Pasham, Pundit Explorer and Pricey Fungus at Mr Pangtey’s Museum

On the way back from Darkot village we stopped at the tribal heritage museum. It has a small yet good collection of artifacts, traditional clothing and accessories of the region and is established by Dr S.S. Pangtey, a PhD from Kumaon University and a professor of history at a government college in Munsiyari, who belongs to Shauka tribe. When we visited the museum, he was not there and his younger brother was guiding tourists. Anyway for our information hungry minds even he was a treasure trove.

Sweet spoken Mr Pangtey at Tribal Heritage Museum, Munsiyari

Sweet spoken Mr Pangtey at Tribal Heritage Museum, Munsiyari

Mr Pangtey told us in detail about Pashmina. The winters of the Himalayan region are very harsh. To survive in these extreme conditions, nature has gifted animals of that region with Pasham. Pasham is a fine and soft wool that grows between long hairs of hill-animals. The warmest quality of Pashmina is mainly procured from goats and wild deer though it grows on Yaks and dogs as well. As extreme winters give way to pleasant spring, Pasham if not removed manually, starts falling on its own.

He added that Pashmina woolens are very warm though costly and cautioned that they are vulnerable to moths in plains.

Traditional dress of  Woman in the region, Munsiyari

Traditional dress of Woman of the region, Munsiyari

At one occasion he disapprovingly commented about Shauka women leaving traditional knitting/weaving and blamed it to modernization and westernization. I believe western way of living provides women more options. There are always positives and negatives. Nevertheless, in the name of tradition and culture, it is the woman who gets tied down. I am proud that we in India are progressing. Today’s generation has stars in their sight and wants to grab moon.

At the time of our visit to Munsiyari, there were wide-spread rumors of a special worm, found in Malla Johar region, having worth its weight in gold. Mr Pangtey threw more light on ‘Yartsa Gunbu’ (the special worm) and confirmed that those stories were not lore but reality. Yartsa Gunbu’s literal translation is “summer-grass, winter-worm”. It is the result of germination of one of the world’s most ghoulish parasite, caterpillar fungus, on moth caterpillar and in some cases on its larvae. This fungus devours its host, mummifies the insect and the cordyceps grow from the body of the insect. In west this insect is known as the medicinal mushroom.

Yartsa Gunbu – Summer grass, winter worm, tribal heritage Museum, Munsiyari

Yartsa Gunbu – Summer grass, winter worm, tribal heritage Museum, Munsiyari

It is considered valuable and effective in traditional Chinese medicines because of its excellent balance of yin and yang (contrary forces that are interconnected) as apparently this worm is both animal and plant. It is considered effective in cancer and due to its aphrodisiac qualities it is also known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’.

The expansion of traditional Chinese medicine has increased the value of Yartsa Gunbu manifolds in current decade itself. In 2008, one kg of Yartsa Gunbu was sold from US $3000 (most inferior quality) to US$18000 (the best quality one). It has created a globally unique “rural fungal economy”.

Mr Pangtey told that initially Indian Government tried to stop its collection and confiscated bags full of them. However, later it gave up on putting restrictions after realizing the futility of their efforts. This worm has no utility in Indian medicines.

I also read about Yar-tsa gun-bu” from the other side of the border (i.e Tibet) in the book, “A Home in Tibet” by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. According to the author this bu or worm has accomplished to bring cash to nomads, rural Tibetans and marginalized urban populations and integrate them into China’s economic machine. Its harvesting season is short; it starts in May and lasts often through July.

This fungus hides among grass and nomads spend two months of the year with their eyes glued to the ground from dawn to dusk. It is hard work and only those with keen eyesight and steady hands make good pickers. Teenagers often makes the best pickers as they are quick and can withstand long hours spent on knees and stomachs.

A good caterpillar fungus is the one which has its whole body intact. It can be as long as a finger and as wide as a chopstick, and it looks like a miniature sea urchin, an insect carved out of wood. The browner it is, the more it is valued.

During this period the streets in towns of the mountainous region of Tibet are empty and business remains slow. Even schools close for a month and a half to enable children to assist their parents. In a lucrative fungus year, nomads have enough to buy a car, a motorbike and sometimes a house in addition to treating their ailments and stocking up on staples for the year.

A man with Hookah, Tribal heritage museum, Munsiyari

A man with Hookah, Tribal heritage museum, Munsiyari

While guiding us, Mr Pangtey jokingly claimed that the British had destroyed two popular traditions of the region, hookahs and the salty tea. These are now replaced by cigarettes, and the Indian chai.

