Thursday, March 06, 2008

Yaks, a Few Useful Bits

Today's blog is dedicated to Master PSz of Thor-bu blog, just because [1] I know he is inordinately fond of the sort of hilariously slaughtered English you find quoted here very soon if you are a fast reader (no, I do not, I repeat, not mean the stuff you are reading right now) and [2] it was his blog that inspired me to start blogging to begin with.

I should say right from the word 'go' that none of the uses of Bos grunniens that I am about to talk about revolve around, or even necessarily involve, the death of the animal. Certainly nobody would be stupid enough to slaughter such a fine and valuable beast as the wild yak (Tibetans call it a drong ['brong]) like the one you see above for the sake of the horn or tail alone. Yes, you're right, there's the musk deer, but that's a different story, so hold off on that for one minute. Yak hair could be woven or felted to make those black tents that many of the nomads of Tibet use as their primary dwellings. Given the present involuntary resettlement policies of the Peoples Republic they may all be gone before you know it. There is, in fact, a black tent belt with its western end touching the Atlantic Ocean in north Africa somewhere in the vicinity of Mauritania stretching all the way east across the Tibetan plateau (in places where no yaks are available, they have to make do with goat hair). I won't say even one more word today about the use of yak flesh as food, or about so-called yak milk, except to say there is no such thing, since the yak [g.yag] is the name only of the male of the species. Yak cheese? Ditto! Yak leather will also be overlooked. I know that talk of such matters is repugnant to the vegetarians among us, and of course the vegans will be disturbed regardless of what use we might make of any animal product. Since animal products are what this post is all about I recommend you vegans find something else to do for entertainment just now, that is, unless you enjoy getting really grossed out. Hey, I'm not asking anybody to buy any of this stuff so ease up, alright? We also won't do more than mention the use of the yak for labor purposes, especially for plowing and long distance shipments. That goes, too, for the use of its sun-dried manure as fuel to heat water for Tibetan tea churned in a wooden churn with salt and butter made from the milk of the yak's wife...

"All men are Greeks," as the syllogistic saying goes,* {*I've just been told this is a corruption of the original figure of speech, which went "All men are jerks" which is itself a free rendering of a maxim of one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, Bias of Priene, Οἱ πλεῖστοι κακοί, usually translated "All men are wicked"} but not all that many Greeks could ever claim to be Alexandrian Egyptian African Nestorian Christians living in the 6th century of our Common Era. Cosmas Indicopleustes was not only all that, but an early traveler to India as well, as the 'Sailed to India' part of his name clearly indicates. His book
Christian Topography relates his own experiences along with his own hearsay while traveling about the entire length of the coastal regions between Ethiopia and Sri Lanka. These travels took place in or around and about the year 535 CE. Chapter Eleven of Christian Topography has very interesting descriptions of Indian animals (well, in reality, this means animals found anywhere between Ethiopia and Sri Lanka). There, near the beginning of the chapter, just before his account of the unicorn, and immediately after the giraffe, we find two very relevant bits, one after the other, about the agriobous and the moschus:
The Agriobous or Wild Ox.

This wild ox is a large Indian animal, and from it is got what is called the toupha, with which commanders of armies decorate their horses and banners when taking the field. If his tail, it is said, catches in a tree, he does not seek to move off but stands stock-still, having a strong aversion to lose even a single hair of his tail. So the people of the place come and cut off his tail, and then the beast, having lost it all, makes his escape. Such is the nature of this animal.

The Moschus or Musk-deer.

The small animal, again, is the moschus, called in the native tongue Kastouri. Those who hunt it pierce it with arrows, and having tied up the blood collected at the navel they cut it away. For this is the part which has the pleasant fragrance known to us by the name of musk. The men then cast away the rest of the carcase.

I only quoted the part about the musk deer because it helps the argument that his "wild ox" is indeed the yak, even though I don't think doubts are in order, for reasons to be given eventually if you will just try and be more patient. Musk is a very well known Tibetan product, used everywhere in Eurasia by those who could afford it since Roman times or even before. For Tibetans it was always one of their main money-makers. Cosmas isn't on target when it comes to what it is exactly that gets cut off, but otherwise, that hunters do have the habit of removing the musk pouch and leaving the rest as carrion for the birds was and is true... Unfortunately for these gentle and anyway ill-starred creatures! They must be one of the very few beneficiaries of the modern use of synthetic aromatics. Cosmas gives the Sanskrit as well as Hindi name for musk in a perfectly acceptable form, although in strict transliteration it is kastūrī. The Tibetan name is latsi (gla-rtsi). You know what it smells like without the least doubt, so let's get to the yaks, shall we?

