Likiang could really hold the doubtful honour of being the world’s suicide capital. There was not a family that did not number a suicide or two among its members. Suicide was looked upon as a convenient and desirable way of escape from a tangled love affair, a severe loss of ‘face’, a grievous quarrel, a mortal insult, an unhappy married life and from a host of other unfortunate situations. There was no opprobrium attached to it and the unhappy man or woman was not threatened with eternal burning in a fiery furnace. Not that there were no furnaces in the Nakhi hell, but they were reserved for offences of a more heinous character. Yet it was believed to be true that suicides were definitely outside the pale of the paradise where the ancestors of all the Nakhi dwelt in leisurely enjoyment of the luxurious plenty of white yaks and fleet horses, vast expanses of rich fields and flower-strewn meadows, palatial houses, and wine, women and song.
The men and women, who had died by their own hand or suddenly, without the benefit of the magic coin in the mouth which opened the gates of paradise, remained as earthbound spirits, flitting here and there in a rather pretty no man’s land between the living and the dead. It was not a bad place and it closely resembled the material contours of the mother earth; there were hills and valleys, rivers and lakes and lush alpine meadows, overgrown with the gorgeous yuwoo flowers (The word yuwooliterally means suicide; thus there was a special variety of flower called the Suicide Flower). But existence in this pleasant place was rather aimless. They could eat the nectar of the yuwoo flowers and drink the dew, they could lounge on the clouds, talk to friends, if they had any, and indulge in shadowy love-making as much as they wanted. But sooner or later they got tired of it all and realized that they were neither fish nor fowl. They longed for their families but they could not reach them. It was impossible to return to earth, and the infrequent exchange of words with the near and dear through the sanyi medium were distressingly unsatisfying. Nor could they join the other departed members of their family as they did not know the way to the gates of paradise, which were guarded by malicious and unkind spirits. They were usually saved by their living relatives or parents who ordered the dtombas to perform a Harlallu ceremony which ultimately opened the gates of the ancestral paradise for them to enter.
Suicide was not committed haphazardly in an undignified or casual manner as in the West, where people throw themselves under a tram or train, jump from tall buildings or put their heads in gas ovens. The Nakhi, like other Orientals, considered the entry into the Beyond a serious and ceremonious affair. It was as unseemly to cross the Threshold in a hurry, dishevelled or in untidy dress, as to attend an audience at the king’s palace in dirty rags with perhaps a pail and broom in hand.
The yuwoo was a ceremonial suicide and had definite rules for stepping out of the body in a decorous and dignified manner and in proper surroundings. If the suicide was to be committed at home, the drawing-room was the right place for it. If it could not be done at home, as in the case of runaway couples, a secluded and beautiful spot in an inaccessible part of the mountains was the prescribed rule. The intending suicide had to be properly attired as though invited to an official feast. If the human personality persisted in the Beyond in the likeness of its earthly form, no doubt the dress persisted too and it would have been folly to wear dirty or improper clothes, perhaps for eternity. Besides, sooner or later there might be a passage to the ancestral paradise, and what would an ancestor say to a descendant entering the celestial mansion in rags.
All the various ways of ending life had not been definitely prescribed but a reliable variety of sure and lethal methods was recommended for the purpose. The best and surest was the root of black aconite boiled in oil and it was reasonably swift. It did cause great suffering, but it had the advantage of paralysing the larynx instantly so that no cries or groans could betray the whereabouts of the expiring suicides to any search parties. It was much preferred also because it did not disfigure the body as would death from drowning, hanging or a fall from a cliff. But its real value lay in double suicides, when it guaranteed the death of both lovers absolutely. No mischance was possible. A simultaneous jump from a cliff, into a lake or a river, a stabbing or even a hanging always carried the possibility that one party to the pact might survive, and perhaps not unwillingly. But these methods were not altogether disdained, so that there was a sufficient variety to provide an endless topic of discussion and suggestions for morbid neighbours.
The suicide pacts between girls and boys accounted, in my opinion, for at least 80 per cent of the suicides in Likiang. Next on the list were the unhappily married women and the rest were due to miscellaneous causes. This unusual and alarming prevalence of suicide among the young people was due entirely to the marriage system of the Nakhi which had never fitted the passionate character of these free and independent people. In their fervour to implant Chinese civilization and culture among their people, the Nakhi rulers had introduced a strict and uncompromising Confucian marriage code, the provisions of which caused much untold misery and death in this otherwise happy valley. According to old Chinese custom, it is the parents who arrange marriages for their children without the slightest regard for their likes and dislikes. As a matter of fact, most of the engagements are concluded between the families when their children are still in their infancy or even whilst they are still in their mothers’ wombs. It is considered highly improper and unnecessary that the prospective brides and grooms should meet each other before their marriage. It is only during the wedding ceremony that they see each other for the first time and nobody else is interested in whether they like each other or not after the wedding night. They have to stay together and there is nothing more to be said about it. No engagements, concluded by the parents, may be broken off in any circumstances.
