Travel around Losar - New Year of the Tibetan People

The fine air of 4000 meters is felt immediately. Tibet represents the Shangri-là in the spirit. It is torn by deep contradictions that arise from the attempt to reconcile the new socio-political reality imposed by the Chinese with the ancient traditions. Among these, Losar is the New Year that lasts a few days. It is a moving and suggestive show, in some respects. It is an incredible show, during which the spirituality of the Tibetans is expressed at the highest level.

Along the hairpin bends of the huge holes and crossed by an infinite number of streams, the landscape has changed completely. Large grasslands take the place of forests. The snow-covered peaks, from which cascades of ice descend, arrive strongly on the proscenium of this huge natural theater. Imposing cloudy masses wrap around peaks with an unknown name, yet never baptized by any mountaineer or geographer. Then, a few hours later, a tormented ocher landscape replaces the green slopes that we had traveled. From a cultural and geological point of view we are entering Tibet.

The skill of the drivers is absolute. Fords and landslides succeed one another continuously and incessantly. Then a paradise located beyond the trail appears in our eyes. We are in a plateau closed upstream and downstream from high mountains. The natural walls that surround us are a concert of bare rock with colored striations with different colors. The green prairies let themselves be crossed by a fast flowing river, and by undisturbed horses. On the horizon peeks of snow-covered giants. Here they are! They are Himalayan giants, what a pleasure to see you again!

We decide to place the tent in that corner of paradise, at an altitude of 3600 to acclimatize a bit during the night and also to rest. The long journey has exhausted us. We had to "pull the neck" before feeling a tad of fresh air, climbing towards the Himalayan offshoots. In the darkness of a moonless night, the stars shine with unprecedented brightness. I recognize the pleiades and the big wagon. They look familiar, they are our own stars, those of the northern hemisphere. So we're not that far away! But how many are there! The Milky Way appears in all its splendor. Tibetan skies...which sensitive soul can resist you? How many poems you have inspired!

The next morning is announced with a clear sun. We are in a good mood. After a couple of hours of shaky journey, always in sight of the Himalayan giants dressed up in snow and ice, we stop for a tea in a hut used as a bar, near a bridge on the river. As soon as we get off the car, we see an old wall erected near the chorten on which the inevitable prayer flags fly. "Om mani Padme hum", are the mantras carved on the stones.

Along the slope and its narrow hairpin bends, overlooking the river, many workers adjust, build and repair the dirt road that goes up to the Kunzum La. Then finally, the sky seems to touch the earth and here we are at the top. From the summit prairies the eye sweeps across the opposite slope. A theory of mountainous scenes, sometimes desert. To thank the Gods we do the round counterclockwise as used in Tibet of the white chorten placed on the pass. Hundreds of colorful prayer flags contrast to the whiteness of the glaciers of the surrounding peaks.

Meanwhile the mantras printed on the flags are slowly consumed by the weather and then 'travel' to the deities. A long descent in a desert environment leads to the underlying riverbed. Roofs covered with wood and shrubbery, inlaid windows and above all the somatic features of people remind me that I am in the Tibetan universe.

We are at 4000 meters and the altitude begins to be felt. The clouds have thinned out and a Himalayan light comes in a grazing way, brushing against the red rocks that surround the place. Behind us are raised high cliffs that like huge walls, delimit the fracture in which the river flows. Opposite here is the village, on whose houses waving white prayer flags. These, against the light, seem to light up like many light bulbs. All around an island of green barley fields tear from the desert with such pervadacity and work. We decide to take a walk in this picture of living Van Goog. The peasants, intent on reaping with the sickle, greet us, consent to be photographed. The yaks graze and the children, omnipresent in these villages, follow us laughing. For them we are an uncommon motive for attraction; real aliens.

A surprising sunset captures us towards the return to the field. Wonderful! What shades of red and yellow! Then the shadows lengthen and even up here at night, even if with difficulty, manages to have the best of it slowly.

The next morning is Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Losar includes ritual dances, exhibitions of the great Thangka and Torma. There are the butter sculptures, the processions of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. And above all it allows us to be in close contact with thousands and thousands of Tibetans. They are mostly nomads or from the small villages of the plateau. They reach the monasteries of the area to participate in the most important event of the year.

The monasteries turn into a riot of color and sound. The devotees dress in their traditional clothes. They adorn themselves with beautiful coral and turquoise silver jewels. They get wrapped in their robes of heavy fabrics or overturned furs. Some wear showy hats and crowd the place to watch the huge Tangka with the painted image of Buddha Sakyamuni. It is beautiful to mix with them when they leave in procession holding the precious roll of cloth that contains the sacred effigy.

