Tibet in 1938–1939: The Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet
Account of Losar and Mönlam in Lhasa in 1939
“The main event in Lhasa and the primary reason for Schäfer’s repeated requests to the Kashag to extend their stay was Mönlam, the New Year’s Festival, which lasted more than three weeks.¹³⁶ They were able to witness the festival and Schäfer gave a vivid and extensive description in his diaries, and in even more detail in his book, Fest der weissen Schleier, which is mainly devoted to the subject.¹³⁷ The expedition was even invited to attend the Gyalpo Losar, which according to Damdul Namgyal Tsarong was “the second day of the Tibetan New Year – which is considered a more important day than the New Year’s day itself. This day is called ‘King’s New Year.
Rather than the extremely detailed and almost mystical 11-page description Schäfer has written in his book, here is the relatively brief and sober report of his interpreter, Rapten Kazi:
New Year’s Day at Potala
“In the special hall for celebrating the New Year, there was in the middle the royal throne of the Dalai Lama, the pontiff of Tibet. In the front of the throne there hung a Chinese signboard, with translation reading “Dzenchog thinlay bod kyi chok-kun khyab” meaning “the powers of one, who sends all soul to heaven, cover all part of Tibet.” On the right hand are the throne and seat of the Regent and the Prime minister, rows of Tsedrungs (Lama Officials) on the left, and Trungkhors (Lay Officials) on the right. In the middle of the right-hand side of the hall were the seats of the Cabinet ministers and Dzasaks in one row and behind them were the Junior officials. On the top and left-hand side of the Dalai Lama’s throne were the seats for members of the German expedition. Behind them were the Chinese and Kashmiri seats and below them was the Nepalese seat. The seats for the German gentlemen and Chinese representative were as high as those of the Cabinet ministers.
After all the officials gathered in the hall, a Lama [musical] band emerged into the hall from the Western door, which was followed by the Regent and the Prime minister. A white carpet was spread on the ground by a lama and after this came the officials, who carried the “Dagam” (or the warm coat) of the late Dalai Lama, which was kept on the throne. The Regent and the Prime ministers kowtowed to the throne of the Dalai Lama and dispersed to their individual seats. The Lama band stood up in the front of the throne and offered a mandala (or the offering of the world) with music. After the mandala offering was over the ministers stood up and in a single file offered scarves to the throne of the Dalai Lama and then to the Regent. The ministers were followed by the entire officials and servants of the Government of Tibet, and after them the German gentlemen were admitted, who were successively followed by Chinese, Nepalese and Kashmiri representatives.
When the scarf offering was finished, all the people took their seats and the immediately “Khar” dance started. Then came the “Drebuling” dance. This dance consisted of subjoined [paired?] dancers. One god carries the “Gyaltsen”, the holy umbrella, two gods sound the drums, two gods blow the horn, one god sounds the cymbals and two “Acharas.” Then came the dancers proper, consisting of “Changpa” and “Gyalchin” (the kings of Gods), “Klu,” the Nagas, “Trisa” (gods living on smells), “Tsen” (spirit gods), “Nyotjin” (god of harm), “mi” (men), “mimayin” (non-men), “Kyung” (god of the birds), “Lhamo” (goddess queen) and “Namsray” (god of wealth). It is said on vacuum [?] of Dalai Lama being incarnation of God “Chenresig” and being powerful all the gods and different beings of the universe came to supply him (the Dalai Lama) with amusement and also to pay their respect to the holy soul. After this dance came the “Trigar” (sword dance), which is also supposed to be gods who came to pay their respects and to supply amusements to the Dalai Lama.
Then came the holy debate by the “Geshes” (highly educated Lamas) in front of Dalai Lama’s throne. They discussed on “Tsultrim” meaning the 8 [lakh] and 4 thousand [804,000] rules of Buddhism, on “Soljyang” (practice of non-eating) and “Sothar” (way to heaven). When the debate was finished, one Geshe said prayers, both bowed down before the Dalai Lama’s throne, offered scarf to the throne and also to the Regent.
… a huge pile of sweets, fruits, cakes, breads, and dried yak and sheep [had been] kept in the centre of the hall and a wooden toy-house representing the heaven of wealth, was kept behind the collection [left]. Later several scores of men … at a time [were] allowed to rush in towards it to fight for the sweets. It is to signify that Tibet is so wealthy like the heaven of wealth. When people were scrambling for the sweets and meats trampling on each others’ heads, the four “Zingako” (door-keepers) of the Dalai Lama beat the people ruthlessly with sticks. It is said that they beat them in order to save [them] from being trampled to death. Later came once more the “Klu chen” dance and the whole New Year ceremony is finished. Then the “Dagam” (warm coat) of the Dalai Lama is taken down and rolled in a silk handkerchief and taken on the back of a lama. Then the lama band plays music and the Regent with the clothes of the Dalai Lama slowly emerged out of the hall for their private chambers.”
The expedition also saw secular and comic events as well, like theatrical and dance performances put on by the Nepalese delegate, “a kind of cabaret in which two actors in European suits behaved like Europeans, sitting on stools, crossing their legs and chain-smoking cigarettes. That’s how they viewed us here!”