Procession of the Buddha Maitreya Statue at the Rongwu Monastery.
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After two days of truly extraordinary events, my idea was to rest a little and I even considered not going to this event which I thought was very similar to that of the Niantog Temple two days before; that event and the ceremony of the unveiling of the Thangka had each lasted more than five hours and I thought that a repetition of it would be almost physically unbearable. Obviously I was wrong.
The huge Rongwu Monastery is home to hundreds of monks and novices participating in the ceremony of that day, and for this special event many more had come from the neighboring monasteries, also this event was apparently the first that where the Lama Rinpoche, the second in hierarchy (after the Dalai Lama) in Tibetan Buddhism, was present.
The known structure was repeated: around 10:30 in the morning monks came and went across the square and we saw how they were specially dressed again for an important ceremony, carrying various objects, each one with narrowly defined tasks. Inside the main temple a truly unusual amount of monks (I stopped counting at 300 when they closed the curtains) remained seated. The atmosphere seemed a bit more chaotic than the previous days, I guessed there would not be a structure of presentation, but everything was as the day before, with a strict ritual order.
Around noon the preparatory ceremony inside the temple finished and most of the novice monks who were praying inside came out from the temple in an endless stream, red blankets and shaved heads filled the main square. I got to see some groups of 5 or 6 monks driving new model cars and coaxing the crowd out of the way with the sound of their klaxons in a hurry to go and have lunch (at least that is what I was informed) .
So we had to wait because all the monks and novices had to go to eat. The wait was not long, less than 30 minutes, and all were back to continue.
The traditional Tibetan horns sounded and chaos in the square increased. This time I preferred to stand in a remote place near one corner and make my shots from one of the walls so I could be able to control my camera and avoid any fight with the crowd; I really wanted to use the zoom for the best shots if I needed. It was not paradise but I liked the angle from where I took everything. I could also have contact with some of the common Tibetan people; I did not understand their language, of course, but it was easy to deduce that they were talking to us about the ceremony, about the presence of the Lama Rinpoche and how important it was to see him there, what a delight of communication!
The Lama Rinpoche sat at the upper level of the temple in a large terrace, with a group of monks and next to a group of privileged Chinese, and the rest, all of us, were scattered below them in the square.
The first part of the ceremony, the presentation of many groups of monks, of their religious hierarchies, of objects and banners, was immensely long (obviously the video is edited and I have made it very short). However, this time I enjoyed and observed a bit more than the last days: I could appreciate how they achieved their circular formations, I observed attentively the objects they carried and in particular their costumes within the religious ceremony; the leader (the Lama Rinpoche) was dressed as simply as any other monk, but not those who participated in the presentation ceremony: the high level monks reminded me of Greek tragedy actors dressed in huge costumes and wearing masks, marking their difference from the terrestrial world. As tragic actors, Rongwu monks wore a kind of high shoes or stilts (some more than 5 cm high) that I had only seen in Chinese Opera; they also wore a large number of clothes of different colors with "shoulder supports" to make them look larger and to expand their body. Similarly to Chinese opera characters, they had objects and “props” according to their hierarchy, with their own spiritual symbolism; and, of course, they all had special hats.
In the next photo (taken at the Niantog Monastery) you can see an example of how the monks' dress look like. The monks playing the trumpets had small stilts, while the main monk had very stylized shoes; you also can notice the excess of clothes and how one of his shoulders is expanded using many pieces of fabric.
In the following two photos (taken from my Rongwu video), we can observe the same "theatrical" phenomenon. In the first photo you can notice the difference between the character dressed specially for the event and the other monks in the same town. In the second picture, a really special one, at the background, one of these "characters" gets out of the temple, its presence is so remarkable due just to the costume, he looks enormous and the image resembles an epic character, I would say. (All photos can be enlarged for better viewing by clicking on them)
A monk exits from the temple during the ceremony. Rongwu monastery. Amdo. Feb 2009.
Looking for similarities is inevitable, I did not find anything new, the link between religion and theatrical events (that is most evident in Greek tragedy) in Tibetan ceremonies is acknowledged by both social anthropologists and performing arts researchers. But I can say that I experienced and enjoyed this live, and I could also document it. That made me immensely happy.
Once the presentation took place and the monks began to leave the square, as in the previous day, people literally rushed to the doors of the main temple. From that door came monks pulling a rope wrapped in white gauze, a sort of umbilical cord linking to the chariot-palanquin of the Buddha Maitreya. There were murmurs and shaking all over, its was as sloppy and chaotic as the day before, only this time I was not pushed by the crowd and I could see from a more stable place.
One of the most striking images was the emerging of the Buddha’s “palanquin” from the huge door, apparently immensely heavy, the monks were making a big physical effort, and the crowd only wanted to touch it, throwing strips of white gauze or trying to help carry it. On the “palanquin” a small chapel was mounted, decorated in colors and brilliant gold, with its Buddha Maitreya "caged" in it . The Lama Rinpoche and the monks on the terrace let fall dozens of strips of white gauze. It was like the moment of the unveiling of the Thangka, it was a very religious moment, energetic, perhaps ecstatic, but this time all along the peregrination: hundreds of Tibetans sang, the horns sounded, many were praying, throwing handfuls of rice and colored paper with mantras printed on. I loved the singing of Tibetan religious women, a high pitched sharp singing, a singing I will always identify with this trip to Amdo, a singing that I know will appear continuously in my dreams.
On their way towards the exit of the main square the palanquin was about to topple, we did not know whether people laughed or were horrified by this, their reaction was a bit strange for our cultural codes; the man with the umbrella who was escorting the Buddha statue fell under the crowd, but he made it back and opened it again.
When the procession passed close to my corner in the square I took a close-up of the Buddha Maitreya: I was surprised, immersed in my Christian culture I saw the image of a Catholic virgin on her pedestal like at any Mexican religious procession, there was a transposition of place and object in my mind, a kind of strange feeling; but it was the statue of a Buddha, a golden statue of a Buddha with a very feminine face.
After the palanquin left the square I tried to do the same and follow the procession a little bit more outside the temple’s walls. I did it and I mixed myself with the crowd, there was no way of getting out of there without being "carried" too. I felt a little religious, a little ritualistic, a little Tibetan too.
Once outside the main square, the procession would visit most of the temples and chapels of the monastery and would last two hours or more, although our guide told us that the procession would surely return after it walking around the main temple (not the whole monastery) to prevent further damage to the portable shrine.
It had been too much excitement, I was happy and tired. I let the procession go and its people after it, for me the event was over when I left the main square.
I wanted to rest, download all that material to the computer, try to edit some photos, think about the ceremony, and sleep well. The next day would bring the event for which I had specifically come to Amdo, the performance of a Cham dance-theater.
Video in exposureroom.com: Procession of Buddha Maitreya Statue at Rongwu Monastery (Feb. 2009)
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Version in English revised by Tadeo Berjón.