Ganden ruins


Devotion and Worship in Tibet

by Avner Ofer

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With only stars illuminating the way, I stumbled across town to the bus station. It was 3:00 in the morning. The typical cold clear night of Lhasa, Tibet's capital, stirred with excitement as hundreds of Tibetans loaded onto busses headed for Ganden monastery.

The sense of anticipation filled the bus as the hour-long drive came to an end. It was still dark outside when I reached Ganden, but already hundreds of people were wandering about. They all came to worship and give homage at the annual Thangka Festival at the Ganden monastery .

Every year, thousands of pilgrims make the grueling journey to this sacred sanctuary. Considered the first monastery and Buddhist school, Ganden is an extremely important site. It was founded in 1409 by Tsong Khapa and at its peak housed 4,000 monks.

I followed pilgrims up a small hill to welcome the new day. Slowly, the sunlight emerged over the horizon, lighting the landscape in majestic hues of gold and red. The surrounding barren hills, the meandering river and the green fields came alive as the new day emanated life. People chanted prayers and spun prayer wheels as they made the necessary hike around the monastery grounds.

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After an hour of meditating on mesmerizing vistas andadmiring the monastery and pilgrims, I joined the crowds heading into the complex. We wandered from one temple to the next with yak butter offering in hand. Every room was packed with people waiting to glimpse the holy Buddha statues and the monks who would bless them. With such a multitude of visitors, the small stairways, halls and monastery rooms exploded withsights, sounds and smells.


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On such festive occasions, the pilgrims dress in their finest clothes. Also they elaborately decorate their animals. Scattered around the monastery were yaks, horses and donkeys with colorful braids, specially designed blankets, saddles and other added colorful decorations.

Pilgrims from all over Tibet looked distinct with their local traditional clothing. I noticed women wearing modern hats, others with long, braided hair, and others with pigtails braided with colorful yarn. Some wore traditional Tibetan designs, while others wore modern clothes. The same applied to the men. Many wore their long hair wrapped above their heads in a traditional fashion, while others wore hats, had short hair or just had pony tails. Again, some wore the traditional overcoat, while others were in a regular pants and shirts.

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The rooms overflowed with people. The smell of burning yak oil and yak butter offerings were amazingly potent. I made my way around the monastery visiting every room and explored every corner. Slowly, the crowds dispersed away from the temples toward the main monastery wall.

As I made my way around the corner, the sight before me was overwhelming. Thousands of people were scattered all over the mountain. Most crammed into the area adjacent to the big monastery wall where the main event was about to unfold. Piles of incense burned everywhere, spreading a sweet aroma. I could sense the tension and excitement as people maneuvered to capture the best viewing spots as close to the wall as possible. I found a spot among other pilgrims lining a stone wall, and waited.

Trumpets and horns broke the anticipation as the first group of monks paraded to their places. Groups of monks followed according to their ranking. Young monks in simple crimson robes, playing long horns, drums and bells, were followed by monks in decorated robes with large, yellow head covers. Finally, the monasteries elder monks and Lamas, in red and yellow robes, took center stage.

Meanwhile the crowd prayed, cheered and spun prayer wheels with much enthusiasm. They were all waiting for the main act of worship, the revealing of the Thangka.

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The head monks and Lamas started their prayers as a huge tapestry of hand-woven cloth was raised and covered the wall. The yellow cloth was decorated with hundreds of small, woven symbols. As the Thangka was raised people chanted and prayed more vigorously. At about 200 feet wide and 150 feet tall the sight was extremely powerful. But then, monks opened the yellow cover and revealed a real treasure: the Thangka. The huge woven fabric was covered with an enormous Buddha surrounded by smaller divine figures.
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The crowd started throwing white prayer scarves at the Thangka as a way to send their prayers to Buddha. Monks then collected the scarves as offerings. The old monks blessed the Thangka with yak oil, sculptured stupas and prayers.

Standing among the thousands of worshipers, as scarves flew over my head, the smell of burning incense filled my nostrils, and the hypnotic sounds of music and prayers filled my soul, I was mesmerized.

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When all the prayers were said and all the scarves collected, the monks lowered the Thangka. Tentatively, people started to disperse. Most made their way to the mountainside where they gathered with friends and family for a festive meal.

I walked among the groups, still in awe of what I witnessed. I rented a small Tibetan horse and road up the mountain.

At the top, viewing all of the monastery and the celebrating pilgrims, I felt privileged. The Tibetans are by far the most devote worshipers I have ever seen. Many of these people walked for weeks with their animals and belongings to participate in this event. For them it is a way of life, a belief, a religion, that needs to be observed. I felt humbled by their strong devotion, their persistency, their courage and their struggle.


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Viewing the monastery from above I saw the extent of destruction that the Chinese did during the cultural revolution. The site of destroyed buildings festered anger, but at the same time augmented my admiration for the Tibetan people. Through their worship and devotion I gained an insight to their true power. That can never be taken away from them.


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