Life around Norlha

Sagadawa celebrates the birth of the Buddha, which is marked on the full moon of the fifth lunar month. For Mahayana Buddhists around the world, the whole month is a time devoted to religious practice and people celebrate by making prostrations, taking vegetarian vows, saving animal lives and giving alms to the poor.

Each monastery has its own way of celebrating, and in Ritoma, Sagadawa is marked by the unfurling of the Great Thangka. In Labrang, pilgrims assemble from all over the Tibetan Plateau, and give alms to the beggars who crowd the lingkhor, the circumambulatory road that circles the monastery. On the more worldly level, it is a time for congregating, meeting friends and relatives, an opportunity in communities who live so spread out, and do think about the world beyond.

The origin of Great Prayer Festival was to mark the display of the Buddha’s miraculous powers and the defeat of his doctrinal opponents in the town of Shravasti in ancient India. Following his victory, the Buddha delivered a discourse to a large assembly of devotees among whom many developed an altruistic aspiration for enlightenment.

Tsong Khapa established the First Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa in 1409, to be held on the 3rd or 4th day of the first lunar month. The First Monlam was marked by the completion of a major restoration of the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. The preceding year, all the statue makers in the areas were summoned to clean, wash and repair the statues in the Jokhang. The celebrated Skyamuni statue, brought to Tibet in the 7th century by the Chinese Princess married to King Songtsen Gompo, was offered a new gold crown and ear pendants.

The Great Prayer Festival brought together all the monks from the great monasteries around Lhasa. Through the fifteenth of the first lunar month, they recited prayers, and held the celebrated Geshe exams, during which the contenders hold dialectical debates which determine their depth of their knowledge in the scriptures.

Major monasteries in other Tibetan regions, such as Labrang Tashikyil Monastery in Amdo, also began holding their own Monlam Festivals. Many rituals and religious happenings are held during that time, including the unfurling of the Great Kyigu, an enormous thangka, which is taken in procession to a spot across the river from the Monastery and unrolled on a designated spot on the hill. There are also displays of butter sculptures, intricate and sometimes several meters highs, which are viewed by the public. Another important ritual held during that time is the Throwing of Ritual Cakes, a ceremony during which harmful forces are sent back to where they came from, clearing obstacles for the coming year. On the last day, the Maitreya procession takes places, during which a statue of Buddha Maitreya is paraded on the monastery’s circumambulatory route. This is also tradition begun by Tsonkhapa in the 15th century and it marks the close of Great Prayer Festival.

On the Tibetan Plateau, Losar, or New Year is the most celebrated event of the year, a time for family reunions, weddings and new beginnings. Debts are settled, quarrels are resolved, new clothes are acquired, and special foods are prepared, including a profusion of kapse (fried twists) which are included in the ‘derga’ an elaborate display of offerings that include everything from losar cards to fruit and candy. On this special day, the family alter is dominated by a rich array of light offerings, mainly butter lamps and in some cases, especially in the monasteries, butter sculpture.

Losar is nomad’s best time for leisure; animals are grazing nearby and feeding on oats, and they can indulge in cooking, catching up on news or matchmaking. The first day of Losar is typically spent at home, beginning early in the morning with offerings and prayers. The second day, people begin visiting each other, either in their village or further on, an activity that can extend into a pilgrimage either to the nearby monastery or further afield, to the holy city of Lhasa.

Winter is the wedding season. It is the time of year when the animals stay near the nomad’s winter settlements, feeding on oats or the little grass left on the pasture. There is more leisure then, especially during the new year, when families get together, eat and entertain friends. For those who work or live in cities,

In traditional Tibet, a marriage is more a business arrangement between two families than the result of two people loving each other and forming a partnership. There are several possible arrangements in a marriage: the bride leaving her family to join her husband’s, or the groom integrating into his wife’s household and taking her name. In either case, a bride or groom price is negotiated between the two families, benefitting those whose son or daughter has left. There is also the case, increasingly frequent in more urban areas, of the newly married couple starting their own family independent of both.

The following photos are of a traditional village wedding where the girl, or nama, joins her husband’s household. She is formally escorted by her relatives to her husband’s house where the marriage takes place. The only note is that this was not a real marriage but an enacted one, something nomads like to do during the New Year, for fun and as a pretext to get together, eat, sing and dance.

For rural Tibetans, maximum leisure comes with winter. The harvest long over, farmers turn to other occupations and the bare pasture keeps the nomads in winter settlements, their animals nearby. For centuries, this meant time for other pursuits, the main one being investment in the state of their next rebirth, a goal which demands the accumulation of merit. For most, the simplest answer to this quest is a pilgrimage to the holy sites. For those with little time and few resources, a visit to the nearby religious centers is most popular, spending a few days in each, circumambulating the monastery reciting mantras and making incense offerings to the local gods, for luck and good relations and butter lamp offerings to the higher, ‘beyond the world’ deities, for acquiring merit. Visiting Labrang in winter, one can see a multitude of pilgrims in thick sheepskin robes, from the furthest corners of the Plateau praying alongside the local regulars, often retired nomads from the nearby areas come to finish their lives preparing for the next.

For those with time, there is the journey of a lifetime, that of prostrating to a holy site. It can be closer or further, the most exalted destination being Lhasa. This journey can take several years and sometimes, there is no turning back. Last year, I met a monk in Ganden who had the characteristic bump of the seasoned prostrator on his forehead. He said he had prostrated to Lhasa from his home in Amdo in the 80’s and had never gone back. He radiated contentment, looking after the butter lamps, lovingly dusting the statues and cleaning the temples.

For those with time and some resources, there is the annual or one time trip to Lhasa from everywhere else, one that lasts several months. A Lhasa resident told me that its population shifts with the seasons. Its usual inhabitants find the winter too cold and go to Chengdu or Kunming for the winter. Nomads from the Northern plains find its weather pleasant and warm and move in for several months, in areas that they occupy every year. They can also do a little trading in the Barkhor to fund their trip, which includes a tour of all the holy sites in Southern and Western Tibet, Samye to the East and Tashilhunpo and Sakya to the West. Tibet in summer is a country of landscapes, while in winter, it is one of people.