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A Festival in a Gonpa
Leh, the capital of Ladak, is a little town of 5,000 inhabitants, who live in white, two-story houses, upon two or three streets, principally. In its centre is the square of the bazaar, where the merchants of India, China, Turkestan, Kachmyr and Thibet, come to exchange their products for the Thibetan gold. Here the natives provide themselves with cloths for themselves and their monks, and various objects of real necessity.
An old uninhabited palace rises upon a hill which dominates the town. Fronting the central square is a vast building, two stories in height, the residence of the governor of Ladak, the Vizier Souradjbal—a very amiable and universally popular Pendjaban, who has received in London the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
To entertain me, during my sojourn in Leh, the governor arranged, on the bazaar square, a game of polo—the national sport of the Thibetans, which the English have adopted and introduced into Europe. In the evening, after the game, the people executed dances and played games before the governor's residence. Large bonfires illuminated the scene, lighting up the throng of inhabitants, who formed a great circle about the performers. The latter, in considerable numbers, disguised as animals, devils and sorcerers, jumped and contorted themselves in rhythmic dances timed to the measure of the monotonous and unpleasing music made by two long trumpets and a drum.
The infernal racket and shouting of the crowd wearied me. The performance ended with some graceful dances by Thibetan women, who spun upon their heels, swaying to and fro, and, in passing before the spectators in the windows of the residence, greeted us by the clashing together of the copper and ivory bracelets on their crossed wrists.
The next day, at an early hour, I repaired to the great Himis convent, which, a little distance from Leh, is elevated upon the top of a great rock, on a picturesque site, commanding the valley of the Indies. It is one of the principal monasteries of the country, and is maintained by the gifts of the people and the subsidies it receives from Lhassa. On the road leading to it, beyond the bridge crossing the Indus, and in the vicinity of the villages lining the way, one finds heaps of stones bearing engraved inscriptions, such as have already been described, and t'horthenes. At these places, our guides were very careful to turn to the right. I wished to turn my horse to the left, but the Ladakians made him go back and led him by his halter to the right, explaining to me that such was their established usage. I found it impossible to learn the origin or reason of this custom.
Above the gonpa rises a battlemented tower, visible from a great distance. We climbed, on foot, to the level on which the edifice stands and found ourselves confronted by a large door, painted in brilliant colors, the portal of a vast two-story building enclosing a court paved with little pebbles. To the right, in one of the angles of the court, is another huge painted door, adorned with big copper rings. It is the entrance to the principal temple, which is decorated with paintings of the principal gods, and contains a great statue of Buddha and a multitude of sacred statuettes. To the left, upon a verandah, was placed an immense prayer-cylinder. All the lamas of the convent, with their chief, stood about it, when we entered the court. Below the verandah were musicians, holding long trumpets and drums.
At the right of the court were a number of doors, leading to the rooms of the lamas; all decorated with sacred paintings and provided with little prayer-barrels fancifully surmounted by black and white tridents, from the points of which floated ribbons bearing inscriptions—doubtless prayers. In the centre of the court were raised two tall masts, from the tops of which dangled tails of yaks, and long paper streamers floated, covered with religious inscriptions. All along the walls were numerous prayer-barrels, adorned with ribbons.
A profound silence reigned among the many spectators present. All awaited anxiously the commencement of a religious "mystery," which was about to be presented. We took up a position near the verandah. Almost immediately, the musicians drew from their long trumpets soft and monotonous tones, marking the time by measured beats upon an odd-looking drum, broad and shallow, upreared upon a stick planted in the ground. At the first sounds of the strange music, in which joined the voices of the lamas in a melancholy chant, the doors along the wall opened simultaneously, giving entrance to about twenty masked persons, disguised as animals, birds, devils and imaginary monsters. On their breasts they bore representations of fantastic dragons, demons and skulls, embroidered with Chinese silk of various colors. From the conical hats they wore, depended to their breasts long multicolored ribbons, covered with inscriptions. Their masks were white death's-heads. Slowly they marched about the masts, stretching out their arms from time to time and flourishing with their left hands spoon-shaped objects, the bowl portions of which were said to be fragments of human crania, with ribbons attached, having affixed to their ends human hair, which, I was assured, had been taken from scalped enemies. Their promenade, in gradually narrowing circles about the masts, soon became merely a confused jostling of each other; when the rolling of the drum grew more accentuated, the performers for an instant stopped, then started again, swinging above their heads yellow sticks, ribbon-decked, which with their right hands they brandished in menacing attitudes.