They bring it to the men, who sing a litany as they climb the hill from which they roll out the Tangka. They are followed by women and children, also their intoning prayers and mantras. The monks wear ceremonial clothes, rich and elaborate, and the tall and bright yellow berets. They play traditional instruments like trumpets, plates, drums, shells. It seems to have gone back in time. A sense of inner peace and serenity takes hold of us. It makes us lose in the intelligent and vigilant eyes of the highest religious authority present, the young lama reincarnation of the founder of the monastery, who attends the ceremony.

The same thrilling sensation pervades us in the following days. We witness the procession of Maitreya and the Cham, the sacred dances, in the courtyard in front of the main temple of the monastic complex. The deep sounds of the instruments and the guttural voices of the monks chanting mantras accompany the slow movements of masks made of wood and paper mache. They depict the mystical and epic universe of the Tibetan tradition. Under the masks are the monks, who wear precious brocade dresses and ornaments with sacred symbols.

While they dance, they identify themselves with the figure they represent. People are suspended in a kind of ecstasy that leaves us astonished. It as well leaves us breathless the deep attention of the Tibetans who attend the show. They silently turn the 108 balls that make up the Tibetan rosary that flows in their hand. To understand such amazing devotion, we must not forget that for this people Buddhist images represent the concrete presence of the sacred. The strength of their spiritual power spreads the blessing on all those present.

Enveloped by the acrid smoke of burning juniper branches that burn in small stupas as a sign of ceremonial offer, we move to the monastery of the small village of Guomari. Here there is a collective breakfast, a ceremony that has its roots in past centuries. People distribute free food, tea and yak butter to pilgrims. Participating in this festival, eating and drinking with the Tibetans, allows us to notice the faces and the smiling eyes of those around us. They express a basic serenity that remains so even in the presence of serious logistical and economic difficulties. Moreover, Buddhism, more than a religion, is a way of life based on compassion towards all forms of life and on the awareness of the impermanence of all things.

That's why in the following days, we reach Xiahe, after crossing valleys and deserts at high altitude. We pass Lung-Ta covered in colored prayer flags. We visit other spectacular monasteries, caves with Buddhist effigies in the ancient village of Bajiao. The mighty and intact walls date back to 2000 years ago. Above the monastery of Labrang, the serenity with which the relatives of a deceased greet their dear one after a Sky Burial (heavenly burial) does not surprise us.

Out of respect, we do not approach those smoking piles and those few people who chant mantras. But we know they're burning tsampa (barley flour) mixed with the remains of the dead, after the vultures, sacred birds in Tibet, have eaten the flesh (the soul will reincarnate) offered to them as food. Learning to live is learning to break away, as an ancient Tibetan text reads.

In the enormous monastery of Labrang we still witness the rituals of the Losar. It is enriched by the nocturnal exposure of the great butter sculptures, also representing symbols of Buddhism. Also on this occasion thousands of Tibetans queue up. They prostrate themselves in front of the works of art displayed on the square of the main temple.

A nocturnal queue, more or less ordered, that lasts hours, only to be able to bow a few moments, before the orderly service imposes to move forward. Being in line with them, participating in this exhibition, is another experience that will not be forgotten. Despite the sleep, despite the effort. Every journey enriches, every journey leaves indelible memories inside us. But perhaps no one like this is able to transmit us and give us deeply intimate feelings and emotions.

Beyond the monasteries, beyond the landscapes, the villages, the cities, what remains is a profound empathy for a people that does not give up, for a faith that does not bend. Once at home, you can still hear the squeaking of prayer wheels pushed by pilgrims. While they do the kora of monasteries, you can still see old men, young people, men, women and children who, even in the snow, prostrate themselves before. Around the temples, you cannot forget those mantras, those prayers, those flags waving, those calm eyes and the lights from the light of those who believe, despite everything.

Here I am back home, I think to myself. But what will it be that moves me to these high-altitude desert lands? One thing is certain. As soon as I board a plane, I fly from one of the many drops of Tibet. What will I look for in these mountains, in these silences, among these tanned and smiling people? In these rocks impregnated with sacredness, who knows?
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  • anthony stemke
    anthony stemke February 22, 2012 at 4:40 PM

    Incredibly interesting essay, I learned a lot. Thank You.

  • Jayanthy Kumaran
    Jayanthy Kumaran February 23, 2012 at 7:38 AM

    wow...thanks for sharing dear..very interesting..:)

    Tasty Appetite

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