Tibetan Mythology

The Chinese occupation of Tibet, which began in 1951, led to a loss of many traditional practices, including storytelling. The wandering storytellers known as lami manipas or lama manis are no longer sanctioned by the current regime. Although they are not officially banned, their tradition, which dates back to perhaps the twelfth century C.E., is slowly dying out.

The lami manipas were traditionally of common birth and served a religious function. They traveled around Tibet carrying small shrines and sets of thangkas, which are traditional scrolls painted with religious themes.

The stories the lami manipas told were based on the paintings and served a dual purpose. They provided entertainment and educated the audience about the symbolism and meanings of the paintings and, through them, the traditional Tibetan Buddhist principles and legends. Whole villages would gather to hear these stories, especially during the holy month of the Buddha’s birth, often chanting religious mantras together.

Another form of storytelling that has been exiled for its religious nature is a type of dance. There are two major types, cham, which is sacred monastic dancing meant to banish evil and bring blessings, and achi lhamo, the folk dances and operas that portray moral stories of good versus evil.

Despite the Chinese occupation, one traditional form of storytelling is very much alive in Tibet: the recitation of the Tibetan national epic, Gesar of Ling. This story of the heromagician-king is known in all the Himalayan nations. In neighboring Ladakh it is known as Kesar’s Saga.

One of the longest epics still in active recitation, the nearly 200 episodes may take a total of three months to recite. The episodes are recited only at night and in the winter, and several nights are required to complete each one. The recitation is performed by the visionary bards known as drungpas (male) and drungmas (female). It is said that in the past, the hoofprints of Gesar’s horse might magically appear in a cleared circle around which the audience sat.