In premodern Tibet, as in many similar societies, people categorized and related to wild animals in many different ways. By ‘premodern’ here I mean pre-1959, a date which not only marks the full Chinese colonial occupation of Tibet but also the beginning of a period of intensive structural changes, such as social and land reforms, technical modernization and later infrastructure developments. By ‘Tibet’ here I mean ‘ethnographic Tibet’ as described by Goldstein (1994:76-77) and Samuel (1993: Chapters 1-8). It is an area comprising the Tibetan plateau, its eastern marches and various high-altitude Himalayan valley systems, and inhabited by peoples with a manifestly high degree of linguistic similarity who share cultural and social patterns and historical experience. But it is not coterminous with any historical or modern political boundaries.
The characteristic large Tibetan herbivores (wild yak, wild ass, antelope, deer, wild sheep, and so on) of the high mountains and plateau grasslands have long been associated with ideals of strength, purity or intelligence. For example, the massive wild yak bull (‘brong) is legendary for its immense power, and the human ability to capture or kill one has always been the measure of a hero. The elusive deer are believed to have a sensitive intelligence, and often feature in Tibetan ritual and symbolism. The collective designation for all such wild animals that subsist on plants and water is ri-dwags (also spelled ri-dag/dags/dwag), which also signifies ‘game animals’ in general. One possible etymology for this term is ‘mountain’ (ri)+‘purity’ (dag-pa/dwangs),1 which agrees with Tibetan thinking since ancient times about the essential, pristine quality of high and remote places in the natural environment, where deities dwell and which are undefiled by human activity. In certain areas, wild animals were considered to be the embodiments of deities, or to be under the ownership of local spirit powers. Their sudden appearance or particular behaviour patterns have often been interpreted by Tibetans as portents or divinatory signs.