Tibetan monks bring prayer to stage

A group of exiled Tibetan monks are touring concert halls to perform sacred rites. It's the only way to preserve their way of life before it disappears, they tell Tim Cumming
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Their performance begins with the deep, otherworldly boom of two 12ft-long horns, the dunchen, which sound like fog horns, only deeper. I'd heard them once before, at the Swayambhunath monastery in Kathmandu in the spring of 1991, accompanied by heavy shamanistic drumming and blasts of Moroccan-like pipes, high and shrill. The cacophony sounded very old, and as if it came from very far away.

As I sit at the foot of the stage of the Purcell Room, the call of the dunchen is almost physical in impact, invading the body as well as the ears. The two cross-legged players blow in long, extended breaths as a procession of monks from Tashi Lhunpo monastery in India takes to the stage wearing the conical, yellow-plumed hats that give the Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) order of Tibetan Buddhism its name.

Over the next 90 minutes, they fill the air with the chanting of Buddhist texts, the recitation of mantras, the ringing of bells and cymbals, the blowing of horns and the beating of drums. There are dances - the four lords of death appear, preceded by a "cutting", in which the monks imagine themselves cutting off parts of their own bodies to offer to the deities.

Death-figures dominate the dances. There are the lords of death, with their human-skull cups and skull masks, and a parade of the "lords of the cemetery". But there are rituals of purification in which water is poured on to a mirror, and rice scattered over the ground. The mesmerising Kunrik is a hand dance involving hundreds of gestures to evoke a retinue of deities. By legend, to witness these gods means that your next reincarnation will not be in the lower realms.

"What we do on stage is very similar to what we do in the monastery," says Kelkhang Rinpoche, a senior figure at Tashi Lhunpo. The prayers we see performed are the real thing, not a theatrical recreation. The difference is the scale of time. "The hand gestures usually take one day. We have 10 minutes."

What the audience has is a 90-minute window of time on to a magical universe of reincarnation and release. This is the sacred wing of world music, and it's not technique, or range, or a unique talent on fretboard or pipes, but sound for invocation, the purpose of music at its most basic.

"They're not doing something that has no meaning," confirms Jane Rasch of the monastery's UK Trust, who organises the tours the monks have undertaken since 2002. "The extracts from the rituals are not random. But it's important that you know it's a performance. It's like a performance of a Verdi Requiem rather than the actual service."

Tashi Lhunpo monastery was re-established in India in 1972 by monks who had followed the Dalai Lama into exile after the Chinese invasion of 1959. It is now home to 260. The original 15th-century monastery in Tibet still exists, but only a quarter of it survived the Cultural Revolution. In 1959, there were more than 6,000 monks studying there. Today, there are barely 600. The current head of the monastery, the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, was born in 1989 and arrested in the late 1990s by Chinese authorities. He remains under arrest to this day and his whereabouts are unknown.

"They come because they're in exile," explains Rasch of the reasons behind the monks' willingness to turn ritual into performance. "In Tibet, the monastery would be supported by local people, who would have family studying there. In exile, you don't have that infrastructure. One of the reasons we're doing this is to raise the money to improve facilities. The other reason is for people to understand what it involves. Unless people start worrying about it, it is going to disappear."

Rinpoche concurs. "During the Cultural Revolution, they damaged a lot of ancient prayer books," he says. "Many are still missing, and the older monks are dying. There are fewer monks today." This is because of a Chinese-imposed law forbidding people to become monks until they are 18. "And no one will join when they are 18. They must do other things. They should join between six and 10 years old." Rinpoche became a monk when he was six, but few can follow his example.

The monks have released CD recordings, but with fewer teachers left to pass on the texts, the future of this ancient order, and of Tibet, looks increasingly fragile. Either side, India and China are becoming economic superpowers, churning out consumables to the world, while between them an ancient culture dies, bringing an end to a living tradition codified in the 15th century, but with roots in the pre-Buddhist, shamanistic Bon religion that is more than 16,000 years old.

"The instruments we use go back to the Bon shamanistic tradition," confirms Rinpoche of the mighty dunchen and the smaller, eerie summons of the khangling, an oboe fashioned from a human leg bone, and used in the cutting dance. Like many of their dances, it is fused with themes of human impermanence and the vastness of time.

It is cruel irony, then, that as the monks of Tashi Lhunpo bring this tradition to the outside world in a bid to preserve their culture, it comes at a time when that culture is threatened with extinction by Chinese occupation and global eco-politics. The lords of death may have found that they too have joined the realm of impermanence.

'The Power of Prayer' is released by the Tashi Lhunpo monastery ( www.tashi-lhunpo.org.uk)