Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Tibetan Olympics of 1695. The Nine Men's Sporting Events

A famous 1900 photo of the Potala Palace, Lhasa, by the Kalmuck Buddhist Ovshe Norzunov.  The darker building in the center is the Red Palace, which contains among many other things the funerary chorten of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. This is one of the very earliest photographs taken in Lhasa. (Double click on the picture for more detail.)

It’s an Olympic year, in case anyone has noticed. Please, I’m joking, of course you noticed. Even I noticed. Now let me say first, before the opening shot so to speak, I truly dislike talking about things about which I know very little. But as much as I dislike it, I suppose by scrupulously circumventing this problem I would end up saying hardly anything at all. One of those things (the things about which I know very little) is this: sports. 

Ugh! It’s not just that I never majored in kinesiology. Maybe it was that sadistic physical education teacher in high school. He would make us run in circles endlessly, and if we seemed to lag behind he’d slap our bare thighs with a long measuring stick as we passed by. He made us do leg lifts, lower our legs until just four inches from the ground, and then command us to hold that position despite the heightened sense of excruciating pain this exercise caused us. He would make us hold our arms straight out to the sides horizontal with the ground, making the shape of the cross, for as long as fifteen minutes at a time until we started to feel, well, crucified

I never saw very much point in all this pain-inducing asceticism — I never bought into the Charles Atlas cult — although I suppose I sometimes enjoyed playing actual competitive sports, particularly soccer, even softball and basketball from time to time. For a few years in college I got addicted to occasional long bouts of ping pong playing. My opponents, who were largely of Chinese origins, taught me both to serve and return the balls with a very nasty spin attached. I won as many times as I lost, which to me sounds good, but hardly made me Olympic material. Not very long ago I attended a talk in which someone tried their best to communicate the rules of cricket. I really had (and have) no idea. Rule-governed behavior? No thank you. We get enough of that.  Where’s the fun exactly?  

These days most of my exercise seems to take place on the computer keyboard, but when that gets old, as it tends to, I take a walk or jump on my stationary bike and spin for awhile. Sorry, I didn’t mean to go on about my high school phys.-ed. teacher, although obviously this still rankles some ulterior lobes of my psyché. I did have another purpose in mind besides grousing about a childhood that could have been a little more perfect.

Today is the day when His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama’s two envoys arrive in Beijing to hold talks with Chinese government officials. I write this blog today in honor of the occasion, as a small tribute to its huge possibilities. I’m betting on optimism and hoping, even if cautiously as every Tibetan in the globe certainly is today, that the outcome will be positive. Since I know this means a lot to a whole lot of people in the world, I’ll also make a wish for a successful Olympic Games in Beijing, something for everyone to take pride in, as unlikely as this may seem at the moment. And I’m not even holding out for any particular outcome for Tibet and his proud people except that it must be a good one. Independence would be great. He (yes, that's right, he, for Tibetans know their country as a Father Land, Pha-yul) was an independent nation in the past, which would fully justify an independent future as a part of the world’s community of nations. Or failing that, autonomy that would include some degree of reliance on Beijing for one or another reason. I think it’s not wise for either side to have any hard preconditions, since this — the level or the definition of Tibet’s future autonomy — is precisely the solution that has to be arrived at through the coming dialogue and negotiation. Talking is one of the Olympic sports. The main thing is to get the game started.  Don’t pre-determine the outcome. That would be unsportsman-like. Perhaps even unfair.

Did I say talking is one of the Olympic sports? I guess I did. I imagine you might be wondering why. Well, all in the Tibetan past was not darkness and dread as Beijing’s self-serving polemical version of Tibetan history, now enshrined in a brand new museum, would have its intended victims believe. Tibetans are not opposed to games. Just the contrary. Tibetans in centuries past not only managed to find love and have fun, they even played games. Besides children’s games — about them I will say not one more word today — there were more serious games for mature athletes. These are known in pre-modern Tibetan literature as pho rtsed sna dgu, which means, translating syllable-for-syllable, except in reverse order: ‘Nine Different Games [of/for] Men.’*
{*There is a second way of enumerating the nine sports, but I'll save that for another time.}
Here they are. They come in triads:
1. Talking.
2. Letters.
3. Calculating.

