FIVE YEARS HAVE NOW SLIPPED by since one morning at the village of Ringmo, situated on the out flow of lake Phoksumdo (fig. 1), my son, Tim, and I along with our Sirdar, Roshan and our Nepalese liaison officer, Thapa bid the region farewell and initiated the homeward leg of our Mustang Trans Inner-Dolpo trek. Himalayan Echoes1 is an account of the events in my life that led up to our finding ourselves at that point of departure; it covers events of the preceding score of years, of those immediately before, as well as those that followed soon afterwards. . . .With our relaxed schedule for the remainder of the trek, we were able, at our leisure, to get up in the warmth of the morning sun, have breakfast and depart Ringmo. The route followed along the right bank of the Suli gad2 on a smooth trail rising very gradually as it continued in our southerly direction; it soon led us to the low ridge at the opened end of the broad, flat, Ringmo valley. Immediately on our cresting the ridge, the terrain in front dropped away abruptly to the bottom of a tight V shaped valley where the Suli gad roared and cascaded. The origin of the cascade was up stream to our left at the foot of a broad foaming waterfall that plunged 550 feet down from over the crest of the low ridge on which we were standing. 3That fall, of course, had to be the outflow from Lake Phoksumdo and it certainly was making a spectacular and noisy exit. As we lingered and savoured that new landscape, before starting down a moderate descent . ..4I began to reflect on the question of why the lake was so blue a quality that had received comment by all who had seen it and certainly one that made it different from any other lake I had ever seen5. The gentle trail also allowed three other unresolved riddles about the lake to get a little more attention - the geological basis for its formation the meaning of its name and that of Ringmo. No answers were found and only on returning home did I find the time and wherewithal to give those questions the more serious consideration that they deserved. It was not possible, however, to include the answers in the above publication; following are the conclusions I ultimately reached.
A: ITS Colour
On the question of why is the lake so blue; without having any expertise on the matter, I have come to the educated guess that it results from the interaction of four extraordinary physical phenomena. Those are its unusually clear waters; its great depth, said to be 610 m; its high altitude, 12,500 ft;6 and finally, its being essentially closed in on all sides by very steep slopes towering 1830 m to 3050 m above its surface. Thus, only light from the cloudless, cobalt blue skies overhead reflects down into its clear and profound depths without being filtered by, or complimented with haze. There may be lakes having one or two of those physical conditions that could influence their colour but, taken all together, Lake Phoksumdo may well be unique in the world. Whatever the true explanation may be7 and, although the lake's extraordinary colour8 is remarked upon by all who come upon it, I am not aware of an explanation for the phenomenon having ever been offered.
B : ITS Geology
Regarding the question on how the lake was formed, there is a common geological explanation. The essence of which is that, in geological times past, a gigantic rock slide came off of one or both of the high surrounding mountains; filled the valley below; left a wall of rock making a dam, behind which the lake formed. Matthiessen subscribes to the geological idea. 'A geologist would say that Phoksumdo Tal, three miles long, a half- mile wide, and reputed to be near a half-mile in depth was formed when an earthquake collapsed the mountain on this side of the high valley, blocking the river that comes down from the Kamjirobas at what is now the north end of the lake.'9 Schaller on climbing the heights above Ringmo says '. . . it is easy to see how the lake came into being. Previously there had been a peaceful valley down which flowed a river. . . the earth trembled and the mountains shook; a mountain on the east side of the valley, and on the west side too, released millions of tons of rock and earth, their land slide forming a dam. Slowly the river filled the valley, rising a thousand feet before it could flow over the dam to continue its journey.'10
Phoksumdo and Surroundings - Dolpo and Mustang
There is a religious explanation, however, that differs. During his three day stay in Ringmo in l956, Snellgrove, had several visits with the Lama of Kham who offered the following: '. . . in ancient times there was a village where the lake now is; it was flooded and submerged by a spiteful Demoness, fleeing from the wrath of the Buddha-magician, "Lotus born"11when he was intent on converting Tibet. She gave the local people a turquoise, making them promise not to tell her pursuer that she had passed that way. But "Lotus born", by his superior power, caused the turquoise to become a lump of dung. The people were angry at what they supposed to be the trickery of the Demoness and revealed where she had gone. She, in turn, took revenge by causing the flood.'12
Besides the rock slide and the Demoness theories, a third had started smouldering in my mind from the day we came into Ringmo from the north; it was the texture of the soil — a mixture of rocks and sand thrown into large domes that held my eye — reminiscent of terminal moraines I'd hiked through in the Alps. The morning's trek out of Ringmo brought us to the vantage point where, by looking back, we could see the dam in its full length and the surrounding terrain in its entirety — could that be a terminal glacial moraine?