After making a salute to the chief lama, they approached the door leading to the temple, which at this instant opened, and from it another band came forth, whose heads were covered by copper masks. Their dresses were of rich materials, embroidered in various bright colors. In one hand each of them carried a small tambourine and with the other he agitated a little bell. From the rim of each tambourine depended a metallic ball, so placed that the least movement of the hand brought it in contact with the resonant tympanum, which caused a strange, continuous undercurrent of pulsating sound. There new performers circled several times about the court, marking the time of their dancing steps by measured thumpings of the tambourines. At the completion of each turn, they made a deafening noise with their instruments. Finally, they ran to the temple door and ranged themselves upon the steps before it.
For a moment, there was silence. Then we saw emerge from the temple a third band of performers. Their enormous masks represented different deities, and each bore upon its forehead "the third eye." At their head marched Thlogan-Poudma-Jungnas (literally "he who was born in the lotus flower"). Another richly dressed mask marched beside him, carrying a yellow parasol covered with symbolic designs. His suite was composed of gods, in magnificent costumes; Dorje-Trolong and Sangspa-Kourpo (i.e., Brahma himself), and others. These masks, as a lama sitting near me explained to us, represented six classes of beings subject to the metamorphoses; the gods, the demigods, men, animals, spirits and demons.
On each side of these personages, who advanced gravely, marched other masks, costumed in silks of brilliant hues and wearing on their heads golden crowns, fashioned with six lotus-like flowers on each, surmounted by a tall dart in the centre. Each of these masks carried a drum.
These disguises made three turns about the masts, to the sound of a noisy and incoherent music, and then seated themselves on the ground, around Thlogan-Pondma-Jungnas, a god with three eyes, who gravely introduced two fingers into his mouth and emitted a shrill whistle. At this signal, young men dressed in warrior costumes—with ribbon-decked bells dangling about their legs—came with measured steps from the temple. Their heads were covered by enormous green masks, from which floated triangular red flags, and they, too, carried tambourines. Making a diabolical din, they whirled and danced about the gods seated on the ground. Two big fellows accompanying them, who were dressed in tight clown costumes, executed all kinds of grotesque contortions and acrobatic feats, by which they won plaudits and shouts of laughter from the spectators.
Another group of disguises—of which the principal features were red mitres and yellow pantaloons—came out of the temple, with bells and tambourines in their hands, and seated themselves opposite the gods, as representatives of the highest powers next to divinity. Lastly there entered upon the scene a lot of red and brown masks, with a "third eye" painted on their breasts. With those who had preceded them, they formed two long lines of dancers, who to the thrumming of their many tambourines, the measured music of the trumpets and drums, and the jingling of a myriad of bells, performed a dance, approaching and receding from each other, whirling in circles, forming by twos in a column and breaking from that formation to make new combinations, pausing occasionally to make reverent obeisance before the gods.
After a time this spectacular excitement—the noisy monotony of which began to weary me—calmed down a little; gods, demigods, kings, men and spirits got up, and followed by all the other maskers, directed themselves toward the temple door, whence issued at once, meeting them, a lot of men admirably disguised as skeletons. All those sorties were calculated and prearranged, and every one of them had its particular significance. The cortège of dancers gave way to the skeletons, who advanced with measured steps, in silence, to the masts, where they stopped and made a concerted clicking with pieces of wood hanging at their sides, simulating perfectly the rattling of dry bones and gnashing of teeth. Twice they went in a circle around the masts, marching in time to low taps on the drums, and then joined in a lugubrious religious chant. Having once more made the concerted rattling of their artificial bones and jaws, they executed some contortions painful to witness and together stopped.
Then they seized upon an image of the Enemy of Man—made of some sort of brittle paste—which had been placed at the foot of one of the masts. This they broke in pieces and scattered, and the oldest men among the spectators, rising from their places, picked up the fragments which they handed to the skeletons—an action supposed to signify that they would soon be ready to join the bony crew in the cemetery.
The chief lama, approaching me, tendered an invitation to accompany him to the principal terrace and partake of the festal "tchang"; which I accepted with pleasure, for my head was dizzy from the long spectacle.
We crossed the court and climbed a staircase—obstructed with prayer-wheels, as usual—passed two rooms where there were many images of gods, and came out upon the terrace, where I seated myself upon a bench opposite the venerable lama, whose eyes sparkled with spirit.
Three lamas brought pitchers of tchang, which they poured into small copper cups, that were offered first to the chief lama, then to me and my servants.
"Did you enjoy our little festival?" the lama asked me.
"I found it very enjoyable and am still impressed by the spectacle I have witnessed. But, to tell the truth, I never suspected for a moment that Buddhism, in these religious ceremonies, could display such a visible, not to say noisy, exterior form."
"There is no religion, the ceremonies of which are not surrounded with more theatrical forms," the lama answered. "This is a ritualistic phase which does not by any means violate the fundamental principles of Buddhism. It is a practical means for maintaining in the ignorant mass obedience to and love for the one Creator, just as a child is beguiled by toys to do the will of its parents. The ignorant mass is the child of The Father."
"But what is the meaning," I said to him, "of all those masks, costumes, bells, dances, and, generally, of this entire performance, which seems to be executed after a prescribed programme?"
"We have many similar festivals in the year," answered the lama, "and we arrange particular ones to represent 'mysteries,' susceptible of pantomimic presentation, in which each actor is allowed considerable latitude of action, in the movements and jests he likes, conforming, nevertheless, to the circumstances and to the leading idea. Our mysteries are simply pantomimes calculated to show the veneration offered to the gods, which veneration sustains and cheers the soul of man, who is prone to anxious contemplation of inevitable death and the life to come. The actors receive the dresses from the cloister and they play according to general indications, which leave them much liberty of individual action. The general effect produced is, no doubt, very beautiful, but it is a matter for the spectators themselves to divine the signification of one or another action. You, too, have recourse sometimes to similar devices, which, however, do not in the least violate the principle of monotheism."
"Pardon me," I remarked, "but this multitude of idols with which your gonpas abound, is a flagrant violation of that principle."
"As I have told you," replied the lama to my interruption, "man will always be in childhood. He sees and feels the grandeur of nature and understands everything presented to his senses, but he neither sees nor divines the Great Soul which created and animates all things. Man has always sought for tangible things. It was not possible for him to believe long in that which escaped his material senses. He has racked his brain for any means for contemplating the Creator; has endeavored to enter into direct relations with him who has done him so much good, and also, as he erroneously believes, so much evil. For this reason he began to adore every phase of nature from which he received benefits. We see a striking example of this in the ancient Egyptians, who adored animals, trees, stones, the winds and the rain. Other peoples, who were more sunk in ignorance, seeing that the results of the wind were not always beneficent, and that the rain did not inevitably bring good harvests, and that the animals were not willingly subservient to man, began to seek for direct intermediaries between themselves and the great mysterious and unfathomable power of the Creator. Therefore they made for themselves idols, which they regarded as indifferent to things concerning them, but to whose interposition in their behalf, they might always recur. From remotest antiquity to our own days, man was ever inclined only to tangible realities.
"While seeking a route to lead their feet to the Creator, the Assyrians turned their eyes toward the stars, which they contemplated without the power of attaining them. The Guebers have conserved the same belief to our days. In their nullity and spiritual blindness, men are incapable of conceiving the invisible spiritual bond which unites them to the great Divinity, and this explains why they have always sought for palpable things, which were in the domain of the senses, and by doing which they minimized the divine principle. Nevertheless, they have dared to attribute to their visible and man-made images a divine and eternal existence. We can see the same fact in Brahminism, where man, given to his inclination for exterior forms, has created, little by little, and not all at once, an army of gods and demigods. The Israelites may be said to have demonstrated, in the most flagrant way, the love of man for everything which is concrete. In spite of a series of striking miracles accomplished by the great Creator, who is the same for all the peoples, the Jewish people could not help making a god of metal in the very minute when their prophet Mossa spoke to them of the Creator! Buddhism has passed through the same modifications. Our great reformer, Sakya-Muni, inspired by the Supreme Judge, understood truly the one and indivisible Brahma, and forbade his disciples attempting to manufacture images in imaginary semblance of him. He had openly broken from the polytheistic Brahmins, and appreciated the purity, oneness and immortality of Brahma. The success he achieved by his teachings in making disciples among the people, brought upon him persecution by the Brahmins, who, in the creation of new gods, had found a source of personal revenue, and who, contrary to the law of God, treated the people in a despotic manner. Our first sacred teachers, to whom we give the name of buddhas—which means, learned men or saints—because the great Creator has incarnated in them, settled in different countries of the globe. As their teachings attacked especially the tyranny of the Brahmins and the misuse they made of the idea of God—of which they indeed made a veritable business—almost all the Buddhistic converts, they who followed the doctrines of those great teachers, were among the common people of China and India. Among those teachers, particular reverence is felt for the Buddha, Sakya-Muni, known in China also under the name of Fô, who lived three thousand years ago, and whose teachings brought all China back into the path of the true God; and the Buddha, Gautama, who lived two thousand five hundred years ago, and converted almost half the Hindus to the knowledge of the impersonal, indivisible and only God, besides whom there is none.
"Buddhism is divided into many sects which, by the way, differ only in certain religious ceremonies, the basis of the doctrine being everywhere the same. The Thibetan Buddhists, who are called 'lamaists,' separated themselves from the Fô-ists fifteen hundred years ago. Until that time we had formed part of the worshippers of the Buddha, Fô-Sakya-Muni, who was the first to collect all the laws compiled by the various buddhas preceding him, when the great schism took place in the bosom of Brahmanism. Later on, a Khoutoukhte-Mongol translated into Chinese the books of the great Buddha, for which the Emperor of China rewarded him by bestowing upon him the title of 'Go-Chi—'Preceptor of the King!' After his death, this title was given to the Dalai-Lama of Thibet. Since that epoch, all the titularies of this position have borne the title of Go-Chi. Our religion is called the Lamaic one—from the word 'lama,' superior. It admits of two classes of monks, the red and the yellow. The former may marry, and they recognize the authority of the Bantsine, who resides in Techow Loumba, and is chief of the civil administration in Thibet. We, the yellow lamas, have taken the vow of celibacy, and our direct chief is the Dalai-Lama. This is the difference which separates the two religious orders, the respective rituals of which are identical."
"Do all perform mysteries similar to that which I have just witnessed?"
"Yes; with a few exceptions. Formerly these festivals were celebrated with very solemn pomp, but since the conquest of Ladak our convents have been, more than once, pillaged and our wealth taken away. Now we content ourselves with simple garments and bronze utensils, while in Thibet you see but golden robes and gold utensils."
"In a visit which I recently made to a gonpa, one of the lamas told me of a prophet, or, as you call him, a buddha, by the name of Issa. Could you not tell me anything about him?" I asked my interlocutor, seizing this favorable moment to start the subject which interested me so greatly.
