Wednesday, April 15, 2009

4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 2: Displaying Of The Thangka Ceremony at Rongwu Monastery.

Note: See the introduction to this series about the Amdo Monlam Festival in the post of March 20th, 2009.

Day 2.

Displaying of the Thangka Ceremony at Rongwu Monstery.

Slideshow: Displaying of the Thangka at Rongwu Monstery.
Click inside the box if you can’t see the photographs properly, you will be redirected to a Picasa page.

Rongwu Monastery is the largest in Tongren, it has several small temples and chapels and hundreds of monks living in it. The buildings vary in style and detail, from the purest traditional Tibetan to a Chinese-Tibetan mix that the Chinese government imposed as part of the "China-fication" of Tibetan areas. The monastery has small and big gates, and walls like an ancient city, and every temple is enclosed within its own walls and gates. There are streets, houses, shops, each one with their very characteristic Tibetan doors, with wood frames sculpted with dragons or birds and flowers. Everywhere we looked there were statues, thangkas on walls, mandalas paintings, banners, prayer cloths, large canvases covering some facades, drums hanging ... It seems all this was made with mud, stone, concrete, wood… dust.

The first night of my stay in Rongwu we wanted to give the temple a look and, with great surprise, we found that we could enter, visiting its temples, chapels, walking through its streets and squares. I saw girls who, as if they were playing, sang religious songs while walking, or sometimes while running, around one of the temples. I saw people arriving in small groups and disapperaing into the darkness of the walls and streets of the Monastery, they came in processions from their villages in the nearby hills, they repeated mantras, some also sang. In the silence of that religious town, among the shadows of the monks who were walking that night I heard the sound of Tibetan horns, those sounds of the trumpets used by Tibetan Buddhists that are rooted in our memory as a powerful sound of the eternal image of Tibet; those horn sounds represent the Tibetan mystery to us, curious Westerners, and in trying to reveal that mystery we can risk everything.

Live Audio of Tibetan horns during the night of March 7, 2009, Rongwu.

Two days after that first visit to the Monastery I experienced the Displaying of the Thangka Ceremony.

Narration of the event:
(Translation from Spanish by Tadeo Berjón)

The ceremony is known for the displaying of a gigantic Thangka, by every Tibetan monastery, once as year. The thangka is "removed" from the darkness of the chapel temple (where it is always kept rolled) and then, in a procession, carried to the nearest mountain and exposed to the Sunlight.

Me, as a person interested in performing arts and the spectacular, "needed" to experience the public exhibition of the great Thangka, that ceremony with a whole village participating. I wanted to see and explore the spectacular ritual of the unveiling of a huge religious symbol, and I also wanted to try to recognise the structure of the event and the performance of its actors. But I could not just be a scholar, in an event of this nature you cannot be just a spectator, even in the remoteness of the differences in cultures and beliefs, we inevitably fade into the same event and become part of the ritual.

On March 9, 2009 we were informed that the ceremony would begin at noon and we were at the scene at approximately 11 am so we wouldn't miss any detail. With the experience of the previous day at Niantog monastery, we were prepared for a long wait. But we didn't understand clearly that Niantog was a small monastery with a relatively small number of monks and therefore with less dramatic events in comparison to what we were going to live in Rongwu; the wait had been long because the number of monks was not sufficient for the act, there was less organization, and it was even less "official", as there were no VIP's to please. The importance and grandness of Rongwu in the Tongren area meant it would be one of the most important events of the year, and so it was.

Dozens upon dozens of monks came and went, appearing beautifully dressed and carrying many banners, musical instruments and gifts; within the main temple hundreds of them gathered to make their preparations. Virtually exactly at noon they split into groups and began to leave the main temple, performing a kind of presentation (or introduction?) for about an hour, forming several circles around the square, with around 300 monks. The groups differed in rank (recognizable to us through the strange color of their hats and apparel), musical instruments (horns, drums, cymbals and conches) and carrying banners (flags, images, and sunshades with mandalas and peacock feathers). Each in turn made their way to their assigned space within the circle around the main square, playing their instruments or simply walking, without much ceremonial attitude; the images and sounds were so powerful by themselves that, from my point of view, there was no need to see these groups of monks in a trance or with any kind of attitude. Once that procession, which apparently had a very definite structure in such rituals for Monlam, everyone began to leave in apparent anarchy.

In the square now empty of monks the people rushed in the direction of the main doors of the temple and a big commotion began, there was great excitement in the air. More groups of monks left the temple and stood so as to make and maintain a walkway from the entrance of the temple hall, though the path didn't last much because of the crowds around; then more monks came out of the temple, pulling a rope wrapped in a kind of white gauze, typically used in the religious Tibetan tradition. Dozens of monks pulled the endless rope that, in the midst of the religious excitement, revealed what was being carried: the Thangka.

The Thangka was rolled up and was carried by many dozens of monks; order vanished and everything appeared to be driven by the chaos of an event ranging from the religious to the pagan. The common people ran to touch the large roll, some fell or were pushed violently by the movement of the row of monks, songs or rhythmic phrases (if they were not singing) could be heard and we, the outsiders, did not realise when we lost all sense of spectator civility and propriety and ran along with them, we were pushed too, we were living a probably different excitement but our senses were as altered as those of the people who were living a very special religious moment.

Our guide, I should mention, a real expert in these events, kept trying to get us to the next stage of the procession, so we wouldn't miss any of the essential parts of it.