From Ringmo the uniform slope of the ground rose up gradually toward us, then dropped off precipitously, forming the near vertical face of a dam of uniform height across the whole valley. From the face of the dam, the Phoksumdo khola gushed out through a notch, then plunged and cascaded several hundred feet down over a rather uniform sand, gravel and smooth stone textured surface to the V-shaped bottom of the narrow valley below. With that first glance, the rock slide theory had to be rejected.
Although not having any credentials in geology, my layman's observation in the Alps couldn't help but bring up a more satisfying explanation. Mental pictures from the two days before, as we approached Ringmo, of well rounded domes of loose rock and sandy earth reinforced the impression that we were then standing at the point of farthest advances of a glacial tongue.
Memories of a recent catastrophic rock slide, a few miles down the valley from where we live in Switzerland, that buried the village of Randa in 1992 and of the lake that formed behind it that partially submerging an upstream village, lent no support to the rock slide theory13 There was no suggestion of the diagonal mass of huge and sharp angular boulders that are seen in rock slides that originate from high up on the side of a mountain. Those formations cleave away from their parent mountain, slip down the newly formed clean face and, in the process break into gigantic boulders. At first the boulders fill up the very bottom of the valley and, as the process continues, the additions extend diagonally downwards out across the valley and well up onto its opposite flank.
The absence of a glacier anywhere in the vicinity of Phoksumdo, now or in the memory of man, of course, does nothing to discredit the glacial moraine theory. In the eighteen years of our lives in the Alps all of the tongues of our several surrounding glaciers have retreated — some by hundreds of feet. At the time of the last glacier advance, 10,000 years ago, a glacier with its tongue down to Ringmo, could have by this time easily retreated far back up the Phoksumdo Khola to the crest where Kanjalaruwa and the Kanjiroba join; or, of course, by now it could have disappeared in its entirety. This is confirmed by Negi in Himalayan Rivers, Lakes and Glaciers14 wherein is actually mentioned an existing 'Phoksumdo glacier.' and with reference to the Phoksumdo khola, 'The entire catchment of this river has been carved by the action of glaciers.' Thus it can be safely said that the rock slide theories, theological or geological, have to take second place to the glacial moraine theory,15 if not abandoned altogether!
C : ITS Meaning
As our trek came down off of the 5340 m Sehula and inner Dolpo was left behind, we came into the region of lake Phoksumdo. In as much as both Roshan, our Sirdar, and I knew a bit of Tibetan, the meaning of 'Phoksumdo' became the subject of casual, on-again off-again, conversations but we found no explanation for its meaning. However, with my limited but long standing knowledge of Tibetan, I had more than just a passing interest in the subject. On Tim's and my Trans-Himalayan trek of three years earlier, lake Phoksumdo was one of the trek's prime objectives. And in the course of much pre- and post-trek reading of books, pamphlets, travel articles and brochures, my eye had fallen innumerable times on the name 'Phoksumdo.' But never had I encountered any attempt at an explanation of its meaning even in articles where it was among the principal subjects.16 Furthermore, either Roshan nor I was even sure it was a Tibetan word, for 'Phoksumdo' sounded rather strange to our ears.
However, it was that middle syllable, pronounced like 'suum' that had peaked both his and my curiosity; we knew that a Tibetan phonetic equivalent (a 'phononym'17) meant 'three'. The possibility that the phononym for 'Phok', if it were spelled in Tibetan more like 'Phug' meant 'cave,' had occurred to both of us and we did keep an eye open for three caves somewhere along the way, but we saw not even one. So, a few days later after leaving Ringmo and as we cast back our eye that morning to catch a departing last glimpse of the brightest blue of deep blue lakes, Tim took some farewell panorama shots - namely, as the lake would be first glimpsed by someone coming upon the lake from below with Ringmo ahead in the distance. We left with question number three completely unanswered. The meaning of the syllable 'suum,' needed confirmation and 'Phok' and 'do,' as well as all three together, remained a mystery.
