I was fortunate enough to spend the last three days in Repkong valley at the LaRu festival.  You won’t find the LaRu festival listed much of anywhere.  It’s not on wikipedia and a quick google search shows almost nothing.  I’ve been told that it’s listed in Lonely Planet but I can’t find it really anywhere.  All this to say, I was really in the dark about what I was in for.

So what the heck is Laru?

The history of LaRu is vague at best.  However, in general terms, LaRu is a “harvest festival” that takes place in five small villages in Tongren county in QingHai province China over the course of 5 days.  It’s, at it’s core, a shamanistic festival with some Buddhist ties that is intended to offer appeasement to the local mountain gods, who they believe to be the reincarnations of old Mongolian army generals.  The five villages all have shamans channel the spirits of the mountain gods and then do all sorts of crazy stuff such as animal sacrifice, personal blood letting, throwing themselves on open fires, and prophesying about the upcoming harvest.  This also coincides with a local ‘coming of age’ ritual where young village men are usually pierced through the cheek to test purity (if they bleed, they aren’t pure).

The festival is unique in that it takes place in and around Tibetan Buddhist monasteries but truly isn’t a Tibetan festival at it’s core.  In fact, Younger Buddhist monks are strongly encouraged to not attend the ceremonies (though you could see a few around trying to sneak a peek).  The festival outdates the introduction of Buddhism into the area and the local inhabitants, the Tu Zu (Tu Minority), are generally a mix between historically invading Mongolians and area locals.  The Tu don’t even natively speak the surrounding Amdo Tibetan and Chinese languages.  Interestingly enough, the village I stayed in is the only place in the world where their specific local language is spoken – even 2 miles up the road the language changes.  The simple irony here is that Tibetan religious pilgrims from far and wide come to see this festival that doesn’t even have it’s roots in Tibetan Buddhism.  This should give you some idea of the cultural, genetic, historical, and religious diversity of this area.

The festival is treated like a big party with food and drink vendors everywhere.  The villagers come out in their best clothes and little kids run around seemingly oblivious to the fact that a shaman carry the spirit of a mongolian general is running around bleeding everywhere.  Most of the older village men just sit around drinking beer and chatting.  You would have thought it was the 4th of July.

When the shaman isn’t parading around, the local village men perform ritualistic dances that go on for hours.  The locals are also required to bring food offerings of tsampa, bread, fruits, grains, oil, and powdered milk to be burnt on a central altar as appeasement.  The villagers also bring alcohol which is then poured out or immediately consumed by the shaman.

It was undoubtedly a crazy weekend.

WARNING: Beyond this point, there is some blood.  It’s not that bad.

LaRu Festival – Images by Brian Hirschy