This Saturday was special. It special not only because I got to see friends Seigi (ViA’s volunteer in Guyuan) and Gerald (from Xining, avec entourage). Rather, it was objectively Special. Nothing we could have done carried the possibility of unspecializing this day.
Occasionally, there comes a day where monks are swarming the town, the monasteries bustle with pilgrims and popping firecrackers seem to puncture the atmosphere, acupuncturally, every few minutes. These are what we have come to call “Special Days”.
Despite the crowds of people who, on these days, are visiting monasteries and paying their respects to lamas, nobody seems to know why in particular the day happens to be Special. This very quality of Specialness is unexplained and, seemingly, without cause. While Western Tibetologists and members of the Buddhist clergy might be able to inform you, the mass of laypeople seem unaware of these days’ exact significance. Either that, or they aren’t willing to tell us.
Either way, Saturday was an Extremely Special Day – so Special that monasteries throughout the region were holding performances of cham – a masked dance which takes place in monasteries on Losar (the Tibetan new year) and occasionally on such Extremely Special Days as may occur throughout the year.
Such as this Saturday. Earlier that week, Rinchen Tso (Brooke’s live-in little sister) and her family had invited us to her uncle’s village for cham at the local monastery. Despite the 7:00 Saturday morning wake-up call, we assented and prepared our best Tibetan clothes (“you must wear Tibetan clothing,” we were told) for the occasion.
After waking up in the dark and watching a tortuously slow sunrise, Rinchen Tso’s family picked us up at 8:45 for the journey upvalley to her uncle’s village. After reaching the township seat, we turned off the main road and started switchbacking uphill through a flatbottomed valley of barren stony fields and skeletal trees, framed by a background of redrock cliffs rising into snowtipped peaks. Eventually a massive monastery on a hilltop came into view; we continued up into a narrow valley surrounded by steeply rising peaks. Finally we arrived at a mudwalled courtyard house, which we entered for a delicious breakfast (noodle soup) with Rinchen Tso’s uncle’s family.
But we had an agenda for the day, so after eating we jumped back into the car for the final few switchbacks up to the monastery. Perched on a hilltop magnificently overlooking the valley and the peaks beyond, now hazy in the early light, the monastery was small but apparently held a significance beyond its size as the seat of an especially important lama. As such, immediately after arriving we went to visit the lama and presented him with gifts (khatag, money (100 kuai each!), tea), bowing down before him as he leaned out of the window to give us his blessings. Before he reached out to tap my head, I looked up. He was an ancient, wizened, frail-looking man whose eyes nevertheless were radiant with some kind of unnameable inner resolution.
We then descended to the main assembly hall, where crowds of pilgrims were forming a snaking line running around the building. Soon, a line of monks started to make their way along the line of pilgrims, who (men and women) rolled up their robes to bare their chests and backs. As the monks moved towards us, I began to hear a strange hissing sound. What was happening here?
Soon, I had my answer. Each monk held a small bowl of milk tea. The monks would take a sip of milk tea before spitting it back out onto the bared bodies of the pilgrims. What reached us was a delightful blend of milk tea and monk spittle, the volume and viscosity of which grew in proportion to the monk’s age. Some ancient fellows were showering veritable typhoons of saliva onto my back, hair, and face.
After being spit on by over one hundred monks, we decided (given that showers, or really any significant sources of water, were unavailable for the rest of the day) to visit the rest of the monastery. The temples at the top of the monastery, which were recently constructed, were magnificent, smothered in brilliant colors and fantastic murals. One of the temples was a tiered construction, which we ascended (to the fourth floor) for fantastic views. The other held excitingly risque and macabre (yes, at the same time) tantric murals. After exiting, I bought a VCD of local music as my “admission ticket” to the place.
As we wandered around, crowds began to gather at the assembly hall below, and suddenly we heard the crash of cymbals and a growing, swelling song, wordless, high and powerful, rising above the valley. The dance was about to start.
We arrived just in time to see five dancers, wearing fantastically ornate masks and technicolor robes, start to make their way around the courtyard, pacing, twirling, stomping, and jumping in unison. We watched, entranced, until they retreated inside the assembly hall. Soon, the doors opened again for brilliantly robed monks carrying parasols, scepters, drums, horns, as well as monks dressed in a variety of spectacular masks and exuberant costumery. Monks and monks and monks and more monks emptied out of the building and, in a slow procession, circled the courtyard several times; there must have been at least several hundred people in the procession, which became a swirlingly tornado-like vortex of unbelievable vividness and color. Primaries predominated, but seemingly every color of the spectrum was given a place in this madly beautiful, spectacularly festive whirlpool. No religious ceremony I have ever seen was nearly as visually exciting. The evangelical and protestant missionaries in the region, I thought, somber in temperament and morals as well as aesthetics, must have a difficult time converting the Tibetans from a religion which is so participatory yet mysterious, accessibly simple yet profound, and above all so sensually exciting.
For the next five hours, we watched dance after dance in the monastery courtyard. The audience was nearly as much fun to watch, however; grizzled grandmothers and gnarled-handed women and longhaired young men, all dressed in their Special Day clothing, between whom legions of scampering children ran freely. Rinchen Tso’s younger siblings, twins, and her cousin Jiahua Tserang provided us with entertainment as well. Jiahua Tserang (age 13?), who because of his sheep and yak herding duties was never sent to school, is a budding amateur photographer (he has his own digital camera, of unknown provenance) who would continually run off with Seigi’s camera to snap a few shots of his own. Whenever we couldn’t find him nearby, we always saw him in the middle of the courtyard, inches from an important monk or from the swirling forms of the masked (and sword-carrying) dancers, snapping shot after shot.
After more than four hours crouching, my knees felt like they were about to pop, so I went on a short jaunt up the mountainside above the monastery to stretch out my muscles. From above, I could see that the lower monastery was also holding cham, with large crowds gathered in its courtyard to watch the dancers. Surprised that such a sparsely populated area could support two major cham dances simultaneously, I asked Rinchen Tso about these two monasteries after coming back down from the mountain. We discovered that these two monasteries, one being Nyingmapa (the one we visited) and the other Bon, have long been especially intense rivals for power and influence within the region. We saw this in evidence after leaving the monastery at the conclusion of the dances, when the long procession wandered up the mountainside to a spot immediately above the other monastery. From this point, the monks threw firecrackers down towards their neighbors, a gesture which was apparently a kind of nose-thumbing, one-upping “look at us: we have more people at our cham, our monastery is more beautiful, and our theories of emptiness are more sophisticated and altogether more baller than yours, so suck it” to the Bon monastery. Not to worry, however, about one monastery’s dominance, as the Bon monks later reciprocated the favor to their Nyingma rivals.
After all this politically motivated fun-and-games, we piled back into the car and headed back to Rebgong. All in all, it had most assuredly been an Extremely Special Day in every way. We saw hours of cham, met an especially important lama (who had apparently left the ceremonies unannounced at an early hour after being offended by the seating choices of several spectators), and got spit on by nearly one hundred monks. Despite which I am still not sick. A miracle which I will chalk up to the Special quality of the day itself.