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Assembly at Lion Mountain — The Mosuo honor goddess Ganmo

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Tubu Peninsula viewed from the cave
Tubu Peninsula viewed from the cave

Of all of Yunnan's many lakes, the most beautiful is Lugu (泸沽湖) in northern Ninglang County. Sitting at an altitude of 2,700 meters, shaped like a butterfly with its two wings divided by the long, thin Tubu Peninsula, and covering an area of 52 square kilometers, its shoreline is home to several Mosuo (摩梭) and Pumi (普米) villages that have been there for centuries. After Fuxian, it is the deepest lake in the province, with an average depth of 40 meters.

The two major physical changes the area has experienced since its conquest by the Mongols in the thirteenth century have been the establishment of a Han immigrant village on the southern shore in the nineteenth century and the opening of a road in 1972 over the pass just below the summit of the mountain to Lugu's south.

Building the road was done by blasting the previous way in over the mountain at Dog's Passage Cave (狗钻洞), so named because the tunnel was so small one had to crawl through it like a dog. Now a road has replaced the cave and after crossing the pass — about three hours drive from Ninglang (宁蒗) — and continuing a little further past the obscuring forest, the traveler gets a first look at Lugu Lake. Part of the eastern 'wing' of Lugu lies within the boundaries of Sichuan province, but the larger, western 'wing', the Tubu Peninsula and four of the lake's five small islands, are under Yunnan's jurisdiction.

Lion Mountain viewed from Yongning
Lion Mountain viewed from Yongning

That first magnificent glimpse of Lugu includes its mountainous setting, with snow-capped peaks to the north, as well as of Lion Mountain (狮子山), the steeply rising massif that stands one thousand meters above the northwest corner of the lake, behind Lige Village (里格村). The mountain gets its name from its resemblance to a reclining lion. The head and chest face the lake from above Lige. The rest of its body is visible from the plain past the lake on the way to Yongning (永宁), 18 kilometers to the west.

Yongning District, which includes Lugu Lake, was the first part of Yunnan incorporated into the Mongol Empire. Kublai Khan's forces crushed local resistance at a place called Snow Mountain Stone Gate above Yongning, then left some of his officers there to govern while he moved south against the Kingdom of Dali. These men married women from the local Mosuo community and became the smallest of five Mosuo clans, one with authority over all the others, as well as everyone else in the district. This situation continued down to the mid-twentieth century. The ruling clan also retained the Mongol inheritance system, from father to son, differentiating it from the other local clans, which were matrilineal.

Mosuo family monk
Mosuo family monk

The Mosuo people are classified as a branch of the Naxi minority nationality, despite the fact the dialects of Yongning and Lijiang are mutually unintelligible. The Naxi are patrilineal and follow Mahayana Buddhism laced with Tibetan and Daoist ideas, while the Mosuo have been Tibetan-style Buddhists since their seventeenth century conversion by a Gelukpa monk. Traditionally, every Mosuo family had its own monk, who performed rituals on their behalf in a separate room of the family compound.

Though Tibetan Buddhism is the official religion, the most prominent deity in the Mosuo pantheon is their own goddess, Ganmo. She oversees the livestock, crops and general prosperity of the people, especially the conjugal life and childbearing of the women. Mosuo painters depict her as riding above the clouds astride a white stallion, her left hand gripping the reins, her right hand grasping a golden flute. Sometimes she is shown riding a white deer, for this is how she returned to heaven long ago after vanquishing a host of demons ravaging the earth. The grateful Lord of Heaven bade her rest for three days, after which he would grant her whatever she requested.

Ganmo portrait at a festival in Ninglang
Ganmo portrait at a festival in Ninglang

Rather than rest, the goddess took off on a short tour of the earth, came to the valley where Lugu Lake is now situated, and decided it was so lovely she would stay there forever. As the Lord of Heaven had committed himself to meeting her demand, Ganmo remained and metamorphosed into the mountain. The clouds at the summit wreathe her hair. The pine forests on the slopes make up her jacket, the low morning clouds her skirt and the verdant plain her mattress. The lake became her mirror. As the area's supreme goddess, she attracted many suitors among the other local mountain gods — her favorite being Waru Bula, from Yanyuan County over the border in Sichuan.

