Demonic or divine, the human mind conjures up a host of unknown creatures that embody our deepest fears. In the Himalaya, where life exists on the edge, these fears and fantasies become acutely amplified. One of these creatures is the Yeti, who is known by many names in the mountains.
Separating fable from fact in Himalayan narratives can be a challenge, as fraught with uncertainty as crossing a snow-covered glacier full of hidden crevasses. But in a curious way, the lore and legends of these high places tend to erase whatever lines exist between truth and fiction, memory and imagination, or even dictatorial proof and egalitarian invention. Science can sometimes be as enigmatic as poetry, while lyric verses often contain more clear-sighted observations than rational interpolation. There is probably no better example of the ambiguous intersection of reality and perception or logic and make-believe, than various quests for the ‘Abominable Snowman’.
Toward the end of their stay in the Valley of Flowers, Frank Smythe and Wangdi Norbu set off to reconnoitre a route to Nilgiri Parbat. While crossing a high pass into a parallel valley, they came upon a set of footprints in the snow. Freshly made and not yet melted by the sun, the tracks appeared to be impressions of exceptionally large, unshod human feet.
Wangdi immediately insisted that these were the prints of a ‘Ban Manshi’ or ‘Mirka’, as he called it. Trying to make Smythe understand, he also used a combination of Tibetan and Hindustani, calling it a ‘Kang Admi’ or snow-mountain man.
Sceptical but intrigued, Smythe drew outlines of the prints on pages of a Spectator magazine he was carrying in his rucksack and took several photographs. The Sherpas, whom he described as terrified, claimed that these were tracks of a ferocious beast that fed on yaks and men. According to the lore of Solu-Khumbu, the creature’s toes pointed backward. When Smythe insisted on trying to discover where it had come from, Wangdi refused to accompany him, saying that they would be walking into a trap. According to Sherpa beliefs, simply setting eyes on a Mirka caused death and for that reason no man alive had ever seen one.
Going on alone, Smythe followed the spoor in the snow to a small cave beyond which the tracks disappeared into the rocks. To the relief of Wangdi, the sahib returned safely and then followed the tracks in the opposite direction until they descended a steep rock face 300 metres to the glacier below. Using a monocular, Smythe traced the route.
I was much impressed by the difficulties overcome and the intelligence displayed in overcoming them. In order to descend the face, the beast had made a series of intricate traverses and had zig-zagged down a series of ridges and gullies. His track down the glacier was masterly, and from our perch I could see every detail and how cunningly he had avoided concealed snow covered crevasses. An expert mountaineer could not have made a better route and to have accomplished it without an ice-axe would have been both difficult and dangerous, whilst the unroped descent of a crevassed snow-covered glacier must be accounted as unjustifiable. Obviously the ‘Snowman’ was well qualified for membership of the Himalayan Club.
Later, when his photographs were developed, Smythe sent copies to the Zoological Society and Natural History Museum in London, where scientists reached a consensus that these were the prints of a brown bear, Ursus arctos (uncertainty remained over which subspecies — isabellinus or pruinosus). The fact that the tracks seemed to have been made by a biped was explained through a less-than-convincing theory that the bear’s hind feet were placed directly on the prints of the forefeet. The resulting irregularities supposedly led to the Sherpa belief that this creature walked with its feet pointing backward.
None of this, of course, would have reassured Wangdi and the others who were convinced that they had found evidence of a superhuman carnivore, half-beast and half-man. According to their legends, the Mirka was covered with fur, varying in colour from white to brown or black. The female of this strange species was slightly smaller and had ‘exceptionally large pendulous breasts, which she must perforce sling over her shoulders when walking or running.’
Stories like this from different parts of the Himalaya have generated widespread fascination for the ‘Yeti’, another Sherpa name for the creature. When Smythe published an article in The Times detailing his observations and emphasizing that it must have been a bear, the story provoked an eager, excited response from English readers, some of whom insisted that an expedition should be mounted immediately by the Royal Geographical Society to track down this exotic and mysterious beast.
While there is no empirical evidence to support belief in the Yeti, it is equally impossible to completely discount or disprove its existence, simply because it hasn’t been found. Whatever our convictions, most of us want to believe in something as yet undiscovered. Smythe, himself, admitted tongue-in-cheek, that he hoped his rational conclusions might be disproved. ‘In this murky age of materialism,’ he wrote, ‘human beings have to struggle to find the romantic, and what could be more romantic than an Abominable Snowman, together with an Abominable Snow-woman, and, not least of all, an Abominable Snow-baby?’
Even with the cold and critical gaze of modern science upon us, our human imagination conjures up a host of unknown creatures that embody our deepest fears. Mythology is full of monsters that are composites of ourselves and other animals, just as we imagine there may be angels and heroic giants, born of men and gods. This represents a core anxiety of our species, that somehow we can cross-breed with other life forms, either demonic or divine. In the Himalaya, where life exists on the edge, these fears and fantasies become acutely amplified.
More than 150 kilometres to the east of Solu-Khumbu, in Sikkim, the Lepcha people tell stories similar to Sherpa accounts of the Yeti, though they call their creature Jyamphi Moong. Folklorist Lyangsong Tamsang describes a fierce monster with long hair and feet turned backward. The Lepchas believe that these beasts live near the snow line and communicate through whistles. Males and females live alone for most of the year except during the mating season when they seek each other’s company.
Once upon a time, a shepherd named Atek, who was camped in the high mountains with his flock of goats and sheep, picked up his flute at dusk and began to play ‘a haunting melancholy tune’. Soon, he was alarmed to see a female Jyamphi Moong emerge out of the shadows. Though the creature looked ferocious, she was obviously attracted to the music and Atek continued playing as she listened. Whenever he set aside his flute, the Jyamphi Moong immediately picked it up and put the instrument to his lips again so that he was forced to play all night. Only in the morning, when the sun rose, did the creature disappear. Night after night, the monster returned, insisting that Atek play his flute until dawn. Exhausted and desperate, the shepherd finally came up with a plan. The next night, when the Jyamphi Moong arrived, she found Atek standing by a blazing bonfire, slathering his body with butter. As he began to play his flute, the creature imitated him by rubbing butter all over herself, until her hair was sleek and glossy. Atek then drew a burning log from the fire and pretended to warm himself. The hairy beast did the same but, in a flash, her well-greased fur caught fire. Enveloped in flames, she ran away into the snow-covered mountains, never to return. Because of this story, Lepchas believe it is bad luck to play a flute or even whistle after dark.
(Extract taken with permission from the Aleph Book Company)