With the Chinese, who have been trained for thousands of years in obedience to parents and in filial piety, this system has worked fairly well. They are docile and friendly by nature, and to many real love came gradually after marriage. But with the Nakhi this system never worked. They had practised, ever since the beginning of their race, free love like their cousins the Tibetans and the Liukhi who still do. This tradition was part of their very blood and still expresses itself in their gaiety, their dances and the free mixing of sexes which even Chinese morality had been unable to suppress. As few secrets could be kept in such small communities as Likiang and its surrounding villages, boys and girls knew well in advance whom they were going to marry and when. Sometimes there was mutual liking between future partners and all was well. But in many cases feelings were not reciprocated or it was dislike that was mutual. From this sprang a continual regrouping of the eternal triangles, and clandestine love was rather the rule in Likiang than the exception. Sometimes the unhappy lovers separated when the formal marriage took place, and sullenly paired with their unloved spouses, but more often than not, when love was too strong, they decided to end it all. This was especially the case when a baby was on the way, for a bastard was a disgrace of unparalleled proportions. The girl would be killed by her parents anyway, and the only escape was a suicide in which her lover was honour bound to join.
The idea of a suicide pact, it seems, had been established centuries ago by a Nakhi girl, named Kamegamiki, as the only way out of her entanglement with a handsome boy. She was to be married to a wealthy but plain man and could not bear the prospect. In accordance with the then prevailing etiquette, she did not broach the subject of suicide to the young man by word of mouth direct but conveyed the meaning in verse through the music of the Jew’s-harp which is a national musical instrument of the Nakhi and much used in love-making. Accompanying her whispered words with the harp she made a long and plaintive recital in which she used all her power and charm to persuade her lover of the hopelessness of their position, out of which the only escape was through death. He was not at all keen to follow her into the grave and raised many objections to her plan, expressing them in suitable verse, again with the help of the Jew’s-harp. But she was a persistent and possessive woman and finally she drove him to distraction with her promptings.
At last the boy yielded and promised to commit suicide with her, but on the condition that she put up the necessary capital. He wanted to get a suit of fine clothes and other articles of a gentleman’s attire, and a lot of good food and good wine. Perhaps, he thought, she would be unable to raise so much money; but, to his dismay, she produced the cash on the table without much difficulty as, evidently, she was a rich woman. He was trapped. They proceeded to a secluded spot in the mountains, spent an idyllic time until the provisions ran out and then, it is said, took the poison. This story and the verses are recorded in an ancient manuscript, called the Book of Kamegamiki. The top page is illuminated and shows the lady in a wine-red tunic and a petunia-blue skirt. Her great dark and lustrous eyes, even in the picture, seem to promise and beckon and their intensity still rivets the attention.
This story has inspired suicide ever since; it is recited by the dtombas, as a prelude, when performing the Harlallu ceremony, and the procedure of using the Jew’s-harp in concluding the suicide pact has been strictly adhered to. As the boys did not have a penny of their own, the girls were always called upon to finance the ceremony of yuwoo. They had to get new clothes, food and wine. Then, hand in hand, they slipped away into the mountains, where they ate and danced and made love to their hearts’ content until the end.
But even in the face of death, the Likiang girls showed their superiority over the weak male. Many boys did not want to die but were stampeded into doing it by their strong-willed sweethearts. It was related to me that once a girl drove her lover at the point of a sword and, scaring away the people who wanted to stop them, she forced the trembling lover to the brink of a high cliff and calmly pushed him over. Then, with perfect composure, she ran herself through with the sword.
Mass suicide pacts were not unusual and it was related to me that once six couples were found hanging in the forest on the Horse Saddle peak, next to the Shangri Moupo. Once a pair of unhappy girls were found standing, locked in an embrace, in a small lake below the Snow Peak. They had tied their ankles together, weighed them with a stone and jumped in. When a boy or a girl was missing from home for more than two days, the parents always suspected the awful truth. There was no time lost in organizing a thorough search, and in a few days the bodies of the unhappy lovers would be found at some far-away spot. The parents wailed and beat their breasts and began to make arrangements for the Harlallu ceremony. Sometimes the trail was still hot when the outraged parents started the chase. Judging from their grief and lamentations, one would suppose that they would have been overjoyed to catch their children before the deed had been done. It was nothing of the sort. Were the lovers to be caught alive, they would be reviled and perhaps beaten to death by parents or neighbours from the necessity of saving face. This face saving was the inflexible and immovable Moloch and had precedence over parental love. It demanded blood sacrifices, in one form or another, irrespective of all other considerations. The lovers knew this only too well and took great care not to be found alive. If a girl’s sworn lover had died far away from Likiang, she was honour bound to follow him into the grave.
