Life around Norlha

Ritoma, like many other areas of grassland is a succession of hills and valleys. Nomads pitch their tents on the south facing flank of a hill, protected from the wind. During the day, the animals roam over the top of hills, mere silhouettes in the distance. Sitting in the valley, one can watch all day as people, yak, sheep, gazelles, motorbikes, horses with or without riders, single or in succession, their shapes aligned against the sky, emerge, follow the ridge and disappear.

In wider valleys that expand into plains, they become mere specks in the distance. Sky, clouds and earth overtake the landscape, dwarfing all in their wake.

Horses used to be central to life on the Tibetan Plateau, for transportation, herding and symbols of status. The Plateau was famous for its handsome breeds and for centuries, they were a trading asset exchanged for tea, brocade and treasures from the Silk Road. Horses are still held in high regard, and though cars and motorbikes have taken their place for transportation, nomads still find them to be the best for herding, and especially for racing.

There are horse races all year around, all over Amdo. In Zorge, where Ritoma is located, the biggest race takes place in summer, at the time of the Lhatse, when men from all the clans in the area assemble in the broad valley just off the Ritoma grazing areas, pitch their tents in a wide circle and plant their arrows in the large conical structure that dominates the event. On the morning of the first day, they ride their horses and make offerings to the protector deity Amnye Machen and the local gods that dwell on the various surrounding peaks. Ritoma alone has four major ones, headed in importance by Amnye Tongra. The event is attended by all the villages in Zorge. Ritoma is the nearest village, two hills over, and local vendors come and install restaurant tents and market stalls selling goods ranging from toys to fruit. At Norlha we give our employees a three day break, and we recognize our weavers, tailors or managers among the crowd, the young unmarried girls and boys parading in their best, children tugging their mother’s sleeves for toys or snacks.

The races last three days and involve over a hundred horses, selected from the families in the area. Schedules are vague, people take their time, crossing over the wide plain sometime in the morning, to find a spot on the pasture, walking among herds of sheep and yak that are still grazing there, soon to be lead to the higher summer pastures. The atmosphere is relaxed, with spectators and horses slowly congregating towards the racing ‘track’ a circle of grassland marked off with colorful flags. Families or women and children sit in groups, taking out snacks and catching up.

On the final day, the fifteen finalists race, circling the track four times. The first thirteen horses are declared winners amidst much cheering and are paraded, covered in colorful scarves by well-wishers. The jockeys all ride bareback, some with helmets, others not. There are always a few accidents, marked with a horse galloping away from the track rider less, and people racing towards the spot of the mishap.

The race over, people congregate towards the stalls, picnicking on the grassland, to later attend the rope pulling games.

Sagadawa is the full moon of the 4th month of lunar calendar. This is the day that the Buddha was born, gained enlightenment and passed away. In a culture where the next life is considered as important as the present one, people give close attention to investing in their future, that is their future life. Sagadawa is that special month that is believed to bring even more merit than usual, an opportunity for religious minded Buddhists to acquiring a good stock of merit for their karma account.

A large number of Norlha employees devote the entire 4th month to performing various acts of merit. Some become vegetarians for the month, others give alms to the poor and still others circumambulate or prostrate around the local monasteries. The 15th of the lunar calendar, the full moon, is a holiday for the Norlha employees. All the villagers assemble at the monastery for the unfurling of the large thangka (kyigu) on the hill across from the monastery and line up to receive blessings from a visiting Geshe (a degree awarded to monks on the completion of their dialectical studies) from nearby Labrang monastery.

In Labrang, one of the largest monasteries on the Tibetan Plateau, Sagadawa is a major event that attracts pilgrims from a wide radius. They begin to congregate at the beginning of the month, and by the 15th, hundreds of beggars a sitting by the linkhor to receive alms from the circumambulators. Labrang Tashi Kyil Monastery’s circumambulation route is 3 km long, and crowded with people of all ages, as well as the sick, brought by their relatives in wheelchairs to receive the special blessings absorbed on this holy day. Norlha wishes everyone a happy Sagadawa and good wishes for this life and the next.

