Enduring Phobias and Superstitions in Tibetan Society (Part 1)
On a grey morning during the monsoon of 1976, the small town of McLeod Ganj, or at least the Tibetan part of it, experienced a curious upheaval. The event had everyone out in the narrow bus-stand, which is also the surrogate town square, and where every New Year’s day the Toepa (Western Tibetan) men and women perform their Navaho-like round dances, shufﬂing and stamping their feet to the dull beat of a single drum. That morning the crowd at the bus-stand was not in a celebratory mood; the women were howling with all the zeal of professional Chinese mourners, while the men were running around bellowing like lunatics.
The cause of the disturbance was not physical, like an earthquake (which the area is somewhat prone to), nor social or political, like the communal riot we had some years ago. A psychologist might say that it originated from “the dark, inaccessible part” (to borrow from Freud’s deﬁnition of the id) of the Tibetan mind. The only parallel I can draw, off hand, is the “dancing mania” that gripped a number of towns and villages in medieval Europe after the Black Death.
One of the most widespread and persistent of phobias that Tibetans have had in the past about travelling to “the great Indian plains” (gya-thang or gya-ding) was of being abducted and having their “human-oil” (mi-num) squeezed out of them. The extraction process was explained to me by a geshe (doctor of divinity) from Drepung Monastery, when the two of us arrived at the North Indian city of Siliguri from Kalimpong. Geshe L… was a heavily-built man of around ﬁfty years of age, quite learned, in the traditional sense, yet fairly open-minded as well.
As we boarded a cycle-rickshaw and were pedalled away to the New Jalpaiguri railway station by a skinny, hollow-cheeked rickshaw-wallah, Geshe-la appeared ill-at-ease. He turned to me and asked whether I had heard of any “human oil” squeezers operating in the town. I insisted that those old stories were absurd and completely without foundation. But he was not reassured, and seemed to regard my attitude not only as frivolous but dangerously naive as well. Geshe-la patiently explained it all to me.
It appeared that in most cases of human oil abductions, the victim was ﬁrst rendered helpless by a drug slipped into a drink or a cigarette. He or she was then taken to some lonely warehouse or shed where he or she was stripped naked and hung upside down from the rafters over a low ﬁre. Gradually, the body would begin to drip fat — in the manner of a roasting pig — which was collected in a pan underneath, and later bottled, or whatever.
I came to understand from an uncle of mine that the human oil scare had been especially prevalent among Tibetans during World War II. At that time, an unprecedented number of Tibetan merchants, traders and muleteers travelled to India to buy consumer goods to sell — at huge proﬁts, incidentally — in South-Western China, where the beleaguered Nationalist government was holding out against the Japanese. The belief among Tibetans then seemed to be that human oil was a vital ingredient in a miracle-drug the Allies had discovered for healing battle wounds. An interesting cachet to this story was that in the interests of the war effort there was an ofﬁcial policy of turning a blind eye to such abductions.
Even after settling down in India as refugees, Tibetans never quite lost their fear of human oil extractors and one would, now and again, hear references to it in conversations with older Tibetans. The story gained a surprising revival in Dharamshala around the time of Mrs. Gandhi’s “Emergency”. Whether the unhealthy political climate of repression and rumours contributed to the revival is debatable, but the subsequent events in Dharamshala seemed somehow not out of place in the nervous mood of the country at the time.
In McLeod Ganj, deliberations and speculations on the human oil issue emanated, on the whole, from three different sources. The opinion at Crazy Horse’s (Samdup’s) Noodle Palace favoured the conclusion that India’s new aircraft carrier was fuelled by human oil. The nuclear option prevailed at the Kokonor Restaurant, where there was a clear consensus on the theory that human oil had been the critical factor in the success of India’s then recent, and ﬁrst, nuclear test. The conversation at the Last Chance Tea Shop was the least imaginative, never rising beyond hesitant conjectures on human oil being the fuel for India’s namdru, or aeroplanes.
Around that time, Mrs. Gandhi’s somewhat draconian Family Planning programme was being implemented, and stories were rife of entire Indian communities being forcibly sterilised by over-zealous ofﬁcials trying to meet birth control quotas. In the Tibetan exile society these got mixed up with the older human oil story, and contributed to a growing paranoia about ofﬁcially abetted abductions. Rumours about kidnappings not only began to proliferate but sprouted details that were quite speciﬁc and authentic sounding. One was that the abductors always arrived in a jeep ﬂying a red ﬂag, which was, of course, the signal for the police and local ofﬁcials to look the other way.