Upon my returning home, the question assumed an uppermost position among a very large list of topics begging for attention. Immediately I turned to Himalayan Pilgrimage, the classical work on Dolpo by Snellgrove, with its fine glossary on the Tibetan villages and monasteries of the region.18 The work is particularly valuable because, in addition to the phonetic rendition of the names, as given in a strange 'Nepali garb' by the Survey of India, he gives an Amended Name that comes much closer to the Tibetan phononym. His third and most important contribution was to give the equivalent name in Classical Spelling ; that is, in a letter by letter transliteration of the word's Tibetan letters into their nearest equivalent letter in the Roman alphabet. It is only with the latter, backed up with a knowledge of the Tibetan alphabet and the unique manner in which letters are assembled to form a syllable, that the word can be found in a Tibetan-English dictionary. The classical form, however, is wanting for the pronunciation of the word is left quite obscure for all except the most learned scholar.19
Unfortunately Snellgrove's district names, which include 'Phoksumdo,' are not part of the glossary, hence are not given in classical spelling. Often, however, a Tibetan word's translations and meanings are found in text or footnotes but for Phoksumdo such is not the case. Furthermore, none of my several Tibetan-English or English-Tibetan dictionaries listed the word or anything close to its Tibetan phononym and I had all but given up any hope of finding the meaning of Phoksumdo. However, for 'suum,' with a quick glance at the dictionaries, there remained no question; it had to mean 'three.' But then, the whole matter was indefinitely put aside and all but forgotten.
Article 4 (Sir Chris Borrington)
8. The northeast face of Sepu Karrgri. Seamo Uylmitok on right.
Article 4 (Graham Little)
9. The summit pyramid of Sepu Kangri from bottom of the western cwm. C3 was at lowest point on ridge on the right which was proposed to be followed.
Article 6 (Martin Moran)
10. Approaching Satopanth Col: icefall (light of centre) with Chaukhamba south lace behind. The snow face of Pk. 5758 m (left) which was used to gain the col.
Fig 2. Lake Phoksumdo's Three Ridges
Later, while perusing a U.S. army contour map20 of the lake, I saw plainly that it was closed in on the west by one of Kanjalaruwa's [mistakenly labelled 'Kanjiroba'] southern ridges and, to the north and east by two ridges extending down from two unnamed massifs (fig. 2). That made three ridges which accounted nicely for the Tibetan phononym 'suum.' in the name and the whole subject came back to life. 'Phok' and 'do'' had to be accounted for.
For the latter, the transliteration of 'do,' there was no Tibetan letter by letter equivalent in any of my several Tibetan dictionaries. However Snellgrove had visited. 'Do-Tarap,' a village in Dolpo, and his glossary gives the meaning for 'Do' as the 'lower end of a valley'21 which was quite appropriate for the geographical location of that particular village in the Tarap valley. But it was quite awkward to work in with those three ridges coming down together into a lake. Snellgrove's glossary held the key; 'Do' in classical spelling is 'mDo' and the Tibetan-English dictionaries all agreed22; its first definition, was that given by Snellgrove, 'the lower end of a valley.'23 However, in addition, the dictionaries all carried the connotation for the word of a crossroads or junction. In one, a second choice was 'near' and, a third, was 'point' where two valleys, two roads or two rivers join and, since those kinds of meeting results in a new valley, road or river being formed, the point is a 'three meeting point;' [ italics added ] Thus, the two syllable word 'gSum-mDo' designates the number of elements that make up a meeting point24 and it is the additional prefixed syllable(s) that tell what it is that meets; i.e. valleys, roads, rivers. In this case it had to be three 'phoks'.