4. Archery.
5. Stone[lifting and carrying].
6. Jumping.

7. Foot racing.
8. Swimming.
9. Wrestling.

1-3) Of course the first trio doesn’t appear to contain any ‘sports’ at all. Seeing the renewed popularity of the spelling bee, I would expect to see it there, perhaps. No. 1, talking, is in Tibetan a word that might tend to mean oral/verbal skills of all kinds, but more particularly story telling and speech making. I'm thinking, since I’ve not found any explanation, that ‘letters’ means calligraphy, but I'm not sure.  It could include spelling, which is certainly challenging sometimes.  'Calculating' in your own head without technological assistance, a mental skill (the two earlier ones were in some sense verbal), is basically a lost art, although when I was a child we took a lot of pride in it.

4) With ‘archery’ we find a most popular art among the Tibetans (in neighboring Bhutan, it is even a kind of cultural madness). Here is a depiction of an archery competition from the Tibetan Olympics of 1695 (I haven't made myself absolutely confident of the exact date yet) as found in wall paintings inside the Potala (I apologize for the poor quality of the digital photo... They will improve, I promise). These Potala murals are meant to depict the celebrations that took place following the completion and consecration of the Red Palace and the Fifth Dalai Lama's tomb-chorten in 1694-95.  The murals themselves are believed to date to that same time more or less, although they have no doubt been retouched in later centuries:

In Tibet, as in other neighboring cultures, the arrow is practically synonymous with manhood, so much so that arrows may serve as stand-ins for the male member of the family in various rituals (where women are represented by spindles), although at times it symbolizes long life as well.

5) Stone lifting is of course identical to weight lifting, only without the nicely designed equipment. Generally this involves not only lifting the infernally heavy hernia-inducing object, but carrying it some distance as well. Even the Jesuit Father Desideri, although he had hardly much of anything to say about Tibetan sports when he told of his time in Tibet in the 2nd decade of the 18th century, did say something about the stones (it's interesting that he, too, mentions archery first): 
Their games are archery, or shooting at a target with a musket, at both they are exceedingly expert. At other times they play with heavy stones as we do in Europe with quoits.
About 200 years later, Waddell would summarily describe Tibetan sports and games like this (Lhasa & Its Mysteries, p. 422):

The chief amusements of the men are horse-racing, wrestling, putting the stone, archery, quoits, dominoes, and a game like droughts called ‘Pushing the Tiger’.

The written Tibetan inscription on the Potala mural of the stone lifters specifies that the competitors in the stone lifting event were ‘Khampas, Mongolians, Tibetans and others’ (the exact reading is this:  644 kham sog bod pa sogs rdo mgyogs 'gran par nang zan glang ru 'ba' lug rtser son pa /).  I think it rather resembles the highland Scottish Stone Carry.

6) Jumping.  Jumping in Tibetan usage mostly resembles the broad jump, but with special Tibetan characteristics.  Melvyn Goldstein long ago wrote the classic article on the subject.  In old days there were, in Sera and Drepung Monasteries just outside Lhasa, groups of monks within the category of Dobdob, who would meet periodically for sporting events. And the main events would seem to have been variations on the broad jump done after running to the top of a ramp and leaping off (sometimes throwing stones at targets could be part of it... See Goldstein's article for more).  The setup for the jumping contest was called the chongra (mchong-ra), the ‘jumping enclosure.’  The following is after Goldstein’s article:

Charles Bell took a very nice photograph of such an event held by monks at Gyantse, with the competitor suspended in mid-air for all eternity.  It has been published many times, not only in Bell's own book, but also in David MacDonald’s Twenty Years in Tibet.  Try looking here, where the photograph itself is curiously missing, although you do find a description of it.

