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Ridam / Ladam

Ridam / ladam (རི་བསྡམ་/ལ་བསྡམ་) is a practice of mountain closure which is known in many parts of Bhutan. The entire area or a certain part of the mountain is closed to human entry and use during certain periods, often from spring to autumn. During this period, people are generally not allowed to enter the area for the purpose of collecting natural resources or visiting a place within that area. The restriction is particularly applied to outsiders who are not from the area.

The ridam/ladam practice is deeply rooted in the Bhutanese spiritual worldview of seeing the surrounding environment as a living force. In the Pre-Buddhist belief system, natural surrounding including mountains, cliffs, forests, lakes and rivers were seen as formidable sites which embodied natural forces or are abodes of invisible forces of nature. Mountains are identified with mountain gods, forests as homes of territorial deities, cliffs as citadels of spirits, rivers as residences of water spirits, and so forth. These spirits came in many kinds such as nedag (གནས་བདག་) zhidag (གཞི་བདག་), pholha (ཕོ་ལྷ་), yullha (ཡུལ་ལྷ་), dud (བདུད་), tsen (བཙན་), gyalpo (རྒྱལ་པོ་), lu (ཀླུ་) etc. and they sometimes communicated with the people through shamans and oracles such as pawo (དཔའ་བོ་), pamo (དཔའ་མོ་), terdag (གཏེར་བདག་) and naljorm (རྣལ་འབྱོརམ་). They possessed almost the entire surroundings and often preyed on the human population. The stories of the demonesses of Nyala and Dochula are good examples of such beliefs. Out of fear and awe, people respected nature and stayed away from much of it. They appeased nature by worshipping or pleasing the non-human denizens in it. The pre-Buddhist view of nature was thus one of submission and fear.

Buddhism, with its message of non-violence and transcendence, introduced a new layer in people’s perception of nature. It did not annihilate the belief system of the pre-Buddhist period but superimposed a new way of thinking on the existent cultural practices. Nature was not to be feared but a force to be subdued and reined. With the focus on the internal mind, Buddhism argued the world is a creation of the mind. The power of the mind surpassed the power of external nature. Thus an individual is able not only to transcend the forces of nature but control it. This trope of subjugation of nature and landscape can be seen throughout the history of Bhutan in the stories of Songtsen Gampo building temples to subdue a supine demoness, of Guru Rinpoche’s conversion of wrathful demons into peaceful dharma-protectors and of Drukpa Kunley’s miracles to overcome malevolent spirits.

The spread of Buddhism was not merely about the conversion of the people. It involved the conversion of nature from a formidable malevolent force to a wholesome habitat. Nature was tamed and transformed into spiritually conducive dwelling while the malevolent denizens in it were subdued and converted into righteous guardian deities. Nature’s power was harnessed to be used for the greater good of merit-making and enlightenment. This transformation in the understanding of nature resulted in dramatic physical affect on the environment. Temples were built at special locations. Mountain passes, forests and streams were adorned with prayer flags, prayer wheels and stupas. Buddhist monuments dotted Bhutan’s landscape.

Furthermore, Buddhism imbued nature with sanctity and gave it a venerable place. Wide stretches of nature were earmarked as spiritual sanctuaries in the forms of holy mountains, hidden valleys, sacred lakes and power spots. Buddhism gave a new meaning to the landscape, river systems, water sources, flora, fauna and life in general. In addition, Buddhism also propagated enlightened outlooks such as the interdependence, causality and impermanence of all phenomena and moral values including non-harming, loving kindness, compassion, tolerance and harmony. The Buddhist worldview and moral values has since been the main driving force behind people’s interaction with nature.

Given the spirituality of the people and the pro-ecological messages of the Pre-Buddhist and Buddhist religious traditions, it is not surprising that Bhutan has thus far managed to keep its ecology intact. The robust and pristine state of Bhutan’s environment today is largely due to the two spiritual traditions.

The ridam/ladam practice can be fully appreciated as a mode of human negotiation with natural forces only in this context of such spiritual and cultural belief system. Mountains or parts of them are sealed for certain periods of the year in order to mainly avoid polluting the environment and annoying the territorial deities who could, through their annoyance, bring inclement weather such as hailstorm or heavy rain, and destroy the crops. Most of the ridam/ladam mountain closure, thus, take place during the fertile summer months when people cultivate their crops. This also allows little disturbances for the natural surrounding to replenish itself during the most productive season.

As the practice of mountain or area closure is directly linked to a territorial deity, the seasonal ridam/ladam practice is often launched with a ritual of propitiation to such a local deity. While some communities have fixed annual dates for the closure and the opening of a mountain, others have flexible dates depending on the availability of a priest to carry out the services or other factors. Once the mountain is closed, people, particularly outsiders, are strictly restricted from entering the area and anyone trespassing may be accused of provoking the wrath of the mountain gods. If locals such as cowherders have to enter the area, they do so discreetly and carry out remedial rituals.

There were also cases of carrying ridam/ladam, sometimes also called rigya lungya dam (རི་རྒྱ་ཀླུང་རྒྱ་བསྡམ་པ་) or sealing of mountains and rivers for a mainly Buddhist practice of protecting life. Jigme Namgyal, the father of the first king, issued an order for closure of mountains and rivers in order to expiate his negative karma and invite his Buddhist master from Tibet. During this closure, hunting and fishing were banned. Such practice is inspired by Buddhist piety more than regard for the territorial deity and may not be restricted only to an area associated with a powerful territorial deity.

As the ladam/ridam practice restricts entry and avoid harming the natural environment through resource collection, cow herding or other activities, modern researchers and environmental scholars have come to see this as a culturally embedded environment management practice. However, to the people who carry out this practice, the practice is deeply rooted in the spiritual belief in the territorial deities who play a big role in influencing human wellbeing. It is mainly for their own good health, harvest and prosperity, which can be achieved only through a harmonious relationship with the non-human forces of surrounding nature, that people practice the ridam/ladam mountain closures.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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