The 1897 edition of
Christian Topography was translated by McCrindle, who added a few helpful notes. One note explains that the wild ox is the yak known to naturalists as Bos grunniens. The other explains that the toupha is the Turkish name for the horse-tail standard. This tupha (the more common spelling) obviously isn't made from horse tails, but from yak tails. (And McCrindle is not quite correct on this point, as we'll see.)

You would be wrong to be too concerned that Cosmas calls it an "Indian animal," since first of all, although we may associate the yak with the Himalayan plateau, you do find it in areas that were and are part of India, at high altitudes of course, mainly on the southern slopes of the Himalayan mountain chain (but yes, quite far from the coastal areas visited by Cosmas). The idea that the yak, known in Sanskrit as
camara (Tibetan g.yag), is very careful to preserve every last hair on its tail (cāmara, noting the lengthmark: Tibetan rnga-yab) is an Indian poetic conceit. By this I mean to say it is better known to Indian literary works than it is to Tibetans at large, although some may be familiar with it. I remember one learned Tibetan swearing that it's a fact about actual yak behavior, but even with all due respect for the person who said it, I can't say that I'm certain it's true.

One classic Tibetan composition does make use of the poetic image, and it may serve as an example. This is the
Eighty Verses in Praise of Atisha composed by Atisha's disciple Nagtso. It was inscribed in 1054 CE or soon after on the back of a giant tangka painting depicting Atisha that Nagtso had painted for himself by an Indian artist named Krishna. The verse may be translated like this:
When you entered the door of the Shravaka Vehicle
you protected moral disciplines like a yak its tail.
Homage to you, the supreme bhikshu with the splendor of
celibacy, sthavira elder, master of the Vinaya.

{*Shravaka means 'Hearer.' Bhikshu means fully ordained monk. Sthavira means elder, and like Shravaka it is associated with the Lower Vehicle, to which the Mahayana, the 'Great Vehicle' believes itself superior in terms of teachings and practices. Vinaya means the whole body of monastic rules, and not just the texts of the same. Celibacy translates the Tibetan equivalent of Sanskrit brahmacarya. Many may be fooled into thinking the yak tail metaphor is a nice Tibetan touch, but they would be mistaken. The whole verse, including the yak, while composed by a Tibetan, is Indian through and through! That's why I've left the technical terms in their Sanskritic forms, only without the diacritic marks, so you will get this idea... Devious, huh!}

But what about the usage of the yak tail as a banner mentioned by Cosmas? Well, I wish I knew more. The use as a tupha, of Turkic origin, is probably not as well known as the Indian chowry (Sanskrit: cāmara), so let's start with the more familiar. On the whole you could say that the yak-tail fan, or whisk if you prefer, is a symbol of royalty, and with that same meaning it traveled throughout Asia. Its practical usage is the very same thing that made it so useful to the yak to which it was once so well attached: To swish away flies. Anyone who has been to India knows that the flies there are particularly pesky, persistently alighting on your eyelids or trying their best to crawl onto your eardrums and into your nostrils. Well, some Jain monks would use it to sweep away from the path insects in danger of being stepped upon. And of course the royal symbolism could and did become part of religious worship in which the deity is paid royal honors (as a guest who has to receive the very best possible hospitality). That's why there is much use of the yak tail in Indian rituals.

Another not entirely unrelated use of yak tails may not be so well known today, but it was more common knowledge over 50 years ago when the Lhasa government was conducting its own trade relations with foreign countries. In the U.S. at least the main import from Tibet in those days was yak tail hair. Suydam Cutting, a businessman heading a wool company, was certainly one of the persons involved in this trade. The Newark Museum still preserves some of his correspondence with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Indeed the Tibetan-language versions of a few of His Holiness' letters to Cutting written in 1931 and 1932 may be found in His Collected Works. As I remember, Cutting sent two pairs of dogs, Dachshunds and Dalmatians, to the Dalai Lama, in return for the pair of Lhasa Apso dogs, named Tsarong and Bidgy, that figure somehow in the bloodlines that rule American dog shows until today. I don't think the Dachshunds and Dalmatians were all that fortunate on the Tibetan plateau. At least one of the dogs soon died, much to the grief of His Holiness. There was something in Cutting's book, which isn't at hand at the moment, about trade in yak tails. I hope you still remember the main character from my last blog, the martyred missionary Maurice Tornay. In his biography by Robert Loup, on p. 202, in the chapter authored by the Library of Congress reference librarian Raphael Brown, is the most interesting passage:

