A Tibetan woman circulating a Buddhist stupa outside Ngawa's Bönpa (苯教) monastery of Narshi Gonpa (朗依寺).
The Tibetan houses at the outskirt of Ngawa, one of the most important cities and trading posts in Amdo, and the centre of Tibetan culture, religion.
Winter. Snow. A bus raced through the slushy road in the mountains of northern Sichuan. Inside, I wiped out the condensation on the window with my sleeve. The sky was bleak and gloomy. Some 3,600 meters below, farm houses appeared like sesames. Suddenly, chilling wind gushed into the bus through the opened windows, interrupting my thought. In the roaring sound of prayers, the Tibetan passengers released hundreds of colourful prayer leaflets to the whirling wind. I knew I had reached the summit of the Zhegu Mountain, 4,458 metres above sea level. I didn’t pray, because I trusted the experience of the driver, who drove pass this route year round.
The Kirti Gonpa monaster at the westside of Ngawa is virtually a small city hosting 2,000+ monks. It is one of the three largest Gelug lamaseries in Amdo area. Despite its long history, most existing buildings were built around 1870.
I only thought this might be a good point marking my first entrance to the Tibetan region. There were still a couple of hundred kilometres from my destination Ngawa (阿坝, Chinese Pingyin: Aba, meaning: men who beat drums), a town in the prefecture sharing the same name. In the following few days, I’d be participating in the Tibetan Monlam Festival in the region’s largest monastery – the Kirti Gonpa (格尔登寺, Chinese Pingyin: Ge’erdeng).
Tibetan farmers in Ngawa
Historically, culturally and ethnically, Tibetan region encompasses much wider region than today’s Tibetan Autonomous Region on the map, which roughly corresponds to the traditional Ü-Tsang (卫藏) area. A large part of western Sichuan was the former Khampa (康巴), while my destination Ngawa belongs to Amdo (安多), which includes northern Sichuan, southern Gansu and most part of Qinghai.
A Tibetan girl.
A Tibetan pilgrim girl during Monlam in Kirti Gonpa.
Tibetan issue has always been a sensitive in China. This leads to the exclusion of foreigners in many areas. Ngawa is an example. Thankfully, a friend of mine in Chengdu had arranged someone to greet me at the bus station, and help me check into the hotel. He was an amateur photographer who had won some prize in a provincial contest and, alas, his nickname was “Chubby Monk” – a monk and chubby.
Portrait of a monk (I)
Portrait of a monk (II)
The bus arrived in twilight. I unmistakably spotted Chubby Monk before he recognised me, thanks to his maroon gown, his statues, and the large Canon camera dangling in front of his chest. He spoke poor, nearly unintelligible Mandarin. So we saved words after the initial greetings. I followed him through a cold, deserted street under the mercury lamps to the hotel, where he exercised his guanxi
(relationship) to bypass the inspection of my foreign passport.
A monk guard who keeps the event in order.
Being a son of a mid-level bureaucrat, Chubby Monk certainly knew how important guanxi
was to get a job done. In contrary, I only realise five years later today, that I should have brought gifts when I visited the home of Ngawa’s tourist bureau chief. I needed an official letter from him in order to photograph the Monlam event. Without that, I was spotted and turned away by two 6-foot stocky monk guards while trying to follow the flow of pilgrims into the monastery.
Monlam celebration in Ngawa's Jonangpa (觉囊派) monastery of Setenling Gonpa (色格寺)
Monk procession in Setenling Gonpa
Monlam celebration in Setenling Gonpa
After a brief introduction by Chubby Monk, the chief took a glimpse of me from top to bottom. He and his wife were warming by a coal fire. To write the letter he needed to first see my standard Chinese ID, which I “left in the hotel”.
“A business card is OK too”, he said, apparently giving face of his acquaintance Chubby Monk.
That moment, I truly regretted not having printed some business cards as a photojournalist working for the People’s Daily
Chubby Monk and I came out empty handed. The last opportunity was to bring my non-existing ID the next day to the chief’s office. There, I finally confessed my identity. The chief wasn’t too surprised but hestitated. Compromising his authority to his relationship with Chubby Monk, he decided to add my name to the letter issued for two legitimate Chinese photographers.
Young Monlam spectators in Setenling Gonpa.
Young Monlam spectators in Kirti Gonpa.
Young Monlam spectators in Kirti Gonpa.
Mask dance in Monlam.
Coming out from the office, I rushed to the monastery. The festival was already underway. The week-long Monlam, also known as the Great Prayer Festival, is perhaps one of the most important in Tibetan culture. It starts from the fourth day of the Tibetan New Year Losar
or, the fourth day of the Chinese New Year in the area with significant Chinese cultural influence. Tens of thousands of Tibetan pilgrims converged to Ngawa’s 2-hectare monastery of Kirti Gonpa, one of the three largest monasteries in Amdo, with more than 2,000 monks of Gelug sect. Few pilgrims came by vehicles, many by foot, and some prostrated all the way from their homes.
A young monk in Kirti Gonpa
Distracted young monks during the Monlam ceremony
I followed every move of the two photographers. I couldn’t afford to get lost in the crowd, since they possessed the paperwork. Just as I scrambled to photograph the festival goers, I heard an all familiar hello in English from my back. Turning my head, I saw a young monk in his early twenties, short, baby-face, and polite - a sharp contrast to Chubby Monk. He was obviously testing if I spoke English and, once confirmed, was thrilled as if he found a soul mate. In impeccable English, he introduced himself Lotse, and volunteered to show me each part of the monastery, which was a small city by its own right.
