1936 - 1937 Mission Diary

The official diary of the Gould mission to Lhasa sent by the British government. Read more about the mission diary.

February, 12th, Friday.

see photographs below

By the courtesy of the Tibetan Government we were all invited to the Potala at 8-30 A.M. to witness the religious celebration of the New Year. This was a signal honour as the Chinese, Nepalese and Bhutanese representatives came for the second and less intimate ceremony on the following day.

On the first day of the New Year everyone is awakened at about 4 A. M. and begins the year with a bowl of chang which must be drained even by small children. Then officials go before dawn to the Suk Lha Khang (Cathedral) and after that to the Potala.

There, in a pillared hall approached by a long dark uneven passage lighted only from the top, one of the chief ceremonies of the New Year is celebrated.

At the northern end of the ball is the highthrone of the Dalai Lama and close to it on the right are lower thrones for the Regent and Prime Minister. Along the Western side sit the abbots of the three great monasteries Ganden, Drepung and Sera, muffled against the cold in yellow, cloaks, with broad edgings of red brocade. Opposite the Dalai Lama's throne are the Shapes, Dzasas, and officials of the fourth rank. On the Eastern side sit other Government officials. Suddenly the shrill note of cornets is heard and lights flicker in the dark passage. An attendant unrolls a strip of white silk carpet from the door to the foot of the throne. Robes and other possessions of the late Dalai Lama are placed on the throne to represent his presence. (One of the objects looks suspiciously like an ordinary aluminium water bottle). The lights and trumpeting come nearer and the Regent enters the hall wearing yellow robes and a mitre-like yellow cap. He takes off this cap and prostrates himself three times before the throne then offers a scarf. The Prime Minister and other officials follow in order of precedence and present scarves to the Throne, and to the Regent and the Prime Minister. When all are seated the Lord Chamberlain goes round the assembly with an enquiry from the Regent as to the health of all officers. Tea is then served, in a gold teapot for the Dalai Lama and in silver for the rest, of the company each of whom produces his own wooden tea cup. The Dalai Lama’s tea is first tasted by a monk official as a precaution against poison. Two abbots, one from Drepung and one from Sera begin a religious debate, making their points with much pounding of the palm and occasional shrill cries. In the centre of the hall sit two officials whose function is to record history, but the history of this ceremony must long since have become a matter of mere repetition and they are not even provided with pens and paper. A band strikes up and the Dalai Lama's dancing boys file in (they are a lay troupe whose service is a form of taxation) dressed in what once must have been smart tunics of blue and red flowered cloth but which now are a travesty of their former glory; their boots are down at heel and have torn and gaping soles. Perhaps the troupe has suffered neglect since the Dalai Lama died. They can dance well in a style that combines acrobatic leapings with stylised posturing. The dance is quite short and is succeeded by a further instalment of the debate and by more tea, along with which each official receives a large bone covered with meat. Then follows another dance after which messengers come in with letters and presents for the Dalai Lama, and tables loaded with food of all kinds are set out. There are cakes, fruits and sweets, joints of beef and mutton and whole carcases of sheep and yaks complete with head and horns. Soon some of these offerings are laid before the Dalai Lama and others handed to the officials; after which the Potala servants are allowed to scramble for the rest. There is a rush and the vast pile is covered with struggling figures. Tall monk attendants belabour the fighting mass with whips and sticks, a precaution against anyone but the poor taking part and against anyone getting more than his share, but the victims have plenty of thick clothes and do not seem to mind the beating. When the floor is again clear the debate goes on and is followed by a third and final dance. Then one of the abbots recites a prayer before the throne, ending with a high pitched cry and the ceremony is at an end. The Regent and Prime Minister withdraw in procession as they came and after them all officials leave the hall.

Today is the real Tibetan New Year's day. As soon as we got home after our visit to the Potala Tsarong Came to present a scarf of greeting and a small gift to each of us. He was wearing a special ceremonial dress of very heavy silk brocade with a large pattern of dragons and flowers; we discovered later that it had cost him two thousand rupees. During the course of the day several other Officials called to pay their respects to the Political Officer.

All the people of Lhasa put on their best clothes today and are to be seen skipping and playing a very popular local game in which a shuttle cock is kept in the air by continually kicking it with the heel or side of the foot. Chang is drunk throughout the day and the streets are thronged with people in holiday mood. In the evening fireworks of Chinese manufacture are set off and everybody is dancing and singing.

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.3

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