This is a story of the far-off Kingdom of Para. Few people from Africa, Europe or the Americas have ever visited Para, for it is located in a wild mountainous region at the base of the towering Himalayas. There are no roads into the country. In order to reach even the capital city, one must march for three weeks along narrow paths winding through dark jungles of dense bamboo. These jungles are among the most beautiful in the world, but they are the domain of the wily and cruel leopard, and he is jealous of intruders. Because it is so hard to get to, Para receives few visitors. There is nothing to disturb the peaceful, isolated life of the Paraese. Although their forefathers were fierce warriors, the people of Para no longer remember their ways. The last Paraese maker of poisoned arrows and lances died over a century ago, poor and unhonored, without even a son to follow him in his craft.
The events of our story took place long ago, soon after the fierce forefathers of the Paraese, driven from the South by even fiercer warriors, had come to settle in the fertile valley of Xhatmand, at the base of the great Gauri Shankar glacier. By now, they have long since been forgotten. When they took place, during the sixth year of the reign of Ahir Gupta, one of the strongest and wisest of Paraese kings, Rana Doti was a young herd boy.
Each morning, after he drank his bowl of curd, he would gather his father’s flock of sheep and goats together and climb with them to the meadow at the very edge of the glacier where wild flowers grew. There he would remain until evening, when once more he would return to his mother’s hut in the village below. Sometimes another herdboy from the village would climb with Rana to the meadow. These were happy days. As they watched their flocks, they would laugh and play, until all too soon it was time to return home.
More often, however, Rana was alone and the day did not go so swiftly. On such days Rana spent much of his time lying in the grass among the wildflowers and playing his pipe. The sheep and the goats loved his gay music and would come and nuzzle him with their wet salty tongues as he played. Then Rana would lay down his pipe and scratch them behind the ears, for he knew that it was there that they especially liked to be scratched.
Everyone in Rana’s village agreed that he was the best piper in the village and his piping was known up and down the valley, even though he was just a young boy and not worthy of much attention from his elders. Still, his was the gayest pipe the people had heard in many a year and they loved to dance to it at the big festivals in the spring when it was time to plant again and in the fall when the harvest had been gathered. No one else could make their heels fly and their hearts leap with joy as Rana could.
Only a few old, old men who sat around the dying embers of the bonfires after the dancing was over asked themselves how such a quiet child with such dark, serious eyes could pipe such a lively tune. However, as was their custom, they said nothing and continued stroking their long fine white beards. And so, in the sixth year of the reign of Ahir Gupta, Rana’s piping was in demand throughout the valley, from Xhatmand to Malibum, wherever people gathered to dance.
Rana’s parents worried that all the praise he was receiving for his piping would turn Rana’s head. Rana’s father went so far as to discuss with his older brother the possibility of sending Rana away far to the North near the Paraese border for the summer. However, they need not have worried, for Rana was largely indifferent to the praises of his elders. He played at festivals only to be obliging. For himself, he preferred to play far up in the high meadows where only his flock, the wild flowers strewn among the grass, and the great white glacier could hear him.
Only here did he loose the true music of his heart. Nor was this music always gay. Often at twilight, particularly on days when the distant mountain peaks were shrouded in thick cloud, Rana’s pipe played tunes far different from the ones to which the people of the valley below loved to dance. On one such day, a woodcutter passing through the forest on his way home happened to hear Rana playing. Although he stopped to listen, the melodies seemed so strange that it never occurred to him that they might have come from Rana’s pipe.
They intertwined themselves with the cool evening breezes, blended perfectly with the silvery light fading back to the edge of the forest. They spoke of loneliness and longing, of the emptiness and splendor of the great silent glacier and the shrouded peaks that lay beyond it. When the woodcutter reached home, he told his wife that he had heard one of the dead ancestors singing of his sorrows on the border of the forest.
Whenever Rana’s flock heard this music, they stopped their grazing and raised their necks to gaze at him. So they would see him at the very edge of the meadow, a slight, dark figure, standing perfectly still as he played, his eyes raised towards the gray mass of the glacier, glowing with a dark blue coldness as it receded into the night. Beyond the glacier, his eyes seemed to be searching for something. But this was his secret, the secret that set the old men thinking, and he shared it with no one, not even his flock. And so, when one of the youngest goats felt the chill and gave a small bleat of fear, he would stop playing and lead his flock quietly home.
