Yale Himalaya Initiative

environment | livelihood | culture

Ruth Gamble on the Pure One: the Yarlung Tsangpo River through history

By: Amanda Mei

Across the Himalayas, the Yarlung Tsangpo River runs from Tibet through the disputed borders of China and India. Ruth Gamble, a cultural and environmental historian of Tibet, spoke about the river as part of the Yale Himalaya Initiative’s Fall Reception on Oct. 11. Bringing YHI into its seventh year at Yale, Gamble led the audience of over 40 students and faculty through a discussion of the river’s history.

In her lecture entitled “Fear of the Pure One: What the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) River’s History Can Tell Us About Asia’s Water Future,” Gamble spoke about the influence of the river’s watershed on people’s lives today. According to Gamble, approximately 200 million people from India and China live in the watershed, relying on the river for water resources and generating goods of economic value.

“There’s a good chance that the chair you’re sitting in was made in the Himalayan watershed,” Gamble said.

The Yarlung Tsangpo River, which forms part of the watershed, goes by many names. Known as the “Out of Horse Mouth” river in southwestern Tibet, the river figures prominently in the religious traditions of Tibet as it crosses the plateau. Throughout the region, it is known as the Tsangpo River for its pure quality. In northeastern India, where the river makes a horseshoe bend and descends sharply into Assam, it is called the Brahmaputra River. Gamble added that the Yarlung Tsangpo is known as the “Everest of rivers.”

The highest river in the world as well as the one that carves the deepest canyon, The Yarlung Tsangpo runs through many altitudinal bands. Gamble raised the issue that studying the river at one altitudinal level does not mean knowing the river on any other. Since very few scientists and environmental historians have studied the Tibetan plateau in past centuries, scholars often lose knowledge going uphill. But they have the opportunity to discover new knowledge—as well as knowledge Tibetans have kept for an untold period of time until now.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, researchers have catalogued diverse species along the river. The Yarlung Tsangpo supports not animals such as ray-finned fish, sheep, and iconic yaks, but also river spirits known as glu (pronounced “loo”). Traditionally, the Tibetan people abstain from eating fish and traveling alongside the river in order to prevent disturbing the spirits. Gamble said that the Tibetans maintain the river’s purity with great consciousness. Working together, traditional Tibetans who believe in the animistic quality of nature and Tibetan Buddhists who believe in the mind’s effects on nature continue to protect the environment for spirits as well as human beings.

However, the environment in the Himalayas is changing. Gamble notices an escalation of international conflicts for resources and knowledge. Since the British invasion in 1903, increasing numbers of colonists and academic researchers have disrupted the longtime peace of the Tibetan plateau. Now, China and India dispute the border on the fault line between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. Gamble warns that the two major leaders of Asia, President of China Xi Jinping and Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, risk catastrophe in the region.

“[Xi and Modi] don’t need to fight each other to cause a disaster in the Himalayas,” Gamble said. “They just need to be there.”

Meanwhile, people around the world look to the Himalayas for its alluring resources, such as “melting glacier water” featured in advertisements. Foreign scholars and politicians are demanding access to the Himalayan watershed; the Tibetan people themselves depend on ancient Buddhist and animistic traditions to support the environment they have inhabited for centuries. Through history and to the present day, the Yarlung Tsangpo River has maintained its reputation as the “pure one” of all rivers, even as it runs through fraught terrain.

Gamble is currently a David Myers Fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Previously, she has been affiliated with Australian National University and Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Her lecture was the first part of a series for YHI, part of the South Asian Studies Council at the Yale MacMillan Center.

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