Repkong rituals of offering to worldly deities

Luröl, Sakyi village, 2003 (click to enlarge)

The Repkong county, in eastern Amdo (north-east Tibet / Qinghai province), is well known for its cults of place gods, known as luröl (Amdo: ləru [klu-rol]1) — among other aspects (see for instance here, here and here). Indeed, for some scholars in Tibetan studies, the name of Repkong may have first been put on the map by studies focusing on these quite remarkable village rituals.2 These rituals, although not devoid of continuities with other Tibetan cults of place gods (a term understood here to range from mountain gods of regional stature to more local earth or water spirits), are nevertheless strikingly different in several ways: they include processions of representations of the gods carried in palanquins from house to house; the rituals’ “masters of ceremonies”, so the speak, are spirit-mediums, who go in and out of possession for several days at length; the place gods are pleased by the offering, in particular, of collective dance performances called here “games” (tsemo [rtsed-mo]); and male villagers participating in the ritual (or the mediums themselves) may slash their foreheads or for instance pierce their cheeks with skewers as blood offerings to some of these deities.

The exoticness of the phenomenon, as probably perceived initially by many a Tibetologist, is to be understood in the context of the particular location of Repkong, which is situated on the complex multi-ethnic northeastern border of the Tibetan cultural world. Thus the Monguor (or Mangghuer) living in the Minhe area to the northeast of Repkong practice communal rituals called Nadun, that show substantial commonalities (palanquin processions, presence of a medium embodying the deity, and piercing his cheeks with skewers, collective dance offerings, with nadu meaning “play” or “dance”3) but also important distinctions with the Repkong luröl. More generally, carrying gods’ palanquins in processions in village communal rituals, while conspicuously absent — as far as I can tell — from the Tibetan ethnographic record (beyond the Repkong / northeast Amdo case), is a common feature of Chinese popular religion. Some of the gods worshipped in the luröl rituals are unmistakeably of Chinese origin.4 All of this however is inscribed in a ritual, cosmological and social setting that in many ways remains distinctively Tibetan: the overarching ritual theme is the cult of the mountain gods; these gods’ primary identifications, in local perceptions, are the common Tibetan ones, namely yül-lha [yul-lha] (god of the village or local territory) or shipdak [gzhi-bdag] (owner of the ground / master of the locality), etc.

A recent, very substantial and most welcome addition to the scholarship on the Repkong luröl is the 2009 book-length study by Khartsegyal, ‘Jig-rten mchod-bstod: mDo-smad Reb-gong-gyi drug-pa’i lha-zla chen-mo’i mchod-pa dang ‘brel-ba’i dmangs-srol rig-gnas lo-rgyus skor-gyi zhib-‘jug (“Offerings and praises to the worldly [gods and spirits]: Research into the offering rituals of the great divine sixth month of Amdo Repkong and related popular traditions, culture and history”).5 Khartsegyal, a local official and an erudite specialist of the question, is a native of Sakyi village, the site of one of the major luröl of Repkong. He brings to this study his intimate knowledge of the phenomenon, strong sympathetic curiosity for the domain commonly designated as the “popular traditions” (mangsöl [dmangs-srol]), and the fruits of a decade of passionate research (carried out alongside his official duties). The book brings a particular wealth of detail in the account of the pantheon and the relevant mythology; it also provides an overview of each of the different luröl rituals within Repkong, as well as (tantalizingly brief) glimpses for instance into the complex dynamics surrounding the emergence of new mediums and the development of their ability to give voice to the “god’s speech” (lhake [lha-skad]). This work has received distinctions in China, and Khartsegyal’s talks on this topic on the Qinghai public television have received an enthusiastic reception. I am attaching (here) a copy of the table of contents.

  1. Some authors, e.g. Buffetrille, prefer the spelling [glu-rol]. []
  2. Important works regarding major religious figures or intellectuals from Repkong predated however the burgeoning in the 1990s of Western academic interest in the luröl; see for instance Heather Stoddard’s noted biography of Gedün Chöpel: Stoddard, H., 1985, Le mendiant de l’Amdo, Société d’ethnographie, Paris. []
  3. Roche G., 2011, Nadun: Ritual and the Dynamics of Cultural Diversity in Northwest China’s Hehuang Region. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of International Business and Asian Studies, Griffith University. []
  4. See for instance Buffetrille, K. 2002, Qui est Khri ka’i yul lha ? Dieu tibétain du terroir, dieu chinois de la littérature ou de la guerre ? Un problème d’identité divine en A mdo, in Territory and Identity in Tibet and the Himalayas, K. Buffetrille & H. Diemberger (eds.), Brill, Leiden, pp. 135-58. []
  5. Reb-gong-pa mKhar-rtse-rgyal, 2009, ‘Jig-rten mchod-bstod: mDo-smad Reb-gong-gyi drug-pa’i lha-zla chen-mo’i mchod-pa dang ‘brel-ba’i dmangs-srol rig-gnas lo-rgyus skor-gyi zhib-‘jug, Krung-go’i bod-rig-pa dpe-skrun-khang, Pe-cing. []

Nicolas Sihlé

Nicolas Sihlé, a sociocultural anthropologist, is researcher at the Center for Himalayan Studies, a research unit of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) based in Villejuif (France). He specializes on Tibetan religion and society, and is the author of Rituels bouddhiques de pouvoir et de violence : La figure du tantriste tibétain [Buddhist rituals of power and violence : The figure of the Tibetan tantrist] (Brepols, 2013). His current work focuses on post-Mao socioreligious transitions in and around the famous communities of non-monastic specialists of tantric Buddhism in northeast Tibet (Amdo), and more generally on the comparative anthropology of Buddhism.