"The name Issa is very much respected among the Buddhists," he replied, "but he is only known by the chief lamas, who have read the scrolls relating to his life. There have existed an infinite number of buddhas like Issa, and the 84,000 scrolls existing are filled brim full of details concerning each one of them. But very few persons have read the one-hundredth part of those memoirs. In conformity with established custom, every disciple or lama who visits Lhassa makes a gift of one or several copies, from the scrolls there, to the convent to which he belongs. Our gonpa, among others, possesses already a great number, which I read in my leisure hours. Among them are the memoirs of the life and acts of the Buddha Issa, who preached the same doctrine in India and among the sons of Israel, and who was put to death by the Pagans, whose descendants, later on, adopted the beliefs he spread,—and those beliefs are yours.
"The great Buddha, the soul of the Universe, is the incarnation of Brahma. He, almost always, remains immobile, containing in himself all things, being in himself the origin of all and his breath vivifying the world. He has left man to the control of his own forces, but, at certain epochs, lays aside his inaction and puts on a human form that he may, as their teacher and guide, rescue his creatures from impending destruction. In the course of his terrestrial existence in the similitude of man, Buddha creates a new world in the hearts of erring men; then he leaves the earth, to become once more an invisible being and resume his condition of perfect bliss. Three thousand years ago, Buddha incarnated in the celebrated Prince Sakya-Muni, reaffirming and propagating the doctrines taught by him in his twenty preceding incarnations. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Great Soul of the World incarnated anew in Gautama, laying the foundation of a new world in Burmah, Siam and different islands. Soon afterward, Buddhism began to penetrate China, through the persevering efforts of the sages, who devoted themselves to the propagation of the sacred doctrine, and under Ming-Ti, of the Honi dynasty, nearly 2,050 years ago, the teachings of Sakya-Muni were adopted by the people of that country. Simultaneously with the appearance of Buddhism in China, the same doctrines began to spread among the Israelites. It is about 2,000 years ago that the perfect Being, awaking once more for a short time from his inaction, incarnated in the newborn child of a poor family. It was his will that this little child should enlighten the unhappy upon the life of the world to come and bring erring men back into the path of truth; showing to them, by his own example, the way they could best return to the primitive morality and purity of our race. When this sacred child attained a certain age, he was brought to India, where, until he attained to manhood, he studied the laws of the great Buddha, who dwells eternally in heaven."
"In what language are written the principal scrolls bearing upon the life of Issa?" I asked, rising from my seat, for I saw that my interesting interlocutor evidenced fatigue, and had just given a twirl to his prayer-wheel, as if to hint the closing of the conversation.
"The original scrolls brought from India to Nepaul, and from Nepaul to Thibet, relating to the life of Issa, are written in the Pali language and are actually in Lhassa; but a copy in our language—I mean the Thibetan—is in this convent."
"How is Issa looked upon in Thibet? Has he the repute of a saint?"
"The people are not even aware that he ever existed. Only the principal lamas, who know of him through having studied the scrolls in which his life is related, are familiar with his name; but, as his doctrine does not constitute a canonical part of Buddhism, and the worshippers of Issa do not recognize the authority of the Dalai-Lama, the prophet Issa—with many others like him—is not recognized in Thibet as one of the principal saints."
"Would you commit a sin in reciting your copy of the life of Issa to a stranger?" I asked him.
"That which belongs to God," he answered me, "belongs also to man. Our duty requires us to cheerfully devote ourselves to the propagation of His doctrine. Only, I do not, at present, know where that manuscript is. If you ever visit our gonpa again, I shall take pleasure in showing it to you."
At this moment two monks entered, and uttered to the chief lama a few words unintelligible to me.
"I am called to the sacrifices. Will you kindly excuse me?" said he to me, and with a salute, turned to the door and disappeared.
