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China celebrates ancient ancestors in the New Year of the monkey

By Xinhua | February 8th 2016
Monkey King performs at Times Square to celebrate Chinese New Year

LHASA: Tibetans are making last-minute preparations for the arrival of the year of the fire monkey, hoping the smart, jovial creature worshipped on the plateau as an ancient ancestor will bring good luck.

The Tibetan New Year, which begins Tuesday, is normally marked by religious rituals, long prayers, horse races, family gatherings and feasts. But the Tibetan people's traditional love for the monkey has made the upcoming New Year celebrations even more significant.

"The primitive inhabitants of the Tibet plateau were believed to worship the rhesus monkey as their earliest ancestor," said Prof. Cedain Tashi, a Tibetan studies specialist with Tibet University in Lhasa.

The Tibetans believe a "monkeys' cave" in the mountains of Zetang township in Nedong County of Shannan Prefecture is the sacred residence of their monkey ancestors, as well as the birthplace of the first Tibetans, he said. "Actually, 'Zetang' in Tibetan means 'where monkeys frolic'".

To this day, the locals still offer incense and pay respect at the site on major festivals, he said.

Many people in Shannan Prefecture used to place monkey skulls atop their roofs or outer walls, which are thought to bring good luck and scare off evil spirits.

Similarly, Tibetan communities in the neighboring Qinghai Province, people often hang monkey posters on their doors.

Towards the end of the 20th century, archeologists unearthed a ceramic artwork with a monkey totem at a relic site in the northern suburbs of Lhasa, the professor said. "This indicates the ancient Tibetans adored the animal."

A mural with monkeys is also the centerpiece at the Jokhang Temple in downtown Lhasa. Prof. Cedain Tashi said in the past, people who received a promotion or achieved scholastic success would pay their respect to the monkeys on the mural before worshipping Sakyamuni. "They felt like sharing the great news with their ancestors before worshipping Buddha."

A week before the new year, Zhoigar traveled to Lhasa from her countryside home in Dagze County to buy a pair of new cabinets painted with monkeys on good terms with rabbits, an elephant and a bird. "It's an auspicious sign to have monkeys at home in the year of the monkey," she said.

The painting is a famous Tibetan artwork and is now seen in temples and nearly every home in the plateau region. It is based on a fairy tale that tells how the four animals worked together to plant a tall tree and harvest its fruits.

"The Tibetans love this painting because they long for peace and harmony," said Gyari Lobsang Namgyai, a specialist on Tibetan folk culture. "Even different animals can live together in harmony, the human race can certainly dissolve all their discrepancies and be on good terms."

The Tibetans are also looking forward to a series religious rituals that take place only in the year of the monkey because Guru Rinpoche, or the Lotus-born Master, was believed to be born in a year of the monkey.

One such ritual is religious dancing staged in the suburbs of Lhasa on the 10th day of the fifth month in the Tibetan calendar, where children don monkey masks and celebrate.

On the 15th day of the fifth Tibetan month, all "guardians of Dharma" from monasteries across the Tibet plateau will gather at Lhasa's Nechung Monastery. Each will show his muscle and prove to the crowds that he is the real guardian.

"It's like a contest in form, but does not necessarily end with a winner. The real purpose of the event is to commemorate the Lotus-born Master," said Prof. Cedain Tashi.

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