Friday, February 09, 2007

Brotherhood of the Jokhang Prostration Kora

While I was hanging out with Kirk, John, Alex and Rachel in a bar in Lhasa one of us suggested doing a prostration kora. It was an insane idea, but except for Kirk we were all instantly set on it. Kirk wasn’t as excited as the rest of us, but he tentatively agreed to do it.
Usually Tibetans walk koras around holy sites like temples, mountains and lakes, but those who are especially devout will prostrate their way around. Facing the direction they want to go, they hold their hands together and then touch them to their forehead, neck and then heart. They then kneel, and then lie down on the ground with their feet touching where they were standing and their arms stretched out in front of them. While lying down they tap their forehead against the ground and raise their hands above their head. Some pilgrims do sideways prostration koras facing the holy site, so they have to prostrate with every step. Some pilgrims do prostration koras even at holy mountains- Alex told us that he saw a woman doing a prostration kora around Mt. Kailash, a distance of over 30 miles. The most hardcore will do prostration koras on their way to Lhasa from their hometowns. Our prostration kora would only be 800 meters, or half a mile.
We procrastinated a lot before doing our prostration kora. For some reason Rachel insisted on doing it at 6am, though rest of us were less keen on getting up that early and doing it while it was still frigid out. I was very concerned about preparing. A lot of pilgrims wore thick aprons and knee and hand padding for their prostration koras, since you have to knock your knees and slide your hands on the ground. Kirk, Alex and I tried assembling knee and hand pads.
After holding off for a couple days Alex and I agreed that we had to set a time and just do it, otherwise it would never happen. We woke up around 6 on Monday morning and got our stuff together. Kirk, who I was sharing a room with, didn’t want to go at first but seeing us get suited up made him change his mind.
“God, I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he grumbled as he dragged himself out of bed.
When we got to the Jokhang the sun was already up and shoppers were beginning to come out. The early-morning worshippers had mostly dispersed. There was no one else doing a prostration kora. I felt a little silly. For knee padding I taped socks onto my knees and then taped cardboard over the socks, and I wore some cheap gloves to protect my hands. Alex was at least a little less conspicuous- he wore a traditional Tibetan robe that would often fool even Tibetans into thinking he was Tibetan. Before we began we did some practice prostrations toward the Jokhang with the Tibetan worshippers. Once we felt we had it down Kirk said a quick prayer, we lined up and began our kora.
I quickly began wondering if I could make it all the way through. My whole body ached soon after we started, especially the muscles above my knees. Muscles I never even knew existed starting hurting. The worst part, though, was the dirt. Every time I prostrated I found myself breathing up the crap on the most-used ground in Lhasa. I had to control my breathing carefully to ensure that I didn’t breathe in too much. Occasionally I had to navigate around small patches of spittle, bits of dog crap or piles of garbage, and on a few occasions around the feet of shoppers. My throat started feeling sore and scratchy and I was sure I was going to get very sick afterwards. It was hard to focus on anything except the soreness and the dirt, and how far I had to go until the next turn.
We attracted a lot of attention as we went, most of it positive. Elderly Tibetans and pilgrims especially gave us thumbs up. Younger Tibetans often laughed, but many also gave us thumbs up. A couple Chinese tourists took pictures of us. When we were about three-quarters of our way through one elderly woman came up to us and forced lollipops into our mouths. She also corrected us on out prostration style.
It took us an hour and forty-five minutes to finish the kora. After we were done we did a few more prostrations in front of the Jokhang. Before we were about to leave a woman walked up to us and asked us a question in halting English:
“Why were you doing this? Just for fun?”
We looked at each other uneasily, and then Kirk answered for us, saying something like: “We’re doing it for Tibet and the Tibetans, and because it is a spiritual thing to do.”
I nodded in agreement. I guess I was partly doing it for fun, which I felt a little bad about. But I also wanted to feel what Tibetans were willing to go through for their religion. One of the most impressive things about Tibetans is what they are willing to do to worship their gods. Kirk later said that he was sure the woman was Chinese- no Tibetan would question why we would do a prostration kora. Later that day several Tibetans told me that they saw us, and were pretty impressed. We were the first foreigners they had ever seen do a prostration kora, they said.

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