Repkong rituals of offering to worldly deities
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.
- Some authors, e.g. Buffetrille, prefer the spelling [glu-rol].
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.