As it is, the Saga Dawa festival is the major annual festival in Tibetan Buddhism, but this year, it holds even greater significance. This is because 2014 is the Year of the Horse in the Chinese zodiac, which comes, like all the 12 zodiac signs (each related to an animal sign) once every 12 years, and in the Year of the Horse, it is even more auspicious to visit Mount Kailash to celebrate Saga Dawa. So, this year, expect to find quite a crowd at Mount Kailash to celebrate this most important of Tibetan festivals.
Saga Dawa, which celebrates the Sakyamuni’s conception, enlightenment, and passage to nirvana, is held every year on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month (April/May) of the Tibetan calendar. Mount Kailash, a huge mass of black rock soaring up to 6714 meters in far western Tibet, is the main site for this festival, while, in Lhasa, a walk around the Linghkor pilgrim circuit (3-4 km) is the order of the day.
The initial part of the Linghkor pilgrim circuit takes you to the base of the Changpo Ri (3476 m, ‘Iron Mountain’) and you’ll be seeing some rock paintings, clay icons (tsa-tsa); stone mantras, and shrines on the way. And, yes, some carved yak skulls as well. Prayer flags flutter aplenty at the crest, and as you walk down, you’ll come across stone carvers busy thwacking away at slate sheets. Here, you take a right turn around a large chorten, and a short distance ahead, you’ll see some pretty good rock carvings near a massive icon of Tsepame. Many of the carvings are really old, since it’s a tradition dating back to the 7th century. You’ll find plenty of pilgrims prostrating themselves before the images, and numerous butter lamps being lit during the Saga Dawa festival.
West of this site, you reach Deji Lu, and shortly afterwards, come out into modern Lhasa, as signified by the Beizing Zhonglu (the second crossroads). One thing you’ll not fail to have noticed while walking along the two kilometer length of Deji Lu; that is, the presence of thousands of beggars along the way, and the pilgrims handing out alms in a most generous manner to them. Charitable deeds are called for during the Saga Dawa festival, and not only do the beggars benefit substantially, but pretty big donations are also made by the rich to religious orders and monasteries during this most charitable of Tibetan festivals. It’s said that whatever is given during the Saga Dawa will be given back to the giver 300-fold. Another charitable deed during this most generous of Tibetan festivals is the freeing of captive animals.
Reflecting on all this, and no doubt feeling good about humanity in general, you walk on, and soon enough, get to visit Kunde Ling, a former royal temple, one of four such temples built by the fifth Dalai Lama. Then you get to watch devotees rubbing their shoulders, backs, and hips against some polished holy stones at the intersection; believed to cure a lot of ailments. Having watched this interesting sight, and perhaps done some rubbing yourself, you walk on westwards and come to the Gesar Ling (AD 1793), the only temple styled along Chinese architectural lines. Further ahead is the Golden Yak statue that was built to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the ‘liberation’ of Tibet. Indeed, the Saga Dawa festival, of which the circuit is a part, gives you an excellent opportunity to see some interesting historic sites.
You then pass the Tibet TV station and arrive at the Daggo Kani (the western city gate at the corner of the Potala Palace). The interesting thing about this gate is that it was through this that British soldiers first entered the city during the invasion in 1903-1904. From here, you climb uphill to the viewpoint located above a white chorten. Click away, you can be sure to get lovely photos of Lhasa from up here. Having captured enough to post on FB, or whatever, you walk down, passing the Drubthub Nunnery, and reach Palha Lu-pak, a cave with ancient rock carvings, including more than 70 of bodhisattvas, believed to be the oldest iconic images in Tibet. This marks the end of the circuit, and a grand one it surely is, especially during the Saga Dawa festival.
Now, for those with a more adventurous streak, let’s see what’s happening in Mount Kailash during Saga Dawa. This sacred peak, known as Kang Rimpoche (Precious One of Glacial Snow) by Tibetan Buddhists, is believed to be the residence of Demchok (the wrathful manifestation of Sakyamuni Buddha) and his consort Dorje Phagmo. By going there, you’ll be doing the most sacred pilgrimage path in Tibet, and on the way, you’ll be crossing over the Drolma-la pass that’s at an impressive height of 5600 meters. The Tarboche camping area at the base of Kailash is where the Saga Dawa festival is celebrated. The highlight of the day is the raising of a tall prayer flagpole in the morning.
Before it’s raised, pilgrims attach their own prayer flags brought from home to the pole while circumambulating it many times, chanting prayers and throwing ‘windhorses’ (tiny paper pieces with prayers written on them) into the air. The whole event is one demanding team work, and the pilgrims help in removing last year’s flags and attaching the new ones to the pole. There’s music around, too; the clash of cymbals being the most prominent. There’s sure to be plenty of spectators, too, haunched down on the hillsides around; and of course, a lot of stalls around as well, adding to the carnival air. Yes, that’s what the Saga Dawa festival is at Mount Kailash, a real carnival.
The erection of the pole, supervised by a lama, is not an easy affair, requiring the efforts of many pilgrims, and taking a lot of time as well. The lama has to make sure that the pole is erected in the perfect upright position; otherwise it’s not an auspicious sign of things to come. After the efforts of the pilgrims and the lama have reached a certain point, assistance is taken of a couple of trucks to hoist the pole using a steel cable. The pilgrims hold on to ropes on the other side to balance the hoisting, as the trucks go in reverse, pulling the steel cable attached to the pole. Finally, the pole is perfectly upright, and numerous ‘windhorses’ fly into the sky. It’s a moment of great joy for everybody, and they again go round and round the pole many times, chanting prayers, and feeling pretty euphoric, all that adrenaline rush involved in pulling on the ropes! This, then, is the Saga Dawa festival in Mount Kailash. An event that lifts the spirit and brings satisfaction to the soul—no wonder the Saga Dawa festival is one of the most eagerly anticipated Tibetan festivals.