It is surprising that the Liukhi of Yungning, living practically next door to Likiang, never had suicidal tendencies. But they had kept to their custom of free love and married or lived with anybody they liked. There were no heartbreaks there that could not be repaired, and the oblivion of death was not sought before its appointed time. Marriage amongst the Tibetans and Black Lolos was also on the basis of free choice and mutual love, and they had no such suicides. In Likiang the prevalence of free and easy suicides could also be traced to the dtombas pernicious influence. The rich emoluments from the Harlallu ceremonies kept the dtombas in clover and it was in their interest to encourage and maintain a high rate of suicides. Therefore, they kept up a subtle and cunning propaganda among these credulous people about the desirability of suicide as a logical solution of the grave problems of life. It was they who took pains to represent existence in the suicides no man’s land as blissful, and they certainly succeeded in their salesmanship. Their teachings during the centuries had brought the whole tribe to such a fine point of equipoise between life and death that it became a matter of touch-and-go, and sometimes a petty quarrel or a flash of rage sent a person beyond the veil.
Such examples of thoughtless and cruel avarice were not confined to the dtombas alone. I remember a detestable and blasphemous episode which occurred in Likiang during the war years. A small group of Gurkha soldiers and a few refugees from Burma had trekked into Likiang after a death march across those impossible gorges and ranges of the Salween and Mekong. Unfortunately some of them had dysentery and cholera. The Nakhi, never affected before by such epidemic diseases, succumbed in considerable numbers, and the Minkia carpenters had hardly time enough to produce the coffins. When their lucrative trade had slackened, with the abatement of the disease, they arranged sumptuous services at all Buddhistic temples of Likiang praying the Buddha and other deities to renew and keep up the mortality to the continued prosperity of their business. This reminded me strongly of a Tolstoy story in which a rich merchant, having garnered huge stocks of grain, was selling it at enormous profit during the famine. He vowed to God to build a new cathedral with big bells and all, if only God would keep up the famine in the land. That very night all his barns and storehouses were destroyed by fire.
The Harlallu ceremonies were a constant feature of life in Likiang. Strangers were not invited to witness them, but many friends made it a point to ask me as I was considered almost a member of their family. They always affected me deeply: perhaps it was the sense of the romantic in me that was thrilled by such a display of love unto death. I remember one particular case very well.
A girl in the village at the foot of the Saddle peak had a lover who was a soldier fighting with the army at Taierhchwang. One day his family received a telegram that he was killed in action. The girl cried bitterly when she heard the news from friends, but did not say anything. Then one night she dressed herself in her best garments, made up her face, put on perfume, and in the morning the parents found her dead, hanging from a beam in the drawing-room. It was only in death that the lovers were forgiven by their sorrowing families and it was usual for the Harlallu ceremony to be a joint one. It was for such a ceremony that I was invited to the house of the dead soldier.
On arrival at the farm I found the courtyard swept clean and decorated with pine branches. The family, dressed in white sackcloth, was waiting about for the guests. Near the entrance there were erected two artificial trees, made up of a thin pole, bamboo stalks, leaves and branches of other trees. They looked rather like two Christmas-trees as they were gaily decorated with little flags and banners and charms. One tree was for the boy and the other for the girl. The boy’s tree among other decorations displayed miniature articles of male attire — jackets and trousers, etc., cut out of coloured paper. There were also all the small articles that he had used and cherished, such as his favourite comb and his pipe, tobacco pouch, his mirror, razor and other little possessions. Her tree had her powder-box and lipstick, combs and pins, a simple vanity case, cheap ornaments and a perfume bottle, in addition to the paper models of feminine costume. It was touching and very pitiful.
