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In front of Potala Palace in Lhasa. Photo by Cheng Shang Cai

In front of Potala Palace in Lhasa. Photo by Cheng Shang Cai

  • Our Traditional Culture Won’t Hold Us Back

    I am one of four sisters, so my parents called us the Snow Lotus after a rare medicinal plant with four flowers. In the village where I grew up, Gling rgyal, most people farm the land. My paternal grandmother raised us while my parents tended to our crops: wheat, canola, and barley.

    My childhood on the Tibetan Plateau was very different from what most kids know today. I never went to daycare or preschool, I did not watch TV, and I enjoyed my chores. Every morning, my grandmother took me to the manikhang, a place where the elders in the community gather to read Buddhist scriptures and pray.

    Khamokyit Tibetan fieldwork
    Here I am, on the far left, with my three sisters.
    Photo courtesy of Jixiancairang

    During the day, my sisters and I would spend all our time outdoors—climbing trees and stealing fruit from our neighbors’ garden. As a kid, I thought chores were fun. I would help my mom and grandmother collect dung to fuel the fire and pull weeds from the garden to feed to the pigs. We talked and sang as we worked. I would watch my mother and grandma weave yak hair bags and straw baskets, felt wool mattresses, sew traditional boots, churn butter, and make cheese and kefir for the family.

    Before bed, my grandmother would teach me riddles or tell stories like “King Gesar,” the epic tale of the fearless Tibetan leader of the legendary kingdom of Ling. The life I grew up with does not exist anymore.

    We moved to Rebgong when I was ten. The city schools there were better, and my father got a job at a bank. My parents still live in Rebgong, but they drive twenty minutes to our village almost every day. When people ask where we’re from, we say Gling rgyal because we still feel that it will always be our home.

    When the time came, I decided on a university in Chengdu that had a Tibetan department. I wanted to maintain my ability to speak, read, and write Tibetan, and to learn more about my culture. I wanted to safeguard my identity.

    Khamokyit Tibetan fieldwork
    In front of the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in the region of Kham.
    Photo by Jixiancairang

    University opened my eyes to both Chinese and Tibetan cultural diversity. There were students from all of the fifty ethnic groups within China. I discovered that Yi people, like Tibetans, live in mountainous areas at high altitudes and have their own spoken and written language, which is related to Tibetan. My Tibetan classmates were from everywhere on the plateau: Lhasa, Karndze, Gansu, Yunnan, and Amdo. Our class was a small representation of the three main Tibetan regions: Amdo, Lhasa and Kham, known as Do Ü Kham sum. At first, we had to communicate in Mandarin since we all spoke different Tibetan dialects. Little by little, we began to speak in our own dialects and, after some time, most of us were proficient in Kham, Amdo, and Lhasa dialects.

    While at university, I discovered the importance of documentation. I interviewed several distinguished elders in my own village and recorded them speaking about their memories of their childhood and their adult life. Through these oral histories, I learned about the lifeways of previous generations. I began traveling to different parts of the plateau to immerse myself in local culture, conducting interviews as well as filming and photographing traditions. I went to Hongyuan and Dzorgye in Amdo and recorded nomadic songs.

    Through these songs, I realized how Buddhism plays a role in the daily life of nomads. However, I found that the younger generation was not interested in the songs at all. They were more interested in modern Chinese songs. In fact, I found that most young people didn’t know how to sing any traditional songs. Unless documented, these songs will be lost when our elders pass away. So many kinds of Tibetan traditions, knowledge, and skills are disappearing so quickly. I see documentation as playing a vital role in sustaining our cultural identity.

    Khamokyit Tibetan fieldwork
    I interviewed a monk from Yarchen Gar monastery in the region of Kham.
    Photo by Jixiancairang

    In particular, I knew I wanted to document the annual Lurol festival in Rebgong. This festival is big deal for Tibetans in Amdo. I have been going since I was seven years old. It protects us from evils and blesses us with prosperity. It is also a time to connect with our relatives, neighbors, and friends. We wear our best clothes, we host people at our homes, and we eat good food.

