by Nancy Jo Johnson 12 Slides

The unfurling of the great Shakyamuni tangka, which takes place every summer at Drepung Monastery, started at the time of the 7th Dalai Lama as a spectacle for lay people and for the monastic community. This tradition is one that continues today and remains a highly anticipated annual event for the Tibetan and Chinese population of Lhasa and surrounding areas.

Lhasa, August 1999. Lost behind my camera today - no rain - a cloudy morning until the sun appeared with a noted brilliance in the afternoon. We drove in traffic to Drepung Monastery on the North side of Lhasa through a stream of cars and SUV's, buses and throngs of people. The masses overflowed the streets with pilgrims of Tibetan, Chinese and foreign descent; the vehicles were an intrusion on their path. The Shakyamuni tangka had already been unveiled when we arrived. People of all ages and shapes laboriously climbed the boulders up the steep hillside to congregate and do kora (circumambulation) around the tangka. They filled every nook and cranny to make it to the base of the giant, appliqued tangka, which glistened with the reflected color of reds, blues and greens, but mostly gold. The Chinese tourists seemed to outnumber the rest of us, with kataks (white scarves) and paper mantras (windhorses), all around. The small stacks of bundled squares were released into the air, fluttering and dropping on Shakyamuni as offerings. With all heads bowed and prayers in a constant murmur, the devotion was profound and often accompanied by tears trickling down cheeks. Numerous lamas and police kept the crowd moving and in check. Everyone attempted to pause and photograph each other. Occasional cell phones interrupted the whispered prayers.

I moved slowly through the crowds to the topside of the tangka, where the monks were passing a conch shell back and forth, each giving his best effort at sounding the instrument out over the crowd. The echo seemed to float down over the tangka. I had to push and shove through channeled barricades which formed the entrance to the steps which led up to the top of the bleacher-like structure that supported the tangka. Occasionally, you couldn't move. The people often appeared panicked and claustrophobic. Kids were lifted above the crowds so they wouldn't get crushed. I eventually crawled down,making a full circumambulation around the Buddha image and finally came to rest joining a Tibetan family picnic. A father and son team offered me delicious chang (the home-brewed local beer), and the sun-bathed tangka gleamed in glory. There was merrymaking everywhere. There was now a joyous feeling; the Chinese too were celebrating, observing, praying.

By afternoon, preparations for the veiling of the tangka were underway amidst a mesmerized crowd. The hour-long process began from the top. Inch by inch, the Shakyamuni figure was shadowed beneath a fluttering golden drop cloth. The bottom section, including the eyes and face, remained exposed until the very end.Suddenly, it was gone. The procession moved like a giant snake guided by at least 50 monks and laypersons slowly down and off the mountain, through the courtyard of the gompa (monastery) and into the cavernous main hall, where the tangka is stored in a long box closed by paned doors which appear as a row of cabinets, hiding the treasure inside.The tangka was not to be touched for another full year. Following the tangka storage, the monks made their exit with a roll call system, and by late afternoon I left on the local bus with the masses. A rare and very fortunate first-hand witness.

Essay and photographs copyright © Nancy Jo Johnson
Copyright © 2003 Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation