Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Silk Road: Labrang Monastery

Pilgrims turning prayer wheels at the entrance to Labrang Monastery
In Xiahe county, Gansu province is Labrang Monastery, home to the largest number of monks outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, about 2,700. It's a large compound that doubles as a tourist attraction, and so the monks must get used to tourists gawking at them or taking pictures or video of them.

The monastery was founded in 1709 and is Tibetan Buddhism's most important monastery town outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. What also makes this particular place interesting is that it is the intersection of Tibetan and Mongolian cultures.

The monastery is a large compound where 2,700 monks live
It was and still is a place for education. Previously several thousand monks attended university here, now the numbers have dwindled to about 1,000. Monks can study subjects such as painting, medicine, philosophy and astrology. For medicine, they have to study for 15 years, learning about the various herbs and their medicinal benefits before they can treat patients.

As we toured the various temples, there were Tibetans, most of them women, wearing masks, hats and colourful outfits as they made their pilgrimage to the temple, praying in the hopes their loved ones would get better.

They would do this for hours, and one devout woman even wore knee pads as she kneeled on the ground, then with pads on her hands, prostrated herself on the ground, then stood up, took one step forward and again kneeled down and lay flat on the ground.

An elaborate sculpture made out of yak butter!
Many of the temples had huge Buddha statues sitting or standing serenely. One room we were taken into had air conditioning -- that's because it was filled with sculptures made of yak butter! Every new year the artistic students compete to see who has the best one and all the colourful entries are displayed all year, hence the need for air conditioning. They all seem to look very similar to each other which must make judging even harder...

Another room was filled with random objects that were given to Tibetan Lamas, from books to porcelain, to paintings, ivory carvings, robes, furniture and a globe. They didn't look nice enough to be in a museum, which is what this room was, but the monks were probably proud of receiving such gifts over the decades and centuries.

The last time there were problems with this monastery was in 2008 in response to the riots in Lhasa before the Beijing Olympics. But perhaps the Chinese government has retained its control over the monastery as our monk guide explained the Panchen Lama was the one sponsored by Beijing... one wonders if he gritted his teeth having to say this over and over again...

Another observation is that the monks here have a ruddy complexion and some look portly too -- that's because they do eat meat. However they are modestly dressed, except when they attend prayers. They all arrive at the largest temple in the compound -- which seats some 1,000 people -- and they wear a golden-coloured headdress that matches their robes.

Monks take off their boots before going in for prayer
We saw them outside the temple, taking off their black boots before going inside, and they just randomly left their footwear there, which made us wonder how they would know whose pair was whose?

But then we joked to ourselves that perhaps because of their Buddhist teaching of letting go of materialistic things that it didn't matter if they wore someone else's boots afterwards...

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