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Is conservation leading to the loss of Tibetan Spiritscapes and their indigenous guardians and

numinous owners?

Figure 1. An altar on the roof of a house in Upper Yubeng for honouring and appeasing the gzhi bdag that inhabit snow peak
min tso mu and fore sted peak ben de ru

The sacred natural sites (SNSs) of indigenous societies are mostly supported by a worldview
predicated on animism and numinous spiritscapes. Spiritscapes are characterized by psychospiritual connections, eco-spiritual auditing, topocosmic reciprocity and behaviour that mimics
explicit nature conservation. In spite of this spiritscapes appear to be less recognised than SNSs
associated with mainstream faiths and their discursive treatment robs them of their cultural and
spiritual significance.
Tibetan Spiritscapes (or numinised SNSs)
Spiritscapes are a defining characteristic of Tibetan lay society and are exemplified in mountain
cults and ritually protected refugia (skyabs). Historically the cultural identity of Tibetan nomads
and farmers was predicated on the honouring of their territorial divinity (a yul lha) and several
numina (gzhi bdag) that inhabit most of their Sacred Natural Sites (or gzhi bdag gnas yul). Most
mountains in the Tibetan world are inhabited by a gzhi bdag associated with specific lay
communities and territories. They are part of an animistic and shamanistic tradition concerned with
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the immediate world, involving various ceremonies and rituals that take place in the home and
mountain locales.
The gzhi bdag theoretically 'tamed' by Buddhism are closer to Tibetan nomads and farmers in both
geography, identity and in sensed presence. In the world of the lay Tibetan, many landscape
features point back to the worship of ancient gods. They are not only conscious of the constant
scrutiny of gzhi bdag but engage in rituals and place demands on them for protection and health,
and success, in hunting, trading, travel, farming etc. Participation in mountain cults is still an
essential element of rural Tibetan life and identity and is expressed in cultural, economic, ecospiritual and political behaviour. Additionally as a spontaneously recovered folk practice the gzhi
bdag cult lies outside of state control and is a contemporary means of expressing unique

Traditional interactions with Sacred Natural Sites

The psycho-spiritual behaviour exhibited within the sacred domain or gnas yul of a gzhi bdag,
might be described by conservationists as explicit nature conservation. In reality, however, the
behaviour is much more complex and sophisticated with humankind comprising only one element
of the topocosm. Nature conservation, stewardship and governance are alien concepts that
cannot be abstracted from the indigenous reality of being part of the natural world or belonging
to nature.
The Tibetan word co-opted for nature conservation is khor yug srung skyob which is a neologism
without a dynamic equivalent. On the basis of cognitive mapping conducted in Ganzi Prefecture
(2000-2005) it would appear that a nexus of five values coalesce closely around the Tibetan concept
of rang byung (endogenous) srung skyob. These seemingly include
1) gzhi bdag gnas yul srung skyob i.e. the protection of Spritcapes (gzhi bdag) and the
benefits gained (Blessing)
2) khams srung skyob i.e. natural recycling of:- nutrients/O2/C/N/P/S/H2O (environmental
and hydrological)
3) srung skyob byas pa i.e. conservation efforts (e.g. tree planting) by Green monks
(Tibetan Buddhism),

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but this does not include phyi rgyal (exogenous) srung skyob (socialism and state
forestry). This latter finding is supported by research at Lugu Lake (in 2005) where
exogenous conservation was ranked 8 out of 13 environmental values. Exogenous
conservation is often regarded as a bio-centric intervention which at best has a very
limited interpretation of culture and at worse cultural chauvinism. In contrast for most lay
Tibetans the animistic spiritual importance of protection is more significant than the
ecological importance of conservation.

The status of Tibetan gzhi bdag sites

On the basis of a literature study and a bio-cultural audit (2013) it would appear that spiritscapes
are a common phenomenon throughout the Tibetan world and may comprise up to 25% of the
Tibetan Plateau (or ca 570,000km2) and that most Tibetan lay people interviewed :1) Are familiar with the gzhi bdag cult and estimate that there are typically three gzhi bdag sites
per village with known geospatial extents and comprising 700ha per village.
2) Maintain topocosmic equilibrium:

By securing the patronage of gzhi bdag and renuminising them on an annual basis
By responding to the enjoinment of gzhi bdag as guardians of the domain for the gzhi
bdag who is the owner (gzhi) of the ground (bdag) and the fauna/flora
By observing culturally defined expectations when visiting gzhi bdag sites.
By auditing topocosmic equilibrium to ensure the gzhi bdag are happy and they are
By inscribing gzhi bdag sites in the landscape and in local consciousness through folklore
and a cycle of daily, monthly, seasonal and annual rituals.
By pre-emptively propitiating the gzhi bdag, who are capricious and easily offended.
By discerning through dreams, visions, omens, theophanies or retribution when a gzhi bdag
is offended and by determining what form of restitution is required with the help of lay

3) Consider that parents and elders shoulder most of the responsibility for intergenerational
enculturation, given the persecution of most cultural specialists during the Cultural Revolution

4) Protect gzhi bdag gnas yul as guardians (srung po) which consequently serve as refugia. This
finding is supported by biodiversity studies in the region which suggest significant differences based
on sanctity.
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5) Believe that the preservation of gzhi bdag sites and their biodiversity is contingent upon the
protection of indigenous culture and its intergenerational transmission.
6) Believe that the gzhi bdag cult (and associated SNSs) is being undermined by: - formal
education, exogenous conservation, forced re-settlement (Box 1), mass tourism, the market
economy, and the destruction of their cultural universe".
Box 1: Forced re-settlement results in the loss of: - the pastoral culture and SNSs and their
guardians (srung po) and owners (gzhi bdag)
Ensuring international recognition and protection
Further field work is required to confirm the total area of spiritscapes on the Tibetan Plateau but
more importantly there is an urgent need to identify international organisations who can secure
protection for Tibetan spiritscapes on the basis of holistic biocultural conservation (see below)
rather than the dominant bio-centric approaches.
Bio-centric conservation

Biocultural/Holistic conservation

Conservation solutions

Exclusionary/protected areas
Placement of Species
Ecological Migration
Forced re-settlement
Mostly Biological Diversity
Leveraged on governance
Regulatory legislation to preserve

Sustainable Use
Social Fencing
Topocosmic Equilibrium
Bio, cultural, spiritual and
perceptual diversity


Not sanctioned

Subsistence hunting sanctioned

and negotiated with the
community and spirit world.

Perception of Nature

Natural heritage alone

People are part of nature

Bridging natural and cultural

Modus operandi



Cultural Interpretation

Culturally chauvinistic


Conservation Paradigm

Biological and Ecological

Integration of Biological and

Cultural Conservation

Nature of Conservation

Minimal Change

Dynamic and Evolving

Community Role



Spiritual Dimension


Spiritual and physical worlds

are continuous

Conservation Custodianship

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The State or international conservation Numinous divinities assisted by

local "guardians"

Topocosmic Communication


Trances, dreams, visions,

omens, theophanies, divination

Intrinsic Worth

Independent of people or divinities

Created by or presided over by

a divinity


Mostly monophasic (5-sense)
Ecosystems elevated over human

Mostly polyphasic (up to

View of local people

People are a "pathogenic" threat

Subjects of study

Enhancing biodiversity

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