In the month of May, during the sixth year of the reign of Ahir Gupta, a band of young men from the western part of the kingdom arrived at the royal pavillion in Xhatmand bearing strange news. They had been travelling to Malibum through the snowfields along the western edge of Gauri Shankar. Early one morning, they came across a set of footprints in the snow such as none of them had ever seen before. The prints were the size of a man’s, but much fainter than any man’s footprints could ever have been. They barely disturbed the crust of the snow. Even more unusual was the way they were arranged. It was as if someone had been doing a light quick dance in the snow.
The footprints were so extraordinary that the young men interrupted their journey to visit the neighboring villages to ask the advice of the elders. After many days of consultation, a man was found who, as a child, recalled seeing a white creature that looked like a man climbing up the face of the glacier. He had never told anyone what he had seen, since everyone knew that nothing except for a spirit could live there and he was afraid of being ridiculed. This made the matter so perplexing that it was decided that the young men should inform the king, which they did. At first, the king expressed keen interest. News of the young men’s experience spread throughout the kingdom. Other reports of similar footprints were received from different areas. There was even another man who claimed to have seen the white creature high in the mountains.
Then the king consulted his courtiers. They replied that the matter was a difficult one and that they would have to consider it at length. After many days of deliberations in a silken tent where they were provided with all they could eat, they returned to the king.
“Ahir Gupta,” they said, “we have considered the matter with all our wisdom. Everyone knows that nothing but a spirit can live amid the glaciers and the mountains. Since spirits do not leave footprints, we conclude that there is no such thing as this strange creature. No dancing snowman exists. The whole matter is ridiculous.”
So the young men were scolded for disturbing the important men of the kingdom with frivolities and sent back to their homes with only the smallest amount of food for the journey. It was also officially declared that no such thing as the dancing snowman existed.
Unfortunately, however, the children of the kingdom had become fascinated with the idea of the dancing snowman who lived high up amid the glaciers and the mountains. What a fine life he must have! How wonderful to be able to live closer to the sky than any other man. Despite the official proclamation, the children refused to believe that the snowman did not exist. Their favorite game was to pretend to be snowmen, imagining what it would be like to live up higher than any of them had ever been, spending the whole day sliding on the glaciers and dancing in the snowfields.
This refusal of the children to believe the official proclamation caused no end of difficulty in the kingdom. Many children were beaten as the result of it and, except among the oldest, wisest men there was much talk of the poor character of the youngest generation. Rana himself was too involved in his work as a herdboy to play children’s games, but even he, after the reports, spent more time staring off at great Gauri Shankar glacier and playing haunting melodies on his pipe. At home, he was quieter even than before and his eyes seemed even deeper and darker.
Some months after the band of young men arrived at the royal pavillion bearing news of the strange footprints, another band of bearers of news arrived in Xhatmand. This time they bore tidings of disaster. Seven of the kingdom’s most venerable monks, most holy men, masters of the largest monasteries and richest estates had been trapped in a blizzard and apparently frozen to death as they journeyed to visit the Ulang Lama in Tibet. A natural phenomenon such as a blizzard would never have harmed such holy men, unless they had offended the ancestral spirits in some way. But this was impossible, since never before in the history of the kingdom had such holy, such rich men offended the spirits.
It was a dilemma. No one could understand it. So the kingdom found itself plunged into mourning. Thousands of yellow robed monks took out their prayer wheels and began to grind them. A horrible, monotonous drone was heard throughout the kingdom. Even high up in the meadow where Rana tended his flocks it could be heard. Nowhere in the kingdom could you escape. For seventeen days and seventeen nights the monks ground their prayer wheels and the people brought them food to eat. From Rana’s village near great Gauri Shankar to Xhatmand no one talked of anything else but the death of the rich and holy men. Thousands of prayer wheels droned on, imploring the spirits for an explanation of their deaths.
