A combination of Tibetan rituals, folklore, music, dance, and trade epitomized the ancient Kalachakra Buddhist festival which concluded last week, presided over by Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
On the final day of the 10-day event hosted in Bodhgaya, the Indian town believed to be the place where Buddha attained enlightenment, the Dalai Lama conducted a grand ceremony that spanned centuries of Tibetan civilization.
The event concluded with classical Tibetan songs of rare beauty, sung by young Tibetan students from TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, the first institution the Dalai Lama established after he went into exile more than half a century ago.
Every street in Bodhgaya was lined with stalls heaving with religious posters, prayer beads, icons of the Buddha statues and Hindu deities.
Pilgrims from Tibet were selling exquisitely tailored chubas, jewelry, music CD’s, paintings, and posters, to pay for their passage back to the Land of Snows.
Refugee Road, a Tibetan bazaar that circles around the Mahabodhi Temple, the focal point of the event, was lined with Tibetan Sikkimese and Bhutanese restaurants.
Mohammed’s, the old favorite with Western pilgrims, was the first to serve pasta and cappuccino. Now, it’s impossible to get a table there for dinner.
On every corner, TV screens played new music videos from Tibet, with Chinese and Tibetan subtitles, and videos from Dharamsala with Hindi subtitles, all vivid expressions of a pan-Himalayan cultural and ethnic identity.
And every night at Sujata Bypass, named after the maiden who gave the starving Buddha a bowl of milk and thereby saved his life, four open fields pulsed with live concerts.
A Darjeeling rock band belts out Hendrix. One Sikkimese troupe specializes in Bollywood song and dance, with elaborate light shows and huge loudspeakers powered by groaning generators. And Tibetan rappers rock a crowd, filled with young monks, wrapped in maroon robes and shawls, laughing and dancing.
“Young Tibetans want to be citizens of the 21st century. We have a lot of professionals, filmmakers, actors, rappers,” said Lobsang Wangyal, who created the Miss Tibet Contest, now in its 10th year, and has sent all winners to international beauty pageants representing Tibet as a country, sparking Chinese outrage and plenty of media coverage.
“It’s important to establish our shared Himalayan Buddhist heritage, so this October I’m launching the Miss Himalaya Pageant," he said. "The event is a platform for young women from the entire Himalayan region to promote its culture and preserve its environment.”
Tibetan cultural dancers performing at the Kalachakra event.
For decades, TIPA artists have been performing original plays depicting Tibetan life under Chinese rule. On four evenings, the Gu Chu Sum Society for Tibetan Political Prisoners staged plays reenacting the tortures inflicted upon Tibetan prisoners of conscience, monks, and nuns who refuse to denounce the Dalai Lama at risk of death.
The Alliance of Tibetan Musicians held several concerts to “honor the patriots inside Tibet.”
Jhola Techung, a TIPA graduate and international star of stage and CD, said, “We wanted to show our bonds with our brothers and sisters in Tibet with music."
"As refugees were scattered around the world, music helped keep us united. At this Kalachakra so many people here from Tibet have come to our concerts. I’ve written a new song about our freedom struggle called 'Courage'—that is what we Tibetans need when we are up against such powerful, oppressive forces.”
“Tibetan culture makes the Chinese nervous,” said Karma, a 17-year-old student who left his home in Kham six years ago to join one of the Dalai Lama’s exile schools.
“We all came to India for education, but of course, we also want to go back to Tibet to see our families. One of my friends from my village in Kham is a good singer. He recorded a CD that was only love songs, nothing political, so he would be able to go home to see his parents.
"But still, he got arrested when he went to Tibet, and spent three months in jail.”
Also screened at the Kalachakra was “Tibet in Song”, an awarding-winning documentary by Ngawang Choephel, a TIPA student who won a Fulbright scholarship to Middlebury College, then traveled to Tibet to record Tibetan music.
For this, he was arrested and spent six years in a Chinese prison.
“I wanted to be here, for this huge gathering of Tibetan people” said Choephel, linking arms with Tenzin Tsundue, who also went to Tibet as a refugee from India and was held in prison for three months.
Shertar, a popular Tibetan singer in Lhasa, has a hit video called "The Unity Song," in which artists from Amdo, Kham, and Utsang –
each in their distinctive native hats, chubas, and boots –
sing “Oh Tibetans unite, the Three Regions of our Snowland,” which plays on every iPod and video screen.
“Even after 60 years of Chinese occupation, the Tibetan identity is there,” says a trader from Lhasa who does business in Nepal but had never been to India before.
“Of course, lots of Tibetans speak Chinese, we have no choice, and there is pressure to intermarry with Chinese. Tibetan culture is adapting, but it’s still very strong, because it’d very old. We don’t sing Chinese opera, we have our own style.”
A Tibetan music concert on the sidelines of the Kalachakra.
On the last night of the Kalachakra, the Alliance of Tibetan Musicians staged a special Unity Concert. Exile stars Techung, Tsering Gyurme, Michael, and others sang songs about the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and Tibet’s freedom struggle before large banners bearing faces of monks who had self-immolated, offering their bodies as a sacrifice for their nation.
On his last morning in Bodhgaya, The Dalai Lama went to the pipal tree at the Mahabodhi Temple, a place where he has prayed and taught since he took refuge in India in 1959.
The roads were lined with Tibetan pilgrims, waiting for one last glimpse of the great master, upon whom the 32nd Kalachakra organizing committee bestowed the honorary title: “The Supreme Master of Complete Teachings of Lord Buddha, the XIVth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso of Tibet.”
As the Dalai Lama bade farewell to Bodhgaya and drove off with Indian military escorts, the roadways were jammed with buses, land rovers, scooters, and even horse-drawn tongas, carrying pilgrims away with the great Mahabodhi temple dissolving in the mist. Reported by Maura Moynihan, a freelance correspondent.