Outside the main temple there was people everywhere and the monastery itself was a city in carnival, living a striking but live religious ceremony. The rows of monks pulling the rope and those carrying the Thangka did their utmost to move through the crowd amid the chaos, their own sweat, their shouting, their red tunics and dust.

To follow the flow of the procession that carried the Thangka would have got us stuck in some narrow passage, so our guide cleverly led us around the monastery to try to anticipate the procession and the crowd that followed them, which is why I could take some shots that simply would have been impossible to achieve otherwise.

The procession took another hour to reach the space designated for the revealing of the big thangka, the mountainside that served as backdrop to the imposing Rongwu monastery. There, on the slope, several monks who had preceded the procession waited for those who carried the Thangka. Now we had an image of perhaps thousands of monks all the way from the main monastery's entrance to the top of the mountain.

The path of the procession was turning into a wonderful live performance, deeply emotional and brilliant. Among their songs and effort, their joy when linked to the euphoria, I could see a gathering of the passionate people of the region, looking for contact with the sacred object while paying their respects at the same time. I saw old people kneel, mothers with children crying in the arms falling down while trying to get their children's forehead to touch the rolled up Thangka, monks hitting their brethren to open up the way and dozens of men offering their hands to help pull.

We had to find a space at the foot of the mountain where we could live the moment of the unveiling, but also to achieve a good angle for shooting video, but electricity cables and a huge amount of people made the task very difficult. In the end, and having found a place at the foot of the mountain, between the movement and jostling of the crowd I found the spot from which I made my shots.

The experience of seeing this huge religious symbol being unveiled in the midst of the euphoria (screams, prayers, music, prostrations, joy) of a people is a thing I fear is impossible to share in its entirety. Once the unveiling began, the people began to "open" religiously, to "ask", to "offer" to "burn", to move everywhere (and so I had to do with my camera). I went back to listen to those songs of the Tibetan women, the high pitches so characteristic of them and that the women of this people are prepared to sing as religious song but, apparently, with ts origins in popular culture.

In that chaos-spectacle the ritual followed its course, several monks in a semi-circle purified items, received money, recited mantras, played trumpets. - "Time is short" - the guide told us, in a blink of an eye everything would end. The Thangka are revealed each year for some 30 minutes only.

Our guide dragged us to another part of the mountain, from where we could see the culmination of the ceremony. Several groups of monks were already on their way back in totally relaxed way, walking, playing, carrying their ritual objects as if worthless packages, all the while groups at the side of the mountain were preparing to re-roll the big canvas with the image of Buddha. Rows of men left back for the temple, rows of men left the area of the event, but many expected the final stage. The chants of the monks continued and among them the rolling up of the Tangka happened relatively quickly. The show had ended in no time. An empty space now adorned the mountain.

Nobody was interested anymore in that gigantic rolled-up Thangka, everything was over, as if that great roll did not have value anymore. No one was waiting for ts return, or at least none of those who had witnessed the unveiling on the mountain.

On our way back, some were waiting, at the doorway of the temple, for the ashes of what had been a few moments ago, I suppose.

Although I had had other experiences with "processions" (two years earlier at Osaka with the Tenjin Matsuri festival and the other one here at Niantog monastery with the Buddha Statue procession), the grandeur of the event had no comparison and I could only compare it with what I experiences when I saw La Fura Dels Baus. I have followed (by chance) La Fura around the world and have managed to see them several times in Mexico, once in Beirut and another time in Beijing, both in open air performances and in enclosed space (1). It is clear that I refer to the open-air performances when I make the comparison with the Tibetan ceremony which I had just witnessed. In the end, what I was seeing was a mass spectacle. The waiting, the continuous preparation before the spectators, the excitement caused by such preparations (movements of players, attachments, machines, etc) always in motion, their spectacular choreography, the open spaces, the movement of the public that never stops being a participant, the freedom as a spectator to talk, to scream, to be as exposed as the actors, this all was so similar to what I had experienced at the ceremonial unveiling of the Thangka in Rongwu. I always wonder at how the experience with La Fura has become a legend in my stage memory.


As I mentioned before (and as I like to emphasize) my interest in collecting this information and publish it on the web is purely documentary and is only to share my experience; even though I hope to improve or achieve a desired technical quality in my recordings, I accept that I have sacrificed all to make available the unique moments. I would like to be an educated photographer or to have a team with dozens of cameras filming everything, but too worry too much about that would make me lose the value of the very personal shots my videos of events and scenes offer. I avoid telling a story beyond the linear recounting of events, most of the time I use the actual sound during the shooting and keep the editing to a srict minimum to eliminate what becomes indistinguishable due to movement or error.

I think the best way to look at these documents is in a calm way and with a desire to explore, part by part, combining with the narrative of my experience. I do not want to replace your experience of going to the place and living a representational act of this kind. I want you to experience a little of what I saw that day, those hours. The rest, the stories, the creative videos, those are part of another part of my creative life.

(1) I have an entry on the visit of La Fura dels Baus in Beijing: It is a pity that I didn't take footage of any of their other presentations. Beirut was a huge surprise, especially knowing that the performance would arrive in a boat that had crossed the Mediterranean and that, once anchored at the port of Beirut, would offer a huge "ritual" with no religious reason. This is a video I found in with the same spectacle but in Portugal:

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