The Tibetan word with a letter sequence that would produce a sound like 'phok' would be Ph-o-g-s, which translates into 'pay', "salary", 'pension.'25 In another dictionary, the nearest spelling was Ph-o-g; it gave the same translations but, in addition, indicated that it could also carry a connotation of 'support.'26 Following through on the 'support' connotation, I found according to a third of my Tibetan-English dictionaries that the word's meaning, if spelled Ph-o-g-s, also translates into a connotation of 'wages' but if spelled without the ending -s, its meaning according to one source, would mean 'beam' or 'rafter' and according to another the 'principal beam of a roof.'27 That had to be it! 'Phok's' translation could well be 'ridge pole.' So, 'ridges' for the first of the three syllables fit nicely with what was so apparent on that contour map. And, putting it all together as Phogs-gSum-mDo28, a very logical translation would be 'Ridges Three Meet' or, 'Three Ridges' Junction'.
With that picture in mind, I set out to do a thorough re-examination of all of the photographs that Tim had taken, while we were at Ringmo and as we were leaving the falls, to see if in fact something resembling three converging ridges were anywhere to be seen. How we all missed them, I do not understand, for, as plain as the nose on our faces, with the very first glance, there it was, a system of three symmetrical major ridges staring us squarely in the eye. In Tim's three departing pictures and in one taken on the morning of our arrival in Ringmo, all looking to the north, those three ridges occupy most of the picture and are the centre of interest (fig. 3). Nobody coming into Ringmo from the south, that is "through the front door,'29 could possibly miss those three ridges; they would be before his eye for a good half an hour. However, perhaps with our being the very first to come in through the 'back door,'30 we can be excused, for we had only a parting, backwards glance !
More recently and at long last an author has given attention, in passing, to the meaning of Phoksumdo and to the names of other villages in the region31. He states '. . . local informants believe that the correct transliteration is Phok, sum ( three ), do ( stones ), relating to the three arms of the lake.' This belief, however, seems wanting in several ways. First it offers no explanation for the first syllable phok. Next, how the syllable pronounced 'do', if it is construed to mean stones, relates to three arms of a lake is somewhat strained or at least it is not directly apparent. However, if the syllable pronounced 'sum' is followed by the 'mDo' that does mean junction or point, as developed above. Then with the Phoksumdo and Deokomukh kholas coming in to the lake from above and the Suli gad, its outflow, the lake could be visualised as a point and would then occupy the position of a sumdo a 'meeting point of three rivers'. Without a modifying prefix such a point is more customarily called a Chudo, ( in classical spelling, Chu-mDo ); 'Chu' means water or river.32 However, this proposition, that the lake derives its name at least in part from three widely separated rivers that flow into it, requires an awareness of its overall geography that can hardly be visualised except from inspection of maps of the region. It seems highly unlikely that few if any of the primitive inhabitants of the region could have had such an overview. It is much more likely that with the very beginnings of a settlement at Ringmo, those three ridges would have dominated the scene for all and have commanded a place in its name.33 My leanings remain in favour of 'Three Ridges Junction.'
According to Snellgrove the Tibetan name for Ringmo is '. . . Tsho-wa (mtsho-ba ), 'lake-side'.' It is interesting to note, however, although mtsho, means 'lake' if, in place of the letter-ba, which often is pronounced 'wa' the letter wa itself is used, it then means 'water-channel, gutter, spout etc. and that could equally well be translated as 'outlet.' The Tibetan name Tsho-wa could thus mean 'lake outlet.' And that is more precisely where the village is located.
Consistent with this is the Tibetan word Ring-du which, among other things, can mean 'outflow.' Therefore, both words 'Ringmo' as well as 'Tsho-wa' could be of Tibetan origin and carry the same meaning relating to the village's location at Lake Phoksumdo's outlet rather than on the lakeside.
Thus, satisfying answers to those four questions which confronted me on our departure from Ringmo have been found. However, two of them, beget another. With its now being so obvious, why has the meaning of Phoksumdo remained so obscure and how is it possible that the lake's being a moraine-glacial lake could have been overlooked for so long ?
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Ward, M.; The Name of the World's Highest Peak . The Himalayan Journal: 53 27-35 (1997)
A study of the name of lake Phoksumdo, West Nepal. The author lives in Switzerland.