Wednesday, May 27, 2009

4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 3: Carrying of the Buddha Maitreya Statue at Rongwu Monastery.

Note: See the introduction to this series about the Monlam Festival in Tongren, China on the March 20th, 2009 post: "4 Days of Monlam Festival (Tibetan New Year). Day 1: Procession of the Buddha Maitreya at Niantog Monastery".

Day 3
Procession of the Buddha Maitreya Statue at the Rongwu Monastery.

Photographs of the Buddha Statue procession at Rongwu Monastery.
If any of the pictures of the slideshow can’t be seen, click inside the box and it will take you to the Picasa site where all the photos are in.

The event

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)

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 Procession of Buddha Maitreya Statue at Rongwu Monastery (Feb. 2009)
Carrying of the Buddha Statue Ceremony at Rongwu Monastery. By Gustavo Thomas
View in HD Download 720p HD Version Visit Gustavo Thomas's ExposureRoom Videos Page

Version in English revised by Tadeo Berjón.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Marionettes and Rod Puppet from Guangdong and Fujian at Macao Museum

Another short post, this time about a visit I realized to the Macao Museum in Macao, Southeast China in January 31st, 2006. An interesting museum where we can learn about Tea's origins (did you know the word "tea" comes from Fujianese and not from Mandarin?) and Macao history of course, but also about Chinese performing arts and specially puppet theatre developed in the region.

Macao, an ancient Portuguese island in Asia, was mostly inhabited by Chinese from Guandong and Fujian provinces and many of their traditions are evidently from those regions. One of the sources of Chinese Puppet theatre is in Fujian province, and two cities are famous for it: Quanzhou because of its marionettes and Zhangzhou because of its glove puppets; but also an important source of the so called "rod puppets" is Guangdong province. It is believed that Quanzhou marionettes and Guangdong rod puppets were first introduced to Macao and then known in Europe through the Portuguese during 16th Century.

Some of these marionettes and puppets are in exhibition at Macao Museum.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Images from a “Physical Theatre Workshop” at Penghao Theatre, Beijing.

Since Feburary 21,2009 a “Physical Theatre Workshop” is held by David Limaverde, a Brazilian actor studying at
The Central Academy of Drama in Beijing (中央戏剧学院). I went only to take a look and to take (for my visual Blog-memory) some shots of their work in there.

Penghao Theater is a relatively new drama and dance venue in Beijing; an interesting project dedicated to promote any stage activity, mainly to the new actors and directors prepared in the Central Academy of Drama nearby, but it is also a platform for foreigners artist like David and some of his actresses in the workshop who are living, studying and working in China.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Marguerite Duras... L'Amant de la Chine du Nord.

This is an English version from the original in Spanish (Tadeo Berjon corrected the text).

I knew that at some point in my life I would read it again and several more times, that I would need her rhythm and her vague (due to its being ephemeral) understanding of love, that to read in her language would enjoy her more, feel her more and even cry with her.

Marguerite Duras came to me over 20 years ago when I had not even found anyone to love. She was only "L'Amant", and some theatre and movies. I read, listened and watched with her and her huge and hideous face, her amphibious body and the chaos of her numerous books, the only thing that surprised me was all that confidence at the time when she would wrote obsessively to us; then, her deformed eyes became sharp, and they would be forever enshrined in my memory, Duras was only her eyes and themes for me.

I could not understand how what everybody considered a great literature and a great person in my eyes and my ears was just that image of obsession, of ugliness and of persistence in writing.

I found her again in an airplane, in the darkness of a 14 hour flight and in a continuous 2009 New Year's night. As I read her "L'Amant de la Chine du Nord", Duras's words got mixed with those that had read more than 20 years ago, when I had not loved anyone, when I was in love only with theater, my body and my future. So, with memories from those years and from my readings, I had to stop my reading, so many books were being read at the same time in my head! again the mirror of the past emerged and at 40 years of age it brazenly opened before me. I see myself in every word I read, in every word I repeat, I admire the writing for what time has done to me.

I remembered that staging of the play "Agatha" at school, in which I did not take part, but which I watched attentively. It was the time when I was discovering the Tchekhovian Naturalism of Gonzalez Caballero, the acting technique of haikus and internal pain, of confusion and of immense love for acting, of tears that spoke of love and loneliness. That Agatha... I admired the director and the group, my friends, and I was in love with their work, perhaps even with them, I don't know I was young. The perceived depth of their dialogue was so shallow did not feel the texts of Duras (I trusted in those texts so little!), I could not perceive the emotional gulf of the incestuous relationship, of the insolence and pain of not being able to love yourself anymore. I tried to approach the director, who was as young as me, and share my theatre and its achievements. I talked with him, gave him "my secret", the Japanese poems that led me to feel what I knew was lacking in their staging of the play, and a charming smile thanked me.

I knew then that to read Duras or to see her on stage or on screen required help, required a big past, a technique, a viewer with history, and not young people who dream of creating... Including me with my experiences and "my secrets".

That assistance was futile, I was not taken into account, the work didn't even make it to the premiere, the group dispersed and the theater stopped being a part of their lives ... I remember with sadness how that beautiful stage director died little by little, being just as young as I was, and what I watched him meditating under a storm, I learned that the plague that terrified our sex lives in the eighties had covered him and was defeating him. Agatha kept inside me added to that terrible image of a young dying and shaping my past.

