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From ‘Greatest Leaders’ to ‘Gnomes’: The Decline of Tibetan Vampires and the Rituals for their Subjugation

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Charles Ramble École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, France

The vast population of praeternatural beings that populate the Tibetan cosmos includes a category of demon called sri (pronounced either si or hri). Later Buddhist works represent these creatures as minor demons that are bent on sabotaging the spiritual efforts of meditators. Sometimes translated as ‘gnomes’, the sri are identified as former human beings who have lived a succession of lives dedicated to harming the Buddhist doctrine. A more widespread view represents them as a class of predatory fiends, nine or thirteen in number that feed off the vitality of different categories of humans and livestock. Because of this trait, the term sri has also been translated as ‘vampire’.

Rituals for the destruction of vampires entail trapping their soul or consciousness in a skull (most commonly that of a dog) and burying it in a pit. As an indigenous Tibetan tradition with no apparent Indian Buddhist antecedents, the rite belongs to a category in which the performance is preceded by the narration of a myth that recounts the origin of the vampires and the paradigmatic occasion on which this subjugation ritual was

performed in illo tempore. In the Buddhist variants the protagonists in the myth are depicted in black-and-white terms as unequivocally (and therefore uninterestingly) good or evil. In contrast, a version of the myth that appears in a vampire-subjugation ritual of the Tibetan Bon religion is disturbingly ambivalent with regard to the characters of the predators, their victims and even the figure of the hero.

This presentation will address the significance of these nuances, both in terms of what they tell us about the narrative structure of the myths – there are clues that they may be derived from dreams – and also the nature of vampires, who may originally have been life-giving divinities that later came to be demonised.

The talk will also address the problem of how rituals such as these can be presented in such a way as to capture and convey their complexity: in order to overcome the limitations of the written word and the medium of film, an interactive website, currently in the process of being developed, tackles the problem by means of links between the corresponding points in ethnographic descriptions of the rituals, translations of the ritual texts, and online video recordings of the performances.

Charles Ramble is Directeur d’études (Professor of Tibetan History and Philology) at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, a position he has held since 2009, and a member of East Asian Civilisations Research Centre (CRCAO, UMR 8155, Paris, France, From 2000 to 2010 he was the Lecturer in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford, where he continues to hold a position as University Research

Lecturer. His publications include The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal (2008), and several volumes in a series entitled Tibetan Sources for a Social History of Mustang (2008, 2016, 2017). His research interests include Tibetan social history, the Bon religion, biographical writing, and Tibetan ritual literature and performance.