A pilgrim is flying lungtas in front of the cypress furnace.
A young monk is releasing lungtas. Cypress burning (with wheet or barley) and lungta flying are two important parts of Tibetan Buddhist prayer to increase life, fortune, wealth and health. Lungtas are leaflets with Buddist scripts, literally mean 'wind and horse' (Chinese: 风马旗).
As Lotse led me like a guide for a Kirti Gonpa tour, I couldn’t help ponder how a Tibetan monk living in a monastery was able to speak such flawless English, let alone some Japanese as he claimed. He had an inquiring mind, never stopped asking questions. He seemed to be able to read my mind. His hot butter tea was a relief for a day-long exposure in sub-zero temperature. In his dormitory I met with his fellow monks. I instantly became a popular figure due to my cameras. After all, monks are men; men are interested in mechanical and electronic gadgets. As soon as the monk guards who caught me during the first day became my friends. I virtually got a free ticket not only to roam the monastery without restriction, but also with extra privileges neither the pilgrims nor the tourists entitled.
Pilgrims spinning prayer wheels (Mani Khor) in Kirti Gonpa
Over the course of the festival, my friendship with Lotse deepened. Every evening, the husband and wife owners of the family restaurant at the street corner saw three photographers and two monks having plenty of meat and wine (which Gelug monks did not seem to avoid), discussing everything from personal backgrounds, Tibetan culture to national affairs. Everyone liked Lotse. Unlike Chubby Monk, he was not content with spending the rest of his life in the monastery. He was eager to learn about the outside world; he virtually taught himself foreign languages; he had an inspiration of being a tour guide, or even running his own business. However, from an outsider’s point of view, this young Tibetan had all the advantages of a monastic background, a learnt mind, a language aptitude, and the true intellectual potential to become an outstanding scholar in Buddhism or Tibetology. We offered to pay for his college education in Beijing.
Monks circle Kirti Gonpa during the Monlam Festival.
Monks circle Kirti Gonpa during the Monlam Festival.
The Monlam Festival isn’t a carnival fair for party goers. There are many solemn moments that can no doubt touch the heart of every observer. When thousands of monks slowly circulated the monastery under light snow, more pilgrims prostrated on the sidewalks of dirt soil and frozen urine. Only by witnessing such extraordinary situation, I came to believe that, the spiritual realm of a human being could indeed be elevated above his physical being.
Monks pray in front of the thanka during the Buddha sunning ceremony at Kirti Gonpa.
Senior monks supervising the setup of thanka.
Back to the monastery’s main court, monk workers had unfolded the thanka
, a gigantic tapestry scroll of Buddha painting reaching from the ground to the eaves of the assembly hall. Khakhl
or Buddha sunning is the high and climax of the entire Monlam event. I mingled in the sea of pilgrims; I was the only one who had not born in my chest a white silk khata
, the sacred scarf that symbolised peace, goodwill, auspiciousness and compassion. After a solemn ceremony held by the live Buddha, commotion started to build up. The dying patients and severe handicaps were first carried by stretchers or barrows to the front of the thanka
, where they placed their khata
on top the Buddha tapestry.
Monk guards would never hesitate to whip pilgrims to kept the situation in order.
Thousands of pilgrims rush to the front of thanka to offer their khatas.
Then, as soon as the monk guards holding the crowds stepped aside, the flood gate was opened in a split second. In my eyes there were no long individuals but a flow of humanity gravitating to a common centre. It didn’t take too long for thousands of sacred khata
to fill the thanka
, which carried the weight of tens of thousands of wishes. For a harsh environment like Ngawa, the once-a-year wish making is probably one of the most important spiritual subsistence for the Tibetan normads to carry on their lives year by year, generation by generation.
Portraits of pilgrims (I).
Portraits of pilgrims (II).
Portraits of pilgrims (III).
Portraits of pilgrims (IV).
Ngawa’s winter is even harsher. Water shortage made it impossible to wash inches of dusts I collected during the six-day visit. Flushing toilet was out of question. Each hotel room was given a thermo bottle of muddy water for the day’s usage. -12°C temperature in the room frosted all windows. But compared with some pilgrims who stayed outside virtually for the entire week, at least I had a room, an electric blanket with on-and-off power that kept me warm sporadically. The night before my departure, Lotse knocked on my hotel door. We sat in the frozen room. The light flickered like a candle because of the low voltage. The just-established brotherhood was about to separate, since we felt the occasion might well be the last intersection of our life paths. From time to time in the past several days, given his unusual characters, I doubted him as a government spy agent.
Portraits of pilgrims (VIII).
Portraits of pilgrims (VII).
Portraits of pilgrims (VI).
Portraits of pilgrims (V).
However at that moment, I wished not to think that way. He respected me as a mentor, who taught him English and told him about the outside world. I respected him as an extremely talented and inspiring young man who stood out among his peers. I had no gift for the young monk, only some advice and a lot of encouragements. Earlier that day, I took him to an internet café in town, opened a Yahoo! email account and showed him the basic operations. But since then, I had never heard from him. I don’t know who passed the news about him, whom left the lamasery and opened his own travel agency. Since no one knows both of us (except the two photographers and Chubby Monk, all of whom I never contacted again), my impression must be from my dream.
Last Update: May 05 2009 02:29:29 -0500