    The festival is ancient and has been celebrated every sixth lunar month (around July) for hundreds of years. More than twenty Tibetan and Monguor villages in the region hold their own Lurol festival.Dance is at the heart of the festival, but, depending on the region and village, the dances are different. There are three main traditions: Lutsé, the dance to worship the Nagas; Latsé, the deity dance of consecration; and Maktsé, the military dance that reflects ancient war scenes. In my village, we perform Lutsé.

    Each village’s festival is different, but most of them entail bathing, welcoming the mountain gods, mountain god possession, as well as offerings of food, blood, and sang, a cleansing smoke. All variations of the festival essentially have two functions: first, to expel ghosts and evil from the village; and second, to bless the people and land with a good harvest in the coming autumn months.

    Because of Lurol’s many shamanic elements and Bon religious influences, some argue that it’s not Buddhist. They disapprove when the shaman makes a small cut in his forehead to give a blood offering. I would argue that it depends on how you define Buddhism. For Buddhists in the Amdo region, these are our traditions. Buddhism is more than a monastery. Many people do not read scripture, but they do attend this festival and believe in its sacred protection and blessings.


    Click on the photo above to view full slideshow from Lurol festival

    In more recent years, the Lurol festival has become a tourist attraction. Now, thousands of tourists come from all over the world. Tourism has changed the festival in many ways. Schedules must be changed to accommodate tourists, and there are cameras everywhere. Many villagers lament that the festival now feels more like a performance rather than a ritual. The villagers are forbidden to go on the roof of the house where the Lurol is held during the festival—they believe it will pollute the sacred ritual objects stored inside—but now most tourists go to the rooftop so that they can get a better view and better photos. 

    When I bring my camera to the festival, I use it differently. I know what I can and cannot document—what is and is not sacred and appropriate. So, as a documentarian and a Tibetan woman, I think I can see the tradition from many perspectives.

    Khamokyit Tibetan fieldwork
    In front of the famous meditation cave of female revenant Karma Wangzin in Tra village.
    Photo by Jo Tenzin La

    Sometimes I think that every step I take takes me further from my culture. Currently, I am working toward my doctoral degree in religious studies at the University of Virginia. While I still travel back to Tibet occasionally for fieldwork, these trips are fewer than I would like. I’m so far from home and so much time has passed. But in many ways, I also feel more connected to it. When I’m home, I’m just me. In the United States, I’m seen as Tibetan. In the United States, I think about my culture, my religion, and my language so much more.

    I began working at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to archive photo and video for the Nomad Material Culture Documentation Project, which features contemporary nomadic life on the Tibetan Plateau. This project is timely because about twenty years ago, local grasslands were fenced off, making both farming and herding livelihoods more difficult. Furthermore, many of the regions featured in the documentation are physically difficult for outside researchers to access. Fortunately, the Tibetan fieldworkers were able to record people discussing and demonstrating herding culture, homestead life, daily routines, religious rituals, and artisanal skills.

    As I work on translating and cataloging this footage, it has bought back many childhood memories. I feel connected to these older ways because I grew up with them. For those who didn’t, I can understand why they don’t value them as much. I think our values have changed. For example, older generations did not talk about money as much, but now we talk about it constantly. I want us to learn from our traditional ways of life because they hold so much wisdom.

    I’m very passionate about making this digital collection available to scholars, community stakeholders, and the public both in the United States and back home. Through documentation, I hope to show people everywhere that traditional ways of life have value.

    Some people think that traditions are in the past and that these ways of life are outdated. However, I think that our traditional culture won’t hold us back—it will take us far.

    Khamokyit Tibetan fieldwork
    This gentleman gave us this directions on the route to the meditation cave of female revenant Karma Wangzin in the Snow Mountain of Tra.
    Photo by Jo Tenzin La

    Khamo is a PhD student at the University of Virginia and works on archival and cultural sustainability projects at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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