7) Foot racing. This was and has remained one of the most popular spectator competitions in ancient and modern Olympic games. It's relatively straightforward in its rules. Get to the ending point faster than the others. Given the altitude of the Tibetan Plateau, I don’t suggest that any foreigners try competing in this event. Well, perhaps some Peruvians.  In my understanding the Tibetan bang refers to footraces only, but it could be that horse racing (rta-rgyug) is also included here.  It ought to be included somewhere, since there is so much horse racing, racing that involves all kinds of fancy riding tricks, all over the plateau during the late summer months.*

{*Perhaps the most formal and elaborate of the annual sporting events was one called "Gallop behind the Fort" (in Tibetan rdzong rgyab zhabs 'bel or rdzong rgyab zhar 'phen) held in Lhasa in winter, on the 26th day of the first month.  In the Doring biography, it is called the rdzong rgyab rtsal rgyug.  All the Lhasa officials would attend it in their finest robes.}

8) Swimming.  The swimming event in the 1695 Olympics took place in the Kyichu River.  It’s maybe interesting enough to try and translate a few of the labels on the Potala mural paintings:

Don't these swimmers remind you of the "swimmer's" in our last weblog?  Only these swimmers are enjoying themselves, not going to a watery grave.
488 Among the water sports were these:  sitting [on top of the water] in the Vajra Posture and...

489 ...diving [and]....

490  ...carrying banners into the middle of the current [evidently an underwater swimming competition to judge from the mural, with flags to indicate their locations].
You see the cross-legged figure in the Vajra Posture on your left.  Another figure is clearly walking on the water like Saint Peter on the Sea of Galilee.  The divers are on your right. It looks like one of them is getting a slight push.  The three things at the bottom are the banners mentioned in an inscription.

Here are the shorter Tibetan inscriptions in the painting:
488 chu rtsal gras / rdor dkyil dang /

489 gting 'dzul /

490 chu gzhung dar lcog 'khyer ba /

9) Wrestling.  I don’t know much about Tibetan wrestling. It certainly is not as famous to the world at large as Mongolian wrestling, and of course the Japanese wrestling style called Sumo are. Nowadays it would seem that the top Sumo wrestlers are ethnic Mongolians, like Asashoryu. It seems that Tibetan wrestling is primarily done with the arms while avoiding the use of the feet, just as classical Graeco-Roman wrestling did.  In any case, that’s how it appears in this piece of the Potala mural.

The inscription tells us that most of the wrestlers were Mongolians (643 sog po shas che ba'i sbar kha rgyab par drang ma byung ba /... notice how the word for 'wrestling' which ought to be sbe-ka, is here misspelled sbar-kha). The Tibetan word for wrestling probably is, as Berthold Laufer argued over a century ago in his famous article on Tibetan loanwords, borrowed from the Sanskrit word bheka, which means ‘frog’ (as it does in Hungarian, also, strangely enough). I'm still trying to find a good explanation for this. Is there something frog-like about wrestlers? You be the judge.

