Winter Pilgrims

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.