I could do no better than withdraw and lie down in the chamber which was assigned to me and where I spent the night.
In the evening of the next day I was again in Leh—thinking of how to get back to the convent. Two days later I sent, by a messenger, to the chief lama, as presents, a watch, an alarm clock, and a thermometer. At the same time I sent the message that before leaving Ladak I would probably return to the convent, in the hope that he would permit me to see the manuscript which had been the subject of our conversation. It was now my purpose to gain Kachmyr and return from there, some time later, to Himis. But fate made a different decision for me.
In passing a mountain, on a height of which is perched the gonpa of Piatak, my horse made a false step, throwing me to the ground so violently that my right leg was broken below the knee.
It was impossible to continue my journey, I was not inclined to return to Leh; and seeking the hospitality of the gonpa of Piatak was not, from the appearance of the cloister, an enticing prospect. My best recourse would be to return to Himis, then only about half a day's journey distant, and I ordered my servants to transport me there. They bandaged my broken leg—an operation which caused me great pain—and lifted me into the saddle. One carrier walked by my side, supporting the weight of the injured member, while another led my horse. At a late hour of the evening we reached the door of the convent of Himis.
When informed of my accident, the kind monks came out to receive me and, with a wealth of extraordinary precautions of tenderness, I was carried inside, and, in one of their best rooms, installed upon an improvised bed, consisting of a mountain of soft fabrics, with the naturally-to-be-expected prayer-cylinder beside me. All this was done for me under the personal supervision of their chief lama, who, with affectionate sympathy, pressed the hand I gave him in expression of my thanks for his kindness.
In the morning, I myself bound around the injured limb little oblong pieces of wood, held by cords, to serve as splints. Then I remained perfectly quiescent and nature was not slow in her reparative work. Within two days my condition was so far improved that I could, had it been necessary, have left the gonpa and directed myself slowly toward India in search of a surgeon to complete my cure.
While a boy kept in motion the prayer-barrel near my bed, the venerable lama who ruled the convent entertained me with many interesting stories. Frequently he took from their box the alarm clock and the watch, that I might illustrate to him the process of winding them and explain to him their uses. At length, yielding to my ardent insistence, he brought me two big books, the large leaves of which were of paper yellow with age, and from them read to me the biography of Issa, which I carefully transcribed in my travelling notebook according to the translation made by the interpreter. This curious document is compiled under the form of isolated verses, which, as placed, very often had no apparent connection with, or relation to each other.
On the third day, my condition was so far improved as to permit the prosecution of my journey. Having bound up my leg as well as possible, I returned, across Kachmyr, to India; a slow journey, of twenty days, filled with intolerable pain. Thanks, however, to a litter, which a French gentleman, M. Peicheau, had kindly sent to me (my gratitude for which I take this occasion to express), and to an ukase of the Grand Vizier of the Maharajah of Kachmyr, ordering the local authorities to provide me with carriers, I reached Srinagar, and left almost immediately, being anxious to gain India before the first snows fell.
In Muré I encountered another Frenchman, Count André de Saint Phall, who was making a journey of recreation across Hindostan. During the whole course, which we made together, to Bombay, the young count demonstrated a touching solicitude for me, and sympathy for the excruciating pain I suffered from my broken leg and the fever induced by its torture. I cherish for him sincere gratitude, and shall never forget the friendly care which I received upon my arrival in Bombay from the Marquis de Morés, the Vicomte de Breteul, M. Monod, of the Comptoir d'Escompte, M. Moët, acting consul, and all the members of the very sympathetic French colony there.
During a long time I revolved in my mind the purpose of publishing the memoirs of the life of Jesus Christ found by me in Himis, of which I have spoken, but other interests absorbed my attention and delayed it. Only now, after having passed long nights of wakefulness in the coordination of my notes and grouping the verses conformably to the march of the recital, imparting to the work, as a whole, a character of unity, I resolve to let this curious chronicle see the light.
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