One last ‘sport’ I would just like to mention is rope sliding. Sometimes it’s classed with acrobatics, but I believe it actually belongs in the category of ‘extreme sports’ or the dare-devilry of earlier times. I think it’s probably much more dangerous than bungee jumping. Many foreign travelers to Lhasa witnessed it.  And there are wonderful old photographs which you should go and look at right now at this website. Waddell (Tibetan Buddhism, p. 505, n. 4) says:
The games include archery; putting the stone (and called Ling-sing ch'en gyal-po), in which the losers pay forfeits; acrobates, in the Lhâsa festivals these come usually from Shigatse (Tsang-jo-mo-Kha-rag), and slide down long ropes of yak-hair from the gilt umbrellas on the top of Potala to the foot of the edict pillars.
Another work by the same British imperialist scholar, describes it like this (Lhasa & Its Mysteries, pp. 397-8):
At the foot of the great staircase stands a tall monolith, a counterpart of the one outside (see photo, p. 336), but bearing no inscription. To this is fixed the lower end of the great rope for the "Flying Spirits" at the festival of the New Year, the upper end of the rope being tied to the topmost roof of the palace, over 500 feet above, and down this terribly dangerous incline slides an acrobate, carrying good luck for the incoming year admidst the huzzas of 50,000 people. The man who personates the flying spirit belongs to a class of professional acrobats. He rides a wooden saddle, and encases his body in thickly padded vestments to counter-act the friction of the rope. Taking his stand on the top of the palace, he throws a libation of wine and dough images of men and animals to the devils and then slides down the rope, sometimes sitting astride as on a horse's saddle, at other times flying with the saddle under his breast. Although he travels down with terrific speed, and the dangers of being killed or lacerated by the friction are great, he seldom suffers accident, the present performer having accomplished the feat for several consecutive years. Its object is to confer good fortune on the Grand Lama and his country, and the "Flying Spirit" appears to take the part of a good angel rather than a scape-goat, as he is fêted and does not flee into retirement.
(A footnote adds that the practice, as known in Garhwal, is described under the name "Barat" by Dr. Moorcroft.)
Spencer Chapman, who attended the event at the Tibetan New Year in 1937, described it like this (I’ve abbreviated considerably):
Then followed a ceremony that all Lhasa turned out to see. In the old days a yak-hair rope was stretched from the roof of the Potala to a stone edict pillar at the foot of the southern staircase, hundreds of feet below. Then several men, protected by leather saddles, slid down the rope at terrific speed. To provide these men was a form of taxation levied on certain villages. The men usually arrived at the bottom in a half-dead condition, and on one occasion a performer slipped beneath the rope in his descent and was nearly killed. So the Dalai Lama stopped this performance on the grounds of cruelty, and substituted another acrobatic feat, which I was lucky enough to witness and photograph from the flat roof of the "War Office" building overlooking the edict pillar.

Here a tall pole, say fifty feet high, and swathed in yak-hair cloth to prevent it splitting, was put up on the flat paved platform at the foot of the wide Potala staircase, and was held in position by yak-hair shrouds. Meanwhile crowds of people were settling themselves down to wait on the steps ...

All at once there is a hush, and a man looking — and probably feeling — singularly like a sacrifice, is swung astride a rope preparatory to being hauled to the top of the pole. While he is only just above the heads of the crowd he starts to chant, and drinks a cup of tea which is handed up to him. His head is bound with a white cloth. On the summit of the pole is a small platform on which there is just room to stand. Above this projects a short rod of iron. To begin with the man, chanting all the time, stands for a moment on the platform; but a strong wind makes this too precarious, and he is obviously not too confident. After all, the pole was only put up a few hours ago, and he cannot have had much opportunity for rehearsals. He takes his boots off and throws them down into the crowd. Several times he stands up with his arms outstretched, but only for a brief moment. Then, tying a bobbin-shaped piece of wood on to his stomach, he fits this over the top of the metal rod and, with arms and legs outstretched, starts to spin round and round. After he has repeated this several times he is allowed to return to terra firma, where he bows down three times towards the Potala, offering thanks that his ordeal is safely over. Many of the crowd throw coins into his hat as they disperse to their homes.
The Tibetan names for this acrobatic performance have been given as “Sliding Down a Rope Like a Bird” (bya mkhan thag shur), "Rope Sliding" (thag bzhur), “Rope Sliding from the Royal Fortress” (rgyal mkhar thag bzhur), and “Sky Dancing Rope Game” (gnam bro thag rtsed).