In the centre of the courtyard there was a small mound of earth and sand, fenced in by wooden planks. A handful of multi-coloured triangular banners was stuck in the middle of the mound with the names and titles of the demons of suicide. Their likenesses, drawn by charcoal on a series of unpainted wooden tablets, were stuck in the sand around the banners. There were many of them — horrible creatures with snake bodies and bestial human faces; some had their hair standing on end, others had little diadems and caps on their heads. Outside, by the hall door, there was a small, silk-draped altar on which the pictures of the deceased stood with offerings of fruits and sweets, and an incense burner. On the other side below there was a sort of curtained kiosk where the dtombas sat, intoning passages from the Book of Kamegamiki and other ancient manuscripts. A gong punctuated their reading. There were seven dtombas and they were dressed in mandarin coats of embroidered silk, with five-petal diadems on their heads; on their feet they wore the ancient-style Chinese boots with very thick soles. After their recital they moved into the courtyard and started a slow dance around the banners and the demons to the sound of a small drum and their sonorous ndselers. They lifted one leg high, turned slowly on the other and stepped ahead. Continually repeating these precise but monotonous movements, they chanted the incantations summoning the suicide demons to come and the dead couple to appear once more at their home. On and on it went, persistent, irresistible.
‘Come! Come! Appear! Come!’ they commanded in a metallic and hypnotic voice. There was a deathly hush among the family and the guests. Beads of perspiration appeared on the dtombas faces and their eyes became inverted and glazed. They clearly moved in a semi-trance.
‘Appear! Appear! Come! Come!’ The words fell with each clang of ndseler and each beat of the drum. An hour passed and more. Still the rhythmic, intolerable command went on. Still the men stepped slowly and gyrated in unison. The tension mounted and was reaching a breaking point. Suddenly they stopped. There was a dead stillness and a gust of ice-cold wind filled the courtyard. Just for an instant, one brief moment, we all felt that the lovers had returned and stood there by their likenesses. I thought at first the impression was entirely mine: but, with a burst of weeping, the two families prostrated themselves as one man before the little altar. The guests looked startled. Nothing was seen and the impression was gone in a flash. But they had been there and everyone knew it.
The still weeping hosts now began to arrange the tables and a simple village funeral feast of the traditional eight dishes was served. A special table with similar dishes was put up for the demons and a row of dishes was placed on the altar for the departed. As the wine began to flow, the people regained their spirits and started talking and joking as if it was not a funeral at all. After the meal the dtombas killed two black chickens, putting the coins into their beaks as they expired. The chickens represented the deceased, and thus the gate to the paradise of their ancestors was opened and their connection with earth broken. Then there was another dance of the dtombas, armed this time with small, wooden swords. It was lively and resembled a spirited fencing as the demons, having been convened, feted and propitiated, were now being driven out of the house to their nether regions and conjured never to afflict again the two households with their suicidal influence.
Sitting one morning at my desk about ten o’clock, I was called by the neighbours to come down quickly to a house near our village gate. There I found a young girl in a stupor. It appeared that early in the morning she had drunk four ounces of raw opium, dissolved in a bowl of vinegar, and in addition swallowed two or three gold rings. I gave her injections of caffeine and apomorphine, and did all within my power to make her vomit. But the enormous dose of the poison was already doing its work — she was breathing stertorously and her cheeks were purple. Her eyes were open but she was unconscious. I persisted in my efforts and by three o’clock in the afternoon she came round and was able to talk to her family for a while. She was extremely angry with me and knocked the medicine out of my hands. ‘I want to die!’ she cried. ‘I must die! No one can stop me!’ and she relapsed into unconsciousness again soon afterwards. I stayed with her till midnight, administering caffeine and other restoratives. Several times she responded again, only to cry out how much she wanted to die. Then she bade a very touching and affectionate farewell to her heart-broken parents and sisters and brothers. She seemed to be much better by midnight and I was persuaded to go home, but she sank rapidly afterwards and was dead at four.
It transpired that she had gone with other girls on a pilgrimage to the Fertility Temple on a peak near Likiang. There they met some boy friends and had a meal together which they themselves cooked. Upon her return to town an aunt of hers, a bad-tempered woman and a notorious gossip, scolded her. She called her an apizdya (slut) and many other names in which the Nakhi language is so rich. She also hinted that the girl had surely lost her honour and a baby would be on its way in due course. It was this undeserved reviling in front of all the neighbours which had unhinged this normally placid girl. She felt disgraced and the only way to prove her innocence, she decided, was by suicide. The bereaved and enraged family of the poor girl meted a typical Nakhi revenge on the wicked woman. They proceeded to her house and smashed everything to bits.
When someone is killed in a house or a woman dies there in childbirth, the place automatically becomes chow (unclean). The dtombas are then invited to perform the Chownaggv or Purification ceremony in which the demons of uncleanness and calamity are convened, feasted and driven out. It is a very expensive ceremony as a black ox, goat or sheep, with a black pig and a black chicken have to be killed. The ceremony takes place at night.
