Lurol Ceremony: The Possessed of Tibet

- through Sophie Solere

Published on

In the north-east of Tibet, in the province of Amdo, at a time when certain monks are surfing the Internet, lay people perpetuate an age-old practice which appeals to the tutelary spirits. Here persists an animist tradition that Buddhism has integrated and assimilated into its ceremonial rites, thus avoiding its disappearance. It consists of paying homage to the spirits by welcoming them into the body of a medium.

Blood, blood, blood all around me. Men turn, dance around, blood dripping from their faces... Not far from there, an elder, knife in hand, cuts the top of the forehead of the young men who line up before going to dance and thus offer their blood to the spirits of the place.

Am I really in the land of Himalayan wisdom, non-violent, Buddhist?

This scene and this ceremony remind me that, precisely, Tibet and its people have not always been and still are not completely peaceful, Buddhists, with Himalayan wisdoms. We are on the edge of the Silk Road, in the Amdo region, today shared between the Chinese provinces of Qinhai mainly, Gansu and Sichuan. Amdo has always been a frontier, buffer zone, inhabited by a mosaic of different ethnic groups and languages. As if to affirm that this ambiguous province is indeed "on the map of Tibet", Tsongkhapa, the famous reformer of Tibetan Buddhism of the 10th century, at the origin of the school of yellow caps, the gélougpas, that of the Dalaï-Lamas, chose to be born there, as did the XNUMXth Panchen Lama and the no less famous XNUMXth and current Dalai Lama. But although these great religious figures are from there, Amdo has not always been politically and militarily integrated into Tibet. Its proximity to the Silk Road no doubt explains the covetousness and successive dominations of the Hans of China, the Tibetans or the Mongols. Like neighboring Kham, it maintained its independence from the authority of Lhasa for a very long time.

It is therefore in this complex historical and geographical context that one of the most impressive Tibetan ceremonies takes place every summer: the Lurol (see box). When the wheat fields of the villages around Rebkong are still green and the branches of the fruit trees bend under the weight of ripe fruit, during the sixth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the inhabitants of a dozen villages ask the spirits tutelary peace and prosperity for the community. For this, they offer them a live show intended to appease and satisfy them. The spirit-men, the “Lha ba” in Tibetan, lead the ceremony. These mediums, after entering a trance, lend their bodies to the deities so that they can intervene favorably in the human world. Thus they are solicited for divinations, care, advice, protections or even exorcisms. The Lha ba (or Lha mo for women) are present throughout the Tibetan cultural area. From Ladakh to Bhutan, via Nepal, there is not a region that does not appeal to local deities. The origin of this practice would come from pre-Buddhist religion prayer. When during the reign of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen, Guru Rinpoche was invited to spread Buddhism in Tibet, he converted to Buddhism a number of local Tibetan deities, integrating them by often giving them the role of protector, such as the famous Palden Lhamo, protector of the Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama himself regularly calls on oracles, like that of Nechung, his favorite, to advise him.

The mystery of Tibet

The temple incense burners are swollen with a mixture of toasted barley flour, juniper as well as many other offerings such as fruits, liquor, flowers, butter and flour mixture, bread, wheat and barley seeds. The Lha ba Tenzimbim gasps, kicks. His breath quickens. With each breath, his right cheek rises and falls. The trance is approaching. Another Lha ba spits alcohol in his face then throws barley seeds at him; spasms seize him; he leapt sharply, his eyes bulging. Lhaba Tenzimbim gives orders to the villagers who have come to dance, punishes some, changes places for others. He performs his own staging, possessed by the spirit. The men obey him.

These dances are seen as games intended to seduce and please the deity. Thus the Lha ba grants itself the right to define the rules. In exchange, the dancers (the players) ask him for his favors: obtaining abundant harvests, escaping illnesses and accidents...

The red offerings

The drummers, some of whom are less than eight years old, have their cheeks pierced with 30 cm long “skewers”; behind their backs, a dozen more needles are hooked to their skin. As the dance picks up speed, the pikes detach from the bodies and fall to the ground, like force-fed leeches. The Lhaba of the village of Lhanggya has just sprayed himself with a liter of alcohol. His head and shirt soaked, one eye half closed, the blade of a knife between his teeth, he undertakes to climb the mast which surmounts the effigy of the “Lha” (the deity). Arriving at the top, he grabs the knife he was holding in his mouth to cut his forehead and let a large trickle of blood drip. Not far away, straw goats begin to flame, symbolizing all the real goats that were roasted before it was forbidden to do so.

Although the last animal sacrifice was recorded in 2006, this type of offering has hardly been performed since 1959, when it became forbidden to practice this ritual. The festival was authorized again in 1978. The Lha ba were so few to have survived the cultural revolution that their descendants were asked to play the role, without them being really possessed. It was only around the 90s that we began to worry about forming authentic Lha ba. The learning of new mediums was then assigned to the few survivors who until then no longer dared to practice in broad daylight. After being selected or appointed, some Lha ba apprentices must do a three-month retreat with a monk in hermitage and request an audience with a religious dignitary who verifies the authenticity of the trance, questions the "descended" spirit. in the body of the medium, on his name and his intentions. The future Lha ba must then make a vow not to lie, not to harm those around him.

“Tonight, once again since the ninth century, men, women and children will have played the game of the deities. These will soon leave the borrowed bodies, sated with dance, song and blood, and return to their invisible and intangible realm. »

The women, hitherto only spectators, enter the stage to recite love songs. The vermilion red of the coral jewels rivals the deep blue of the brocades. An astonishing choreography binds men and women, who only pass each other furtively in the circle of possibilities. The shimmering colors veiled by the smoke of the censers sparkle under the rays of the setting sun.

Tonight, once again since the ninth century, men, women and children will have played the game of the deities. These will soon leave the borrowed bodies, sated with dance, song and blood, and return to their invisible and intangible realm.

The Lurol, this fantastic game worthy of a surrealist director, which combines festive fervor, trance and sacrificial practice, continues in the XNUMXst century. Technology and political and economic issues will determine and shape its evolution. Just like the boundary between the visible and the invisible, the boundary between ritual and folklore can also be confusing. Indeed, the risk remains of a “museumification” engendered by ethnotourism, of which the Chinese authorities have shown how much they know how to pull the strings… and the profits.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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