I have read about salty tea, in “Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson” and “यात्रा के पन्ने by Rahul Sankrityayan”. Salty tea is still common in Tibet and hilly provinces of Pakistan and perhaps of India as well. It is prepared by churning butter with salt. It not only gives warmth to the body but also protect throat from infections.

Traditional baskets, tribal heritage museum, Munsiyari

Traditional baskets, tribal heritage museum, Munsiyari

We then moved to the first floor of the museum. It had old photos, letters/stamps/permits exchanged between Tibetan and Bhotia traders.

Here, we came to know about the Pundit explorers of the region.

By 1860, the increasing Russian presence in central Asia or perhaps the imperialistic greed, made British aware of a compelling need to gather accurate surveys and intelligence on Tibet. For them, it was next to impossible to enter into Tibetan territory, even in disguise, let alone survey it. Shrewd enough, they realized that the villagers of Johar valley were apt for the task as they had strong trading relationships with Tibetans for generations and knew the region very well. They decided to provide them training to survey it on their behalf.

In 1863, Pt Nain Singh, born in Milam village, was chosen for the role by the survey of India. He was trained in various survey techniques like the usage of sextant, compass, and measuring altitude by recording the temperature of boiling water and calculating distances by taking exact steps.

Pt Nain Singh Rawat travelled to the cold and desolate landscape of Tibet along with a group of traders. He carried with him sextant, thermometer and compass in a box with a false bottom, along with a prayer wheel and a Buddhist rosary. The rosary he had was special with only 100 beads instead of 108 beads. He measured distances by slipping a bead after every hundred steps he took. He concealed his notes and calculation in the Buddhist prayer wheel. He managed to reach Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, which was strictly forbidden to the foreigners at that time. Soon he also realized the dangerous situation he had brought himself in when he witnessed the beheading of a Chinese man who was caught staying in Tibet without permission. Living in disguise and coming out in open only at nights he managed to estimate the height of Lhasa as 3420 meters above sea-level, using his sextant, for measuring the angular altitude of stars, and thermometer, for recording the boiling point of water.

Pandit Nain Singh successfully completed his landmark journey from Kathmandu to Lhasa and from there to Mansarovar Lake and then returned back to India. His gusty exploration won him accolades of geographers all across the world. Prior to his exploration, the upper reaches of Himalayas and beyond, were shrouded with mystery and no map existed of that region. He also become the first person to accurately map the position of Tibetan Capital Lhasa. His measurement stand close to the modern measurement of Lhasa at 3450 meters above sea-level. He stayed on Tibetan territory almost for twenty-one month and surveyed thousands of kilometres, taken thirty-two latitude fixes and determined elevation at thirty-three places.

There were a few more such individual expeditions to know more about Tibet.

On flip side, these expeditions of ‘explorer-spies’ generated general distrust among Tibetan authorities about Indians. Centuries later, Rahul Sankrityayan noted in his diaries how Tibetan Authorities suspected Indians and curbed their movements in the interiors.

There were a few pictures of Tibetan traders in Munsyari. Mr Pangtey got nostalgic while talking about the time when Johar valley was reverberating with Tibetan trade. He told that it used to take around twenty to twenty five days for the Tibetan nomads to reach Munsiyari with their flocks of pack goats, sheep and ponies navigating through innumerable ridges, passes and valleys of Tibet and Kumaon, braving the wind and the weather.

On their arrival at Munsiyari, the meeting between them and Bhotia traders was like a reunion of age old friends, living across in two different countries, shaking hands and settling down with a cup of salty tea, discussing the woes-triumphs and happenings-mishappenings of the past year.

In those days the salt consumed in the entire Himalayan valley came from Tibet only; these Tibetan traders brought the salt. Bhotia traders traded grains, and jaggery in return. There was no money involved, the business ran on barter system. It all ended in 1962 after Indo-China war.

Mr Pangtey was describing everything in such a detail as if all was of recent past.

Some old traditional utensils, tribal heritage museum, Munsiyari

Some old traditional utensils, tribal heritage museum, Munsiyari

There were a few books on the sale. We bought, “Munsyari – a gem in the Indian Himalaya by Dr S.S Pangety”. The book was a disappointment. However, I would highly recommend a visit to the museum, if nothing else, then to appreciate the efforts of Pangtey family and to get glimpses of old, traditional Munsiyari in their sweet-vivid narration.

Tribal Heritage Museum, Munsiyari

Tribal Heritage Museum, Munsiyari

As we came out of Museum and moved towards our vehicle a rooster sitting on the roof of a house like a weather-cock started crowing “Kookroo-koo, Kookroo-koo”. It amused Tanmay. We told him that it was crowing, “Tanoo-Tanoo” and congratulating him for allowing us to listen to Mr Pangtey peacefully.

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