Thursday, September 08, 2016

Magic Water?

“The water is taken from the Divine Spring of Qudanima summit, 5128 metres high by the northern slope of Himalaya. For the past 1200 years, the water is valued highly as sweet dew for all ills. With 17 trace elements required by human beings upon the test by the state, the water is an ideal health beverage and the purist magic water from the highest spring of the world.”

A couple of decades ago I was visiting Tibet on a tourist visa. Me and my partner lost each other in one of those huge temple buildings in Drepung Monastery. I admit it may have been my fault. I was getting a little bored — well, maybe bored is not quite the word — until I discovered in an upstairs chamber a glass display-case full of pages from scriptural texts produced with fantastic artistry. Some even resembled the famous nine-jewel Kanjur. Fascinated by what I was seeing, I lost track of time. It was only much later in the day I discovered that she had been adopted by a Tibetan family insisting she join them for a picnic.

So we were, in any case, unexpectedly separated. As the Indian literati have known throughout their history, there is no love more romantic, and therefore worth writing about, than love in separation. I decided to go down and wait at the main entrance, knowing she would appear there eventually. I sat awhile and had a soda at the entrance shop and chatted with the shopkeeper. It wasn't long before he revealed to me that he was in fact a monk. In Tibet in those days, at least, monks were allowed to fill such positions involving monetary exchange, but were not allowed to wear their robes while performing them. Even monks who study at the university  or at the traditional medical college have to go to classes in lay clothing. As always, when you get into a conversation of more than a few minutes with Tibetans in Tibet, it inevitably comes around to the subject of Tibetan unhappiness with the situation they find themselves in. 

After some time I thought I should be closer to the entranceway to make sure of observing my partner's exit, so I excused myself from the friendly monk and his predictable dissatisfactions and sat down on a wooden railing that marked the edge of the parking lot. A whole Tibetan family — mom, dad and three young kids — came to sit down on the railing just a few feet away. I was sipping from a bottle of water I'd bought from the monk-in-disguise when the dad asked to see it. I passed it over, he looked at it with some curiosity and then passed it back, trying to stifle a chuckle. Then he asked me to read the label for him. I started reading the English and the man started laughing, but when I read the few words of Tibetan, Pögi Lhachu Chöten Nyima (བོད་ཀྱི་ལྷ་ཆུ་མཆོད་རྟེན་ཉི་མ་), his laughter accelerated until it got seriously hysterical with the whole family joining in the merriment.

All I could do was smile the kind of a cowed smile you smile when you have no real clue what the laughter is all about, although I suspected (as we tend to) that it was directed at me. Was my Tibetan pronunciation all that funny? That might seem likely. Now, with the wisdom that only comes with hindsight (a specialty of mine, I must admit), I believe it was laughter with a certain element of nervousness in it, or behind it. 

At the time I didn’t know that Chorten Nyima, a holy site close to Sikkim, was a place where people are advised to go and bathe. Its waters are capable, they say, of purifying that most heinous crime of incest. The water they would have bathed in was the water I was drinking. My partner never showed up, so I eventually got into a van destined for downtown Lhasa. I made a new friend with the young man collecting the fares. We outlive our traumas and we learn. We learn from our mistakes. We try to do better. We have to.

Go to this link (a very slow PRC link, I’m afraid even impossible to access, so you may have to do a search for “Tibetan mineral water hot in market”) that has the following photos:

The incest taboo is quite strong everywhere in the world with the possible exception of old Persia, where it was especially known to occur among royalty and to some degree recognized and even approved of (the experts have often wavered on this issue, but their recent publications seem to be swinging back in the direction of actual incest taking place). As if wired into the brain, humans seem to have always been aware that it is a danger genetically. There are cultures where first-cousin marriage is approved of, but in these cases, the genetic problems like congenital deafness, low IQ and the like are well known. By all accounts, Tibetans abhor incest, and cousin marriage is not approved of. Tibetans are shocked to hear about (relatively high, but declining over the last century) Chinese acceptance of cousin marriage, but then Chinese themselves find Tibet’s polyandrous unions quite unbelievable, especially the rarer form in which father and son share the same wife (Prince Peter's book, p. 465 ff.).

