THE BROADER PICTURE FIELD OF THE CLOTH OF GOLD

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The Independent Culture
FOR MOST of the year, the Khampa people are scattered over a vast area of eastern Tibet, living in yurts (tents) and keeping on the move to find fresh grazing for their sheep and yaks. But for one week every summer, the plain of Yitang is transformed into a colourful city of tents and spectacular clothing as the Khampa get together for their summer festival. The barley beer flows freely, deals are struck, goods bartered and friendships renewed. But, best of all, everyone can get dressed up to the nines - and perhaps meet someone special.

There are, for instance, the young blades, their silk tunics trimmed with snow leopard or tiger fur; with ornaments of coral and gold dangling from their left ears and swords at their belts, they cut a dash as they take part in equestrian competitions. As well as giving the young men a chance to show off, these displays are meant to amuse the gods and ensure good weather at harvest time.

And there are the Khampa women, taking full advantage of such a rare opportunity to see and be seen. They parade in their holiday finery: heavy brocade dresses trimmed with sable. Colours are bright and primary - blue symbolises air, red is for fire, and green for water. They also wear traditional jewellery heavy with silver and amber, and the poden head-dress - one or more waist-length strips of black fabric, decorated with amber or large silver studs. Other silver or gold studs are attached to fine silk belts adorned with silver chains, long rows of coral beads and engraved silver medallions.

Much of this display is put on for the mating game. Some of the most colourful young girls collect around a huge tent, their hair in tiny braids, their head-dresses decorated with large pieces of amber surmounted by coral - which symbolises light, and shows that a young girl is of marriageable age. Inside the tent are the lamas, ready to be consulted on auspicious dates for prospective weddings.

This is the culmination of a long process; if a couple have reached an understanding, there will have been a meeting between the families of the betrothed to settle the matrimonial terms. The father of the groom will be expected to contribute a number of head of yak, while the bride brings with her a dowry of amber, coral and turquoise.

Traditionally, a bride's hair is tied into 108 braids for her wedding day. The most important marriage rite takes place when she is presented with a bowl of yogurt; she tosses a few drops skywards as an offering to Buddha. The young couple will then join either the groom's or the bride's family for the next long wander across the plains. For those who have yet to find a partner, there will be a long, dull wait for the next festival - if, indeed, it is to continue in its traditional form; according to Tiziana Baldizzone, the ancient way of life is on the wane.

"We visited two festivals," explains Tiz-iana, who spent months with her co-author and partner Gianni among the Khampa, photographing and interviewing them. "Things are changing very fast - even from one year to another it was possible to see the difference, and outside the festival season the Tibetans are starting to live in a style that's more and more Western, with televisions, radios and the like. And because they're very poor, they're selling off their jewellery to American and European jewellers."

The Baldizzones followed a route first taken by Alexandra David-Neel, a French-woman who was one of the great female travellers of the 20th century. Born in an era when women were supposed to stay at home and get married, she took off for Tibet, which she called the "Land of the Gentleman Brigands", in 1911, and spent 13 years there, studying ethnography, philosophy and religion. Her photographs are published alongside those of the Baldizzones in Thames and Hudson's recently-published book, Tibet: On the Paths of the Gentlemen Brigands.

Mme David-Neel might not recognise Tibet today, but Tiziana Baldizzone still relished her time with the Khampa. "We stayed with the nomads and got to know them before we took their photographs. They are a bit shy and proud, but once you know them, they are friendly, marvellous people." And not that shy, when it comes to dressing up and finding a partner. !

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