Celebration For All!
Hello! You’ve missed so much since you have last been here! You have come back just in time for my personal favourite time of year; new years!! This is the best time of year because our village just comes alive with the spirit of good will and happiness. It’s a time where everyone comes together to celebrate this time of transition and to purify and renew the spirit for the year to come. Today is the last day of Monlam, my favourite day of the entire year, but first let me tell you what you have missed so far.
The first part of this grand few weeks is the New Year, what we call Losar. It lasts for three days and this period of time is known for the great feasts that we have. On New Years eve everyone, including myself, gathers with their family and eats Guthuk. This is a special type of noodle soup made with barley that is eaten only on New Years eve here. Along with cleaning and decorating our houses, this day is known as the festival of Banishing Evil Spirits. By driving out the evil spirits, we can start the new year on the right track. The fun part about eating Guthuk is that there are dough balls in the soup, which have different ingredients in them, and it is always a surprise and it is supposed to represent one’s character. This year hidden in my dough ball was wool, which is considered a good sign!
After New Years eve, the first two days of the new year are spent by everyone going around to all our neighbors exchanging Tashi Delek blessings. These are for good luck for the upcoming year and to also wish that all auspicious signs come to their environment. On the third and last day of Losar, new prayer flags are exchanged with old ones. This involves changing all the prayer flags in the village, and there are hundreds both at the monastery and the nunnery. It takes everyone in the village to complete this. But its not just in homes where prayer flags are strung. A group of people always pilgrimage up to the top of the nearby mountain to raise new prayer flags there. This normally takes all day, and accompanying the raising of new flags, they burn fragrant herbs to please the spirits of the land and the sky. Here it is easier for the offerings to reach the gods.
Losar is a time for new beginnings, and is overall a really fun time. The whole village comes together with ritual and celebration. People in the village of all ages light lamps and offer prayers at shrines and at the monastery. There are also many feasts and friends and family come together to gamble and spend time with one another. Immediately following Losar is the Great Prayer Festival, called Monlam. In this time of eight days there are tons of public examinations of sutras which have been a huge production at the nunnery. Our courtyard are where some of the examinations and debates are held. People from all over the village come to hear the speakings of monks and some nuns here and they can sometimes go on for hours. They are always eventful and insightful. There are also a lot of sermons during these days, but at the end of Monlam, there is my personal favourite event of the whole year!
On the last day of Monlam, there is a big performance of ritual dance called ‘cham. Only monks are apart of the play but here at the nunnery some of us have been working on the costumes. On the day of the play the courtyard at the monastery is packed full, with people of all ages crammed on all four sides, sitting and standing ready for the show to begin. Before the performance starts, every person observing is a participant of the play, and needs to prepare themselves by visualizing a mandala. This sets the stage and provides the paradigm for the entire dance.
This is my favourite dance because I really enjoy the story line behind it. It begins with a group of dancers in skeleton costumes entering the courtyard, they are the helpers of Yama, the lord of the dead. These helpers carry in a human figure made out of black coloured tsampa dough that is contained in a medium sized box, which is placed in the centre of the courtyard. Another group of dancers enter, who are the helpers of the mandalas main deity. For a short while these two groups interact by dancing around together. Then a group of heroes enter, this is a really interesting part because the heroes are both men and women. The male figures wear turbans and have mustaches while the female figures have green faces with very large eyes. I really enjoy how women are represented here and that they are heroes. The last group that enters to set the scene are more helpers of Yama, dressed as deer holding skull cups and curved knives, for ritual purposes. Following this scene in the performance is dances by monks dressed as lions and crocodiles.
The next scene is more for comical relief. Now a group of monks dress up as Hashang Mahayana and his six Chinese disciples. This section of the play is shorter but more slap stick form of comedy, with the disciples falling over and accidentally hitting each other. The reason for this part of the performance is to point out the reputation that the Chinese master has in Tibet. We have different proposed ideas to enlightenment and for as long as I can remember, we have always poked fun at Hashang Mahayana. After this skit is the last, and most important, part of the performance. Yama enters the courtyard. He is depicted as a demonic figure with a head of a horned bull and blue skin. He comes in carrying a skull cup and a staff while wearing a crown of skulls. With him other fierce deities enter as well, although Yama is the main figure. Yama’s helpers bring him the box with the human figure in it. Indian masters enter the courtyard and remove the lid of the box. Yama takes the human figure out of the box and and drives a dagger through the figures heart, then cuts off its legs, arms, and head. After this Yama’s helpers carry away the pieces of the human figure and they all leave the courtyard, ending the performance.
This last section and skit of the dance performance is the most powerful. The human figure held in the box represents the old year, and the box is contained with all the evil of the old year. As Yama stabs the figure and dismembers it, it symbolizes an exorcism of the evil and provides a fresh start to the new year. With the carrying out of the body parts, the exorcism is complete and the fresh start can begin. The whole concept of our new years is to celebrate a new beginning of the year and all the excitement to come. Past deeds are forgotten with the old and the whole community comes together to celebrate this rebirth. It is a blend of the religious and the mundane, with the combining of ritual practice with social gatherings. This day is particularly my favourite because of the big production and the meaning behind it. I feel as though with the finishing of this performance the fresh start has really begun.
Following today and the end of Monlam is a festival called Chung Choepa, or the Butter Lamp Festival. This is the last festival that caps off this time of year. The main purpose of this is to celebrate the victory of Sakyamuni buddha against heretics in a religious debate. There are giant butter and tsampa sculptures is the forms of the various auspicious symbols and everyone sings and dances the night away. Again this is time to spend with friend and family, and is overall a really enjoyable night.
Ok I must run now! Since the play has just finished I’m sure they need help cleaning up from the performance! I also should head back to the nunnery after and see if anyone needs help with creating the butter and tsampa sculptures. I’m no artist but with the busyness of the past few weeks, everyone here can always use a helping hand. Also, if I’m lucky, there might be another debate going on at the nunnery. I just love this time of year, our village just absolutely comes alive with the spirit of renew and happiness!