Ache Lhamo

Ache Lhamo, which literally means “sister goddess,” is a traditional folk opera that originated in Tibet. The name is said to come from one of the figures in the preliminary stage of the opera. Ache Lhamo combines dances, chants, and songs to depict many different Buddhist stories and Tibetan history.

It is believed that the Tibetan polymath, spiritual adept, and iron bridge builder Thangtong Gyalpo first introduced drama to Tibet in the 14th century CE. In order to provide adequate provisions and conditions for his bridge projects, Thangtong Gyalpo called upon the Chhongje Bena family with their seven beautiful daughters to perform roles in a play, while Gyalpo himself beat the drum. Thangtong Gyalpo wrote the operas himself, basing them off religious stories. It is said that onlookers saw the women perform, they exclaimed, “The goddesses (lhamo) themselves are dancing!” Therefore, the folk operatic tradition became known as Ache Lhamo.

Great efforts have been made to preserve this unique Tibetan performing art in exile, the Dalai Lama himself calling for preservation. The following is a brief example of Ache Lhamo:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffTmU16dyLk

In addition, Emory University, under the auspices of a grant from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, brought twelve Tibetan performers on campus in April 2013 to stage the Ache Lhamo folk opera, Sukyi Nyima (“Radiant as the Sun”). The following are links to part 1 and part 2 of the opera:

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVy8ykI8L-E

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKjft79_LSs

Sukyi Nyima tells the story of a beautiful girl, who has an intimate connection to Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. She was magically conceived by a deer that had drunk the spilled seed of a forest sage from a stream. Therefore, due to the girl’s radiance, the sage names her “Radiant as the Sun” (more literally, “Embodied Sun”) and she grows up to be a beautiful woman. Eventually, a local king finds her and takes her as a second wife. However, the king’s first wife is evil and attempts to destroy the heroine, but the girl escapes to the forest, where she meditates with her mother, the deer, by her side. The girl later emerges disguised as a Lama Mani (“wandering storyteller”). Those that had done evil to her confess their crimes to the heroine, not recognizing her, but eventually her conch teeth give her identity away. The girl agrees to return to the palace, and the entire kingdom renounces wrongdoing and takes up the Buddhist path.

Ache Lhamo is an important aspect of traditional Tibetan culture, and it is now even more important that efforts are made to preserve the folk operas.

Works consulted:

“Ache Lhamo,” Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage, http://www.accu.or.jp/ich/en/arts/A_BTN1.html

“Lhamo – Tibetan Opera,” The Tibetan Performing Arts, http://tibetanarts.dk/historical.htm

“Sukyi Nyima’s ‘Radiant as the Sun’: A Tibetan Folk Opera,” International Association of Buddhist Studies, http://iabsinfo.net/2013/06/sukyi-nyimas-radiant-as-the-sun-a-tibetan-folk-opera/

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Epic of Gesar (Tibetan)

Mural depicting Gesar. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Seeing the sad state of Tibet after the fall of the Tibetan Royal dynasty of Yarlung (127 BC – 842 AD), the authors wrote the epic around the 12th century to uplift the Tibetan people and give them a reminder of the patriotic fervor of the Tibetan empire. It was constructed around a historical figure of the period, Trison Deutsen (742 – 797 AD), and pays homage to the order of kingship and liberation, acting as a story to arouse respect and pride for one’s own heritage. Today, the Epic of Gesar continues to grow. New volumes have been added by authors or sung by Ling bards, making it a non-static story of amazing events.

The Epic of Gesar relates the heroic deeds of the culture hero Gesar, the king of the Ling. It is one of the oldest and most recited epics, with some 100 bards still active today in the Gesar belt of China, making it one of the few epics that maintains its oral tradition. At 120 volumes, it is the longest epic in the world. It is comprised of more than one million verses, divided into 29 “chapters.”

The epic is sung throughout central Asia, Russia, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Tibet, and China and because it maintains an oral tradition, there is no standard version of the epic. It is centered around the Amnye Machen range in Amdo and Kham regions of Tibet but its popularity spread from there. The epic appears among Chinese minorities such as the Bai, Naxi, the Pumi, Lisu , the Yugur peoples as well as various other Tibeto-Burmese, Turkish, and Tunghus tribes. It is recorded variously in poetry and prose with chantfable being the style of a traditional performance.