Therefore Duras was also imprinted in my theatrical life, she embedded herself subtly with a memory of death, impotence, and who knows, perhaps also of love and desolation.

As many of us lost track of one another, she become just another name, literature from other people. Until that long night at the plane over the sea, where it all came back. Thoughts. Did I have to to be living in China to know her again? Did I have to lose myself in troubled relationships to recognize that what she talked about was loving (in ignorance) a stranger ?

The lovers recognize cultural differences, incestuous siblings recognize social differences ... We all love each other in the impossibility of being whole. Chinese words heard from other place burst my memory: we Westerners are no more than hookers in search of freedom, chaos, incest, insanity, ambition and money, we love the freedom that has led us to degeneration! While they, in their overwhelming hypocrisy of centuries, must follow their traditions, appear wise, and never lose face; why give up life and joy at the expense of love, which is stupid?

Reading Duras again, 20 years after, brings me laughter, sarcasm, and pain. The eternal disgrace of her Chinese lover is a victory for the little French whore from the west ... Those words are worth more than a life of respect in a stale and putrid society and they end in a telephone call saying that "he has always loved her."

I have had to touch Chinese hands, their skin and their powerlessness; I've had to breathe the suffocating heat of northern China, of Indochina and Siam, and immerse myself in all the rivers that cross them. I have had to hate and get to know about cultural, social, racial differences... To know the powerlessness of loving until due to cultural differences, and just then, to only live to write about them.

I went back to reading the lovers, her Agatha too, I bought her books, her works, I watched her movies, I thought about them and about her, I looked again at her amphibious face and past of vice and communism. She is not my goddess nor my theater nor my literature, but she is a bit of my understanding of love and cultures.

I knew the final piece that were written about that first love should be the best, because it was the one she would write after having talked about everything, about what was well known ... When there were no more anecdotes to talk about, you would have to talk about what is essential, to clean the truth and tell it with the simplicity the narrative images, which is not poetry in itself and yet is so close to it that it surpasses poetry when poetry lets down its guard. That's "L'Amant de la Chine du Nord".

I knew that at some point in my life I'd have to read her once again and several more times; that I would need, as I need water, that I would need her rhythm and her vague (due to its being ephemeral) understanding of love, that by reading her in her own language I would enjoy her more, feel her more and even cry with her. I knew that being a writer now I could alsom relive her.

Now that I close my eyes and her books, I enjoy a phantasmal feeling. I've found a very short and long-lasting response to a haiku, and enjoy it, and I rest.

Perhaps one would not read Duras more than twice in a lifetime.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Javanese Rod Puppets Collection at Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

I took some photographs of the Javanese rod puppets (wayang golek) collection in exhibition at San Francisco Asian Art Museum in February, this 2009.

It seems the museum has dozens of these puppets but only a few are in exhibition. (1)

This is what the Museum's caption says about this kind of puppet theatre:

"Rod Puppets (wayang golek) of Java, Indonesia.

Indonesian Puppet Traditions

Amond the performing arts traditions of Indonesia, the most familiar to outsiders is the shadow puppet theater (wayang kulit).

Another important, though less well known, Indonesian performing arts is the theater of three-dimensional rod puppets (wayang golek). Unlike the shadow puppet theater, which has been nurtured in the aristocratic courts of Central java,wayang golek has been a popular, nonaristocratic tradition. It has flourished along the northern coast and western Java.

The puppet theater of Indonesia is not a children's theater, although children are often fascinated by it. Its stories are derived from the great Indian epics the ramayana and the Mahabharata (which are familiar in varying degrees in much of Southeast asia), as well as from other literary works ad incidents of history. The stories come from both Hindu and Islamic contexts.


A sole puppeteer not only manipulates all the puppet characters but also speaks for all of them, at the same time creating sound effects and directing the accompanying musical ensemble.
Performances continue for many hours. They must not be interrupted for fear of causing disruptions in the everyday world, which the puppet world is seen as paralleling. because the puppet theater, in addition to portraying furious battles and raucous comedy,examines the most serious issues facing society, amaster puppeteer is thought to posees great spiritual power.

The Puppets

The puppets, carved of wood, are brightly painted, and dressed in clothing and jewelry of batik and other fabrics, leather, sequins, and beads. Their hands can be turned by the pupeteer, and their long arms are hinged at shoulders, elbows, and wrists, allowing the puppeteer to use the rods attached to the hands to create a wide range of expressive gestures.

The facial features, colors, and costumes of the puppets identify the characters they represent, from beautiful princesses to noble warriors to scheming courtiers to mischievous clowns to exalted gods. The Indonesian audience usually knows the stories presented, can recognize the puppet characters, and is aware of their powers and weaknesses as well as the quirks of their personalities. The characters are so familiar that you can say "our neighbor is acting like Bhima," and everyone will know what you mean.

There are some videos in Youtube showing these theatre in performances:

(1) Here is a link to the database of the Asian Art Museum, with photographs and information about any of its puppets collection:
If you are interested in using any text, image or video from this Blog, please contact the author writing your e-mail and information in comments. (comments are private)
Gustavo Thomas. Get yours at