Then, on the eighteenth day, Ahir Gupta’s chief courtier, who had been sent to the mountains to arrange for the burial of the seven great holy men, who could not possibly have been killed by a mere blizaard, returned to the capital with the astonishing news that he had seen faint footprints in the snow near the bodies. This new piece of information called for new deliberations. So the courtiers, together with the leading monks, retired once more to the silken tent, as the prayer wheels droned on.
This time they deliberated for only a short time and then emerged with the following proclamation: “The murder of the seven rich and holy monks is an abominable crime. Since only snowmen have faint footprints, the snowman is responsible. Immediate steps will be taken to punish him for his crime.”
This proclamation had an instant effect on the whole kingdom. Children immediately stopped playing at being snowmen. No one wanted to be an abominable snowman. Also, the drone of the prayer wheels lost its tone of wretched supplication and took on a new murderous tone. “Revenge the seven rich, holy monks. Punish the abominable snowman,” droned thousands of prayer wheels.
The situation was now clear. It was essential that the snowman be punished in order to appease the wrath of the spirits. In the days immediately following the proclamation, the king’s messengers travelled the length and breadth of the kingdom, reaching the village where Rana lived to draft men for search parties to hunt the abominable snowman. Since it was almost time for the harvest, the villagers were not happy with the prospect of leaving their fields. Still, they had no choice but to comply with the king’s order. The first search party left within a week of the official procalamation. The prayer wheels continued their murderous drone and there was trouble in the hearts of the people. Rana no longer was asked to play his pipes for the people’s dances, for there were no dances.
After four weeks, hundreds of search parties had been to the mountains and returned without news of the abominable snowman. Because many of the men had been away, much of the harvest was left to the birds in the fields. Daily the monks grew more incensed by the failure of the search parties. They drove their prayer wheels ever more murderously. Rana was beginning to find the drone unbearable and his family was growing more and more worried about him, for he no longer piped at all in the village, although he still carried his pipe with him wherever he went. Only high up in the meadows, where the insistent drone of the prayer wheels could hardly be heard, did he put it to his lips. Even then it was only to play haunting melancholy tunes that grew more moving as the days went by. Gone was the time when Rana would delight his flock with his lively music. Now he spent most of the day staring up at the white bulk of Gauri Shankar and beyond.
“Either there is an abominable snowman or there is no abominable snowman,” thought Rana. “If there is, I must find him. I can not bear the drone of the prayer wheels any longer.”
So one morning Rana drank his bowl of curd, took his pipe in his hand, gathered his flock together and set off for the meadows as usual. Only when he reached it, he did not stop to watch his flock as he usually did. Instead, he took out his pipe and walked directly to the far edge of the meadow, where, at the edge of the vast snow field, he began to play. It was a new tune that he played, a soothing, soaring dance, one that not even his flock had heard before. As he played, he set off into the snowfield.
Not an animal of his flock stirred. They were held in their places by this new dance. Only hours later, when night fell, and they could no longer hear the music of the pipe from high on the glacier wall did they miss their shepherd and begin to bleat. The next morning when Rana’s father climbed to the meadow in search of his son, the flock was still there, huddled together near the spot where Rana had set off into the snowfield.
Meanwhile Rana had climbed high into a cold blue world more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined. The glacier face was perfectly smooth anmd seemed to extend forever upward. For two days he battled his way up it, stopping only to rest and to play his pipe. The higher he went the clearer his pipe sounded and the more exhilarated he felt. His eyes shone and the sadness fled silently from his heart.
By the end of the third day, when he reached the top of the glacier and came out into a huge field of snow glittering like cut crystal in the early morning sunlight, he was exhausted. When he tried to play his pipe, its sound was pure like no sound he had ever heard before, but he could play only the softest, most muted melodies. Still, it seemed to him that however softly he played, the notes travelled farther and faster than they ever had before. Rana knew that only his pipe had brought him as far as he had come.
As he walked to a small snow crest from which he wished to look down across the face of great Gauri Shankar to try to see his flock below, for he felt badly about having left them, he caught sight of the faintest glistening footprint in the snow.
“Spirits do not have footprints. Therefore, this must be the footprint of the abominable snowman,” he thought to himself.