So now that I’ve gone on and on much longer than I intended to, I’d just like to end by saying that I believe it is now well enough established that the 1695 Tibetan Olympic Games were an international sporting event. This is explicitly stated in the label to one part of the mural, where it says that athletes from China, Mongolia and Tibet attended. Observe the different hats in the picture below and try to decide which is which if you can. I was going to say something about Tibetan “psychic sports,” about psychic heat, trance running and the like, but maybe some other time. Oh, and I also thought I would pick out a particular, and particularly Tibetan, sport for nomination to the Olympic board for future inclusion in the international gaming events, perhaps before the 2012 London games. There is time enough for that. And anyway, we ought to include a sport or two that originated in China.  The only Asian games that will be included in the Beijing Olympics are two, one from Korea and the other from Japan.  

We know that the Nine Men’s Sports were the basis for the 1695 Olympics.  Just look at the first words of this long inscription: pho rtsed sna dgu.

READ more & then some more then even more than that:

Tamim Ansary, What Makes a Sport 'Olympic'?  Available online here. Highly recommended. Charmingly written. Quite readable. Insightful. Gives good links. This article ought to demonstrate to anyone's satisfaction that the original Olympic sports were similar in number and content to the Tibetan Olympic sports. Much more so, of course, than the modern Olympics.

Gerald D. Berreman, Himalayan Rope Sliding and Village Hinduism: An Analysis, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, vol. 17, no. 4 (Winter 1961), pp. 326-42. The performance of rope sliding was once widespread in Garhwal district in India bordering western Tibet. On p. 330 are references to English literature on the event that took place annually at the Potala Palace.

Chabpel Tseten Puntsog (Chab-spel Tshe-brtan-phun-tshogs), Bod mi rigs kyi srol rgyun lus rtsal pho rtsal sna dgu zhes pa'i skor cung zad gleng ba, Bod ljongs zhib 'jug, issue no. 59 (3rd issue of 1996), pp. 98-114, 164.

F. Spencer Chapman, Lhasa the Holy City, Readers Union (London 1940), pp. 313-314.

Ippolito Desideri, An Account of Tibet: The Travels of Ippolito Desideri of Pistoia S.J., 1712-1727, tr. & ed. by Filippo de Filippi, George Routledge & Sons (London 1932), p. 189.

Doring Tendzin Paljor (Rdo-ring Bstan-'dzin-dpal-'byor), b. 1760, Rdo ring pandi ta'i rnam thar, Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang (Chengdu 1987), in 2 volumes, at vol. 1, p. 182, makes reference to the Nine Men's Sports (pho rtsal sna dgu'i gras kyi mda' rdo mchongs gsum dang / bang rkyal sbo gsum sogs kyis rtsed 'jo'i go chod sbyong brdar dang...; note the mispelling sbo instead of sbe) and elsewhere in this biographical work there are plentiful mentions of horse races, archery contests and so on. This information ought to be included in a future study.

Melvyn Goldstein, A Study of the Ldab-ldob, Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 9, no. 2 (1964), pp. 125-141.  This has nicely been made available as a PDF at the author's own website.

Siegbert Hummel & Paul G. Brewster, Games of the Tibetans, FF Communications (Folklore Fellows Communications), vol. 77, no. 187 (1963).

Könchog Jigmé Wangpo (Dkon-mchog-'jigs-med-dbang-po, Chos kyi rnam grangs (=Mdo rgyud bstan bcos du ma nas 'byung ba'i chos kyi rnam grangs shes ldan yid kyi dga' ston), Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang (Xining 1992), p. 121. This is my main authority for the list of Nine Men's Sports: pho rtsed sna dgu ni / gtam yig rtsis gsum / mda' rdo mchong gsum / bang rkyal sbe gsum rnams so.

Kunga T. Dorji & Tashi Phuntsho, Archery: The Real Game is Played Elsewhere, reprint from Kuensel newspaper here.  And try this video about Bhutanese Da.

Berthold Laufer, Loan-Words in Tibetan, contained in:  Sino-Tibetan Studies, ed. by Hartmut Walravens, Aditya Prakashan (New Delhi 1987), vol. 2, pp. 483-552.  Sbe-ka appears at entry no. 33 on p. 534.  Malla is the usual Sanskrit word for 'wrestler.'