Actually China feared that the [Tibetan Trade] Mission [of 1947-48] was trying to obtain political recognition of Tibet's national independence, and was able to induce governments with which it had friendly relations to ignore or pay a minimum of attention to the Tibetan envoys. Perhaps this was the reason why in the United States the press did not take them very seriously, referring to them semi-humorously as "yak-tail dealers" and playing up the fact that Tibetan "yak tails are used as beards for superduper Santa Claus costumes."

Even more obscure are the sources on the use of yak hair as a battle standard. About all I can say is that certainly the Turks, as well as the Mongols, made use of this symbolic 'banner' which, at least when it came to the Middle East, was more likely made using horse tails. There are two names, tupha and tugh. The tugh (or tug, with the 'g' scarcely pronounced in modern language) is at least Turkish Turkish and Uighur Turkish according to my dictionaries. I could locate only one illustration of what are supposed to be Turkish tugs on the internet. Cosmas uses the more familiar Greek term toupha (τούφα), which is related to the English usages of tuft and toupee. An even more interesting question than the etymologies of the names, for me at least, is How did this war banner get placed on the tops of Tibetan monasteries? In Tibet, it is indeed called a tug (thug). You see in the following pictures that there is a trident at the top, above a cylindrical contraption encasing black yak hairs.

Here is an example from the roof of the Potala. In the foreground on your right you see a 'victory banner' or
gyeltsen (rgyal-mtshan), while further in the distance and to your left you see a 'spire' or ganjira (gan-dzi-ra). Still further on your left you see the tug.

and here is another example, closer up:

One Tibetologist (see Everding's article listed below) says that the thug is a kind of banner used on top of the protector temples called gönkhang (mgon-khang), both symbolizing, and serving as a receptacle for, the presence of the protective deity.

Is it possible that the warlike symbolism of the
tug was known to Tibetans when they borrowed (?) it, and that it might fit naturally with the often militant imagery displayed in the gönkhangs? Is there any historic connection at all between the fly whisk and the military banner? Or do they share nothing more than the tails they are made from?* Well, I was hoping for an answer, but instead I leave you with a number of questions. Which may be just as well. Better this than pre-mature answers.
(*Actually, the preferable color for the yaktail fly-swisher is white. But in the case of the tugh, white would be a sign of surrender, black for the battle charge.)

I'll close with another yak product, this one made not from hair but from horns. I guess it's entirely self-explanatory.


Yak horn com with Magic Cattle brand is a sanitarian comb that made of yak horn of Qingzang plateau. It do not contain any chemical pigment. Its sanitarian and iatrical effect was recorded by BEN CAO GANG MU GEGU LUN long ago:
1. antidote, refrigerant, cool blood
2. calm, help sleeping, lower blood pressure
3. none static. It still can banish fag, increasing cells of brain and make your hair dark and bright.

Don't stop now. Read and read some more:

Cosmas Indicopleustes,
Christian Topography. Freely available online, just search for it.

Helmut Eimer,
Testimonia for the Bstod-pa brgyad-cu-pa, an Early Hymn Praising Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna (Atiśa), Lumbini International Research Institute (Lumbini 2003), at pp. 18, 33 & 55.

Karl-Heinz Everding, The Mongol States and Their Struggle for Dominance over Tibet in the 13th Century, contained in: Henk Blezer, ed.,
Tibet, Past and Present [Tibetan Studies 1], Brill (Leiden 2002), pp. 109-128, at p. 121.

Thubten Legshay Gyatsho, The Eighteenth Chogay Trichen,
Gateway to the Temple: Manual of Tibetan Monastic Customs, Art, Building and Celebrations, translated by David Paul Jackson, Ratna Pustak Bhandar (Kathmandu 1979). On p. 40 is a brief mention of tug (here spelled thugs) used atop gönkhangs. Also, illustrations 10 & 11, opposite page 48, contain photos showing two examples from temple roofs in Ladakh.