Then his heart leaped with excitement and he played a quick trill of delight on his pipe, for there on the crest of the hill coming towards him, he saw the abominable snowman.
“Only,” Rana said aloud to himself, “he does not look at all abominable.”
And so he realized why his pipe had brought him all the way up the face of great Gauri Shankar glacier, where few men before him had dared to venture. It had wanted to show him that the abominable snowman, this smiling, snow-covered, slightly simian looking creature was not in the least abominable. In fact, he was the gayest creature Rana had ever seen.
The very sight of him brought Rana’s breath back, and thin though the air was up there near the top of the world, he began to play with renewed vigor. The notes of his pipe sounded as clear as before, but they seemed to carry even farther, skating swiftly down the face of the glacier, nimbly scaling the surrounding mountain peaks. Everyone in the mountains heard the music of Rana’s pipe. It carried down to the village where Rana’s distraught parents beat their breasts as they mourned him. It carried throughout the region of the huge glaciers and the snowfields where the weary search parties sought in vain for a trace of the abominable snowman. When they heard it, it gladdened their hearts and turned their thoughts from the grim task of avenging the seven rich and holy monks to their homes, families and herds. At the sound of the music, men who had not smiled for weeks chuckled out loud.
As for the abominable snowman, he stood for a moment with his head cocked quizzically to one side, tapping his foot in time to the music. And then, quick as a flash, he began to dance, leaping gracefully about in the snowfield. As he danced, he showed Rana new rhythms and coaxed new melodies out of Rana’s pipe. Soon Rana was as fully, gaily and exuberantly caught up in the dance as the abominable snowman himself. When he saw this, the abominable snowman opened his mouth and began to laugh. He was happy and his laughter rang through the mountains calling forth assent from even the most distant majestic peaks. Those who heard the sound never forgot it. Neither before nor since has anyone in Para heard such a sound. The man who heard it felt the wounds of his heart heal up instantly in his breast.
When the abominable snowman began to laugh, a strange, strange thing occurred throughout Para. Thousands and thousands of monks scattered the length of the valley sat, as they had sat for weeks now, and creaked out a murderous drone of revenge from their prayer wheels. Now, for no apparent reason, the sound of the prayer wheels changed. The monks were aghast. They stood up and tore their yellow saffron robes in amazement. They simply could not believe their ears. It was as if their prayer wheels were laughing. No longer did they drone on.
After a few experimental cranks, no doubt was possible. It was, in fact, a clear soaring laughter that was coming from the prayer wheels. The monks were dismayed. Their prayer wheels were laughing at them and they could not stand the sound. At last, driven to the end of their endurance, they began, one after the other, to smash their prayer wheels, at first deliberately with the dignity of monks and then in a frenzy, like foolish old men enraged without reason by anything at all.
At this sight the villagers could not contain themselves. It was simply too funny and they also began to laugh. It was the gayest day in the kingdom’s history. Only the king’s council did not share in the gaiety. They retired to their silken tent and, after no deliberation at all, emerged with a proclamation outlawing prayer wheels forever. From this day on, nothing more was said about the plan to take revenge on the abominable snowman, for whenever the subject was mentioned, the people remembered the startled look on the monks’ faces as their prayer wheels began to laugh and this memory struck them as so funny that they could not help laughing uproariously. And so, even to this day, children can play at being snowmen in Para.
Two days after the prayer wheels laughed, Rana reappeared in his village. People noticed that his eyes were clearer and deeper than before and that his walk was lighter. But he said nothing and returned to herding his flock. From then on, until the day he died, he never left his village again, even though he continued to receive invitations to pipe throughout the land. By the time he died, he was known as the wisest man in all Para. But that was many centuries ago and, although men talked of him for many years after his death, by now he has been completely forgotten.
In the remote kingdom of Para, the drone of creaking prayer wheels is heard once more. However, from time to time, near the base of the great Gauri Shankar, a young herdboy comes across the faintest, lightest footprints in the snow. These are the footprints of the only creature in all Para who remembers Rana Doti.
Kivukoni College, Dare Es Salaam, Tanzania., Christmas 1967.