Two Foreign Pilgrims On The Inner Kora of Kawakarpo
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As an anthropologist studying Tibetan pilgrimages since 1990, I was lucky enough to be able to do two outer circumambulations around the sacred mountain Kawakarpo in 2003. That year was a Water-Sheep year and the sixtieth year in the Tibetan sexagenary (60-year) calendrical system, considered to be the most auspicious one for the pilgrimage, since it is said to be the mountain god’s birth year.
When I came back in 2014, however, the situation was more difficult. The Chinese authorities had decided to close the pilgrimage to foreigners, since half of the route crosses into the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Nevertheless, I tried my luck, only to be caught by the police at the only checkpoint, placed exactly at the middle of the pilgrimage. In spite of hours of discussion between the police and my muleteer, we had to turn back. But what appeared at first as a failure proved to be a very good experience. While Buddhists circumambulate in the clockwise direction, keeping the sacred mountain always on their right, adepts of Bonpo, the other religion that coexists in Tibet with Buddhism, walk in the anti clockwise direction. If I had not been turned back, I might never have discovered how much more difficult was the Bonpo pilgrimage, the climbs being much steeper than in the Buddhist direction.
I came back again last year, 2015, again a Sheep Year and another auspicious year. But in 2015, there was no question about doing the full pilgrimage: the police had established four checkpoints. So, Bill Bleisch and I decided to do the shorter inner pilgrimage together, which does not cross from Yunnan into the TAR.
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Like all pilgrims, we first had to ‘open the pilgrimage’; which is done by visiting two monasteries. In spite of the early time in the day, pilgrims were already quite numerous. The famous statue of Namkha Tashi in the first monastery is said to have flown here from India on its own, which is why Namkha Chökyi Gyatso, decided to build a monastery in this particular place.
Going next to Chöten Karpo, a complex of white- washed stupas, we met many pilgrims walking on the side of the road. They knew that hardships on a pilgrimage bring more merit. Indeed, contrary to many modern pilgrims, who now do the pilgrimage by car or motorcycle (possible ever since a road was built), those full of faith still want to walk along the entire path. Many pilgrims were at Chöten Karpo, burning juniper, circumambulating and throwing lime on the walls. Bill did the same, as it is the custom, and succeeded in staying relatively clean of the white wash.
Our pilgrimage being properly opened, we left for Nyinong, a village along the Mekong. We knew that we had to climb about 6 or 7 hours that day to reach Yubeng Village. Just a little above Nyinong, we entered the national park, our arrival underlined by the requirements of registration and “donation” of 230 RMB. We walked up a gentle climb along an irrigation channel before entering a deep forest. Chinese tourists, in great number, were coming down from Yubeng on this same path, and, at a lunch stop, we met our first Bonpo pilgrims, two ladies from Tengchen in Kham. They were delighted when I gave them pictures of Lopön Tenzin Namdak, the head of the Bonpo school, who is now living in France.
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After a quick lunch, we continued our climb. Groups of stones were piled up beside the trail as an offering to the mountain-deity. And, for the first time on my many visits, I saw prayers-flags dedicated to Amitabha and written in Chinese, a sign that Chinese Buddhists were now also doing the inner pilgrimage. Because of the coming of many pilgrims in this Sheep-Year, several tea-houses had opened along the path, bringing with them piles of garbage heaped up on the sides of the trail. This in spite of all the posters hung on the trees announcing the need to protect the environment. Another inconvenience was the many motorcycles driving at full speed on the walking path without any respect for the pilgrims.
The village of Lower Yubeng was much bigger than it was in past years, with almost all houses also being a lodge for guests. When the weather cleared, the snowy mountain Mentsunmo, the spouse of Kawakarpo, stood out against the blue sky above the village.
The next morning, we left for the sacred waterfalls, the climax of this pilgrimage, stopping first at a small monastery. All along the way, public notices had been put at the sacred sites giving some explanation in Tibetan and Chinese. We met many pilgrims, mainly from the Kham region but also from as far away as Lhasa.
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We decided to visit a place dedicated to women who want a child. While the turnoff to this sacred site is indicated by a sign along the main trail, the devotee is then left in the unknown. It took us quite a long time to find our way, although I had been there in 2003. At last, we found a trunk carved with notches that allowed us to climb up to the sacred site itself, which was covered with offerings.
Continuing our ascent, we reached the waterfalls. This year, the water fell with an incredible force; something I had never seen before. Piles of stones covered with ceremonial kata scarves and prayers flags were scattered on the ground. Few pilgrims were there, it being late in the day. In spite of the wind and the low temperature, Bill went three times under the bitter cold waterfall. I went once.
We left quickly after, meeting two Tibetan ladies on their way to the sacred site, carrying their children on their backs. We were still numb from the waterfall, but without a visit to Guru Rinpoche’s caves, the pilgrimage would not be complete. Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, introduced Tantric Buddhism to Tibet and built Samye, Tibet’s first monastery, at the request of King Trisong Detsen in the 8th century. He is supposed to have meditated in a cave close to the sacred waterfall where a small monastery has been built. Two monks from the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Kanze, in Northern Kham were living there. They had come here to meditate, but they had not expected to see so many pilgrims. Moreover, they told us that the cold in winter is terrible, and both would be quite happy to return to their monastery. Kindly, they showed us around the site: Padmasambhava’s statue in the cave, and the footprint of Karma Pakshi (1204/6–1283), the 2nd Karmapa, who is said by some sources to have first opened the Kawakarpo pilgrimage.
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On the way back to our guest house in Upper Yubeng, we met a lot of pilgrims still on their way up, heading to one of the makeshift tent-hotels near the waterfall. A very good dinner in Lower Yubeng gave us strength for the steep climb to Upper Yubeng. We arrived in full darkness of night, but still in time to enjoy some moon cakes on the terrace of the lodge, looking at the lights down in the valley and the stars up in the sky.
For our last day, the weather was fantastic, but we were not allowed to enjoy the long walk to Gyüme Gompa that we had anticipated. Starting in this year, foreign pilgrims must take electric cars to a place up the mountain, and only from there is it allowed to walk.
Still, Kawakarpo brought down his blessings on us on this day. After the visit to the temple, we climbed the stairs alongside Minyong Glacier. At the topmost platform, a group of nuns and monks from Jyekundo were chanting, reciting a prayer to Kawakarpo composed by their Rinpoche. Suspended between heaven and earth, two Western pilgrims experienced one of those privileged moments that give meaning to life.
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Katia Buffetrille is an Anthropologist, research fellow at the École pratique des Hautes Études (Sorbonne) in Paris and a CERS Associate.