Lobzang Chödrag (Blo-bzang-chos-grags), De sngon se 'bras kyi grwa pa rdab rdob kyi gnas tshul dang de'i shed ngoms rtsal rtsed kyi skor, Gangs ljongs rig gnas, issue 6 (2nd issue of 1990), pp. 55-59.

Andrea Loseries-Leick, Körperkultur und Klosterleben, contained in: G. Bernhard, et al., eds, Traditionssport in Tibet, evidently a special issue of Spektrum der Sport-wissenschaften, vol. 8, no. 1 (1996), pp. 108-116. I've never seen this, but it seems interesting.

Andrea Loseries-Leick, Psychic Sports: A Living Tradition in Contemporary Tibet? contained in: Helmut Krasser, Michael T. Much, Ernst Steinkellner, Helmut Tauscher, eds., Tibetan Studies I & II: Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1997), vol. 2, pp. 583-593.

Alex C. McKay, The Other "Great Game": Politics & Sport in Tibet, 1904-1947, The International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 11, no. 3 (1994), pp. 372-386.

Ferdinand Meyer, The Potala Palace of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, Orientations, vol. 18, no. 7 (July 1987), pp. 14-33.

Robert & Beatrice Miller, On Two Bhutanese New Year's Celebrations, American Anthropologist, n.s. vol. 58, no. 1 (February 1956), pp. 179-183.

Mingyur Je (Mi-'gyur-rje), Bod rigs kyi srol rgyun lus rtsal dang bod kyi gna' bo'i rtsed rtsal rta thog po lo'i skor cung zad gleng ba, Bod ljongs zhib 'jug, vol. 9 (2nd issue for the year 1984), pp. 13-26. On the history of Polo.

W. Müller, K. Pieringer, B. Stockinger, T. DeVaney, K. Gmoser, Traditional Tibetan Sports: A Field Documentation. A paper given at the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies at Schloss Seggau, Austria in (1995), abstract only.

Rosalind O'Handlon, Military Sports and the History of the Martial Body in India, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 50, no. 4 (2007), pp. 490-523.  Recommended if you are interested in the history of martial exercises, bodybuilding and sports, archery and wrestling included, in India during the last 4 or 5 centuries.  With two very interesting illustrations.

Katrin Pieringer, Bewegungskultur in Tibet: Vom Festcharakter zum sportlichen Ereignis, doctoral dissertation, University of Graz (1998).

Katrin Pieringer & Wolfram Müller, Traditionelle tibetische Bewegungskultur: Tibet auf dem Weg zu einer differenzierten Sportkultur? contained in: Helmut Krasser, Michael T. Much, Ernst Steinkellner, Helmut Tauscher, eds., Tibetan Studies I & II: Proceedings of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Graz 1995, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1997), vol. 2, pp. 769-784.

Christian Schicklgruber, Race, Win and Please the Gods: Horse-race and Yul-lha Worship in Dolpo, contained in: Anne-Marie Blondeau, ed., Tibetan Mountain Deities, Their Cults and Representations, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Vienna 1998), pp. 99-108.  Like the following article by Elke Studer, this one emphasizes the important link between the local deities (generally mountain deities) and the horse races that are regarded as an integral part of the offerings made to them.

Elke Studer, Ritual under Change: Mongolian Influences on Horse Races & Mountain Divinity Worship in Tibet, Inner Asia, vol. 4, no. 2 (2002), pp. 361-373.  This advances the interesting idea that Tibetan horse race events may have been influenced in the 17th and 18th centuries by Mongolians, with their own traditional set of three men's sports called Naadam.  That means wrestling, horse racing and archery.

Elke Studer, Wettreiten für die Götter. Ritual im Wandel: Religiöse, politische, historische und rezente Veränderungen des nordtibetischen Reiterfestes in Nagchu, Diplomarbeit, University of Vienna (Vienna 2002).

