Road Stories #45: Learning about Tibetan Buddhist culture in Litang

Litang, China (22) - Tibetan Buddhist praying wheels - header

Arriving in Litang

It took some time to realise we had arrived. This was mainly due to the discrepancy between the photos we had looked at and the story our eyes were telling us. We had expected elegant Tibetan buildings encasing dainty roads. What we actually encountered was Stalingrad. Instead of roads, mud-filled craters undulating like the waves, buildings being torn down, thrown up, scaffolding everywhere. In short, ‘war-torn’ is an understatement.

We set out in search of somewhere to sleep. After trudging across the pockmarked town, and with the help of some less than helpful Chinese cycling tourists, we found the town’s only hostel. Conditions were Spartan, we slept on the floor of the common room, but the owner was friendly and we could have done worse. It was a shock to learn however that the internet of the whole town had been cut off. Apparently this was a regular occurrence in Tibetan areas of China, especially on Buddhist festivals and on the Dali Lama’s birthday.

Litang, China (9)

Attending a Tibetan Buddhist ceremony

In spite of the general air of carnage, there was one site in town that was well worth seeing. The Chöde Gompa Monastery was founded in 1580 by the third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso and really is a stunning place.

We approached the main temple building apprehensively. We know very little about temple etiquette and from the chanting emanating from within, some kind of service was underway. We were ready to retreat when two monks, seeing our confusion, encouraged us to enter. What we saw was one of the strangest ceremonies I’ve ever witnessed. It was very intricate, with a lot of procedures, so you will have to forgive any omissions.

Litang, China (32)

We sat against the back wall. In front of us 3 lanes, lined with Buddhist monks on both sides. The middle lane seemed to be the most important as there were 3 men on a raised platform in the centre, the central man slightly higher than the men flanking him. The most prominent man was leading the chants, with a technique that meant he was able to continually chant without having to pause for breathe. The side lanes were occupied by young men who would occasionally lose focus and start a private conversation, until a man dressed like a vulture (picture above) would come over and tell them off. The chant leader had a pair of cymbals that he would sometimes crash together provoking everybody else in the central lane to start ringing bells and twirling rattles. This was the central tenant of the event.

This however was interspersed with ritual tea drinking and putting on and taking off felt crowns. At one point one of the younger monks put a little tree at the end of one of the rows, left it there for a little bit, took it away, replaced it with a sword and then everybody kissed their rings. Bit weird. Then the aforementioned vulture and some minions gave everybody some money. All the time the man was chanting away, the vulture was circling and the bells were being rung. It was fascinating, if a little bizarre.

Litang, China (28) - Tibetan Buddhist ceremony

During the ceremony

Making friends with a Buddhist monk

The fun didn’t stop there, though. When we left the monastery we were followed by the man dressed as a bird of prey who indicated that we should follow him. Intrigued, we were lead to a flat that he must have called home. As he made tea we sat observing his abode. It made our hostel look like the Ritz. Nothing but a bed, a wardrobe and a cardboard cut-out of the Dalia Lama. We used his toilet and both wished we hadn’t. The lack of running water had led to an alarming pile up in the toilet. The smell could be best described as toxic. As we had no language in common, communication was tough but with the help of an English-Chinese translator we managed to ask him about the cardboard cut-out. He replayed that if the police found out he would be in big trouble.

Litang, China (35)

Visiting a Buddhist school

Tea drank, profuse thanks given, we explored the rest of the monastery grounds. We were so high up (4,014m) and the air so thin, it felt like we were dragging bricks as we climbed up to the school.

Litang, China (39

The style was reminiscent of an Islamic Medressah with classrooms set around an inner courtyard. The young students eyed us with good natured interest and as we peered into an ongoing class we were mesmerised by their attempts to learn Chinese. All the Chinese vowels, with marks indicating their tones, were written on a blackboard in Pinyin. The instructor stood at the head of the class pointing to each vowel and eliciting a call and response in turn.

Litang, China (47.2)

It was time to leave but the whole experience had been immensely rewarding. We had endured a nightmare hitchhike in order to get as close as we could to Tibetan culture and it really was fascinating to see how this culture continues to endure. This is in spite of the overbearing threat of Chinese cultural dominance. The question of how long it can, is open to debate though I feel…

written by: Jon.


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