Trumpets blasted a discordant tune across the hillside, their wavering notes hitting the first thousand pilgrims in the queue like a strong wind. ‘Queue’ does the experience injustice though: mass, horde, or crush of people would be more apt. At least with bodies pressed against me on all sides I couldn’t feel the chilled pre-dawn air as I waited for my chance to reach the front and touch the giant thangka for myself.
The child inside me was thrilled to break the ingrained “Don’t touch the artwork” rule. Here, everyone’s intention is to reach out and connect with the ancient tapestry in order to receive its blessings. Bearing a representation of Buddha Shakyamuni on an impressive 15 x 15 metre embroidered cloth, Drepung Monastery’s annual unveiling of this precious thangka is a highly anticipated affair.
Although the trumpets were out of view behind the crowds, I felt their vibrations ripple through me. After making swift but breathless progress up the hill from where traffic had stopped on the main road, we’d now met a standstill on the steps that wound around the outer kora of the monastery. The sun was slowly approaching the ridge of the eastern mountains, and soon it’d emerge over the peaks to wash us all in some much-needed warmth. For now though, a pale halo encroached across the cloudless sky, mirroring the bright smoke and mist that rose to cover the city like a lake.
We’d met this pilgrim traffic jam partway up the steps toward the thangka viewing platform. Obviously 4am wasn’t an early enough start! Thousands of others had already beaten us here and claimed the prime positions. Nobody around us minded though, instead smiling eagerly and relaying their gratitude for being here at all. I agree, I thought. Whether or not I’ve got the best view on the hill, I’m here.
Step by step we progressed forward in one conglomerate blob, as if glued together by old yak butter. Stuck on the edge of a step, I wobbled a little before feeling a firm hand around my elbow: the Tibetan grandmother beside me holding me tight so I didn’t slip behind.
In answer to the call of the trumpets, a brigade of monks emerged from between monastery buildings, carrying the giant rolled-up thangka high on their shoulders. Snaking their way through the crowd, they disappeared and reappeared from view, but their location was always obvious by the frenetic waving of white scarves as nearby pilgrims offered kata to the Buddha’s image.
Having finally made it to the thangka display platform, the tapestry was laid carefully along the bottom edge and attached to long ropes, which then hoisted it inch by inch to cover the bare slate.
The sun finally made its striking debut above the ridgeline and illuminated the valley with golden warmth as the crowd surged forward, carrying us all with it and taking me to the top of the steps. Looking down from my vantage point, I could now make out more than a kilometre’s worth of crowded pilgrims, waiting as I had been to reach the Buddha. The few foreign faces were easy to spot, rare but obvious in the crowd.
With no evident climax, the trumpets ceased their blare and the thangka was left to rest in the morning sun. It’s easy to see why this ritual is often referred to as “Sunning the Buddha”.
With the ceremony over, the pilgrim pace quickened toward the great image. We shuffled forward, holding onto elbows, shoulders and jackets to keep anyone from falling back.
Until recently, this whole area we were standing on didn’t exist. The thangka was suspended over a large boulder, and pilgrims gathered on the dusty, rocky mountainside beneath it. I can’t imagine how hazardous it must have been then, with this many people pushing to reach the Buddha over a steep field of boulders. No wonder they’re all well practiced at holding onto each other for safety, even with these new stairs and concrete pathways.
Finally, I reached the bottom corner of the thangka and followed the other pilgrims in throwing white silk scarves across it in exchange for a blessing. The steps continued uphill to the top corner of the thangka, where a tunnel took us under the top of it, allowing the devout to touch their heads to it in homage.
On the far side of the thangka, for the first time in several hours, I could breathe freely and feel no-one touching me. The crowds dispersed quickly, families and solo pilgrims hurrying off to continue their offerings at the rest of the monastery, or for a well-earned and much-needed flask of hot sweet tea. Many of those hurrying off continued to Sera Monastery, another in Lhasa, where a giant thangka was also being unveiled.
I remained stunned on the hillside, watching a hundred more pilgrims follow the route around and under the thangka, making their offerings, touching their heads to it, younger ones pausing for selfies, and then grinning a great smile of relief and achievement on the other side.
By mid afternoon I retreated, exhausted, to a teahouse in the Barkhor for refreshment. Tomorrow my friends and I would join the pilgrims again for stage two of the Shoton celebrations: Tibetan Opera performances at the Norbulingka Summer Palace.
The Norbulingka Garden is a popular mid-city picnic destination on any summer day, but during Shoton it’s a riot of colour, food, families and music. For a week, the whole city of Lhasa stops work to picnic beneath the willow trees, enjoy the summer weather, and be entertained by melodramatic and often comedic Tibetan Opera performances.
If there’s any festival you have the chance to experience in Lhasa, let this be the one.
Article by Becky Carruthers