Thursday, February 19, 2009

A trip to ཨ༌མདོ (Amdo) - Part III - Stupas and Thangkas

Next day, February 8th, started with a trip to nearby Gomer (སྒོ་དམར/Sgo-dmar, 郭麻日/Gūomárì), to visit what a sign said was the biggest stupa in Amdo. Whether or not it was the biggest one was irrelevant, it certainly was impressive, beautiful. The cultural revolution brought the destruction of this and many other religious buildings, but in the 80's and 90's much was rebuilt, maybe an effort of local authorities to redress past aggravations? Anyhow, even though this stupa (and most everything else) was relatively new, it was by no means any less of a sight: tall, proud, with countless images of the Tibetan Buddhist imagery in stark contrast against the white structure. And, at the top, inside the stupa, a shrine, like many, with hundreds upon hundreds of Buddha images, sacred scrolls, and a picture of the most important religious leader of Tibet, the Ocean of Peace (we'd later find out why he was not only there, but in almost every shrine we went into).

Next to the stupa, the "Imagination of the Mantra Hall", a temple with an exquisite entrance, a huge mandala made by a devout Buddhist, and yet another photo of the Ocean of Peace. And a little further down, the ancient part of Gomer, with winding streets, what looked like dried mud walls, old houses... We were far, far removed from... well, from everything, both western and hàn Chinese.

But the main event of the day was approaching, and we hurried back to Rongwu Monastery for it: the displaying of a gigantic thangka (a sort of Buddhist banner), taken out ONCE A YEAR to dry it a bit in the sun (the practical reason) and for the Buddha to see the sun and his people and bless them (the religious reason). As before, we waited a long, long time, as people started flooding the main temple. Horns blew, drums beat, monks performed their circular ceremonies, the tension mounted, we became less and less like detached observers and more like involved spectators. And then, it came, the thangka, rolled up, incredibly long, thick and heavy, carried on the shoulders of chanting monks, surrounded by people desperate to touch it with their forehead...

We followed the procession, stopping at different points to take it all in: the line of monks going up the hill, the ones carrying the thangka, the crowds trying to get close to it... We made it to the foot of the hill, where we waited, impatiently. The rolled thangka was placed atop the hill. The monks started unfurling it, downwards; the thangka had been rolled up with a yellow-orange fabric, and all you could see was a huge, orange square spreading down the hill. And then, it happened. The unveiling of the thangka, of the Buddha. Everything happened. So much was going on I could hardly absorb it all. The deep horns announcing the event; women chanting; minute paper thangkas with sacred scriptures being thrown in the air; pilgrims climbing the hill and throwing bright white silk scarves onto the thangka; incense burning; a special monk reflecting the Buddha in a mirror and into a bowl of water, thus blessing it. Sights, sounds, smells, from all sides demanded our attention, and you couldn't help but feel you were surely missing something somewhere, as overwhelmed as we were.

Emotionally exhausted, we walked away, in time to see the thangka being covered again, not to be shown to the world until next year... And, as if that experience were not enough, we had dinner at a Tibetan restaurant we had found by chance, attended by more than friendly staff, luckily choosing surprisingly good food, and almost not believing we had seen what we had. That good.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A trip to ཨ༌མདོ (Amdo) - Part II - Temples and Buddhas

The next day (February 7th), we could hardly wait to go out and experience all Amdo (ཨ༌མདོ/A-mdo, 安多/Ānduō) and the Monlam Festival (སྨོན་ལམ་་ཆེན་མོ/Smon-lam Chen-mo) had to offer that day. Our first stop: Rongwu Monastery (རོང་བོ་དགོན་བ/Rong-bo Dgon-ba, 隆务寺/Lóngwùsì). It was our very first morning, and I was taking pictures of everything. I couldn't help it, the images were absolutely compelling. There were praying wheels, of all sizes, some in rows, some with their own sacred space, being turned around over and over (every turn being the equivalent of reading the sacred texts contained inside). And there were, needless to say, numerous Tibetan pilgrims who, with their strong features, varied hairstyles and headgear, and friendly and relaxed attitude, made an irresistible subject (though I did try to be as discreet as possible when shooting, or asked for permission when possible).

And, on top of it all, there were the temples themselves... the temples, saturated with wild imagery and symbolism, saturated with offers of juniper and spirits, saturated with chanting and praying and the flow of hundreds of devout Buddhists...

And yet, that was but an appetizer compared with what was to come next. We headed for a nearby town, Niantog, to visit the Niantog Monastery (གཉན་ཐོག་དགོན་བ/Gnyan-tog Dgon-ba, 年都呼寺/Niándūhūsì), to witness our first ceremony of the trip: a carrying of the Buddha. And here, one note on rites: all the rituals we attended were astonishing, yet paced, stage performances. No "fast-food" shows here, but drawn out affairs, with long waits, where every bit would draw you closer to the climax, through an imperceptible crescendo until you found yourself having gone from impatient observer to being totally immersed and lost in the experience, with no concept of time, just caught in a whirlpool of sound, colour and fervour. As corny or false as that may have sounded, that's how it felt to me.

