Life around Norlha

January on the Tibetan Plateau. The landscape is bare, immersed in shades of yellow and rusty reds. The dust flies and animals graze what is left of the grassland…to the very last twig. The coldest month is the beginning of hope for new life to soon emerge all around. The newborn lambs take their first steps and the baby yaks will soon be born. The grassland will rejuvenate and slowly morph into pale shades of green and in a few months, flowers will begin to bloom. We think of the year to come and the colors that will populate our lives and fill our vision; intense pinks and reds from flowers and monks and rusts and burnt oranges from the changing pasture or the architecture. Norlha’s new collections are inspired from renewal and hope.

Most marriages in Ritoma are arranged by the families. When a young man or woman come to age, which is very early, their parents begin to look for a match which can be in the village itself or beyond. Prospects are singled out and when a possible match seems close, families sit down to consider options. The young people whose future is being discussed rarely have any say and the deliberations will go on taking into consideration the business aspects of the match. The bride can join the groom’s family and become a nama, the groom can join the bride’s family and become a magpa, or as they often do nowadays, a time when young nomad men have a difficult time finding a bride, set up their own household, independent of their parents and seeking out other means of livelihood.

Lhamo and Drukyabum’s marriage was not arranged; they fell for each other at a very young age, when Lhamotso was modelling and Drukyabum was on the photographer team. Drukyabum told his family he wished to marry her. There was some opposition to the match but neither would be swayed. It was finally agreed that Drukyabum would join Lhamotso’s household and he moved in with her parents, whom they support thanks to their both being employed at Norlha.

Lhamo Tso had come to work for Norlha at fifteen, after she dropped out of middle school. She had to leave for a while as she was considered under aged, but rejoined when she turned sixteen. Drukyabum’s grandfather and many of his cousins worked at Norlha and at sixteen, after he dropped out of school, he was hired as an assistant photographer. Lhamo Tso began working as a finisher, then became a tailor. Drukyabum was in the dyeing section, then became a full-time basketball player for the Norlha team. He is known for his skill with horses and is an excellent rider. They now have two children and Lhamotso, now 24, is outspoken and active; she plays basketball, is learning English and is looked up to among the women for her maturity and level headedness.

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.

Herds of Yak are visible from miles away, black dots on green or yellow pasture. Up close, they appear mostly dark brown, with some lighter animals ranging from grey to ivory. At Norlha, we source our raw materials carefully and sort it by color; brown, which is the most prolific, then grey and creamy white. We tread the precious fiber with respect and never bleach it, allowing it to retain its natural vitality and elasticity.

Yaks took to the colors of the pasture around them, that of dark earth, of thundery skies, of snow and milk. Around the yak’s shades, we have developed a range of woven and felted products that celebrate their innate qualities; deep brown, warm grey and ivory white. Every year, these may change a little, depending on the dominant traits of color from the animals they were collected from.