Hoshowen was a junior clerk at my office. He was a stocky and quiet young boy but sometimes rather truculent. When he was a child, his father had been ambushed by Tibetan robbers and cut up into small pieces. He lived with, his widowed mother and an uncle on his father’s side at a house about one li from our village on the road to Lashiba. My cook doted on him and adopted him legally as his son and heir. The boy became a victim of one of these foolish marriage arrangements which were common in Likiang, and had to marry the girl to whom he had been engaged immediately after his birth. At that time he was but a few months old while she was already fifteen or sixteen; so that at the time of their marriage, he was a boy of twenty-two and she was a ripe woman of thirty-eight and old enough to be his mother. She was, however, a good and hard-working woman and looked after him and her mother-in-law well enough. Unfortunately for her, both Hoshowen and her mother-in-law hated her. It appeared that the older woman had found consolation in her widowhood in the person of a man in the neighbourhood. The daughter-in-law was wise to this and despised her for it, and there were constant quarrels at that unhappy house which sometimes ended in fights between the two enraged women. Egged on by his mother, Hoshowen also began beating the poor woman. The climax came one day when the mother, in tears, told her son that she had been gravely insulted by her daughter-in-law that morning and nothing short of a good beating of the culprit could restore her face and honour. There must have been a terrible and degrading scene when the husband and his mother together pounced on the defenceless woman. They left her afterwards in the kitchen, bruised and whimpering, and retired to bed as it was already nightfall.
At midnight the poor woman, crushed by humiliation and despair, made a fire in the kitchen and burned her pukai (quilt) and trousseau. Then she dressed herself in her best garments as a married woman of good family, touched up her swollen face and lips, prepared a noose and then hanged herself in the drawing-room. No one heard any noise or knew anything until morning. They found her with her face purple and choking horribly. She was still alive but never regained consciousness and died soon afterwards. Then a still greater tragedy was revealed: she was gone about three or four months with child. The whole house became accursed and unclean. Lamas were hurriedly called and, after a short service, the coffin was escorted to a meadow outside the village. There it was placed on a pyre, and after another short service by the assembled lamas a torch was applied (The bodies of suicides, of women who died in childbirth and those who died a violent death, were always cremated by the Nakhi. This was a survival of their ancient custom. Burials were only introduced after the adoption of Chinese civilization).
The next act of the drama opened again at Hoshowen’s house in the evening. The dtombas had been called, black animals prepared and tables and benches arranged for the usual funeral banquet. The lamas were sitting in the rooms on the first floor, intoning their litanies to the accompaniment of prayer-bells and small trumpets. Their butter lamps gleamed brightly. We went upstairs to watch their services. Everyone soon noticed that something was afoot in the adjoining rooms. There were loud raps, like pistol shots, coming from cupboards, walls and beams. Tables and benches crackled and moved very slightly over the floor. Everybody fled downstairs. I remained, fascinated as I always was by such phenomena.
The dtombas then started beating their drums, and as I did not want to miss the purification ceremony which was new to me, I went down to watch them. It was already ten o’clock and the moon was bright.
The stillness was uncanny as the dtombas started calling up the demons of uncleanness and calamity. Their likenesses had been stuck into a mound in the centre of the courtyard. They were dreadful, leering creatures, some headless, all with snake bodies — real devils this time. The black animals had been killed and there was blood spilled and smeared everywhere. The dtombasgyrated slowly to the measured clangs of ndselers. They were in a trance and there was something inhuman and mechanical in their mathematically precise movements. They looked like walking corpses with their pale faces and sightless eyes which had turned inwards. Their conjurations this time were different — they sounded insistent, potent, sinister. There was an atmosphere of unbearable expectancy and malignity. Almost palpably the forces of evil were filling the courtyard. People shivered and huddled closer to each other. It became cold and even the moon seemed to lose its brilliance. The tables and benches, prepared for the feast, began to tremble and move. My neighbours watched them, frozen in silent horror. Suddenly Hoshowen’s uncle was seized. He twisted and struggled on the ground, foaming at the mouth. People rushed to him, trying to hold him, but he shook them off like flies. His eyes were bulging out. A loud and strange voice came out of his convulsed throat. He turned to Hoshowen and his sister-in-law and shouted imprecations in that strange, unearthly voice. Again the people rushed at him trying to stop him and filling his mouth with leaves and anything within reach. Half choked, he subsided. The neighbours, with eyes of terror, fled and I was rushed home. Hoshowen fainted. We did not see the end of the Chownaggv ceremony. No one stayed for the funeral feast. Next day I was told that the uncle had been possessed by his brother, Hoshowen’s father, who spoke in a direct voice, using his brother’s larynx. He cursed his wife and his son for the poor woman’s death. He said he would avenge her and that their punishment would come soon.