First, as in most ceremonies, monks would prepare, shielded from the public by curtains over the temple's entrance, chanting and performing unseen (and probably incomprehensible to us) rituals. After all, mystery is power.

Then, a new ceremony, with the arrival of the more important monks, chosen people bringing offerings of different sorts (silk, bread, yak butter figures...), followed by more chanting and the announcement, as in a play, of the beginning of the next part with a gong atop the main temple. At that point, nothing much had happened but, like I said, these were important rituals, not to be rushed through, each step followed by an increase in intensity. And so, when the time had come, the 2nd act began: prayer horns, drums, a parade of monks in red robes and yellow hats, circling the monastery's square, many times, molding the sacred space...

And, finally, the climax: from a side temple which contained a gorgeous and incredibly complex multi-coloured yak sculpture, the Buddha was brought forth, placed on a sort of open palanquin, and a throng of specially appointed people (laymen, not monks) pulled and carried the holy image through the square and into the streets surrounding the monastery. Incense burned, women chanted, men prayed, crowds pushed to touch and be blessed or to offer silk scarves, money and various gifts... I can't tell how long it lasted, it must have been rather quick, yet it was so enthralling the moment seemed to extend far longer than it could have been in reality.

And to think that this had been just day one (not counting the beautiful drive to Rekong I talked about in my first post, of course).

Friday, February 13, 2009

A trip to ཨ༌མདོ (Amdo) - Part I

Remember my post on our frustrated trip to Tibet in 2007? Well, guess what, we finally made it to Tibet! The trick? Well, it took a change of viewpoint, from seeing Tibet as a Chinese bureaucratic entity (the "Tibet Autonomous Region" or TAR) to understanding Tibet as a CULTURAL entity, spilling over from the TAR into the provinces of Qīnghǎi (青海), Sìchuān (四川), Gānsù (甘肃), Yúnnán (云南) and Xīnjiāng (新疆) within the People's Republic of China (PRC), and also into India, Nepal and Bhutan.

So, keeping that in mind, and leaving political borders aside, we visited the traditional Tibetan province of AMDO (ཨ༌མདོ/A-mdo in Tibetan, 安多/Āndūo in Chinese), which occupies most of Qīnghǎi and part of Sìchuān and Gānsù, and experienced one of the most intense and unique events we've been to, the Great Prayer Festival or Monlam Chenmo (སྨོན་ལམ་་ཆེན་མོ/Smon-lam Ch'en-mo), where thangkas were displayed, Buddhas carried around, and dances performed to dispel evil and drive demons away. It was INTENSE.

Ah, but first a quick note on names and languages. When possible, when referring to Tibetan places or events, I'll be using the local Tibetan PRONUNCIATION (written in the latin alphabet), followed by the name in Tibetan SCRIPT and its transliteration, followed by the Chinese name both in Chinese characters and in the official phonetic spelling. Though cumbersome, I hope that way to honour the culture which offered us so much, while facilitating the looking of further information on the web.

And now, back to the trip. On February 6th we flew to Xīníng (西宁), capital of Qīnghǎi Province, to then take a car to Rekong (རེཔ་གོང/Repkong, 隆务/Lóngwù), the town where we were going to be based. And that's where Amdo offered us its first gifts. The 3 hour ride was not just the means to get to Rekong, it was a destination in itself: beautiful stark mountains, which at some point became clear reflections on an emerald river, a river known as the Machu (རྨ་ཆུ/Rma-chu, 黄河/Húanghé) which flows blue-green in this area before ochre sediment further downstream turns it into the "yellow river"...

...stupas, relic-holding structures that represent Buddha in sitting meditation, some of them deep in the mountains, others offering watery mirages...

...and finally, where we left the great Machu behind to follow the waters of the humble Rekong, a pass guarded by a welcoming Buddha carved in the rock high above, watching over the half-frozen river, over a slender bridge with colourful fluttering prayer flags, and over our entry into the valley which would take us to our final destination... the town of Rekong.

That day we didn't have much time nor energy left to explore, but we did pay a night visit to Rongwu Monastery (རོང་བོ་དགོན་བ/Rong-bo Dgon-ba, 隆务寺/Lóngwùsì). At one of the temples, a group of young Tibetan girls were walking around the main building, singing and chanting. At other temples, the music of more chanting and horns could be heard.  The unfamiliar rhythms and the yak butter lamps were a gentle introduction to the onslaught of experiences awaiting us.