Read these:

Liu Hongqiao, “China’s Bottled Water Industry to Exploit Tibetan Plateau.” Find it here.

Katia Buffetrille, “Pèlerinage et inceste: le cas de mChod rten nyi ma,” contained in: Anne-Marie Blondeau, ed., Tibetan Mountain Deities, Their Cults and Representations, Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Wien 1998), vol. 6, pp. 19-42.

Katia Buffetrille, “Pilgrimage and Incest: The Case of Mchod rten Nyi ma,” Bulletin of Tibetology (Spring 2004), pp. 5-38. You can access a PDF of it here or here.

Katia Buffetrille, Chapitre III. Tibet méridional. mChod rten nyi ma, contained in: Katia Buffetrille, Pélerins, lamas et visionnaires: Sources orales et écrites sur les pélerinages tibétains, Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien (Vienna 2000), pp. 201-225. 
This has Tibetan texts and French translations of two guidebooks to the holy place. One of them does explicitly mention sibling incest as a sin that appears in degenerate times, a sin that would normally result in rebirth in the lowest of hells, that can nevertheless be cleansed by the nectarous springs of Chorten Nyima:  སྙིགས་དུས་སྤུན་ཟླ་མི་སྲིང་འཇོལ་བའི་ལྟས་༔ དེ་དུས་ས་བཅུད་ཉམས་པའི་རླུང་གི་ཁ་ཤོར་ཏེ༔  རྡོ་རྗེ་དམྱལ་བར་འགྲོ་བར་གདོན་མི་ཟ༔
Alexandra David-Neel, in her famous book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, Dover (NY 1971), first published in French in 1929, describes (on pp. 64-68) her visit to Chorten Nyima, but without any reference to the pilgrimage practices that take place there. There is even a black-and-white photograph of the Gonpa.

Keith Dowman has something concise to say about the place, “There are also specific power place destinations that guarantee absolution for particular sins. Chorten Nyima, near the Sikkim border, for instance, is the destination of those who must expiate the sin of incest.”

Martin Boord, “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Hidden Land of Sikkim Proclaimed as a Treasure by Rig 'dzin Rgod kyi ldem 'phru can,” Bulletin of Tibetology, vol. 4, no. 1 (2003), pp. 31-53.  
At p. 32:  “...Chorten Nyima. This name also refers to a mountain range of 14 peaks, to the highest peak along the range, to the general area and to a particular monastery. Chorten Nyima is an extremely active pilgrimage centre, with up to 100 pilgrims or more arriving from Tibet per day, and there is a retreat hermitage for one dozen or so nuns to the west. The three cliff-top stûpas mentioned in the text are the pilgrims’ focal point, but of almost equal importance are the three sky-burial sites and the medicinal springs renowned for their eight attributes of pure water, which are now bottled and marketed in Tibet as ‘Chorten Nyima Mineral Water.’ ” And on p. 33: “Popular folklore cites Chorten Nyima as the destination for all those who need to be purified of the sin of incest.”
Jonathan A. Silk, Riven by Lust: Incest and Schism in Indian Buddhist Legend and Historiography, University of Hawai'i Press (Honolulu 2009).

H.R.H. Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, A Study of Polyandry, Mouton & Co. (The Hague 1963).  See especially pp. 454-456 for the relevant discussion.  It appears that incestuous unions faced considerable disapproval from society in the Tibetan past, even if as far as I have been able to discover there were no legal sanctions against it. When Prince Peter was measuring Tibetan heads, as was a style in anthropology in his day, he interviewed a Nyingmapa Lama, abbot of a temple he calls Chöten Nyingma Gompa (giving the Tibetan as མཆོད་རྟེན་སྙིང་མ་དགོན་པ་). Although a little different from the spelling we are used to seeing, མཆོད་རྟེན་ཉི་མ་, he clearly does means Chorten Nyima, since he describes it as a monastery on a lake of the same name just beyond the northern boundary of Sikkim in Tibet. Let me quote it a bit:

“It appeared that he was the abbot of the monastery at Chöten Nyingma, and that the latter was a very special one in Tibet, because the waters of the lake had the property of being able to wash away the sin of incest. Anyone having had sexual relations with somebody within the prohibited degree of consanguinity could be purified of the pollution by making a pilgrimage to Chöten Nyingma Tso (lake) where, after having plunged in its waters, he or she would make an offering to the monastery. The abbot who I had met would, in exchange, deliver a certificate that the person was now absolved of all sin, and the petitioner could go home satisfied and appeased. It appeared that the principal source of revenue of this particular monastery came from this trade in certificates and that this was the reason for the prosperous appearance of the Incarnation whom I had just met.”