Tina Harriss,
On the Tail of the Yak: The Social Geography of Tibetan Trade. The author, a doctoral student at the City University, New York, was awarded a Helen Wallis Fellowship at the British Library (June–August 2006 and again in 2008). I've never seen this thesis, and my sole source of information about it is Tony Campbell, compiler, Chronicle for 2006, Imago Mundi, vol. 59, no. 2 (2007), pp. 251 - 266. Sure sounds interesting, though.

Hermann Kreutzmann, Yak-Keeping in High Asia,
Kailash, vol. 18, nos. 1-2 (1996), pp. 17-38.

Angela Manderscheid, The Black Tent in Its Easternmost Distribution: The Case of the Tibetan Plateau,
Mountain Research and Development, vol. 21, no. 2 (May 2001), pp. 154-160, with illustrations and maps. In Tibetan, the word for 'black tent' is banag (sbra-nag). For an online version, press here.

Stanley J. Olsen, Fossil Ancestry of the Yak, Its Cultural Significance and Domestication in Tibet, Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, vol. 142 (1990), pp. 73-100. This author insists that earlier identification of the yak as Poephagus grunniens (Linnaeus), which recently changed to Bos grunniens ought to be changed back to Poephagus grunniens.  He could be right, but more important for present purposes are his comments on use of yak horns, hair, etc.

E.H. Parker, Horse-tail Standards. A brief note in an issue of
The China Review. I believe it's available online. I guess you can get to it through this page. He suggests an ancient Chinese origin for it.

Marco Polo,
The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition, Dover (New York 1993, reprint edition). The footnotes to this work contains a classic description of the yak, with quotations from early literature on the same; see chapter 57 in vol. 1, pp. 277-9. 

W. Rao, Poetic Conventions in Indian Kāvya Literature,
Adyar Library Bulletin, vol. 50 (1986), pp. 191-7, at p.196, has references to the *Indian* metaphor of the yak who protects every hair on its tail.

Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell,
Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary, Wordsworth Reference (Ware 1996), reprint of the first edition of 1886. The entries for "chowry" on pp. 214-5, and for "yak" on pp. 975-6. If you can't find the book in your library, try the online version here.

Zdzislaw Zygulski Jr.,
Ottoman Art in the Service of Empire, Hagop Kevorkian Series on Near Eastern Art & Civilization, New York University Press (New York 1992). This book is supposed to have a whole chapter about tughs. Although I haven't seen it yet, I hope to.

Seen in Oslo in 2009:
A Norwegian tugh worn with pride

I'd also recommend a delightfully illustrated cross-cultural page on fly whisks by Dr. Gabi Greve of the Daruma San Museum, Japan. Have a

There is a tremendous amount of technical literature about yak husbandry, including some available for free download, but don't say I didn't warn you (well, I most recommend
this one and especially this part). If that doesn't sound like your idea of fun, try schmoogling about the internet for pictures of yaks. In the U.S. at least, it seems that every last farmer who has one has also placed 4H-Fair quality photographs of it on the internet. This is not true of Tibetan nomads, who haven't yet recognized the importance of bragging rights. It's certainly worthwhile visiting the site of the International Yak Association (iYak), which also hosts the American Yak Registry, if only just to see who won this year's coveted Blue Ribbon award for all-round best yak. For you wired Tibetans, too, I'd imagine this would be a worthwhile, or even useful amusement.


  1. I wonder if a yak-bone comb was ever dragged across that immortal quif sported by the 'King' himself?

  2. Dear Caution,

    Throwing caution to the wind, I'm willing to bet a silk pajama you must be thinking about Yakity Yak, The Coasters, 1958. Am I wrong?

    Take out the papers and the trash
    Or you don't get no spendin' cash
    If you don't scrub that kitchen floor
    You ain't gonna rock and roll no more
    Yakety yak (don't talk back)

    Duh huh? Insert animated smiley please! Now there are a lot of serious matters to go back to worrying about. Thanks for the funny interlude.


  3. There sure is...and I'm on the case 24/7..Bhod Ranzen Tsangma Yin!


  4. I received an extremely long email from an anonymous writer. I would let it get posted here, but it is long, much longer even than my own blog postings. And besides, it could be my fault, but I have to confess that I hardly understood any of it. I'll paste in the beginning of it below, just as a sample. I do want to encourage free and open speech here (the only exception being overly strong expressions of emotional poisons), and I'd be the last one to say that truth might not be found in things I don't understand. Clear?


