Pilgrimage through prostration is the ancient Tibetan practice of traveling the earth one body-length at a time. Author Tsering Yangzom Lama explains the ritual during an interview with the University of British Columbia’s Himalaya Program: the pilgrim lies prostrate with arms stretched overhead, rises, then lies down again, placing her feet where her fingers had marked the ground. In this way, Tibetans traverse the earth around a holy site or across the entire country, connected to the land that holds gods, spirits, history, and their very identity.
As described in Lama’s debut novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, prostrations were a daily ritual in Tibet before the Chinese invasion and occupation. For her protagonist, Dolma, feeling the earth of her ancestral homeland is only a distant dream. Born in a refugee camp in Nepal, she has never known the land her family left behind. “To measure the earth with my body,” Dolma yearns, “to know our country with my own skin. It seemed like the only way to fathom such a land.” Tibet’s landscape of plateaus, red mountains, and vast caves is as much a living character as the book’s three female narrators—preteen sisters Lhamo and Tenkyi, who survive a brutal exile from Tibet, and Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, whom we meet fifty years after her mother’s family became stateless refugees.
In 1960, after years of militarized occupation and with the Dalai Lama in hiding, Lhamo and Tenkyi are forced to flee with the rest of their village. The Chinese have banned all religious practices, systematically tortured Tibetan nuns and monks, razed monasteries, and appropriated natural resources. “They will not be satisfied with our land,” the girls’ mother warns. “They want to possess our minds.” As Lhamo and Tenkyi head south toward Nepal, another elder declares, “We cannot kill our enemies. We should do what our ancestors have done. Bury our things safely in the earth and leave until this madness ends.” Many do secure their last possessions underground, as if in the hands of a trusted loved one, before departing. The villagers bring only essentials. Most important is a statue, less than five inches tall, saved by a village elder from the ruins of a looted monastery. Sculpted from mudstone—the earth of their seized homeland—the skeletal figure wears a loincloth and looks skyward with a pained expression. The girls’ mother recognizes it immediately: a nameless deity carved in a human image that healed her long ago and is known to “disappear and reappear as if by its own will. When the time is right, the Saint comes to those who need protection.” The saint wanders, stateless as the people it blesses, bearing the entirety of Tibetan culture in its small figure.
By the time they reach their final refugee camp in Pokhara, Nepal, the sisters are orphaned and shattered. Though they have finally stopped moving, their lives are in no way settled. Severed from their people, culture, religion, and ancestral land, their camp is also isolated from Nepalese society, leaving them without a sense of place to even begin building a new life. This is the devastation of forced displacement—the erasure of past, present, and future. Despite everything they’ve lost, Lhamo and Tenkyi forge a life in the camp with relatives and neighbors. All the while, the Nameless Saint watches over the camp, blesses the waters, heals the sick, guides prayers, and keeps them safe. While he is near, there is a shred of hope: “One quiet day, we will walk back to the elevated land of our home, kneel down, and dig. And our lives will reemerge, unsullied by the bloodshed and sadness of the world. And the Bhomi, the People of the Snows, will live again as we have for thousands of years.”
Decades later, long after the Nameless Saint has gone missing, we meet Lhamo’s daughter, Dolma, a university student living with Tenkyi in Toronto and eager to become a scholar of Tibetan studies. Dolma is untethered and in-between, a stranger to her homes in both Tibet and Canada. Her mother remains in the camp scratching out a living and hardly able to bear their separation. In Toronto, Dolma reflects that the city “is the camp built anew…a copy of a copy of home. Another temporary stop in an endless journey.” By this time, the Tibetan diaspora have waited and languished for over sixty years, wondering how the world has forgotten about them. “In the 90s the Tibetan cause was trendy, popular,” Lama says in the University of British Columbia interview. “We had the Tibetan Freedom Concert, Free Tibet stuff everywhere. Then, the West decided that China would be a major trading partner.”