Every year for several days during spring, within Zhangjia Village in the Huangnan (Malhu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai Province, China, the Laru festival is held with great delight. At this time, the people will put on traditional clothes and celebrate their wonderful Tibetan heritage.
Zhangjia Village is located between two mountains near the Gecha River, roughly about eight kilometres from Rongwu in Huangnan. At the time the data was colldcted, the village composed of 133 families and 756 people, the majority of these Tibetan.
The festival of Laru is held on the 17th day of the 6th month in the Hortsi calendar. It is named the Laru Festival as 17th, 18th and 19th of the sixth month are known as the Laru period. This period is the most prosperous time as the barley and fruit having come into ripeness. The villagers offer these items to the gods in return for a bountiful harvest in the future and for them and the livestock to avoid sickness. The villagers will ask the water gods to send rain and sunshine to allow their crops to grow.
The festival usually lasts for three days, but the gods may ask for additional time. This is usually done through the village ‘lhawa’ (the ‘god-man’).
The Laru festival begins when the 108 volumes of the Kanjur scriptures and 218 volumes of the Tanjur scriptures are carried individually around the village. This is a ceremony known as Chikur. It is believed that this will shield crops from insects and floods, to guarantee a plentiful harvest, and to avert disease from afflicting people and the livestock. The lhawa will also walk with the villagers and Chikur will also be performed throughout the year if enough of the children fall ill.
The next day, around 10am, people will gather at the ndekheng (the village shrine in a building). Women are not invited to participate but may stay on the right side of the door or stand on the roof tops of buildings. Men who do not participate themselves stay on the left side.
The men participating in the festival wear traditional handmade Tibetan boots and carry a rectangular hand drums of goatskin stretched over a light metal frame. Up to 100 boys and men will form a circle in the ndekheng courtyard. In the large conical oven, known as the ndekheng sangkong, barley flour and conifer branches are burned. The smoke that rises up is believed to provide food for the gods as well as purifying the area.
Inside the building, the lhawa stands before the images of three mountain gods and enters a trance. At this time, a sawhorse is placed in front of the the lhawa. Ceremony leaders will begin to pound a beat on drums and the men will shout “Trazil” or “Moggul,” which rises sharply just before ending. The lhawa sits upon the sawhorse, held up by two men and begins chanting.
“As the shouts and drumbeats continue, he begins to vibrate. First his legs move up and down, bouncing on the balls of the feet, and then his shoulders shake. Finally, unable to remain seated, he jumps up and dances. Meanwhile a man – selected for his piety and ardor in reciting sutras – waves a bottle of liquor, then slowly pours the contents on the ground as an offering to the mountain gods. Once the lhawa is completely in trance the gods may speak through him”.
The lhawa is handed a drum and then enters the circle dancing. Once he has finished, he will collapse and be laid down to rest by two men. After the men dance, they will be led out of the courtyard in order of age. The ilhawa leads the procession, where he visits each house.
Before he visits, the household will prepare an offering of flour and conifer needles, milk tea, a bowl of alcohol and some barley seeds. “The lhawa enters the courtyard, dances, shakes his head, and sputters. He is then handed the bowl of tea, the contents of which he throws about on the ground. Next he is given the bowl of liquor, with which he does the same. Finally he is proffered the saucer of grain; he takes some in his right hand and blows on it, symbolizing that the god possessing him has purified the home and driven away all evil. Then he tosses some about and places what remains back in the saucer. Meanwhile a member of the family ties a khadag (a strip of cloth) to the lhawa as a sign of respect. The ceremony is now complete and the lhawa’s entourage leaves, the lhawa departing last. This process is repeated at each home in the village, and continues until late at night”.
The next day, the festival focuses on a mountain shrine located west of the village. The altar is about one meter high, two meters wide, and two meters deep. A wooden frame in the centre holds tall poles that have been fashioned to resemble spears and arrows. Men, very early, would place these here with an offering of branches, zamba, wheat, and liquor and then set alight.
During the ritual, the men would grasp their poles and the lhawa begins chanting. The men then sit and drink blessed liquor before returning to the village.
In the past, other villages in the area would often sacrifice a goat and offer its heart to the gods. However, this practice died out during the 1980s and the Zhangjia Village has never practiced this ritual. During the Cultural Revolution, the Laru festival witnessed a sharp decline in the villagers participation but with the arrival of a new lhawa in recent years and the celebration and promotion of their Tibetan heritage, the festival is becoming more popular once more.
The Laru festival gives us an insight into the social life of Zhangjia Village. The lhawa has promoted their native beliefs and the Laru festival, both of which can be said to be central to their deep pride in their Tibetan heritage.
Stuart, Kevin & Banmadorji, Huangchojia (1995) Mountain Gods and Trance Mediums: A Qinghai Tibetan Summer Festival, Asian, Folklore Studies, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.