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5 Responses

  1. Gerald Roche says:

    Literature on north China temple festivals is of relevance to the study of festivals such as Klu rol. For example:

    Chau, Adam Yuet. Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (2006).
    Johnson, David. Spectacle and Sacrifice: The Ritual Foundations of Village Life in North China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center. (2009).
    Overmeyer, Daniel. Local Religion in North China in the Twentieth Century: The Structure and Organization of Community Rituals and Beliefs. Leiden: Brill. (2009).

    It is also worth noting that in addition to Klu rol and Nadun, other similar rituals in the region constitute a ritual ‘meta-complex’ – the various lha rtsed festivals held in, for example, Gcan tsha and Khri ka counties, as well as the Bog festival held in Mongghul communities in Huzhu Mongghul Autonomous County.

    I think it is interesting to contemplate how these convergences have been brought about. Migration certainly plays a part. For example, families from Thog skya (in Reb gong) are known to have migrated to Sanchuan (in Minhe), settled, and now perform Nadun, whereas their ancestors performed Klu rol. Exchange through such institutions as Tibetan Buddhist monasteries also occurred. In pre-1949 Sanchuan, many Nadun masks were made with the assistance of monks from Rong bo Monastery, most likely negotiated via Sku ‘bum. Neither of these mechanisms (migration or exchange) is sufficient, however, to explain the many similarities among these rituals, practiced over a wide area, by people professing differing identities and speaking different languages. I think such convergences can only be explained by evoking many factors – migration, institutional exchange, small-scale trade, pilgrimage, ‘ludic’ travel (for example to love song fairs), as well as the impact of Qing ethnic policies and those of local ‘native chieftains’ – all operating together to produce a constant circulation of people and ideas in the region.

    What then remains is to question why the ideas and people circulated only so far and therefore why, for example, we find no similar festivals in Bla brang, Co ne, Rnga ba, Mdzod dge, and so on.

  2. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Thanks, Gerald, for the suggestions of relevant literature and for your suggestive comments on this regional ritual complex. Questions of absences of certain sociocultural traits or institutions probably remain extremely difficult, wouldn’t you think? One can easily imagine that even a sustained comparative examination of local patterns, pre- and post-1950s policies (and histories, to the extent that they can be documented) in matters of local deity cults and of spirit mediumship in, say, Repkong and the neighboring Labrang, complemented by a study of contacts between the two regions, might still not be able to provide a clear answer to the question of the reasons for the absence of an institution comparable to the Repkong Luröl in Labrang. Rather than focusing on absences per se, maybe a regional, historicized approach (here again, provided the data is available) comparing changes in, and interactions between, ritual complexes, patterns or forms could be a productive way to go. In this respect, your Ph.D. work on the Nadun provides, it would seem, a very stimulating basis for discussion. In passing, I wonder however to what extent your claims regarding the centrality of ideologies in these processes can be generalized…? (I am thinking for instance about the debates around Watson’s work on Chinese religion, that you mention yourself, regarding the possible relative autonomy of practices with regard to representations and ideologies, if I may formulate the question in this way.) But this is a complex issue, that would need a careful reading or exposition of materials like those of your dissertation in order to be discussed appropriately… something for a later occasion maybe? And in the meanwhile, some measure of comparative data from Labrang would be most welcome – I am not aware of any substantial study of these themes in that location; is anyone else?

  3. Gerald Roche says:

    I think the study of absences, though certainly problematic, especially given the patchiness our understanding of the region, can provide an important opportunity to map social boundaries. We can consider, for example, the highly competitive, sometimes violent, relationship between Labrang and Rong bo. This almost certainly played a role, much more so than geographical distance, in resulting cultural patterns. I therefore think that historical studies of local polities and personages are key to understanding these contemporary patterns. As for your comments about the role of ideologies and the generalizability of this idea… I’m still working on this, increasingly trying add an historical dimension to the ethnographic data that I have. I do think, however, that a focused study of the Klu rol, surveying all the villages where the ritual is held, along the lines of what I did with Nadun, would be extremely enlightening.

  4. Aurélie Névot says:

    Dear Nicolas, thank you for this interesting paper. I would like to react on one topic in particular, questioning the role of Khartsegyal, “a local official and an erudite specialist of the question”. Does he work for the local chinese “religious affair bureau”, and, if so, could we consider his book as a scholar contribution which should also be analysed for itself – as a data to be “anthropologized” ? Is Khartsegyal free to express his own vision of the cult ? As we know, the aim of the Chinese governement is to control local religions and to do so, to transform them. State intellectuals may be part of the process.

  5. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Many thanks for the comment, dear Aurélie. Khartsegyal has conducted his research on his free time, over a period of several years, outside of his professional obligations. In that sense, this book is not the product of a typical state intellectual; but of course it remains marked in some ways by the larger, Chinese intellectual environment (and in that sense, you are quite right). Thus the conclusion is, somewhat typically, devoted to discussing the “virtues” and “faults” of these ritual institutions. On the other hand, his increasing experience and reputation as a scholarly commentator on “popular traditions” in Repkong have probably also fed in interesting ways into his work and the initiatives he was taking there (in recent years at the cultural affairs bureau).

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