    Here is the sample from the anonymous comment (that means I didn't write it myself!) — —

    Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Yaks, a Few Useful Bits":

    Tibet has fallen prey to the Big Lie of democracy, just as the Vietnamese did decades ago.

    Like aging, sleep is behavior forced upon us.
    News story on sleep research, a good example of how education is preditory, deceptive.
    People aren't fresher or sharper because of good sleep. The gods control all this.
    Actually, they've mentioned that people with favor don't have to sleep and, like aging, sleep is behavior forced upon us.
    This is today's research. Expect this applies to early research as well.
    Incidentally, the gods create male superiority in the fields of computers, science and math for preditory reason.
    Search "finalprophet" and the Man in the Moon paragraph to find my sound file web site.
    There is one geographic clue I have not addressed in years:::Uranus, a planet tilted 90 degrees on its axis. I have stated in years past that I think this is yet another geographic clue offered by the gods, this one suggesting the fate of planet Earth, that tectonic plate subduction would be the method of disposal:::Earth's axis will shift breaking continental plates free and initiating mass subduction.
    Undesirables will either perish in the government marijuana erradication program "gone awry" or be the recipients of reparations granted by the US government because of it.
    Or both.
    I believe the New Testiment battle of the Anti-Christ and the Second Coming of Christ will ocurr in subsequent years SPECIFICALLY because these people will be distracted with the money during the event.
    When the Earth's axis shifts people will be cast into outer space with gold cards in hand.
    I think this was foreshadowed on an episode of the Simpsons where Homer and Bart are on the disfavored ship and eject, only to experience a sense of euphoria, expand then explode in the vacuum of space.

  5. Gosh, I'm flattered! Thank you for the dedication! It seems silly, but I just found out you might have 'something' to do with the 'tibskrit' file which I use every day. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    Btw, yak-burgers in Sa skya are quite good :)


  6. Dear PSz,

    I won't correct you, because you're not wrong. But personally I'd never confess to eating the stuff. Don't feel flattered. Feel proud. We'll have to talk more.


  7. Dear Dan,

    ... well, more than two years later, I found myself stumbling across a passage in the Buddhavaṃsa (II, verse 123) where the (here: female) yak's unwillingness to part with their tail-hair and rather die instead is (like in the verse you cited) mentioned as a simile in connection with "morality", or right conduct (śīla) - this is in a list of the ten perfections that the bodhisatta is to cultivate. Nice to stumble across this blog entry that likewise relates this simile!

  8. I had to chuckle recently when I saw Rhys Davids comment on the tail-protecting metaphor "which to us appears wanting in dignity."

    I suppose more because it concerns a tail than that it concerns a yak? Surely there was no intention to suggest that the yak might lack dignity.

  9. Hi Dan,

    Tina Harriss' On the Tail of the Yak: The Social Geography of Tibetan Trade, which you mentioned above, was submitted under a slightly different title (omitting the yak tail), as I realized today:

    Christina Honjo Harris. Silk roads and wool routes : the social geography of Tibetan trade. Thesis (Ph. D.)--City University of New York, 2009, 236 pages.

    Sorry, just a note to myself, so that I have the proper details at hand when I stumble across this blog in 15 years or so.

    Yours, Arno

  10. Dear Dan (and Arno),

    What a illuminating blog post; I've just stumbled upon it today in preparation for speaking about yak tails (in a very roundabout way, I'm afraid - none of this great detail here on this page) at this year's IATS. Many thanks for it.

    If it is of any interest, my thesis that you mention above is now a book:
    There's not too much about yak tails in there, but they remain a longstanding interest.

    I do hope the link above doesn't count as a link to a commercial page as per the guidelines below. If so, feel free to remove it.

    Kind regards,

    Tina Harris

  11. Dear Tina,
    No, it doesn't count as commercial as long as it's a book that one might reasonably expect to find in a free lending library within driving distance. I'm afraid I never did get to see the dissertation, but I did get the book, Geographical Diversions: Tibetan Trade, Global Transactions, published by the University of Georgia Press. I'll read it before long. I recently learned from an optimistic demographer that humans won't top 10 Billion until the end of the century, so maybe there is hope for a few of the wild animals to be able to move and breathe, you think?

    Yours, D


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