Autumn was the season for nomad marriages, and this year Dolma’s sister, Nyima was to marry a nomad boy from a neighboring tribe. They had herded yaks together, and in the beauty of the summer pastures their friendship had turned to love. Most marriages in Tibet are arranged between the two families, but love matches are also common – if the parents are agreeable. All through the summer the two families had visited each other and exchanged gifts. They had also consulted an astrologer to decide the date of the wedding, for it was very important that the day should be lucky.
When the great day came, all Nyima’ friends and relatives were gathered around her tent. Lhamo and Dorjee came from the village dressed in their best clothes, though Dorjee’s were a little damp as he had fallen into the river on the way. Just after dawn, a party of horsemen could be seen descending the steep mountain path, leading a splendid white yak, saddled and decorated in bright colors. As the party approached, Nyima’s parents went out and began to shout at them, ‘Who are those ragged people’, they cried, ‘Why, they are just a bunch of robbers and brigands.’ The bridegroom and his party smiled and inquired where the people were to receive them, for they could only see a bunch of beggars. This joking and insulting went on all day, but it was meant in fun, and was the custom at all nomad weddings.
As evening drew near, Nyima was helped on to the yak, and the two parties set off back up the hill to the bridegroom’s camp. There, they were met by the bridegroom’s mother who presented the young bride with a bucket of milk. Nyima burst into tears and begged to be taken home again. Actually, she was very much in love with her new husband, but brides are expected to cry at their weddings. After Dolma and Lhamo had comforted her, everyone went inside the main tent where a great feast had been prepared. No religious ceremony was preformed – indeed many Tibetans believe it is unlucky to have a monk at a marriage. The feasting and drinking went on all night, and it was morning before Lhamo and Dolma stumbled wearily back to their village and their beds.
The status of women in Tibet was better than in most other Asian countries. For the peasants and nomads, marriage meant a working partnership between two people, with the wife in full control of the home. If the couple did not get on, they could get a divorce. This carried no shame and divorced women would marry again quite easily. Among the nomads it was not uncommon for two brothers to share the same wife. In this way the yak and sheep herds were kept in the same family. In contrast, a nobleman might marry two sisters, though one wife was more usual.
The Tibetans had a very open and direct way of dealing with death. When a person died, they were taken to a special place – usually high up in the mountains – where the body was hacked to pieces with an axe. Incense was burnt to attract the vultures, and the flesh was then fed to them to the sound of a drum beat and prayers of the mourners. Even the bones were broken up and fed to the birds. If a poor family could not afford to hire men to cut up the body, the corpse was thrown in the river, where it was eaten by fish. For Buddhists believe that it is the mind which is important, not the physical body. So the best thing that can be done with a corpse is to feed it to the other living creatures. Only the bodies of holy lamas or incarnations were burnt or, in very rare cases, embalmed.