This religion is itself a hybrid of Buddhism and older forms of shamanism. Unlike traditional Buddhists, who see evil as internal to humans, the Nyimba believe in evil spirits and have rituals to ward them off. The Nyimba also believe that their ancestors can haunt them as spirits and ghosts.
The priest, or dhami, mediates with the world of spirits in a role descended from ancient shamans. Unlike a shaman, however, a dhami doesn't enter the other world. A dhami has no supernatural powers but is chosen by a god to relay messages. Originally, dhamis were men from the slave class. Since slavery was outlawed in 1926, dhamis are men from different classes who have responded to a calling. Yet the original stigma remains: dhamis are near the bottom of the social and economic ladders.
The village god chooses a dhami, who experiences seizures or visions. The potential dhami undergoes three tests as confirmation of divine inspiration. One test requires the person to drink boiling oil without burning his throat. After confirmation, a dhami becomes the healer of the village, since illness signifies divine displeasure. During a visit with a sick person, a dhami enters a trance to communicate with the irate god. At this time, a dangri, or translator, interprets the meaning of the dhami's words.
A dhami also predicts and explains events. If his advice isn't heeded, divine retribution will follow. If his predictions don't come to pass, it is a sign of misconduct by the villagers, who were punished by having the future change.
Although elements of shamanism are integral to Nyimba religion, Buddhist beliefs shape much of the value system and structure of society, including the legal system. Vices such as anger or greed are subject to punishment. Extreme offenses such as theft or murder are punished in both this world and the hereafter. The pursuit of material gain is especially frowned upon as interfering with the pursuit of a higher existence.
The Nyimba concept of marriage and sexuality is inextricably tied to the Buddhist moral system. The Nyimba believe that the desire for earthly things, including worldly love, interferes with the pursuit of heavently things. Emotional attachments are seenj as similar to the desire for ownership. Thus, there is no word or concept to describe love, whether divine, parental or sexual.
Through recognizing Nyimba religious beliefs, outsiders can better understand their polyandrous marriages. Several brothers share one, sometimes two, wives. The oldest brother, who heads the future household, chooses the first wife, She is often much younger than him and must wait to live with her future family. When she reaches puberty, she moves into the household of her father-in-law, where she takes on her duties as the wife of several men. Each brother has equal rights to sleep with the wife, who keeps peace by avoiding sexual favoritism.
The importance of paternity differs among Nyimba villages. In one report, the first born male was designated the child of the oldest brother, the second born of the second brother, and so on until each brother had someone to care for him in old age. In another instance, the family members carefully determined actual paternity for each child.
Only recently have women been allowed to inherit property - the practice is still not widespread - so a male child is much more valuable for securing the family inheritance.
A major motivation for maintaining this marriage system is economic. Land, which is scarce and valuable, stays intact, not partitioned for inheritance. Working the land is difficult for one person, and the Nyimba marriage system creates a group stake in the harvest.
Lynn Bennet, Dangerous Wives and Sacred Sisters: Social and Symbolic Roles of Women in Nepal, Columbia University Press, 1989.
Melvyn Goldstein, "Pahari and Tibetan Polyandry Revisited," Ethnology, July 1978.
Nancy Levine, Dynamics of Polyandry: Kinship Domesticity and Population on the Tibetan Border, University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Sidney Shuler, The Other Side of Polyandry: Property, Stratification, and Non-Marriage in the Nepal Himalayas, Westview, 1987.
Economic woes head the list of problems. With the Chinese takeover of Tibet, the centuries-old salt and wool trade between Tibet and India has dwindled. The eradication of malaria from Nepal's southern jungles has opened the area to foreign traders and eroded the Nyimba's market. To maintain their ancestors' wealth, some Nyimba resort to illicit trading in stolen religious articles and tiger bone, which Chinese regard as an aphodisiac.
For the first time, a Nyimba represents Humla in the parliament, but to gain political power, Nyimbas must deny their ethnicity - to the point of adopting a Nepali name and changing eating habits. Nepalis consider Nyimba dirty and polluted and scorn their culture. Contact with ideas incompatible with traditional values - from trading, working, or studying elsewhere - poses an additional threat to Nyimba culture. Western notions of love are becoming more prevalent, and many younger brothers choose partition, the breaking up of the family and its property, to have a monogamous marriage.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
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