by Denis Belliveau and Francis O’Donnell
We came down out of the hills and into a picturesque valley where in the distance a golden roof glittered in the late-day sun. As we approached the lamasery, a complex of exquisite buildings rose out of the terra-cotta soil. They were painted white with wooden beams exposed and trapezoidal windows painted black, contrasting beautifully. They were all crowned with golden stupas, befitting their status as among the holiest temples in Tibetan Buddhism.
After the bus came to its final halt we clambered out into the road and started walking in the direction of a group of colorfully dressed women. Unable to keep our eyes off their crazy fox and silken hats; robes with lynx and snow leopard trimmings; and chunky silver, turquoise, and amber necklaces, we nearly stumbled over another group lying facedown in the middle of the lane.
The figures slowly rose up, their faces covered in dust, their yellow eyes and moist lips jumping out at—and into you—like that old film footage of Bob Dylan onstage in whiteface singing “Tangled Up in Blue.” They took a big step forward, bringing their hands together in prayer above their heads, then slowly down to their chests. Dropping to heavily padded knees they lay facedown in the road again, kissing the dirt and extending their arms straight in front of them. Some clutched wooden hand protectors as they went.
We passed more Tibetan pilgrims fully prostrating themselves this way, in a self-enforced march of pain, encircling the monastery dozens of times. Spinning their prayer wheels and mumbling prayers, they wound their way around the temple complex on bloodied hands and knees. The scent of smoldering juniper branches rose from inside secret chambers as they passed the temples, each circuit bringing good karma and blessings for the New Year. And the New Year was why they had come. From all over Tibet they were flooding in to Xiahe and the Labrang Lamaser y, for the lunar calendar was drawing to an end and the Monlam Cham, or Great Prayer Festival, was about to begin.
On the day of the Cham we arrived in the main courtyard early, positioning ourselves up front. Only one bouncer monk gave us a hard time until he saw our passes and we were able to move around the circle chalked into the dirt for the dancers. Thousands of pilgrims jammed the square, quiet and well behaved as the bouncers walked among them with large sticks ready to whack the heads of any rowdies. We sat on the frozen ground for hours until midday, when a procession of monks in bright orange robes came through the center door way. The head lama took his seat on a balcony overlooking the courtyard. Seated to his right was a young living Buddha. The musicians came and took their places. Giant horns were propped up with cutout dragons and drums painted with evil faces were banged in unison.
A flock of monks, wearing giant yellow crescent hats, entered with a clash of cymbals, followed by throat singers moaning their deep hypnotic chants. A curtain opened and the boy monks came running out in skeleton costumes to perform ancient steps in a ritualistic dance.
Next an assortment of ferociously masked dancers in green, red, blue, and yellow—zoomorphic creatures with bulging bloodshot eyes, large grotesque noses, and fang-covered lips—danced along the chalked-out lines that enclosed their universe. Benevolent spirits in demonic disguise, they had to be scarier than the evil they chased away.
A priest in silk gowns embroidered with dragons and geometric designs entered the center of the ring and spilled blood from a cup made from the top of a human cranium. Four skull-masked monks representing the four directions pushed dirt over the dark-stained earth and retreated to their corners. The priest opened an orange box and removed a bloody knife. The masked spirits began again to encircle the priest, moving in rhythm to the music and striking fearful poses when the drums, horns, and cymbals reached a crescendo. The priest made secret gestures with dorje (scepter) and knife, symbols of power and divinity.
The Cham went on like this for hours, the crowd mumbling their prayers and kneading their prayer beads behind us. We sat mesmerized, in awe of the spectacle in front of us, ringside seats to a forbidden rite. Cham is not a form of entertainment. It is a spiritual practice that the dancer undertakes as a meditation
in order to liberate other beings from suffering. It is considered very sacred and is thought to bring good luck to those who view it. Pilgrims attend the day-long dance ceremonies, believing in the power of the dance to remove obstacles and bestow blessings upon them. Not unlike the stained-glassed windows of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, the brightly colored masks and costumes assist ordinary people to envision that which they hold sacred, intensifying their religious experience.
It was during these times that I made a conscious effort to burn the scene into my mind: the snow-dusted hills covered with pilgrims behind the lamasery, the other worldly sounds of the throat singers and horns, the smell of the oily smoke from the burning juniper branches. The photos I took are a record, and just that. These memories are the souvenirs we’ll keep forever.
All photographs © Denis Belliveau. All rights reserved.