The official diary of the Gould mission to Lhasa sent by the British government. Read more about the mission diary.
Today we were invited by the Tibetan Government to witness the first of the ceremonies connected with the Tibetan New Year.
With sound reasoning the Tibetans hold that before you can hope to celebrate and auspicious New Year, all the evil influences which have accumulated during the Old Year must be driven out. Accordingly on the 29th day of the last month a devil dance takes place in the great Eastern,Court of the Potala.
All Officials from the Regent down are present, those of the higher ranks in the rooms in the high Western facade above the triple step which lead down into the court.
The red, black, and yellow pelmets over the windows flap and belly in the chilly North wind. Three blasts of the great silver trumpets herald the approach of the Lama band who take up their places with their drums, cymbals and trumpets in a gaily embroidered tent which occupies all the Northern side of the court yard. Then after another blast on the trumpets Hashang, the Chinese priest-God of happiness, a huge figure with a monstrous smiling mask, strides slowly down the steps into the court attended, by six supporters. Two of these are children, two wear curious Saracenic clothes, and two wear death's head masks. They march slowly arm in arm across the dancing space, turn round and bow deeply to the Regent then turn again and march to a large chair, where Hashang is seated motionless during the whole performance. More blasts of the trumpets and the curtains, embroidered with dragons in red and gold, part again. Two dancers in demon masks run down the steps, scatter rice from bowls held by men attendants, and, entering the courtyard, begin their dance. It consists of slow turns and pirouettes with arms outstretched and gesticulating in time, with the ponderous rhythm of trumpets, drums and cymbals. Soon they turn and hurry back up the staircase to be succeeded in turn by about eight more pairs of grotesquely masked dancers, some with stags' heads, some with bulls' heads, but the majority in fierce, grinning masks of scarlet, gold and green, displaying rows of fangs and crowned with skulls. When the last of these pairs has retired the crowd suddenly begin to whistle. This is the traditional reception for the skeleton, dance. Four skeleton dancers with two attendant death's heads appear on the stairs, mopping and mowing and scattering ashes to right and left from their clattering bony fingers. They dance round the crude representation a corpse which has been laid in the middle of the dancing space. Light relief is provided by the figure of an aged-man with a long grey beard who totters round the court playing the fool and finally has a tremendous struggle with a tiger skin rug. This part of the performance, incidentally, is an innovation of the late Dalai Lama, who dreamt this scene when he was in China.
Then comes the serious business of the day. The skeletons scamper away and the trumpets proclaim the chief actor, a black hat magician who is to lead the remainder of the ceremony. He is dressed in brocade robes embroidered with the Dorje thunder bolt and with skulls. He wears an apron of bones and on his head is a tall black hat with an enormous brim and topped by a fanshaped ornament of peacock's feathers. He dances still to the same rhythm which continues through the whole ceremony, weaving spells with the skull which he holds in one hand and the Dorje which he holds in the other. His movements are fluent and graceful beyond those of the other dancers. Soon a procession of monks appears, bearing golden censers and sticks of incense and blowing shrill trumpets. They lead into the dancing floor some 20 black hat dancers dressed like the chief magician but without the bone apron. They slowly dance their way round the court until they are arranged about it in a circle. Then the masked dancers who first appeared come back and take up their positions forming an inner circle. A table covered with a silk cloth is brought into the centre and Lamas with a gold libation jug and a large gold dish take up their positions beside it. The cloth is raised from the table displaying many religious insignia, Dorje, axes, swords, daggers, skulls and bowls. The chief magician goes through a long ceremony of dancing with each of these insignia in his hand in turn brandishing them over the corpse. Thea attendant dancers follow his movements, turning and swaying slowly to the well defined rhythm now pierced occasionally by the shrill note of small silver horns. Finally, water and blood are poured on the corpse from skulls held by the magician and the dancers take a well earned rest (they have been dancing continuously for about 21/2 hours). A tiny figure with a stag's head hurries down the steps and dances round the corpse with somewhat quicker movements than the preceding dance. Then a pot of oil is heated and the chief magician approaches and pours a skull full of spirit over it. The oil blazes up and a paper with the pictures of all the devils is burnt in their flames. The dance is over. Slowly, the dancers return up the steps and as last Hahang and his family march back, with deliberate strides, the musicians pack up and straggle away. Now the court yard is filled with a motley army in ancient armour and plumed helmets. They carry swords, bows, and venerable matchlock muskets encased in wood. Copper trumpets sound from either end of the court and a procession of monks headed by acolytes with censers streams down the steps. They are wearing yellow crest like hats and pleated red cloaks with a turquoise ornament on the back which hangs a long strip of brocade. Some thirty of them carry shoulder high large golden drums which they beat with a long curling drum stick; others have cymbals and others bells. Tall banners head the procession and the army moves off to shrill battle cries and bugle calls from short copper trumpets carried by small warriors of about ten years old. Down the broad steep steps of the Potala they move towards the outer gate and the tall stone column on which past history is recorded. As they go, the muskets are let off and trumpets bray. At last, at the column itself there is a fusillade of shots, cries and noise. Before which the devils are finally and effectually driven away from the holy place.
Author: Hugh Richardson [see handwritten annotations in Diary by Hugh Richardson in MS. Or. Richardson 2, Bodleian Libary, Department of Oriental Collections, University of Oxford]
Page Reference: Pt XIV p.1