Sagadawa is a holy month during which merit is believed to count manifold over that accumulated at any other time. Tibetan Buddhist culture is rooted in the belief of karma, or cause and effect, which holds at its central belief that in this life, one can accumulate merit that will reap benefit in the next. There are many levels to this complex theory, which is explained here from the point of view of a Tibetan nomadic community and how it is interpreted in their religious practice at Sagadawa. This concept is especially important to Tibetan nomads, as throughout their lives, they have had to live off their animals. For them, Sagadawa is a month that can be dedicated to catching up on the merit lost in taking animal life, in expunging the effect of negative actions, or simply one to accumulate extra merit for their next life. The extent and popularity of religious practice during this holy month underlies the importance people attach to life beyond death. Below are listed the practices that some of our employees at Norlha will undertake during Sagadawa.

Nyungne is an authentic and effective Buddhist practice employing the actions of our body, speech, and mind that has been enthusiastically followed in India, Tibet, and the surrounding regions for many centuries past. It is meant to purify the body and mind and is done in sets of two days, that can be extended indefinitely. The first day is the preliminary during which one eats only one meal while the second involves total fasting. The benefits can include miraculous recoveries, though most are satisfied with the feeling of having purified one’s body and mind. During these two days, one practices the ‘Three Heaps’ that involve homage by prostration, imagining Buddha Bodhisattvas and physically and mentally bowing to them. Then comes confession, during which one reviews all the misdeeds done recently and expresses regret, and the third one is dedication, during which one bestows all of the merit acquired to the benefit of all sentient beings (as opposed to thinking only of stocking up one’s own merit bank).

Taking a Vegetarian vow:
Buddhists are very conscious of the link between killing, considered one of the 10 non virtues, and meat, the central part of a nomad’s diet. Because of the extreme cold and the limited options offered by pastoral life, meat is inevitable, though there are attempts to reconcile these two opposites. The first is not to indulge in excesses regarding meat eating. Animals are slaughtered only at one time of the year, in the fall, and for one’s own consumption. Surpluses are dried and used the rest of the year. Another is to avoid killing smaller animals, as more lives have to be taken to feed oneself, a concept that goes hand in hand with the shunning of fishing or hunting wildlife. Then there is giving up meat altogether, either for good or for a limited period. This is what people choose to do at Sagadawa.

Prostrations can come in many forms. The concept is the same as the one observed in the paragraph on Nyugne, purification through bowing to the ideal that one is hoping to achieve one day, in that sense, the Buddha, who represents full enlightenment. In some cases, people prostrate all the way from Amdo or Kham to Lhasa, while others vow to do so many prostrations per day in view of accumulating at least 100,000 or more. In Ritoma, as in other villages in Tibet, people like doing a set of 300 monastery circumambulations while prostrating in one month, ideal as a Sagadawa practice.

Kora in Tibetan means ‘going around’ in this case, circumambulating a holy site, which is a stupa or a monastery, all the time reciting mantras that purify the mind and stock up one’s merit bank. Some koras can be very long, like the one in Labrang which is 3 km. In Ritoma, circling the small mani wheel temple 5000 times while reciting mantras is a favorite, especially during Sagadawa.

Tsethar or saving a life:
Another favorite way of accumulating merit is to save a life. This can be to spare one’s own animals, yak or sheep, or buying back animals destined to the butcher. Such animals remain with the herd and are marked by a colorful collar that identifies them as Tsethar. It can also be done by buying fish from fishermen and releasing them, a big favorite if one is living in an area where people fish, as it means saving more lives. 

The New Year is a time to start anew, to put negative thoughts, habits and struggles behind us and look towards the future with hope and resolve.

The New Year is a time for wearing one’s best, for eating, for spending time with one’s family and friends. In the nomadic world, it is the best time of the year. The animals are nearby, mostly fed on the oats harvested in the fall, giving their owners the only time for leisure they will have in the year. For this reason, weddings are planned and enacted elaborately, assuring everyone will be able to attend.

The days following the new year are a time for pilgrimage, and some families take off for Lhasa where they will spend two weeks touring the holy sites, joining the crowds of pilgrims from all over Tibet. They will circumambulate the holy sites, make offerings to the butter lamps and pray on behalf of those who had to stay behind.

At Norlha, Losar is the time when the workshop is closed for its month long annual leave. It is the time to reconnect and enjoy their time with friends and family and to take part in an existence that has the best of both worlds; a rich cultural life that moves along with the times.