Then, one day, a small disturbance occurred just outside McLeod Ganj, which in a way was a harbinger of the “curious upheaval” I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. A monk taking a walk from the town to the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) encountered a group of Indians on the road. At this time of the year, Dharamshala is ﬁlled with yatris, pilgrims, visiting Hindu holy sites around the area. These pilgrims generally wear red headbands or carry red ﬂags as tokens of their faith. This particular group of Indians on the McLeod–TCV road started to shout and whistle (in the noisy exuberant way of Indian pilgrims) to some of their friends on the road below. The monk, who was somewhat corpulent, suspected the worst and ﬂed back to McLeod Ganj, where his breathless account of red ﬂags and near abduction immediately circulated around the town, sending a frisson of apprehension through it.
Two days later, on a somewhat overcast day, I was hanging about the bus stand at the air-gun stall that once stood just by the intersection of the two roads, one leading to the Tibetan Children’s Village and the other to the nearby village of Forsyth Bazaar — which then continues on to Lower Dharamshala. The stall owner and I were having a chat when a few Tibetans from Forsyth Bazaar walked by. They were hailed by a McLeod Ganj Tibetan. The subsequent conversation went something like this:
McLeod Tibetan: Hey! Where are you all going?
Forsyth Tibetan 1: We’re going back to Phosa Baza (Forsyth Bazaar).
McLeod Tibetan (gravely): You’d better be careful. People are being grabbed and taken away these days, just like that. There’s this jeep with a red ﬂag that comes along, and then there’s nothing you can do about it.
Forsyth Tibetan 1: We heard something like that.
Forsyth Tibetan 2 (worried): We’d better rush back, our children are alone at home.
McLeod Tibetan: You do that. Someone told me that there was a jeep full of Indians this morning at Phosa Baza. He thinks the jeep may have had a red ﬂag stuck in the front.
The group from Forsyth Bazaar quickly walked away down the road. The McLeod Tibetan hurried towards the main street. I couldn’t swear it was him but the next minute there was this outcry “Where’s our children?”. Another voice pitched in, “The children have been taken!” It was absolute chaos after that.
In a surprisingly short time, the bus-stand was ﬁlled with panic-stricken Tibetans. The women were the noisiest, screaming at the men to do something, and crying and howling as if it were judgement day. The men rushed around shouting threats and curses. I remember one man in particular, a self-important but simple fellow whom a friend of mine had rather facetiously named dhonchoe (an ofﬁcial term for the Dalai Lama’s representative), since he loved bustling about in public gatherings, looking busy and important. That day he was running up and down the main street brandishing a long and wicked-looking Tibetan dagger, all the while shouting ferociously: “Where are they? Where are they?”
A few female hippies were in the crowd with some old amalas. All of them were weeping copiously. One old granny was holding a yappy little Apso that was adding its share to the general cacophony. A rather brainless German girl I knew spotted me and came over howling, “Save the children! Save them!”
I’m afraid I laughed out aloud. Some people in the crowd turned on me. “How can you laugh?… Our children… abducted… etc.”
I tried to explain how mistaken they were but got nowhere. Fortunately there was a timely distraction; someone had the sense enough to suggest that they check the local day-school where the very young children of McLeod Ganj studied. Everybody surged down the street to the small two-room school. The old monk teacher was rudely woken up from his nap. He had given the kids the day off and most of them had gone off to play. Finally, the children were rounded up. In fact, quite a few of them had been in the crowd all along, shouting and enjoying themselves.
The older children attended the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) school some miles away. One of the self-appointed leaders of the crowd, a local politician of unbelievable shallowness of intellect and character, then led everyone to the Tibetan Women’s Handicraft Centre which had a telephone. The TCV principal was called and the demand made for an immediate inspection to see if any McLeod Ganj students were missing. After a lengthy altercation, the principal managed to persuade the caller that all the children were present and accounted for. But our representative wasn’t done yet. He began to make noisy demands that the TCV provide motor transport and escort for the town children when they returned home after school. But the principal terminated the conversation at that point.
That evening a large escort of parents, all armed to the teeth, brought their children home from school. A duty roster was drawn up and for the next few days, two or three McLeod men, armed with knives and cudgels, accompanied the town children on their way to and from school. After some time the men got tired of this task, or it probably dawned on them that there had never been a threat in the ﬁrst place, for the escort was discontinued and the children went about their own way to school, free and unattended as usual.
* * *
I did not then regard this incident as being of any signiﬁcance. I thought such shortcomings in our society would gradually disappear with education and entry into the modern world. That was twenty years ago. Every year since then we seem to be going backwards. In his opening statement at the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial in Tennessee in 1925, Clarence Darrow warned: “We are marching backwards to the glorious age of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted faggots to burn men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightment and culture to the human mind.” We aren’t burning people in Dharamshala yet but the evidence shows we are moving in that direction.
In 1996 a man was set upon by a McLeod Ganj mob. Only the timely arrival of the Indian police saved him from something worse than the beating he received. His crime? While taking shelter from a heavy downpour (it was monsoon time again) he had jokingly remarked that even the Dalai Lama was helpless against the Dharamshala rains. An old amala overheard him and raised the alarm. Last monsoon too (1998) we had another little “upheaval”. Holidaying tourists leaving the Mc’llo beer-bar late one night were treated to the sight of sleepy-eyed Tibetans in various states of déshabillé (but armed with knives and cudgels) wandering confusedly about the streets of McLeod Ganj. They had been roused from their slumber to ﬁght off a supposed invasion of Shugden worshippers.
It is not an original observation that traditional societies disrupted by the advance of modern industrial and technological culture, or some other traumatic change, invariably seek recourse in magic, superstition and fundamentalism for a solution. Every such threatened community probably goes about it in its own distinctive way, but sometimes interesting coincidences occur.
When the writer, Nicholas Shakespeare, was travelling in the town of Ayacucho in Peru in 1987 he came across a widespread belief among the Indian population surprisingly similar to the Tibetan human oil fear. The Indians believed that “human grease” was rendered from Indian victims by a sinister character known as a pistaco. In fact, Shakespeare himself seems to have been suspected by the locals of being a pistaco and suffered some bad moments without quite understanding why.
Finally, in the local paper Ahora!, he read an article “Ayacucho lives in terror”, and from it he learned that “a pistaco was a tall white foreigner who slept by day, drank a lot of milk and carried a long white knife under his coat. He used the knife to cut up Indians. He chopped off heads and limbs, and kept their trunks for the human grease with which he oiled his machines. Europe’s industrial revolution had been lubricated with the lard made from helpless Indians. So had the Vietnam and Korean wars. The space shuttle Challenger, he learned, had blown up because it lacked this ‘aceite humano’.” (“In Pursuit of Guzman”, in The Best of Granta Travel)
Shakespeare also learned what happened to the last white man who visited Ayacucho. “He was set on by a crowd. His head was crushed by stones, because you cannot shoot a pistaco, and his eyes were pulled out by hand. His body was dragged through the town until the bones showed.” He had only been a commercial traveller.
In a reference to pistaco, from as early as 1571, it is mentioned that the Indians believed that an ointment from the bodies of the Indians had been sent for from Spain to cure a disease for which there was no medicine there. A university lecturer told Shakespeare that the myth was the Indian way of explaining the Spanish domination, and that the present manifestation was not organized but spontaneous: the community, under ﬁre from both the military and Sendero (the Maoist, Shining Path guerrillas), had turned against all.
On the other side of the globe, another group of similarly threatened people tries to understand the relentless advance of modern technological materialism through the inadequate medium of a traditional world view. Eric Hansen (“Stranger in the Forest”) when walking across Borneo, was mistaken for a bali saleng, or a collector of blood offerings for coastal construction projects. A bali saleng has a special set of spring-powered shoes that enables him to jump four metres in the air and ten metres away in a single leap. He can spring through the air to cover long distances quickly and capture people by surprise. After tying up his victim with strips of rattan, he takes the blood from the wrist or the foot with a small knife and a rubber pump. Hansen was attacked by villagers in the jungle and nearly killed. Only when they searched his pack for spring-powered shoes or a rubber pump and didn’t ﬁnd them, was he reluctantly released.
High Asia Journal, September 1999Body-Snatchers,