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Movie Review: The Saltmen of Tibet (1997)

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A tribe of nomads in Tibet’s Changtang region have been making an annual 90-day journey to the salt lakes (Lake Tsentso, in this case) to bring back salt and exchange it for barley. This tribe has been collecting salt in the same way since ages. An old lady can remember about this occupation to as far back as 70 years. They are subject to the vagaries of the market price for salt. Sometimes, when salt does not fetch a good price, they store it and sell their yak to buy barley.

Their occupation is steeped in rituals, ceremonies, invocations, chantings, prohibitions (no woman allowed), ceremonial initiation if a novice enters this “occupation”, rules of language (a confidential language spoken among salt men only), rules of conduct (“not to consort with women on the journey”, “cannot fart while on the lake”), and so on. They hold that if the Goddess of the lake is displeased, then the lake-bed will not yield any salt. There will be too much water, making it impossible to isolate and scrape-up the salt.

Their nomadic journey takes them across streams, hills and plains. The wind blows all the time. Unlike earlier, nowadays they do not meet anyone on the way for days together. The route takes them across roads where the odd bus plies.

This journey is a walk of 30 days and it is all physical work at the lake. One does not need skill to get this salt, one should have good karma, says the elder of this group of nomads. The yaks on the journey to the lake are grouped into two. One group carries the loads and moves ahead to set up the next camp before dark. The other group follows and is allowed to graze. The next day, the two groups are interchanged. Thus, the animals carry the loads and also feed.

The documentary takes a close look at all their activities. The message is that these people are at peace and in complete surrender to their lifestyle and their various gods, goddesses and deities, including the Dalai Lama. In tune with the changing times, trucks come and load up salt from the same lakes. However, any change in the way these nomads go about this “business” is unthinkable for them. Their slow pace of life is noticeable. The scenery on the journey suggests extreme conditions. It is raw, barren but lovely. Tibet’s stunning beauty has been captured.

Director Ulrike Koch’s film suggests that a unique Tibetan way of life is near extinction. However, it should be realized that the march of commerce and progress is inevitable, and the onslaught of change is being witnessed in most traditional occupations. Therefore, this film can be taken only as a chronicle of a dying tradition of a nomadic people in a remote region.

Rating: 3/5

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