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China: Tibetan pilgrims

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Tibetan pilgrims > China > Asia

[Visited: April 2007]

I had seen it on TV: prostrating pilgrims on their way to Lhasa. But when I saw a lonely figure in a desolate landscape near Lake Ngoring, appearing to come out of the landscape and disappearing in it again, I did not directly realize what I was seeing. It was a Tibetan pilgrim, prostrating right through the landscape; not following the road, but choosing a direct line instead. I watched him, and was very impressed by what I saw. Prostration, or chaktsal, is a particularly cumbersome way to move forward. The pilgrim puts his hands together in a namaste-position, then touches his forehead, throat and heart, then bends down, with his hands on the ground before him and his head down, after which he stretches out to lie face-down on the ground. He then gets up, and steps to where his hands were touching the ground just before. Obviously, walking would be easier, and is done by most pilgrims. But for some, prostration makes the pilgrimage so much more intense, shows their dedication, and increases the chance of good luck, a better rebirth, or of accomplishing the goal of the pilgrimage, whatever it may be.

Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Prostrating Tibetan pilgrim on Barkhor square, Lhasa

On my way back of visiting the lake, I stopped at two wooden carts parked at the roadside. They were packed with personal belongings, and a few metres away, I saw a tent, with a stove outside, on which a pot of boiling water. Three people came out of the tent, inviting me over. Two women looking like nuns, whom I had seen pushing the carts, appeared to be accompanying the lone Tibetan pilgrim, who looked rough, a face worn out by the sun. Even though they obviously did not have much to share, they were adamant I should drink their tea and eat tsampa, the traditional Tibetan food. It appeared that this pilgrim was on his way to Lhasa, some 1000km away as the crow flies, but probably considerably more overland. He planned to take no less than 2 years to reach the holy city. He explained how he managed the cold, the wild animals he came across, and I could think of many other difficulties he would encounter on his long way. How much I had wanted to speak Tibetan at that moment! I could think of so many questions to ask.

Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Tibetan pilgrim prostrating his way to Lhasa

After hearing his story, I was baffled and dumbstruck. I tried to imagine what one can do in two years - this man, clearly younger than me, chose to spend two years prostrating his way to Lhasa. I looked at him with the admiration one can feel for someone who does something completely unthinkable for yourself. He insisted he show me how he prostrated, put on a protective cloth, gloves, and wooden blocks on his hands, and raised them to the sky in which by now some small clouds had appeared, after which he moved like I had seen him doing before, from a distance. We donated everything we could to this brave, devout man: the driver appeared to have several gloves, I had fruit and biscuits as emergency food. The pilgrim happily accepted. I would come across other pilgrims in the weeks after this encounter, and I viewed especially those prostrating with particular admiration. In one case, I even saw a Tibetan pilgrim prostrating sideways - an even more cumbersome way of pilgrimage.

Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Prostrating Tibetan pilgrim on the streets of Lhasa
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Tibetan pilgrim on his way to Lhasa
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Tent, stove and carts belonging to Tibetan pilgrims in an empty Qinghai landscape
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Wooden carts, tent and dog in the barren Tibetan landscape
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Hospitable Tibetan pilgrims in their tent
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Tibetan pilgrim under a cloudy sky
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Prostration in action: Tibetan pilgrim on his way to Lhasa
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Tibetan pilgrim prostrating near his tent
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Tibetan buddhists having a break on their pilgrimage
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Turning the wheel: Tibetan pilgrim in Dondrubling monastery
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Pilgrim tent camping on the kora around Tashilhunpo monastery, Shigatse
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Tibetan pilgrim in the early morning in Lhasa
Picture of Tibetan pilgrims (China): Jokhang temple, Lhasa: Tibetan pilgrim prostrating

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