Scores of monks and men heaved the enormous thangka – an image of Buddha painted on silk, rolled up in a tight cylinder while in transit – through the packed streets around Rongwo Monastery in China’s northwestern province of Qinghai for a religious ritual wrapping up Losar, the Tibetan New Year.
“It’s good luck, especially for children,” said Tsering, breathless and flushed with success, before whirling away to search rather fruitlessly for her daughter’s missing right shoe.
China has long been accused of trying to eradicate Tibetan culture through political and religious repression. Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms.
Rebkong county is a major centre of traditional Tibetan culture and the Gelug – or “Yellow Hat” – sect of the exiled Dalai Lama. It has witnessed numerous self-immolation protests against Chinese rule since 2009.
Police were a constant presence throughout the New Year celebrations, watching over the various ceremonies, stopping all cars entering the county seat and checking the few hotels allowed to receive foreigners.
But Losar passed without incident in a riot of colour and celebration.
Like the Chinese Lunar New Year, the first few days are dominated by family and feasting.
The climax for the Gelug sect is the annual “sunning of the Buddha”, as it is known in Chinese, where a colossal thangka painting multiple stories tall is paraded through the streets and briefly displayed.
Under crisp blue skies men flailed ceremonial scarves as a procession left the Rongwo Monastery, beating away an endless stream of frantic hopefuls aggressively pushing to touch the painting.
On a steep hillside outside the monastery, the thangka was unrolled in a splendour of rich pinks, greens, and blues to the sound of firecrackers and the wail of conch shells.
“The thangka is an offering to Buddha, but it must be big so all living creatures can see it – people, but also birds and insects. That way, all beings will have a chance at a better existence in their next life,” a monk said.
The thangka’s size flaunts its monastery’s wealth and power, said Anna Sehnalova, a Tibetologist at Oxford University.
“It’s a way to show sponsors that something is happening with their money. Tibetans love to see rituals performed for them.”
At a much smaller monastery in Gartse town families gathered in their finest clothes – off-the-shoulder robes of jewel-toned brocades and sheepskin – to watch the cham dances, ritual performances by masked monks thought to purge the New Year of negativity from the previous.
“It’s an exorcism, to get rid of bad things and dishonest practices. If we don’t do this today, there will be bad consequences for everyone,” said a dancer.
Two young monks in skull masks, reminders of life’s impermanence, waggled their heads in a slow pas-de-deux as children licked purple-topped ice creams.
Another pair of dancers raised their swords and flung the skinned, shrivelled carcasses of two tiny baby lambs over the heads of the crowd.
“To be honest, I don’t know what it means,” said a student named Tenzin, echoing the sentiments of many baffled but delighted spectators in the crowd.