Great Prayer Festival – Part I
The Great Prayer festival (Monlam Chenmo) is Tibetan Buddhism’s most important annual celebration. This festival commemorates Buddha’s enlightenment where offerings, teachings, ritual performances, masked dances, processions and special prayers take place every winter during the first lunar calendar month for 4 days. The exact dates of the festival, in Gregorian calendar, vary annually and geographically in the Tibetan cultural area. Monlam means “wish-path” or the Buddhist path helping others through the prayers.
The festival was established in 1409 by TsongKhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, otherwise known as the Yellow-Hat school. The first celebration was held in Lhasa, by Lama TsongKhapa, from the first new moon until the full moon of the lunar new year where many hundreds of thousands of people streamed into Lhasa to observe the rituals and specially the debates that were held every day during the two weeks celebrations. China has long been accused of trying to eradicate Tibetan culture through political and religious repression and the Great Prayer festival has been banned for periods because of struggles between different sects of Tibetan Buddhism. It was banned by communist China during the cultural revolution, but it was revived in 1985, and it was prohibited again in 1990. In some occasions, celebrations have been performed under extreme tensions, due to protests made by Yellow-Hat monks, sect of the exiled Dalai Lama, against Chinese rule. The yellow-Hat school is the youngest, and nowadays the largest and most important school of Tibetan Buddhism.
This year Monlan Chenmo took place without any clash in Gelug monasteries located in the Tibetan cultural area. In Labrang monastery, the festival unfolded on epic scales with thousands of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims, worshipers and Han Chinese tourists creating a pushing-crowd of sounds, colour and smells of celebration.
I captured the full splendour of the Great Prayer festival in Labrang monastery in Xiahe (Gansu Province) from February 28 to March 3. Labrang monastery is the most important and one of the largest Gelug monasteries located outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China. On the first day the opening ceremony is the unveiling of a big thangka tapestry, depicting the Buddha for the pilgrims to worship.
The thangka was carried out by the monks, among a frantic crowd, from the monastery to the stone hill located outside the complex, covered with a large sheet of a yellow fabric for protection. Then the cover was pulled off like a curtain by monks located on top of the hill and with the help of the monks located in both sides of the thangka. Once the it was rolled out we could see the painting in full splendour with a mix of deep green, pink, blue and yellow colours. Whilst the Buddha’s image was exposed some pilgrims kneeled down and tossed money and white scarves. At the end of the ceremony the it was moved back to the monastery.