Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Time to visit Nepal and the Tamang religion!

Ever heard of them? I hadn't until I started doing research into Buddhist death rituals. The Tamang group live in the northern regions of the Kathmandu valley with the Newars. The religion of the Tamang is not a clear cut answer like in the West, generally when reading about them, the anthropologists who have done the research say that their religion is a combination of Buddhism, Hinduism and also a mix of cultural/traditional paganism. They have very close ties with the Tibetan people; during the 8th century the Tibetan King used them as boarder patrol to protect the people and lands of Tibet. In Tibetan, the word Tamang means: 'horse warriors'.

Within Tamang society, the death rituals are considered to be the most important ritual out of all of them; for this reason Buddhist Lamas are used by the society to perform them. Like the people in Ladakh, the central aspect of the ritual revolves around the death feast. It is the Buddhist Lamas job to conduct these large scale death feasts, throughout the feast, the Lamas are busy 'rescuing' the dead souls and helping them achieve rebirth.

Some Buddhist monks are celibate, single men; this is a common factor that can be found through almost all the worlds monastic orders. However the Tamang Lamas are always married family men, during the ritual they don red robes, chant the sacred Tibetan texts and have scroll paintings out on display.

An interesting little point I found out about the Tamang Lamas. Whilst they are married family men, and are expected to help out and work on the farm like everyone else; they are exempt from the ploughing! I've no idea why this is, there was no reason in the ethnography but I think that its one of those funny little facts in life.

Due to the nature of the environment, and the fact that the living still have to eat, the death feasts are always carried out at the dry season. The rest of the year everyone else has to work the land in order to gain food to eat and sell in order for the society to survive. For this reason, the funeral feast for the dead person can take place months after the actual death has taken place. It is usually held in one of the empty fields that has recently been stripped of its crops; at the centre of the field a large brightly coloured alter is placed. The Lamas place at the ritual is next to the alter at all times.

Tamang societies view death as a social creation. It is normally during the death feasts that potential marriage couple form, so with that in mind it is understandable that these death feasts are conducted for adults only. Within my research I can across no mention of what happens to the children. At the ritual all connection between the dead and the living are separated, from then on once the separation is complete the living no longer have to fear the wraith of the dead.

It is not something that we really discuss or think about in the Western world - relationships between the living and the dead. The Tamang take this very seriously, the whole point of this death ritual is to keep the happy thoughts between the living and the dead happy! If the deceased soul does not achieve a good rebirth then the group that was responsible for completing that ritual are normally plagued with bad luck. This is where the Lamas come into play; it is up to them to ensure the safety of both the living and the dead. During the funeral feast, the Lamas will call forth the 9 bla (shadow souls) that inhabit the body. After removing them from the body he combines them all together so that they form just 1 bla who can then be reborn.

It is imperative that this happens otherwise the bla will get angry and then everyone suffers.

As you can see, the topic of death rituals is very interesting, each culture has their own reasons for doing it but at the end it is always for the same reason. To maintain a good relationship between the living and the dead.

For more information on the subject of Tamang death rituals:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2057151 By David Holmberg.


  1. Hi Stephen,
    Thank you for sharing this. I come from a Tamang background and am currently living in Australia. I was unaware of many cultural practices that you have mentioned above. I was surfing through google about death practices as my gradfather from my father's side just passed away in Nepal in a remote village and I am unable to attend the death ritual because of the work schedule here. I cannot get in touch with any of my family members because of poor teleconnections. But Stephen, I really like to know if I as a grand daughter should do anything or should avoid eating certain foods during this mourning period.Any sort of info you have will be of great help.


  2. Shubhashree
    In Tamang tradition (Basically in vajrayana Buddhist tradition) we dont perform any ritual related to fasting but we do the prayer and other ritual as mention in Throdal Baardo holy text which usually tamang pronounce as Ghewa. The abstinence in taking salt and other food is a influential ritual derived from hindu tradition . There is no such ritual in buddhist text and tradition.
    Thank you !!