Its cultural significance lies in the fact that it contains matter, such as the adages, which were the collected wisdom of the Tibetan and their environs passed down through word of mouth generation after generation. An adage is a memorable saying, which holds some important fact of experience that is considered true by many people or has gained credibility through long use. It not only provides us with a unique glance into ancient Tibetan culture, the lessons and stories it recounts teach values important in our society today such as bravery and valor, national unity and patriotism, and integrity.

The plot of the Epic of Gesar is as follows:

In the kingdom of Ling there was no king and chaos prevailed. One of the sons of the Heavenly God was sent down to the earth. He was reborn into a noble family (or as a son of a mountain spirit). As a baby he was slobbering and deformed, and was given the name Dzoru. Even as a child he began to destroy demons and various monsters. As an adolescent he came to the throne and earned the beautiful Brugmo as consort. He also obtained his magic horse, heroic shape, and proper name. The first heroic deed was the annihilation of the demon of the North. The demon’s wife Meza Bumskiid helped him to accomplish this task, but after the victory she gave Geser the herb of forgetfulness and so he stayed in the North. At home, Geser’s uncle Khrotung tried to seduce Brugmo—without any success. Khrotung betrayed his land and led the Hories to Ling. The Hories carried off Brugmo. Geser was finally able to break the spell with the help of heavenly forces and hurried to the camp of the enemies disguised as a scabby boy. By means of magic and supernatural power, he destroyed the king of the Hories, subdued his kingdom and returned to Ling.

For further reading, refer to “An Introduction to the Gesar of Ling epic.”

Potala Palace

Site layout of the Potala Palace

Site layout of the Potala Palace

The Potala Palace has been the winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century and represents the apogee of Tibetan architecture. The complex is a reminder of Tibetan Buddhism’s central role in the traditional administration of Tibet. Sitting at 3700m above sea level in the center of the Lhasa Valley, the complex is comprised of the White and Red Palaces and stands at a height of more than 110m.

The White Palace houses the main ceremonial hall with the throne of the Dalai Lama. His private rooms and audience hall are on the uppermost levels. The White Palace contains 698 murals, almost 10,000 painted scrolls, sculptures, curtains, objects of gold and silver, and a large collection of sutras and important historical documents. All sutras of the different Buddhisms are placed separately in the libraries of the Potala Palace. The Red Palace is situated to the west of the White Palace and contains the gilded burial stupas of past Dalai Lamas. A stupa is a receptacle of the soul.

Rooms are cool in the summer and warm in the winter, a special feature of Tibetan architecture. The most precious statue collections were brought to the Potala Palace during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama. In the 17th century, Desi established life-sized statues of gold, silver, and bronze. These are now the main worshipped statues in the chapels of the Potala Palace. The murals inside the Palace relate to the life of Buddha Shakyamuni and Avalokitesvara, the story of the origins of the Tibetan people, the construction of the Potala Palace, and the deeds of the 5th Dalai Lama.Many of the thangkas and murals in the palace were painted by Khen-tse Chen-mu College and Menthang College.

The Potala Palace’s beginnings start at the time of Songtsen of the Thubet (Tubo) dynasty in the 7th century AD. At the time, it was called the Red Mountain Palace. However, the fall of the Tubo dynasty led to a period of turmoil in which the palace fell into disrepair. After the 5th Dalai Lama founded the Ganden Phogrand Dynasty, reconstruction began on the Red Mountain Palace during the mid-17th century in an endeavor that would last 30 years. The reconstruction produced a complex of buildings with the White Palace at its nucleus. After the completion of the White Palace, the 5th Dalai Lama moved the capital from Drepung Monastery to the Potala Palace. Since then, it has been the residence and seat of government for the succeeding Dalai Lamas.

8 years after the death of the 5th Dalai Lama, the construction of the Red Palace was begun by Sangye Gyatsho, the chief executive official of the time. It was completed in 1694 and is second in size only to the White Palace. Since the construction of the present palace finished, the Meditation Cave of the Dharma King, where Songtsen Gampo is believed to have studied, and the Lokeshvara Chapel, have also been incorporated into the complex and both buildings preceded the existence of the present palace.

The Potala Palace was designated as a Site for National Protection in 1961 and in 1994, it was inscribed on the World Heritage list by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizations.