Of Gods and Demons

Tibetan Buddhist festivals celebrate age-old traditions

By: Ruth Lor Malloy

Many walls of Tibetan monasteries are covered with paintings and masks of ghosts and demons. For strangers to Tibetan Buddhism, they might appear scary. Some have dark faces and ferocious teeth and are topped by miniature skulls and horns. But the masks come to life during festivals when they are worn by dancing monks.

Tibetans believe that the arrival of Buddhism to their land transformed these threatening gods of the old Bon religion into benevolent protectors. The dances are rituals to frighten away evil spirits, as well as to explain Buddhist history. I had been to Tibetan areas in China several times, but I was never able to fit any festivals into my trip. One of them, the unveiling of a monastery’s giant picture of Buddha, takes place for only one hour, once every year, at several monasteries. Many believe the ceremony brings good luck.

During my last trip, two of us carefully planned our itinerary around two festivals, which were, fortunately, only five days apart and only four hours by car away from each other. They were at altitudes lower than in Tibet itself.

First Stop: Xining

We flew from Beijing to Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, which was once part of Tibet and is still known there as Amdo. We used travel agent Yang Cheng Cai, based in Xining, China, who was reliable and very knowledgeable and accompanied us on much of the trip.

The unveiling of the giant thanka (Nepalese paintings of religious themes) at Kumbum Monastery was only a 25-minute taxi ride away from Xining. As we arrived, we found dozens of men carrying a long scroll up the side of a hill. When they unrolled it, we could see a huge green-faced Buddha. It must have been at least 40 feet long. I felt a surge of emotion as I realized this was probably one of the largest religious pictures in the world. While it was on display, a handful of women in traditional dress prostrated themselves reverently at its base. Worshippers threw silk scarves into it as a symbol of welcome, while monks with big, curved yellow hats and maroon robes chanted, beat drums and collected donations of money and ceremonial food.

Afterward, we saw the masked dances. Our cameras clicked constantly at the colorful ghosts, demons, yak and deer. Dance movements were slow and repetitious, a twirl, hop and swing to the beat of cymbals and drums. The day was bright and sunny, great for picture taking, and the rituals went on for four hours, maybe a mite too long to hold the attention of non-believers. Kumbum itself was huge, beautiful and exotic, and I wish we had skipped some of the ritual to see the city.

During our five days in between festivals, Yang took us to the Dalai Lama’s birthplace, which is now a shrine decorated with hundreds of prayer flags. We also visited an interesting Moslem minority community and several temples, one of them on the side of a cliff.

On to Tongren

Our drive to Tongren (or Rekong as it is known in Tibetan) was over a 12,000-foot pass, and the journey through the mountains and past great yellow fields of canola blossoms is breathtaking. These days getting there takes only three hours by car from Xining since the government completed a highway, which runs through a tunnel in the mountain.

Tongren must have at least 10 Tibetan temples and monasteries. In one temple more than 100 dancers in splendid traditional costumes performed a ritual for two days, calling on the temple’s deity, Shachung, to predict the future through two shamans.

Children as young as 4, danced happily with many adults. They were all dressed in traditional costumes, which are made of silks decorated with otter fur. Most wore fancy Tibetan boots. The dances were slow and easy to the heavy beat of drums and cymbals. At times, the dancers seemed worn out, but they kept it up all day.

That day and the next, the two shamans sporadically went out into the crowd and told people to dance or chided them about their excessive drinking and gambling habits. They threw barley at the villagers to emphasize their points. About once an hour, a shaman ordered them to burn more offerings of food and drink in one of two fireplaces, causing great clouds of smoke to rise over the temple gate, a thick pathway to the god.

A village leader said shamans received no money for their services.

“It is their duty,” he said.

The festival continued for three days in other nearby villages, but I didn’t have the time to stay. Still, I left Tongren with my camera’s memory cards completely filled, hoping to return to yet another Tibetan festival the horse racing festival in Yushu, also in Qinghai next summer.


Getting there: There are at least four flights a day from Beijing to Xining. There are also daily flights from China’s Chengdu, Guangshou, Hangzhou, Lhasa, Qingdao, Shanghai, Urumqi and Xian. From Xining, you can go by taxi to the Kumbum Monastery or Tongren.

Where to stay: The best hotel in Xining is the new five-star Yinlong Hotel which opened in July 2005. We stayed at the Qinghai Hotel and the Xining Hotel, which were both adequate. In Tongren, the modest Huangnan Telecom Hotel has no restaurant and no elevator but is satisfactory.

The dates of festivals vary according to the lunar calendar. Check with the China National Tourist Office for dates.

Qinghai CCT (Travel Agency)
Yang Cheng Cai
E-mail: wildyak@21cn.com