A note on words:  Modern English doesn’t seem to have a special word for the product of inbreeding, unlike the Hebrew Bible’s word mamzer, although even there mamzer doesn't always have that meaning; sometimes it just means the more generic bastard. Prince Peter discusses the problem a little, but as far as I think I know, the term for a child of incest is nal-gyi bu or just nal-bu, and occasionally na-le. But I've noticed some dictionaries shying away from that meaning, making it to be just the child of an illicit affair, a bastard, or even stranger still an orphan (a kind of confusion that ought to never happen!). With the spelling mnal-bu, I've even found it defined as specifically the child born to sibling parents. The mnal is certainly related to mnol, a word for the grave pollution that results from such unions. This kind of social pollution requires some serious purificatory rituals. If you were interested, I would point you in the direction of these ritual texts.


Passing through Beijing Airport not so long ago, I noticed a new product that looked like this:

If the abstract glacial imagery didn’t strike you immediately, here is another side of the same bottle:

I imagine, certainly mistakenly, that they intended the analogy with “Arab Spring.”  It was slightly salty and even a bit musty tasting, which could mean it really was mineral water after all. Still, I’d take the Evian over it any day. 

And to add it in for good measure, in the same airport shop I saw this do-it-yourself model kit for sale. 

 I’m sure you can recognize what it is meant to be.  If not, another clue:

You, too, could have a Potala to call your own.  Just stay away from that bastardly bathwater.

Postscript - September 10, 2016

It’s of interest to learn that the form of the Magic Water label changed over time. We might have been even more ill informed about its evolution if Elliot Sperling had not generously offered this alternative example from his personal collection. Here you see it, but notice that the words "Mchod-rten Nyi-ma" are found there in rather small cursive letters in yellow centered inside the green band at the top. The big letters are large, red Chinese ones, of course. This gives a hint to the marketing target.

Click twice to enlarge

Finally, for a re-blog, see Jichang Lulu's blog entry dated October 1, 2016: Kalendis Octobribus.


  1. Great post!

    I checked Chinese sources on some of these issues and was going to write a comment, but it grew a bit too long so I ended up posting it here (might still undergo updates).

  2. Dear Lulu,

    Thanks for the comment and for the remarkable reblog. That's an impressive amount of work on locating the possible water sources for the bathing and the bottling. I'm not completely sure what your final conclusion is, but as interesting as that is, I don't think it's especially relevant to the issue of interpreting the mysteriously hilarious laughter. Every Tibetan is very likely aware that Chorten Nyima is a place that specializes in purifying the most terrible sin of incest, and the name itself (regardless of exact locations) is what is significant here. I started to wonder if you might be in the bottled water business? Just wondered, not that I know enough about anything, let alone you. I'm always prepared to get better informed, so maybe you could also help me out with the Chinese in the next blog on the Signs of Shangri-la? Yours, D.

    PS: One point: lha-chu could be, in India-related contexts, an epithet for the "Divine River" the Ganga, or in local Tibetan contexts a blessing-bestowing spring. There isn't any sense of "magic" there in those words, it's all about popular Buddhist devotional practice. So no, "Magic Water" is not an accurate translation of the Tibetan. More likely this English is a translation of the Chinese, you think?

  3. Thanks for reacting to my rambling reaction, Dan. I'm a regular reader of your blog, from which I always learn a lot, and as such obviously pleased you took the time to go over what I wrote. As an excursus from my usual blogging topics it's rather carelessly written, basically noting down details as I found them on various sources.