Tubten Puntsog (Thub-bstan-phun-tshogs), Bod kyi lo rgyus spyi don padma ra ga'i lde mig, Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang (Chengdu 1996), vol. 1 (stod cha), pp. 330-335. Although brief, this is as far as I know the best general survey of Tibetan sports and sporting events down through history. I haven't made much use of it, but list it here for your information only.

Hugh Richardson, Ceremonies of the Lhasa Year, Serindia (London 1993).

Tsepak Rigzin (Tshe-dpag-rig-'dzin), Tibetan-English Dictionary of Buddhist Terminology, p. 172. This dictionary translates the nine men's sports as 1. oratorship, 2. writing, 3. calculation, 4. archery, 5. weight lifting, 6. jumping, 7. running, 8. swimming, 9. stick-games. All these translations seem fine, with the exception of the 9th.

L. Austine Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, with a Record of the British Tibetan Expedition of 1903-1904, Dover (New York 1988), reprint of John Murray (London 1905).

L. Austine Waddell, Tibetan Buddhism with Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, Dover (New York 1972), reprint of W.H. Allen (London 1895).

Wang Yao, An Inquiry into Polo: Tibetan Contribution to the Athletic Sports, Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 5th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Narita 1989, Naritasan Shinshoji (Narita 1992), pp. 849-52.

- - -

See the webpage “Life on the Tibetan Plateau,” January 29, 2007, for a photo with description, Tibetan Horse Festival in Amdo.  Another fine photo here.  Or try this extremely brief video (watch very carefully).  This 4-minute video is very artistically done, and well worth seeing for the racing with yaks alone.  Here is a PRC site (you will find in this strong arguments for the impossibility of automated machine translations from Chinese... this absolutely requires direct human mental input, imho; anyway I apologize that the link has gone dead), with some very interesting pictures, including a photo of Tibetan-style tug-of-war, which is done by two opponents using a long loop of rope.  The two men loop the rope loop around the backs of their necks facing away from each other.  Then they let the two ropes go between their legs, go down on all fours, and use both feet and hands to push like crazy.  This makes it quite different from tug-of-war (which was once an Olympic sport) as normally understood in the rest of the world. Namkhai Norbu also describes this in his book (in Tibetan) about nomadic culture. He supplies a drawing, and calls it Gurten (sgur-'then, literally ‘pulling while hunched over’), although most dictionaries give the name just as Tagten (thag-'then, 'rope pulling'). Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Could this be the Tibetan Olympic sport the world has been waiting for?

POSTSCRIPT (08/08/08):

I would like to refer you to a fascinating story of how Beijing's propaganda efforts to make it appear as if traditional Tibetan horse races were being held in homage to the Beijing Olympics have, for the moment at least, fallen flat (a few days ago the words "Tibetan Olympics" popped up in the straight (non-blog) media for the first time, and Yes we do wonder where that came from!).  A recent blog entry from Agam's Gecko tells it well. Go there as soon as you can.  It won't take long to read.

Two giant pieced-fabric tangkas hanging in front of the Potala, as depicted in a mural inside the Potala.  The cloth image (göku, gos-sku) 0n your right with the red Amitabha was commissioned by the Regent Sanggyé Gyatso in 1683, soon after the actual death of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and displayed on the anniversary of his death on the 30th day of the 2nd lunar month of the Tibetan calendar.  It measures about 47 by 55 meters.  The two göku became worn and had to be replaced at least twice in Tibetan history.  Once in around 1787, and again in the early part of the 1940's, after the enthronement, in 1940, of His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama.

Since the nearly one-fifth million Tibetans living in exile were denied entry into the Beijing Olympics (the application of Team Tibet met with complete silence from the IOC), they are holding their own.  Look here.  (And here.)  This event will be held from the 15th through the 25th of May 2008 in Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Tibetan Government in Exile. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe its organizers have ever heard of the Nine Men’s Sporting Events, although I’m thinking somebody ought to tell them.
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