Nyinba - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Nyinba are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingmapa school, although people also give credence to Certain cosmological beliefs held to antedate Buddhism and to the deities and ritual practices of their Hindu neighbors. The pantheon follows orthodox Tibetan Buddhism, with the addition of minor deities of local significance. Contrary to Buddhism, village founders become powerful ancestors who are thought to safeguard the village and to whom appeals for agricultural prosperity are addressed. People also fear the power of the evil eye and witchcraft.

Religious Practitioners. Each village includes one or more households of lamas, the most respected of whom trace descent to a hereditary lama lineage. These lamas are not monastics, although many have pursued advanced religious training in the monasteries of Tibet or in refugee centers in India and Nepal. Instead they marry, raise families, and serve the everyday ritual needs of villagers. A few women have become nuns; the esteem in which they are held depends on the rectitude of their lives and their religious accomplishments. Each village also includes several households of hereditary priests known as dangri, who are involved with the cults of local deities. These priests conduct from memory a simple liturgy modeled after Tibetan Buddhist ritual, preparatory to events of spirit possession. Finally there are the spirit mediums, or oracles, who are believed to incarnate local deities when possessed. The office of oracle rarely passes from father to son, but it does recur often among disadvantaged Nyinba, such as slaves and their descendants.

Ceremonies. Lamas celebrate Buddhist rituals at prescribed times in their household temples. In addition, they officiate at privately sponsored rituals, prompted by life-crisis events or the desire to acquire merit, and at public ceremonials. The ritual calendar includes both locally distinctive Ceremonies and those known throughout ethnically Tibetan areas. Among the former are ceremonies held to propitiate clan gods, those seeking the blessings of founder ancestors, and rites associated with the growth and harvesting of the major crops. At these special local ceremonies, both lamas and dangris officiate, and there is public oracular possession.

Arts. The Nyinba are known for their finely made, beautifully executed textiles, including woven carpets, tie-dyed shawls, and embroidered boots. Religious artifacts used in their temples, such as drums, bells, statues, and paintings, are produced by artisans from Tibet.

Medicine. Certain lamas practice traditional Tibetan medicine, which relies on empirical and mystical treatments: herbal and animal remedies, moxibustion (cauterization), and the performance of special rituals. Oracles also may be called in to diagnose the mystical cause of illness and to exorcise malignant supernaturals deemed responsible. Nyinba have been exposed to scientific medicine only since the mid-1970s. As more facilities are established and sources of supplies become reliable, reliance on them increases.

Death and Afterlife. Following death are a series of Ceremonies that culminate in a merit-creating feast for the entire village and close relatives of the deceased. Like other Buddhists, Nyinba believe in reincarnation, and one of the major goals of these ceremonies is to help the deceased attain the best possible rebirth. Funerals also include ceremonies designed to remove death pollution from relatives and those who have come in contact with the corpse. The funeral is accorded great importance, and rich and poor sponsor the same ceremonies, which is not the case for other life-crisis events.

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