Saturday, August 07, 2010

Churning and burning: tales of human butter, politics and religion

Know any good Kora stories?
I know a few stories; whether or not you think they’re any good might depend on your social or political point of view, but let’s see what you reckon.
First though, perhaps I should have a stab at enlightening those who are a bit lost.
The Kora.
A Kora is the circuit around a place, building or thing of Buddhist religious significance, which the faithful circumnavigate in a clockwise direction, as an act of spiritual devotion and cleansing. This thing can be a religious artefact, a religious building such as a temple or shrine, or even a natural place of spiritual and/or historical significance, such as a tree, rock or spring.
In Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, the most significant religious shrine is the imposing, Jokhang Temple; a huge, squat structure, perhaps the city’s oldest remaining building, lying slap in the middle of the city which has grown, fallen, been re-built, razed and re-built around it for centuries.
For over a thousand years, beneath the gilt spires and statues adorning the roof of the old temple, the complex has expanded from its original size to house the growing legions of monks and novices who came from all over Asia, from as far away as Bangladesh to the south and Mongolia in the far north-east, to live and learn from the great gurus and lamas, and it now occupies a space of roughly a square kilometre.
Sadly, the once-thriving monastic community within those metres-thick walls seems rather lack-lustre these days, but this is in tremendous contrast to the tides of humanity which circle the complex every day, lighting incense, murmuring their prayers, fingering their beads and leaving offerings for good fortune in this life and the next.
The narrow streets surrounding the Jokhang mark the Kora, along which a rushing torrent of furry-hatted and coated pilgrims, adorned with jewels in their hair, ears and belts, and regularly with babies lashed to their backs, work their way around the great walls. The unsuspecting, curious tourist needs to be careful as s/he manoeuvres for a closer look, as the rushing masses, from dawn to dusk, can literally sweep you off your feet.
Kora Story 1: The back-breaking road to Lhasa.
If you’re lucky enough to scam a permit which allows you to see something of Tibet other than Lhasa, your mind will be opened to vast skies; friendly (although very dirty) faces; unwavering, humbling hospitality; spectacular, high altitude vistas and a people with an almost super-natural commitment to their faith.
The latter can be viewed amongst the hundreds of pilgrims visiting any of the thousands of shrines, chapels and temples dotting the plains, mountains and gorges of the Tibetan plateau. But the most extraordinary demonstration of this devotion can be witnessed along the main highways within two or three days drive from the capital. Here you will see small groups of Tibetans ranging in age and demographic, from buff young men, to wrinkled, gnarled, stooped old women, making a very special pilgrimage to Lhasa.
For weeks they will make the journey on foot, through shrieking mountain passes, deep, frozen valleys and across dusty, rocky plains. And if the blasting, high-altitude sun is not enough of an impediment to their progress, consider that after every three steps, they raise their hands above their heads in prayer, drop down upon their knees, then lie flat on their stomaches with their hands still raised above their heads, before climbing back to their feet for another three steps!
One sees these pilgrims, covered in the filth and dirt of the land, sometimes with wooden paddles on their hands to save their bloodied palms, moving slowly along the shoulder of the highway as they make this agonising, exhausting devotion to their faith; each prostration taking them slightly closer to the blessings they will receive from the holy temples of Lhasa.
And so they go, surely with every muscle and sinew in their frail bodies shrieking to the highest heavens, until they reach their destination in the city, where they will circumnavigate the major shrines, three times each, maintaining their excruciating devotions with every third step. Their commitment is remarkable, and valued by all; the regular pilgrims undertaking their daily Kora take extreme care not to trample these revered folk mid-prostration.
But the weirdest thing for we outsiders, with our limited understanding of this ancient faith (and this amongst an enormous collection of very weird things), is that inside these most holy of temples, in which most pilgrims shuffle past the sacred icons and statues with a brief pause, and a murmured prayer at each, those who have taken the afore-mentioned, weeks-long, back-breaking journey (as distinguished by their being covered from head to toe in dirt and bloody gashes from their frequent clashes with the earth), literally run through the temples with barely a nod towards the most holies, before disappearing out the back door.