    I don't think I can reach a conclusion, because as you say the essential point is whether Chorten Nyima water is generally perceived (by Tibetans) as meant to purify grave sins, by bathing or otherwise. Where I do end up saying that the hilariousness of casually drinking water so sourced (or just named) is inconsistent with my findings, that should be read while keeping in mind the nature of the sources I consulted. To recapitulate what those were: articles in the Chinese-language press (written in a quasi-advertorial style by reporters with Han names) and Tibetan government websites. These materials do make things look like drinking water from the source is an authentic Tibetan custom, but of course they would say that, wouldn't they. My sources contradict yours; it's not hard to determine which ones are better informed (and less partial) observers of Tibetan traditions.

    I don't work in the bottled water industry (I wish Messrs Ya-med would compensate me for blogging about them). As it happens, I have strong misgivings about it in general, and in Tibet in particular.

    Yes, 'Magic Water' is a (mis)translation of the Chinese 神水 shén shuǐ 'divine water'. I think 神 shén 'spirit, divinity...' has a considerable semantic overlap with lha, and 'magic' isn't really in the Chinese either. Regardless, when I see signs like these with Chinese and something else, my default hypotesis is that any other languages are translated (to use a big word) from the Chinese.

    Which allows us to segue rather seamlessly into Shangri-la. I've been trying to make sense of the horribly mangled-up 'bbe'-sign for some time, unsuccessfully so far. I've also found pictures of other broken Shangri-la translations. All the Chinglish transparently comes from the Chinese, which is understandable considering the Tibetan versions are just decoration. I'm still intrigued about the bbe sign, since I can't find a way to get to it from the Chinese. We could safely say that it's been copied onto the sign by someone not literate in Tibetan, meaning they could have simply confused similarly shaped letters (e.g. *bbe could be dbe, *r.mar could be dmar...). The problem is that I haven't found a plausible original text that could come from the Chinese. Another possibility to consider is input-method/encoding misuse (resulting in broken display of a correct Tibetan original), but that would normally produce even worse gibberish than the sign, that includes legitimate segments (phyi, rting...). I did check some (broken) online PRC tools that could conceivably reproduce the process, but the output was a totally different kind of gibberish.

    So I might leave you disappointed on Shangri-la I'm afraid. I will comment later on other mistranslated signs, but I doubt I can come up with a plausible Road To *Bbe.

    Are you aware of anything in Tibetan sources about the Chorten Nyima's site association with Padmasambhava? And of any (online?) Tibetan-language maps or lists of place names? Finding the Tibetan name for Smon-sde village (in Gampa, Shigatse) took me quite some time, and I couldn't manage to find Tibetan names for the lakes in the Chorten Nyima area.

    Almost all the links in my post are in Chinese, but I do recommend the pictures in the pages linked at the very end of the post. I wonder what the temple looked like before the Cultural Revolution (the one standing now was (re)built in the '80s).

  4. For what it's worth, some PRC Tibetan-language pages mention the Chorten Nyima water, this one for example:

    གམ་པ་རྫོང་མཆོད་རྟེན་ཉི་མ་བོད་ལྗོངས་ལྷ་ཆུའི་ཆུ་མིག་རི་བོ་ཧི་མ་ལ་ཡའི་དབུས་རྒྱུད་བྱང་འདབས་སུ་ཡོད། ས་བབ་མཐོ་ཚད་སྨི་5128ཟིན་པ་དང་གམ་པ་རྫོང་གྲོང་བར་སྤྱི་ལེ་50ཡོད། མཐའ་བཞི་འཁྱགས་རོམ་དང་གངས་རིས་བསྐོར་བས་སྦགས་བཙོག་གི་རྒྱུ་རྐྱེན་གང་ཡང་མེད།

    1. Dear J., The website you quote seems to be emphasizing the reason the water ("divine water") should be regarded as pure and unpolluted: [1] because it's north of the main Himalayan range, [2] because it's at a height of 5127 meters and [3] 50 kilometers distant from the town of Gam-pa Rdzong, and [4] it is surrounded by ice and glacier mountains.

      Anyway, I don't believe the 'joke' on me requires any actual impurity in the water. It's the name of Chorten Nyima itself that provokes the association with incest, regardless of the exact water source, which as you point out could be from anywhere within the very large area. I hope you weren't thinking it was in my mind to insist that there is something 'dirty' about water from this extremely holy place. Our usual ideas about pollution (substances that might be polluting to us) probably don't always apply to holy places.
      Yours, D


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