Fabulous costumes, phenomenal endurance, grace, and big crowds. As well as, as being beaten with a stick to get down so people in the back can see and pounded by a giant Tiger. What more could you ask for? And my pushy Tibetan introduction last evening was of great value. I am now a pro at not getting shoved over.
Today is the day when the Chem (not accurate, a Tibetan word pronounced something like this) Monastic Dances are performed. It is truly spectacular. Honoring the Future North Peace Land, that place in time and reality where all people are enlightened (nirvana), the performance features black-faced dancers representing the followers of ______________ the original leader of the Galupa Yellow Hat sect of Mahayana Buddhism and other important players. As well as an enormous entourage of monks accompanying the dancers, some chanting, some playing musical instruments, local village men in Tibetan robes sit together in a large gallery on the left side of the dance stage in the back. They represent army of the Future Buddha Helper.
I push my way toward the front of the huge standing crowd just in time to have the beaters come through and lower everyone in front of me to a sitting squat. Using a willow brach, they slash it between people it to part the standing crowd. Those to the dance stage side of the part are to lower themselves. If the beaters, clearly officially sanctioned, feel some one is not low enough, they lash out and whap, whap him or her.
For the long minute there is no one standing in front of me, all I can say is, “Wow”! Magnificent costumes that literally are beyond my capability for description. Suffice it to say that Labrang is one of the most important monasteries in China, and the only huge one that is not run by the government. The elaborate performances are as good as they get: highly disciplined and totally Tibetan. The costumes certainly reflect their exalted position.
Soon the folks just “beaten down” are back up again. And, in swoops the Tiger, a two person puppet that bonks people. I am a lucky bonkee, proud to say. The beaters and the tiger sweep the audience every fifteen minutes or so. Kind of a fun crowd control mechanism. I am right at the intersection of standees and squatters. Since I cannot squat very well, I feel the stick quite a bit. It is both good natured and serious.
I am using my new pushing tactics to attain a decent view. The phantasmagorical creatures dancing with slow precision are representative of deities and honorees that I am not familiar with. My favorite, or course, is the one with the deer head. I can relate to a degree without interpretation.
It is very hard to photograph, what with the constant pulsing of people. Just as I get an image composed, some one walks into the frame, or I get shoved, or someone raises an iPhone right in front of my lens. But somehow this is all part of the dance. If I get a few images that trigger my memory to recall the whole experience, I will be happy. If I get a great one to share, I’ll be thrilled.
In the beginning, single performers strut their stuff, always slow and precise. Then come pairs, apparently inferring a confrontation. There are certain performers who receive khatas, but I don’t remember if it was only the solo fellows. No matter, by the end, the area is filled with elaborately choreographed interactions by the entire gang of gorgeous mystical apparitions. There must be fifty, maybe more.
I have seen images from Bhutan, and earlier Tibetan celebrations, where the costumes were more atavistic — a somewhat ragged aesthetic that I particularly like. These were contemporary, magnificent, and looked very heavy. As the performance is long and the day is quite warm (upper 60s), the endurance of the dancers is indicative of some strong, dedicated fellows.
I don’t wait till the end, though I was told there is a splendid finale. I have been riveted in place for three hours, and I think it is time to give up my spot. Also, my back is starting to complain.
I walk the length of Labrang and meet up with the family, who have been visiting in town. It is now cold, and as we wait for our favorite cab driver, I am grateful to have my big coat, which has been tucked away for the day in a lightweight collapsable carrying bag.