Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Assembly at Lion Mountain—The Mosuo Honor Goddess Ganmo

                                             by Jim Goodman

Lion Mountain towers over Lugu Lake
       Of all of Yunnan’s many lakes, the most beautiful is Lugu Lake, in northern Ninglang County.  Lying at an altitude of 2700 meters, shaped like a butterfly, its two wings divided by the long, thin Tubu Peninsula, covering an area of 52 square kilometers, its shoreline is home to several Mosuo and Pumi villages that have been here for centuries.  After Fuxianhu, it is the deepest lake in the province, at an average of 40 meters and a maximum of 90 meters.  The two major physical changes the area has experienced since its conquest by the Mongols in the 13th century have been the establishment of a Han immigrant village at Sanjiacun on the southern shore in the 19th century and the opening of a road in 1972 over the pass just below the summit of the mountain to Lugu’s south.
Lion Mountain viewed from Yongning
       This was done by blasting the previous way in over the mountain at Dog’s Passage Cave, so named because the tunnel through the cave at the pass was so small one had to crawl through it like a dog.  Now a road has replaced the cave and after crossing the pass, about three hours drive from Ninglang city, and continuing a little further past the obscuring forest, the traveler gets a first look at Lugu Lake.  Part of the eastern ‘wing’ of Lugu Lake lies within the boundaries of Sichuan province, but the larger, western ‘wing’, the Tubu Peninsula and four of the lake’s five small islands are under Yunnan’s jurisdiction. 
       That first magnificent glimpse of Lugu Lake includes its mountainous setting, with snow-capped peaks to the north, as well as of Lion Mountain, the steeply rising hill that stands another thousand meters above the northwest corner of the lake, behind Lige village.  The mountain gets its name from its resemblance to a reclining lion.  The head and chest face the lake from above Lige.  The rest of its body is visible from the plain past the lake on the way to Yongning, 18 km west.
Mosuo family monk
       Yongning district, which includes Lugu Lake, was the first part of Yunnan incorporated into the Mongol Empire.  Kubilai Khan’s forces crushed local resistance at a place called Snow Mountain Stone Gate above Yongning, then left some of his officers there to govern while he moved south against the Kingdom of Dali.  These men married women from the local Mosuo community and became the smallest of five Mosuo clans, but the one with authority over all the others, as well as everyone else in the district, down to the mid-20th century.  The ruling clan also retained the Mongol inheritance system, from father to son, differentiating it from the other clans, who were matrilineal.
Ganmo portrait at a Ninglang festival
       The Mosuo people are classified as a branch of the Naxi minority nationality, despite the fact the dialects of Yongning and Lijiang are mutually unintelligible, the Naxi are patrilineal and follow Mahayana Buddhism, laced with Tibetan and Taoist ideas, while the Mosuo have been Tibetan-style Buddhists since their 17th century conversion by a Gelukpa monk.  Traditionally, every family has its own monk, who performs rituals on their behalf in a separate room of the family compound.
       Though Tibetan Buddhism is the official religion, the most prominent deity in the Mosuo pantheon is their own Goddess Ganmo.  She oversees the livestock, crops and general prosperity of the people, especially the conjugal life and childbearing of the women.  Mosuo painters depict her as riding above the clouds astride a white stallion, her left hand gripping the reins, her right hand grasping a golden flute.  Sometimes she is shown riding a white deer, for this is how she returned to Heaven long ago after vanquishing a host of demons ravaging the earth.  The grateful Lord of Heaven bade her rest for three days, after which he would grant her whatever she requested.
Tubu Peninsula viewed from the cave
       Rather than rest, the goddess took off on a short tour of the earth, came to the valley where the lake is now sited and decided it was so lovely she would stay here forever.  As the Lord of Heaven had committed himself to meeting her demand, here Ganmo remained, metamorphosed into the mountain.  The clouds at the summit wreathe her hair.  The pine forests on the slopes make up her jacket, the low morning clouds her skirt and the verdant plain her mattress.  The lake became her mirror.  As the Supreme Goddess she attracted many suitors among the other local mountain gods and her favorite was Waru Bula, from Yanyuan County over the border in Sichuan.
worshiping Goddess Ganmo
He lived far away, though, so Ganmo also met with more accessible gods from the Yongning area.  She was entertaining one of these once when Waru Bula arrived for his scheduled date.  But Ganmo had forgotten about it and Waru Bula, discovering her occupied with his rival, stomped the earth in fury before he left forever, leaving big ditches in the land.  When Ganmo concluded her tryst and learned her favorite had come and gone, she cried copiously for days.  Her tears filled the depressions in the land left behind by Waru Bula’s anger and caused the formation of Lugu Lake.
Mosuo performing the Floating Offering
       As the Goddess incarnate, Lion Mountain has always been a protected area, so to speak, for the Mosuo traditionally banned hunting on the mountain.  Near the summit a cave exists, nowadays accessible by cable car from Niseh village on the northwest side of the lake.  Until that was installed the rare pilgrim or traveler who wished to go there had to ascend by a trail from Lige.  And it was not unusual to spot rabbits, pheasants, badgers, foxes, eagles and even bears along the way.
       The trail starts moderately steep, passes through a thick forest with twittering songbirds and mysterious rustling of leaves, crosses a wide stream of pebbles and ends at a wall of sheer perpendicular rock rising a hundred meters or so to the summit.  At the foot of this cliff, strings of prayer flags tied to trees announce the mouth of the cave.  It is said to contain Ganmo’s genitalia and one rock formation just inside the first cavern indeed bears resemblance to that part of the anatomy.
tsotah on the southern shore of Lugu Lake
       As the Divine Protector of the Mosuo people, Goddess Ganmo’s status survived the transition in Mosuo religion from shamanistic animism to Yellow Hat Buddhism.  Important Buddhist ceremonies begin with prayers to Ganmo.  White, breast-shaped mounds, called tsotah in Mosuo, dot the landscape around the lake, along the shore and high up on hills, and are shrines where people pay homage to Goddess Ganmo.
       The tsotah contains a niche where devotees place burning pine branches.  The white smoke curling up into the sky is pleasing to the sight of Ganmo.  Worshippers also burn incense sticks and toss an offering of barley flour and rice grains on the flames, and then kowtow in front of the mound.
riding ponies to the festival
       Occasionally the Mosuo honor Ganmo by organizing a Parade Around the Sea, an all-day hike around the lake.  The procession halts at every tsotah, where participants burn incense and offer grains, kowtow and press onto the next, chatting and joking as they walk.  Lamas in the entourage chant scriptural passages along the route.  The Parade Around the Sea is not a fixed festival with an annual observance.  Those who feel the urge can undertake it on any 5th, 15th or 25th days of any lunar month in the year.
       On any of these same lunar dates the Mosuo may also engage in another type of devotional act, called the Floating Offering.  Devotees place a bundle of pine branches at the rear end of one or more of their boats, set the bundle on fire and row the boat out onto the lake.  The smoke from the burning branches wafts into the air like that from the smoldering incense sticks at the mounds, visible, and pleasing, to the goddess before it dissipates.
Zhamei Monastery, Yongning
       The Mosuo celebrate several festivals during the year and at all of them they make offerings to Goddess Ganmo and seek her blessings.  One festival in particular, though, is dedicated entirely to honoring Ganmo.  This is Zhuanshanjie (Rounding the Mountain Festival), staged the 25th day of the 7th lunar month, the greatest collective social event of the year.  It brings together Mosuo from Lugu Lake and the villages of the Yongning basin, as well as their neighbors from several ethnic Pumi villages in the district.  Unlike the larger Pumi community in Lanping County, the Pumi of Yongning follow the customs of the matrilineal Mosuo—inheritance from mother to daughter, the ’walking marriage’ custom, etc.—and also venerate Ganmo.
       Despite the festival’s title, participants don’t actually go around the mountain.  The venue is a site on Lion Mountain’s slope corresponding to what would be the fold in the crouching lion’s right rear leg.  It’s quite a walk from Lugu Lake, but mostly over level ground.  Lugu villagers eat a hearty early morning breakfast and then start.  Those from villages on the northwest side walk, carrying food with them for a picnic later, while others from settlements further on ride ponies.  
monks on alpine horns at Zhuanshanjie
       Just past the northwest corner of the lake is a hill with a tsotah mound where festival-goers stop to burn pine branches for Ganmo and hang prayer flags on the trees.  From here they follow the road through the hamlet north of the marsh and beyond it across fields carpeted with yellow, white or magenta flowers.  At the next pass they stop and pray at another mound, then continue along the shore of another pond.  From a little beyond this pond the trail descends sharply to the hamlet below the festival site. 
       Upon their arrival the grounds will already be full of Mosuo and Pumi from the Yongning basin and monks from Zhamei Monastery at the northern end of Yongning town.  Sometime after the Mosuo conversion, a visiting lama from Tibet came to the site, liked its location, and inquired of its name.  A local Mosuo answered with the Mosuo word Jramigo, which in the Tibetan monk’s dialect meant ‘no need of an enemy”  This sounded like an auspicious place to build a monastery and for centuries it served as the training  ground for young Mosuo men sent to become qualified to be the family monk.
ritual at Ganmo's festival shrine
       Marauders burnt down the original during the Muslim Revolt in the mid-19th century.  It was rebuilt and in 1924 a wall was erected to protect it against Tibetan bandit gangs.  In the 1960s it suffered from a new marauder—bands of Red Guards.  Finally, in the mid-90s the entire main temple was rebuilt and restored, employing artisans from Sichuan.  Not a large number of monks reside here, whether permanently or just for the duration of their studies.  Nor does it receive many visitors.  Devout though they may be the Mosuo do not feel much compulsion to express such devotion before the images of Zhamei Monastery.
       For Zhuanshanjie, though, the Zhanei monks are honored guests.  The younger ones walk there, while the older ones ride ponies.  They set up a tent on the grounds below the slope to conduct rituals, reciting scriptural passages to the accompaniment of gongs, flageolets and monks outside blowing on long alpine horns.  Festival participants when they arrive stop in this area to kowtow several times to pay their respects.
       They don’t linger long, but next head for the Tibetan-style chorten high up on the slope.  Prayer banners of all colors hang from its walls.  At mounds just below it devotees burn pine branches and kowtow, then leave some pennants at the mound and attach others to the chorten’s walls.  With these acts their devotional duties for the day are completed.
tying prayer flags at Ganmo's shrine
       Having come so far, though, nobody is ready to leave just yet.  They now have a leisurely picnic on the slopes, consisting of pork or chicken and rice, graced with local specialties like small fish, slices of three-year-old ham, apples that have just ripened in time and beer brewed from barley.  For those who didn’t bring their food, plenty of drink and snack stalls line the lower part of the grounds.
       Unless there is a government-sponsored program of special events, like horse races or dances, the scene starts breaking up by mid-afternoon.  But given that everybody’s mood has been elevated by the event, it’s likely that Mosuo will break out into songs on the long hike home.  Exhausted as they might be by the length of the trek to and from the festival grounds, the youth still manage to summon the energy for a boisterous evening ring dance around a bonfire in one of the village compounds.  After all, it’s festival time.  We honored our goddess.  Ganmo is pleased.  The year will go well.

Ganmo's shrine at the festival grounds
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                         for more on Mosuo culture, see my e-book Living in Shangrila


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