He lived far away, though, so Ganmo also met with other, more accessible gods from the Yongning area. She was entertaining one of them once when Waru Bula arrived for his scheduled date. But Ganmo had forgotten about it and Waru Bula, discovering her occupied with a rival, stomped the earth in fury before departing forever, leaving big ditches in the land. When Ganmo concluded her tryst and learned her favorite had come and gone, she cried copiously for days. Her tears filled the depressions in the land left behind by Waru Bula's anger and thus formed Lugu Lake.

Worshiping goddess Ganmo
Worshiping goddess Ganmo

As the goddess incarnate, Lion Mountain has always been a protected area, so to speak, for the Mosuo traditionally banned hunting on the mountain. Near the summit a cave exists, nowadays accessible by cable car on the northwest side of the lake. Until it was installed the rare pilgrim or traveler who wished to visit the cave had to ascend by a trail from Lige. It was not unusual to spot rabbits, pheasants, badgers, foxes, eagles and even bears along the way.

The trail starts moderately steep, passes through a thick forest with twittering songbirds and mysteriously rustling leaves, crosses a wide stream and ends at a wall of sheer perpendicular rock rising a hundred meters or so to the summit. At the foot of this cliff, strings of prayer flags tied to trees announce the mouth of the cave. It is said to contain Ganmo's genitalia, and one rock formation just inside the first cavern indeed bears resemblance to that part of the anatomy.

A tsotah on the southern shore of Lugu Lake
A tsotah on the southern shore of Lugu Lake

As the Divine Protector of the Mosuo people, goddess Ganmo's status survived the transition in Mosuo religion from shamanistic animism to Yellow Hat Buddhism. Important Buddhist ceremonies begin with prayers to Ganmo. White, breast-shaped mounds — called tsotah in the Mosuo language — dot the landscape around the lake, along the shore and high up on hills, and are shrines where people pay homage to the goddess.

Each tsotah contains a niche where devotees place burning pine branches. The white smoke curling up into the sky is a pleasing sight to Ganmo. Worshippers also burn incense sticks and toss an offering of barley flour and rice grains on the flames, and then kowtow in front of the mound.

Occasionally the Mosuo honor Ganmo by organizing what is called a Parade Around the Sea — an all-day hike around the lake. The procession halts at every tsotah, participants burn incense and offer grains, kowtow and press onto the next destination, chatting and joking as they walk. Lamas in the entourage chant scriptural passages along the route. The Parade Around the Sea is not a fixed festival with an annual observance. Those who feel the urge can undertake one on the fifth, fifteenth or twenty-fifth days of any lunar month.

Mosuo woman performing the Floating Offering
Mosuo woman performing the Floating Offering

On any of these same lunar dates, the Mosuo may also engage in another type of devotional act, called the Floating Offering. Devotees place a bundle of pine branches at the rear end of one or more of their boats, set the bundle on fire and row the boat out onto the lake. The smoke from the burning branches wafts into the air like that from the smoldering incense sticks at the tsotah, visible and pleasing to the goddess before it dissipates.

The Mosuo celebrate several festivals during the year and at all of them they make offerings to Ganmo and seek her blessings. One festival in particular, though, is dedicated entirely to honoring the goddess. This is Zhuanshan Jie (转山节) — or Rounding the Mountain Festival — staged the twenty-fifth day of the seventh lunar month and the greatest collective social event of the year. It brings together Mosuo from Lugu Lake and the villages of the Yongning basin, as well as their neighbors from several ethnic Pumi villages in the district. Unlike the larger Pumi community in Lanping County, the Pumi of Yongning follow many customs of the Mosuo — inheritance from mother to daughter, the practice of walking marriages and the veneration of Ganmo.

