Artistic Style in Rebkong

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September 30th 2005
Published: November 4th 2005
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Around every bend, there is another lhakhang, literally "house of the divine." Each has a single central image of a buddha, bodhisttva or tantric deity with a corridor around it for circumambulation and hundreds of smaller identical images lining the walls. On the exterior are murals in the exquisite Rebkong painting style.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

My friend from Lhasa and I visit almost a dozen such lhakhang as we wend our way through the maze of trails through Rongpo Gompa, the largest monastery in Rebkong and only a short stroll up the road from the dusty little town of Rongpo. The monastery is sizeable, and it takes us most of the afternoon to visit most of its monastic colleges, assembly halls, and lhakhangs.

I take a long look at one mural in particular, depicting the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Tibetan: Chenrezi) in his palatial abode filled with music and other sensuous delights. A bodhisattva is a being (cosmic or human) who forgoes enlightenment until saving all others from the cycle of suffering, called samsara in Sanskrit. Circling underneath Avalokitesvara, across a raging river, people are engaged in religious practice of all sorts: meditators in caves, monks performing rituals, and laity making offerings. Rainbows twirling upward connected the two shores, serving as a passage from the mundane world into Avalokitesvara's celestial abode. A complex soteriology rendered with intricate detail and a vibrant palette.

The Book of Fortunes

One of the first lhakhang we visit, dedicated to the wrathful, horse-headed deity Hayagriva has a book of fortunes (mo dpe). It works like this: you pick out a stick from a bucket, read the number on the stick, and find the corresponding page in the book of fortunes. I pick 19 and my fortune reads:

Number 19: Very Auspicious. Although due to karma and conditions, you may experience despair, say a prayer and it is certain that you will be protected instantly. Worldly activities are accomplished through karma and conditions. If performed with ingenuity, there will be enormous success! Rely on those with whom you have karmic connections, and you will not be led astray. If you examine human behavior, everything will be clear. In due time, it will be appropriate to accomplish your aims. Generate perseverance.

Sounds like a challenging but fruitful year ahead!

North of town are the famous art schools, Sengeshong Yagotsang and Sengeshong Magotsang. We reach there by late afternoon and have the opportunity to visit several art studios. How disappointing that the thangkas on sale did not live up to the reputation of Rebkong's distinctive style! The paintings in progress seem to be of much higher quality, leading us to surmise that they likely send their best works to high-end markets in Beijing and Lhasa.

Hot Spring Serenade

On a lark, that evening, SV and I decide to track down a hot spring mentioned in my guidebook. After thirty minutes of climbing in the rain, our reluctant but earnest taxi driver finds the dirt road leading up to it. We enter a sacred cave, candlelit and filled with medicinal water. It is packed with Tibetan women from a nearby campground, having an evening soak. The heat, moisture and company in the cave are incredibly soothing.

To our delight, the women serenade us with Tibetan folk songs. Peels of laughter erupt when one particularly bold woman stood up and—bare-chested—mimicked a dance to accompany the popular song, "Our Merit Increases" (Bsod nams yar 'gro lags). On departing, we are treated to a parody of the traditional departing gesture: presenting a white silk scarf, or khata. Using her towel as a khata, the same bold woman sings and dances to bid us farewell. An unforgettable ending to an already eventful day.

Travelers to Rebkong:

Few tourists make it to Rebkong (Ch: Tongren), but it's a gem. Only five hours by bus from Xining (35 RMB), the town of Rongpo has many small guesthouses, some cleaner than others, but all cheap. The monastery is minutes from town on foot, and the art schools only a 10 RMB taxi ride away. The hot spring is well worth the trip as long as you are prepared to share the pool with a crowd of Tibetans.


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