Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Himalayas Produce Some Really Strange Tales

Robert Rath | 9 Oct 2014 16:00
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Critical Intel Himalayas

"Do you believe in the Yeti?" I asked our Sherpa trek guide, Lakpa. We sat in front of a woodstove at a guesthouse, warming up with whisky and Masala tea. Rain pounded the corrugated tin roof. The storm had caught us an hour outside Ghorepani and soaked us to the skin. We practically ran the last few miles, lightning chasing us up the valley.

"The Yeti are all gone now," said Lakpa. "Twenty years ago, maybe, but with the climate change it's too warm for them." An experienced guide, Lakpa's seen the Himalayan glaciers retreat firsthand, with Spring coming earlier and the Fall rains lingering later every year. "The long-haired animals are having a hard time, yes? The sheep and yaks. Anything with short hair like you can survive, but those with long hair like Madam?" he gestured to my wife and shook his head.

Sherpas have been telling westerners Yeti stories since the first climbers arrived in the 19th century. Though a minor figure in Himalayan folklore, Yeti took off in the western press, leading to expeditions of varying scientific quality that nearly always fell prey to hearsay and pseudoscience. To this day, television networks send crews to the Himalayas, though most evidence - including a book by one of the worlds' foremost mountain climbers, Reinhold Messner - points to Yeti sightings as misidentifications of the Himalayan brown bear.

"I tell you this about the Yeti," added Lakpa. "If you ask schoolchildren in Kathmandu to draw a chicken, they will draw a Tandoori chicken-cooked with no head. They've never been up in the mountain villages and seen a live chicken. It's the same when people talk about the Yeti."

Indeed, most Yeti sightings in Nepal come from billboards and signs. Our hotel in Kathmandu featured the rooftop "Yeti Bar." There's a T-shirt company called Urbanyeti (no relation to the game). Yeti Airlines shuttles passengers on domestic flights and offers stuffed Yeti plush toys at airport boutiques. Paragliding agencies prop dingy white ghillie suits out front as mascots, the mop heads and old rags scabbed over with road dust.

It's a far cry from the Yeti and nyalmu -- wild man -- of Nepali folklore. These fierce creatures would kill livestock and assault travelers. Some would kidnap a man or woman and spirit them off to the woods to live as its mate, even bearing hybrid children. In one particularly gruesome folktale, a kidnapped man escapes his nyalmu "wife" with one of their two children - and in her rage at being abandoned, the nyalmu smashes their second child against a boulder and devours it.

However not all Yeti tales are violent. Legends also tell of the Buddhist Lama Sange Dorje, who befriended a Yeti, invited it into his home and lived with the creature until it perished in a landslide. The Yeti's scalp currently resides in the Pangboche monastery, though tests indicate it's actually from the shoulder of a hoofed mammal.

But despite its fame, the Yeti isn't the only -- or even the most important -- monster lurking in the Himalayas. Indeed, Nepali folklore has a veritable army of demons and ghosts that are more than a match for the wild man of the snows.

Shape-Shifting Demons and Their Parrot Horcruxes

Like most Eastern cultures, Nepal has its share of demon tales. Nepali demons are vicious and ogre-like, craving human flesh and invulnerable to weapons. They're also shape-shifting magicians, often arriving in disguise and living close to their victims before harming them.

In one story, a demoness disguises herself as a beautiful woman and marries a merchant -- then systematically murders and devours his other wives. Another tale tells of how a demon put a poor bamboo cutter in a trance and then assumed the man's shape in order to trick and eat the man's wife. One story includes a sorcerer demon who could keep darkness, mountains and oceans bottled up in gourds and could walk hundreds of miles in a few strides -- in fact, he was so powerful that he'd depopulated an entire city and lived there alone with his beautiful daughter.

But Nepali demons had one trick that made them effectively immortal: the ability to separate their soul and embed it in a living animal. Most often the vessel was a parrot that lived high up a tree or in an iron cage, but one particularly thorough demon placed it inside a beetle that, in turn, lived inside a parrot's stomach. Usually in these tales, the demons perish when heroes find their soul vessels and destroy them. In the case of the bamboo cutter though, his clever wife baits the demon into a boiling cauldron.

These demon stories likely stem from one source: the fear of other people. Demons are insatiable and gluttonous, either scheming wives trying to destroy others out of greed or stand-ins for bad princes. The fact that they can't be destroyed physically -- but can be outwitted -- indicates that they're doubles for social and political fears in village life. They're the people who have power over you, or the ones you want to trust, but can't.

They're nothing, however, compared to Nepali ghosts.

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