The ancient Tibetan region of Amdo in western China is known today as Qinghai Province, a region populated mostly by Tibetan-speaking ethnic groups that have been part of China for hundreds of years. Amdo is part of a vast region of Tibetan culture, which extends from Nepal, India, Tibet, the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia and Mongolia (the country), all these regions share a common language (which varies by ethnicity and of course under the influence of national languages and Mandarin), Tibetan Buddhism and with it a variety of religious paraphernalia that makes up the everyday life of its population, including the festivities and, of course, their performing arts.
Each lunar new year is celebrated throughout the region with a festival that the western world calls the Tibetan New Year, and Tibetans call Monlam Chenmo (which means "Preaching festival”). Monlam Chenmo comes after a few days Chinese lunar new year is and has its own calendar of events, all of a religious nature. There is no event during Monlam Chenmo not led by the monks of the monastery of each region and, so "represented" by the monks themselves, people from their villages are involved in a seemingly passive way or, as we would say in the performing arts, they act as spectators.
This year 2009, due to the problems facing China across the Tibetan region of its domain (almost one third of its territory), the central government decided not to allow foreigners to enter any Tibetan area except the small region of Tongren, precisely in Qinghai, the former Amdo. As the monasteries of Lhasa, Labrang, and others would be closed to tourism, there was no choice but to visit this region, and it was a wonderful choice; Tongren was kind, peaceful and rich in scenery and religious traditions.
In the Tongren region there are about 10 monasteries, one in every small town; the monasteries are gigantic in comparison with the smallness and poverty of the villages, and each held, on different days, the same religious events during Monlam Chenmo; so you can see, if you have time, the same event represented in a different way by each monastery.
On this visit I had the opportunity to observe the celebration for 3 days at the main and biggest monastery of Tongren, Rongwu Monastery, and one day at Niantog Monastery. At Rongwu there were three events: the unveiling of a gigantic Thangka with the image of Buddha, a procession of the statue of Buddha Maitreya, and a representation of Cham Dance or Demon Masks Dance, and, at Niantog, a small Monastery 10 minutes from Rongwu, another procession of the statue of Buddha. All those were wonderful events for my eyes as a foreigner, but they were also deeply moving and interesting acts for those who travel and seek representational art worldwide.
It is experiencing live this kind of festivities and religious rituals when we discover the undeniable origins of human theatrical activity, and we can also understand much of its extent and development into many fields of human activity. I usually define my experience with a very recurrent phrase, "a return to sources”.
I've been (and I remain) completely ignorant of the structure and origins of most of the events I witnessed in Tongren and the information I give about them surely has blunders and shortcomings; however, I believe that the document itself (photographs and videos), in addition to my personal descriptions of the events, can be a useful material for both the merely curious as the researcher who has not had the opportunity to witness these events live.
Procession of Buddha Maitreya at Niantog Monastery.
Photographs of the procession of the statue of Buddha at Niantog Monastery
If for some reason the pictures of the presentation can’t be seen well, click inside the box and it will take you to a Picasa page where all the photos are in.
Narration of the event:
On February 7, 2009, we were told that at Niantog monastery there would be a procession at midday, we arrived there at about 11:30 in the morning and we had to wait for about 2 hours for it.
The preparations occupied the entire time of our waiting. Monks came and went with religious objects, musical instruments, and placing all at different parts of the monastery; the temple was closed to non-monks and villagers were also preparing their offerings, some elderly women slowly started taking a seat at the back of the monastery’s small square, some children appeared wearing beautiful and colorful costumes (worn especially for the occasion), and dozens of photographers and journalists were upsetting me by taking photos here and there, arranging people as objects and demanding poses for their shots ... They simply broke the charm of those preparations I was witnessing.
Almost at 2 in the afternoon we began to hear the sound of the so-famous Tibetan horns, and a small procession of beautifully attired monks came to the temple among the raucous music of their trumpets, entered the chapel, and hung a curtain to prevent us from seeing inside. They started to pray, it sounded like mantras (I’m sure that was), repeated over several minutes, one after another, relentlessly. The beauty of the thangkas painted on the walls of the temple’s entrance and the sound of the prayers of the monks created a unique atmosphere around.
On the other side of the monastery a monk followed by a group of villagers was walking and praying, performing certain rites that were simply hard to grasp and understand; I could see how he entered with the group of followers into a small temple near the main one (every monastery has between five and ten smaller temples), some minutes before I had listened to a monk playing a drum in that place, and now this other monk had climbed unto a small bank and stayed at the same place, ringing a metal bell several times, and all the others followed him to his side repeating a mantra.
Even when I speak of prayers, mantras and rituals, I must clarify that, without exception, none of the participants seemed to be concentrating or in a "special" psychological mood, they even seemed to be as if at something both very common and without much sense, but my perception was unfounded, my ignorance about these people's body language, which I watched for the first time in my life, is evident.
Suddenly we heard the sound of a gong that came from the top of the temple, and deduced that the celebration was about to begin (if it had not already started hours ago, of course). Dozens of monks, one by one, and with a very slow pace, were leaving the main chapel. Horns and drums were the only sounds, repetitive music, solemn, it seemed to mark the rhythm of the steps yet it never came up to become a dance or a procession, it was a kind of presentation that lasted around half an hour.
The square was filled with a fairly wide circle of monks, with their musical instruments and banners of various types. Those elderly women I talked about before now were singing at several points of the monk’s presentation, they sang a very common kind of singing in Tibet, in a sharp and “spiritual” tone, we heard that chant throughout this festival.
After this long presentation and ritual, the monks began to spread, it seemed they were simply going out; as if it were a sign, people started to pile near the entrance to the Buddha’s chapel, a chapel with a beautiful and colorful altar entirely made with yak butter. The carriage for the procession was ready to receive the Buddha and the excitement was quite high. When the small statue took its place everything went crazy, men ran for the rope that would help pull the carriage, old women threw white scarves to cover the statue, many of them, men and women, were frantically trying to put their forehead somewhere near the Buddha, and songs were chanted to follow the procession. Someone threw candy and the crowd ran to pick them, the procession continued and the crowd followed the carriage in turn.
The carriage with the Buddha would stopped at every church and chapel of the monastery and then it would return again to rest in his chapel until the following year. As we had been there for almost five hours already we could only stand to see the first stop on a beautiful newly renovated chapel. Hence we decided to leave the place, completely satisfied with everything that we had finally seen and experienced.
The video is edited in HD (high definition), here you'll see it in standard resolution, but if you want to see it in better definition go to the Youtube page and click on "watch in HD.