Riding ponies to the festival
Riding ponies to the festival

Despite the festival's title, participants don't actually go around the mountain. The venue is a site on the slopes of Lion Mountain corresponding to what would be the joint in the crouching animal's right rear leg. It's quite a walk from Lugu, but mostly over level ground. Lugu villagers eat a hearty early morning breakfast and then start. Those from villages on the northwest side walk, carrying food with them for a picnic later, while others from settlements further on ride ponies.

Just past the northwest corner of the lake is a hill with a tsotah mound where festival-goers stop to burn pine branches for Ganmo and hang prayer flags from the trees. From here they follow the road north of the marsh and beyond it across fields carpeted with yellow, white and magenta flowers. At the next pass the pilgrims stop and pray at another mound, then continue along the shore of another pond. From just beyond this pond the trail descends sharply to a hamlet below the festival site.

Zhamei Monastery, Yongning
Zhamei Monastery, Yongning

Upon their arrival, the grounds will already be full of Mosuo and Pumi from the Yongning basin and monks from Zhamei Monastery at the northern end of Yongning Town. Sometime after the Mosuo conversion, a visiting lama from Tibet came to the site, liked its location, and inquired of its name. A local Mosuo answered with the Mosuo word jramigo, which in the Tibetan monk's dialect meant "no need of an enemy". This sounded like an auspicious place to build a monastery and for centuries it served as the training ground for young Mosuo men sent to become qualified to become family monks.

Marauders burnt down the original monastery during the Muslim Revolt in the mid-nineteenth century. It was rebuilt and in 1924 a wall was erected to protect it against Tibetan bandit gangs. In the 1960s it suffered from a new marauder — bands of Red Guards. Finally, in the mid-90s the entire main temple was rebuilt and restored, employing artisans from Sichuan. Not a large number of monks reside here, whether permanently or just for the duration of their studies. Nor does it receive many visitors. Devout though they may be, the Mosuo do not feel much compulsion to express such fidelity before the images of Zhamei Monastery.

Tying prayer flags at Ganmo's shrine
Tying prayer flags at Ganmo's shrine

For Rounding the Mountain Festival though, the Zhamei monks are honored guests. They set up a tent on the grounds below the slope to conduct rituals, reciting scriptural passages to the accompaniment of gongs, flageolets, while monks outside blow on long alpine horns. Festival participants when they arrive, stop in this area to kowtow several times to pay their respects.

They don't linger long, but next head for the Tibetan-style chorten high up on the slope. Prayer banners of all colors hang from its walls. At mounds just below it, devotees burn pine branches and kowtow, then leave some pennants at the mound and attach others to the chorten's walls. With these acts, their devotional duties for the day are completed.

Monks playing horns during Rounding the Mountain Festival
Monks playing horns during Rounding the Mountain Festival

Having come so far, though, nobody is ready to leave just yet. They next have a leisurely picnic on the mountain slopes. The meal usually consists of pork or chicken and rice, augmented with local specialties like small fish, slices of three year-old ham, just-ripened apples and beer brewed from barley. For those who don't bring their own food, plenty of drink and snack stalls line the lower part of the grounds.

Unless there is a government-sponsored program of special events such as horse races or dances, the scene starts breaking up by mid-afternoon. But given that everybody's mood has been elevated by the event, it's likely some will break into song on the long hike home. Exhausted as they might be by the length of the trek to and from the festival grounds, many youngsters still manage to summon the energy for a boisterous evening ring dance around a bonfire in one of the village compounds. After all, it's festival time. We honored our goddess. Ganmo is pleased. The year will go well.

For 2015, Rounding the Mountain Festival is held on September 7.

Ganmo's shrine at the festival grounds
Ganmo's shrine at the festival grounds

Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally posted on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.

Images: Jim Goodman

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Great article with some excellent photographs Jim.

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