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Thibet / Heinrich Harrer




Heinrich Harrer

Seven Years in Tibet

pp. 180-182


Lhasa, Tibet, before 1945


The State Oracle


 Just as the people apply to Lamas and soothsayers for advice and help in the cares of daily life, so the Government consults the State Oracle before taking important decisions. Once I asked my friend Wangdüla to take me to an official consultation, and so one morning we rode out to the Nechung Monastery. At that time a nineteen-year-old monk was the mouthpiece of the Oracle.


 He was brought up in simple circumstances but had attracted much attention by his gifts as a medium. His technique was not so striking as that of his predecessor (who had co-operated in the discovery of the present Dalai Lama), but much was expected of him. I have often wondered whether it was by an unheard-of effort of concentration that he was able so quickly to throw himself into a trance before large crowds of people, or whether he used drugs or other expedients. In order to function as an oracle, the monk has to be able to dislodge his spirit from his body, to enable the god of the temple to take possession of it and to speak through his mouth. At that moment the god is manifested in him. That is the belief of the Tibetans, and Wangdüla was convinced of its truth.


 We talked about these things during our five-mile ride to the cloister. Hollow, eerie music greeted us at the gate of the temple. Inside the spectacle was ghastly. From every wall looked down hideous, grimacing faces, and the air was filled with stifling fumes of incense. The young monk had just been led from his private quarters to the gloomy temple. He wore a round metal mirror on his breast. Attendants robed him in gay silks and led him to his throne. Then everyone drew back from round him. No sound could be heard except the hollow music. He began to concentrate. I watched him closely, never taking my eyes from his face - not the slightest movement of his features escaped me. He looked as if the life were fading out of him. Now he was perfectly motionless, his face a staring mask. Then suddenly, as if he had been struck by lightning, his body curved upward like a bow. The onlookers gasped. The god was in possession. The medium began to tremble; his whole body shook and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. Servants went to him and placed a huge, fantastic head-dress on his head. This was so heavy that it took two men to carry it. The slender body of the monk sank deeper into the cushions of the throne under the weight of his monstrous mitre. It is no wonder, I thought, that these mediums die young. The spiritual and physical strain of these stances must be killing.


 The trembling became more violent. The medium's heavily laden head wavered from side to side, and his eyes started from their sockets. His face was swollen and covered with patches of hectic red. Hissing sounds pierced through his closed teeth. Suddenly he sprang up.   Servants rushed to help him, but he slipped by them and to the moaning of the oboes began to rotate in a strange exotic dance. Save for the music, his groans and teeth-gnashings were the only sounds to be heard in the temple. Now he started beating on his gleaming breastplate with a great thumb-ring, making a clatter which drowned the dull rolling of the drums. Then he gyrated on one foot, erect under the weigh of the giant head-dress, which just now two men could hardly carry. The attendants filled his hands with barleycorns, which he threw into the awestruck crowd of onlookers. All bent low before him, and I feared lest I be noted as an intruder. The medium became calmer. Servants held him fast and a Cabinet Minister stepped before him and threw a scarf over his head. Then he began to ask questions carefully prepared by the Cabinet about the appointment of a governor, the discovery of a new Incarnation, matters involving war and peace. The Oracle was asked to decide on all these things. Often the question had to be repeated several times before the medium began to mumble. I tried to pick out intelligible words but made nothing of the sounds. While the Minister stood humbly there trying to understand the answers, an old monk took them down with flying pen. He had done this hundreds of times in his life as he was also secretary to the late Oracle. I could not prevent myself from suspecting that perhaps the real Oracle was the secretary. The answers he wrote down, though ambiguous, suggested a line to be followed and relieved the Cabinet of a heavy load of responsibility. When an oracle goes on giving bad advice, they make short work of the mouthpiece. He is relieved of his office. This always seemed to me illogical. Did the god speak through the medium or did he not?


 In spite of the risks, the post of State Oracle is much sought after. It carries with it the office of Dalama, corresponding to the third rank in the orders of nobility, and its holder is Prior of the Cloister of Nechung with all its benefices.


 The last questions put by the Minister to the Oracle remained unanswered. Was the medium exhausted or was the god out of humour?






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