It’s quite remarkable – all the physical pain and torment they endure, not to mention the emotional toll their devotions must play upon them, in order to reach the holy shrines of Lhasa and complete their agonizing Koras, and they barely glance at the sacred relics on their way through the temples. Obviously, by the time they get inside, their work towards the next life is done, and they’re off for a much needed couple a’ dozen snorts of chang (fermented barley beer).
Kora Story 2: Taking the barnyard to church.
In addition to the sacred Kora surrounding the Jokhang Temple (known as the Barkhor), there is a much larger Kora which circles the other main, holy temples and monasteries of the old city. This Kora (known as the Lingkhor) marks the edge of what remains of Old Lhasa, and on the auspicious, fifteenth day of each month, it is not uncommon for the traffic to be ground to a halt by a flood of pilgrims rushing along the sidewalks and streets from as early as first light until dusk.
Now it’s hard enough to manage cycling along Lhasa’s streets when so many of the out-of-towner pilgrims know little of traffic rules and behaviours, so spare some sympathy for those of us trying to get to work in the dim light on a dark, icy, mid-winter’s morning, and having to negotiate herds of sheep and goats who are being dragged along with the rest of the family for an enlightened blessing. Fifteen goat bells certainly make quite the mockery of one's handle-bar 'ting-a-ling', I can tell you!
Not that I suffer from bell envy...
Kora Story 3: Make yerselves right at home.
Did I mention that these Koras are a pretty big and holy deal amongst Tibetans? Yeah, I thought I did. In fact, the Old City, which is surrounded by the Lingkhor, is considered so holy, that in a city which boasts a thriving, broadly located commercial sex industry, the Old City contains virtually the only streets where sex is not sold.
Now I’ve mentioned my thoughts on the Global Circus before; how smelly, self-centred back-packers believe their aimless journeys can be re-packaged and marketed to the rest of the world as some kind of international quest for enlightened consciousness, and how they believe that their 'unique' behaviours and values are the envy and awe of all.
Well I am sorry, you dirty, hairy, singlet-wearing bogan slobs! But wandering through the crowded, narrow streets of Old Lhasa with your scantily clad girlfriends, while necking imported beer from large bottles is not endearing yourselves to the local populous. And I don't think you need so much as a smattering of Tibetan language to notice that those young, Tibetan men shrieking agitatedly at you are not wishing you well on your spiritual journey ... they are telling you, and none-too-politely, to fuck-off back to whatever savage shit-hole civilization you squirmed from!
Kora Story 4: Private eyes, are watchin' you.
Remember SARS? Remember all those pictures in the papers and footage on the evening news back in 2003 of Asian people getting around in face masks? Well enter the throng of folk making their way along the Jokhang's Barkhor on any given day, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the deadly virus is back!
Thankfully it's not for protection from a fatal disease that Tibetan women and men wear masks while conducting their circular, devotional journeys around the great temple. In winter, one could be forgiven for thinking that the masks are protecting their faces from the extreme Tibetan cold, but when the masks are out and proud on a twenty-five degree (Celsius) summer's day, you know there's some other reason for it.
And that reason lies in a Tibet Government decree that workers in the public service are forbidden from engaging in rituals of Tibetan Buddhism (like climbing sacred mountains, burning incense or completing a Kora); to do so can result in severe reprimand and possible dismissal.
But the good news for those Tibetans unwilling (or unable) to denounce their faith is that it is very hard to distinguish the identity of a single, masked figure amongst a hundred others when viewed through the public security infrared closed-circuit TV cameras mounted on walls every twenty metres along the Barkhor.
Kora Story 5: A grave disturbance in the Force.
Another reason for the masks might relate to a regular disturbance to the clockwise flow of pilgrims around the Jokhang Temple since March 2008, when extreme military might was 'let loose' on the populous to quell city-wide riots. Since that time, every devotional, prayer-mumbling pilgrim meandering along the Kora has had their forward-looking view blocked by the cold, menacing stares of armed troops circling the same route in a most-unholy (and potentially insulting), counter-clockwise direction.
These hard, young soldiers make it their mission to stare-down the devotees through their riot shields, ostensibly to ensure that none of them (comprising mostly gnarled and stooped old people, children, nomadic graziers, rural farmers and labourers) don't rise up to disturb the peace of Lhasa's streets.
Armed troops traverse the Jokhang Temple's Barkhor against the regular, holy flow of pilgrims. Can you spot the sniper?


Kate Sterling said...

(and yeah, found Waldo)

Anonymous said...

Great post, I am almost 100% in agreement with you