Tibet: some folk ritual performers

Ngagmo female ritual group, Rebkong (Amdo), c2009. Source here.

For the Tibetan peoples, both before the Chinese occupation—or the uprisings from 1956—and under the reform era since the 1980s, our popular image of religious life is dominated by “institutional” monastic activity. Even genres like lhamo opera, nangma-töshe, and grand local folk communal rituals seem more commonly known than the diverse types of folk ritual performers.

To remind ourselves of a pertinent comment,

any attempt at (re)presenting Tibetan culture today is inseparable from an implicit ideological and political commentary on the situation of Tibet, through history and at present. 

Emic and etic ways of slicing the cake of expressive cultures vary; and for Tibet they vary both within and between Tibetan, Chinese, and Western approaches. As in many cultures, a simple dichotomy like sacred–secular will only confuse, even if we take it as a continuum. Catherine Bell reflects wisely on the variety of “ritual specialists” within world cultures in Ritual theory, ritual practice, pp.130–40. But again, such an etic umbrella term often seems inadequate for Tibet.

One would include the male ngagpa and female ngagmo self-cultivational groups of Tantric practitioners (see e.g. the work of Nicolas Sihlé, such as this article; wiki, and here; photo above). Further, with religion such a pervasive element in the daily life of Tibetan people, there’s no simple way of encapsulating the variety of performers, family groups and individuals, occupational, often itinerant—such as spirit mediums and diviners, mendicants and beggars (for the latter in pre-occupation Lhasa, see e.g. Part Two here, under “Professional and spiritual beggars”). Moreover, the trite rubric of “song-and-dance” subsumes calendrical rituals with communal, largely ascriptive participation (see e.g. here). [1] Indeed, since the 1950s, and still now, lay performers may be less closely surveilled than the major monasteries such as Labrang (for which see here and here).

A variety of such genres is described in the 2006 book (in Chinese) Zangzu shuochang yishu [Narrative-singing arts of the Tibetan people] by Suolang Ciren 索朗次仁 [Sonam Tsering], (cf. this page).

As with Han Chinese traditions, some of these genres are described as obsolete, and appear to belong to “salvage” fieldwork. Having so often heard this claim from Chinese cultural cadres anxious about revealing “superstitious” activities in their domain, I am reluctant to take it as gospel. It is hard to assess the current picture from published material in Chinese and Tibetan. On one hand PRC scholars may take mediated, secular performances on the concert platform as evidence of the continuing life of tradition; on the other, their access enables them to document local genres. But of course change is always a factor. As with some Han Chinese traditions, folk activity may be continued by other means, and I suspect that lengthy immersion in a given area may still reveal neglected life in such genres. At the same time, few of these groups quite resemble the household ritual specialists who are my main theme in local Han Chinese communities.

In exile, while some genres of the former elite were maintained, and the monasteries have long been the main scholarly focus, many folk ritual genres hardly feature in representations of Tibetan expressive culture such as the 1986 Zlos-gar. However, some of the folk performers who made their way into exile sought to continue activity there.

Moreover, one would seek to consider groups among Tibetan communities such as those of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Ladakh, from where some of the most interesting material derives. As with other “marginal survivals”, always bearing in mind that these are local traditions, it can be tempting to regard such manifestations as suggestive of culture within old Tibet (cf. “When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”).

* * *

Among all these genres, by far the most popular area of research is the Gesar epic (see here, n.2, and here). Though it is often treated as a reified genre of oral literature, and since the 1980s has also been performed on the secular stage, the solo performers (both the “inspired” bards who received the text through spiritual revelation in trance after a psychological crisis, and those who learned by listening to other bards) continued to play a role in the domestic rituals of their local communities after the 1980s’ reforms, despite the encroachment of pop and media culture.

But as in south Asia and China, there was (and is) a variety of performers. So here I will illustrate the difficulties of simple classification with brief introductions to lama mani, drekar, and ralpa.

Lama mani
The itinerant solo folk storytellers lama mani enact religious tales with the aid of thangka paintings. It may be more suitable to regard them as educators. [2]

An important source for the wider historical context around China and south Asia is

  • Victor Mair, Painting and performance: Chinese picture recitation and its Indian genesis (1989).

