According to Buddhist belief, religion and the environment are intertwined. Buddhists believe religion is inextricable from the environment itself. Rites and rituals practiced in monasteries are believed to be influenced by the environment and vice versa, meaning there is a continuous interaction taking place between religion and environment.
Resources are scarce in mountain environments making their sustainable use in traditional practices and culture vitally important. The people of the Mustang region of Nepal - an area with many monasteries and significant religious locations - consider the land sacred which is reflected in their conservation efforts.
On a recent visit to Mustang, I was told to go to Thini village and see the fifteenth century Kutsub-Terenga Monastery where it is believed that Five ‘Termas’ (magical treasures) were revealed.
A lama there told us the monastery looks after Dhumba Lake, a turquoise lake named for its emerald colour. People of the monastery have been helping in the conservation of this lake that has become a tourist destination. Without cultural importance, the lake would have been contaminated with washing water and by bathers.
An official from the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) said that following the Gorkha earthquake, a quantity of water had been lost and that it was the monastic people along with Dhumba Tal Conservation Committee who helped to resolve the problem by preparing pipelines to fill the lake again.
We learned this lake had lost its turquoise colour and turned dark a few years ago as people started to devalue its cultural importance by using the water from the lake for domestic purpose. People from the monastery took up the conservation of this lake and made domestic use of the lake strictly prohibited.To keep people out, fences funded by the District Development Committee and by the Dhumba Tal Conservation Committee along with the Terenga Monastery have been put up. Such acts from the monastery demonstrate that it has been actively concerned to look after and conserve this high altitude wetland.
Recently, four snow leopards were captured in a camera trap set up by ACAP, adding significance to the Dhumba Lake. As a result, Thini villagers are advocating their area be called the kingdom of snow leopards.
Other areas are pushing conservation as well. A newly built monastery in Jomsom has been practicing afforestation thus helping to preserve the environment. And in Marpha, I came across lamas who were offering Tormas (a hand-moulded ritual cake made from roasted barley flour and butter) in their shrines and placing it out-side for the birds to help them when vegetation is scarce.
Monasteries throughout the Hindu Kush Himalaya landscape have been helping the environment and are demonstrating that blending religious practice with environment protection and conservation objectives is a noteworthy local action. I realised these lamas had been carrying out conservation activities all the while and were unaware the contributions they were making. Any conservation initiative in the high mountains should include monastic institutions which are natural advocates for sustainability in the harsh mountain environment.