For the TAR, the lama mani feature in Zangzu shuochang yishu; see also this introduction. Around Lhasa, this 2014 article portrays “Chilie” [Thinley / ‘Phrin las] (b. c1940), typically, as “the last lama mani”.

Brought up in a village of Nagarze county in the Lhoka region of southeast TAR, both of his parents had performed lama mani, and he learned with them from young, along with his three older sisters; here one would wish to fill in the gaps in his biography for the Maoist decades. Even recently, his status as a Transmitter of the Intangible Cultural Heritage hadn’t brought him security: in 2014, performing on the street in the Barkhor, he was moved on by the police.

Thinley performing in Lhasa, 2014.

Some lama mani have also been active in exile—note

Besides a film by Tsering Rithar on a refugee lama mani in Nepal, this is a 10-minute film on lama mani there:

Drekar oldAlso belonging within this diverse rubric are the drekar (in Chinese, zhega 折嘎: see this useful page), mendicant masked buffoons reciting auspicious verses for New Year and weddings (cf. Chinese beggars, such as in Shaanbei).

Again, the drekar have been described as obsolete, both within and beyond the PRC. A brief recorded excerpt (from since the 1980s’ reforms!) can be heard in #2 of CD 6 in Mao Jizeng’s anthology Xizang yinyue jishi. Whereas it was clearly recited on request, Woeser filmed this even briefer video during a street performance, suggesting that there may still be potential for fieldwork:

Until the 1950s the ralpa or relpa (in Chinese, reba 热巴), mostly from the Kham region in origin, were family-based, low-class, itinerant performers, using narration, singing, dancing, acrobatics, and small plays, based on the life of Milarepa.

Ralpa dancers, Dengchen, Chamdo. Source here.

But the sense in which ralpa is now commonly promoted is as a communal dance festivity in the villages of Kham—subject of a book by Gonpo Gyaltsen (1928–2020), himself a former ralpa from the Dechen region there: in Chinese, Oumi Jiacan 欧米加参, Xuecheng reba 雪域热巴 (1998), Tibetan translation Gangs-ljongs ral-pa (2017).

Today this form too may be largely obsolete (see e.g. this useful survey), even as it has become a victim of commodified dance arrangements and the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

* * *

Under Chinese occupation and modernity some of these genres have doubtless suffered more than others; but we should include them all within our picture of the varied religious behaviours in local Tibetan societies—even as many fine scholars, quite legitimately, turn their attention to the pop soundscape. And of course more revealing ethnographies could be compiled on how individual, family, or devotional groups of lay participants dovetail in local societies with monasteries, communal ritual activities, and so on [3]over time: as usual, we might hope to seek threads of continuity in 1950s’ activity.

With thanks as ever to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy

[1] Sources for such genres appear rather piecemeal. Some feature in §III of the New Grove article on Tibet, and in the bibliographies of Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy (for Western-language sources) and Sangye Dondhup (for Tibetan and Chinese items); but Isabelle surveys much of the material in chapter 3 of her magnum opus Le théâtre ache lhamo, with references including some notes by early Western Tibetologists (such as Tucci and Stein), and for the post-reform era, studies by Tibetan and Chinese scholars, again mostly brief.

For Tibetan communities within the PRC, among the Anthology volumes (for the Tibetan Autonomous Region [TAR], Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan, in Chinese), those on narrative-singing (and perhaps on folk-song, and dance) should give further leads.

At a tangent, YouTube has a range of interesting material under “Tibetan wedding”, like this 2013 ceremony from a village in Qinghai, with some fine singing. This might lead us to the chang ma beer servers in old and new Tibet.

[2] Among references to lama mani in Le théâtre ache lhamo (n.1 above), two discuss the drama Padma ‘od-‘bar (also popular in lhamo, like many items here): Anne-Marie Blondeau’s chapter in Zlos-gar (referring mainly to the relation of paintings and text), and a 2012 booklet (in Tibetan) with three CDs, for the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

[3] For a mendicant singer in early 20th century Amdo, with pertinent details on present-day performers, see this article by Gerald Roche.

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