Exploring Monlam Chenmo: Captivating Moments from The Great Prayer

by David Marciano


Powerful documentation of several years of exploration in the regions of Kham and Amdo within the historical Tibetan cultural sphere captures the traditions and festivities of Buddhist doctrine and Tibetan nomadic culture.


Curated by Apratim Saha

Monlam Chemno, also known as “The Great Prayer,” stands as one of the most revered Tibetan Buddhist celebrations, typically falling between the 4th and 11th day of the 1st lunar month of the Tibetan New Year, which usually spans from February to March.

Monlam, meaning “Path of Desires,” symbolizes the journey undertaken by both the faithful and monks to aid others through prayers. It serves as a commemoration of the Buddha’s enlightenment and liberation from ignorance, particularly celebrated on Buddha Miracle Day. During this time, prayers are dedicated to sentient beings across the six realms: the Human Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Kingdom of Hungry Ghosts, Royal Hell, Demigod Kingdom, and Divine Kingdom.

Guardians on horseback protect monks with sacred paintings, carrying three jewels representing Buddha, Dharma, and Sanga. The Thangka, a large painting, is displayed on a hill in Labrang, Gansu, China.

The Thangka, (large painting) is taken to the top of a hill where it will be exhibited to be seen and venerated by all pilgrims. Labrang, Gansu, China.

Traditionally in Tibet, the onset of the Lunar New Year marked a period of grand offerings and assemblies, where monks engaged in potent rituals to beseech the removal of life’s obstacles. These rituals sought blessings for good health, success in endeavours, and harmonious relationships for oneself and one’s kin, extending prayers for the welfare of the entire world.

One of the main events of the event is the exhibition of the Thangka. Prostrating before it helps the faithful to connect with the Buddha. The large fabric depicts the effigy of the Buddha and after being unrolled on a hill near the monastery, it remains exposed for a few hours for the benefit of pilgrims. Labrang – Gansu, China.

Pilgrims, especially nomadic populations, flock to the main monasteries to attend the Tangka exhibition and participate in auspicious prayers. Langmusu- Gansu, Sichuan, China.

Monks gathered in the large assembly in front of the monastery where they prayed for the deceased and practised powerful rituals for a new year full of abundance and health for all. Langmusu- Gansu, Sichuan, China.

The Great Prayer Festival was formally instituted by the esteemed Holy Lama Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Cap Sect, in 1409. Its inaugural celebration took place in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The festival was envisioned as a two-week extravaganza comprising auspicious rituals, teachings, and festivities, spanning from the first new moon to the full moon of the Lunar New Year. According to Buddhist belief, this period marks the zenith of spiritual flourishing and prosperity, yet anticipates a gradual decline. Throughout the festival, monks, nuns, and pilgrims unite in prayer to defer and mitigate the impending decay that heralds suffering into the world.

A pilgrim prays in front of the Great Assembly of Monks. This route above the monastery is now inaccessible to tourists due to too many crowds on this day. Labrang, Gansu, China.

A group of nomadic pilgrims waiting to witness the ritual dances are consuming a collective breakfast offered by the monks of the monastery. Langmusu, Gansu, Sichuan, China.

At the beginning of the procession of the sacred painting, some officiants bless the pilgrims with ceremonial white silk scarves, the Khata which symbolizes welcome and is a symbol of purity and compassion.

Central to their belief system is the conviction that humanity will eventually endure its darkest era, characterized by strife, scarcity, and afflictions, until the advent of salvation embodied by Maitreya, the future Buddha. Maitreya’s prophesied emergence, estimated to occur within a span of 5,000 to 30,000 years, is anticipated as a pivotal epoch, heralding profound teachings for the benefit of all beings.

The procession of the monks’ Matreya Kora takes place on the last day of the celebrations, crosses the entire monastic town, and carries the effigy of the Buddha of the future. Langmusu- Gansu, Sichuan, China.

This nomadic pilgrim parades in front of the monks to have her child blessed so that he will have health and serenity in the new year. Langmusu- Gansu, Sichuan-China.

Even in contemporary times, Monlam remains a multifaceted celebration cherished by pilgrims. Each day unfolds with ceremonial events that echo the Time of the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. Ritual dances, communal meals, prayer congregations, and processions punctuate the festival, culminating in the unveiling of Thangka paintings, and revered artworks depicting the Buddha, prominently displayed by monasteries on this auspicious occasion. Monlam festivities resonate across numerous Buddhist communities in regions such as Sichuan, Ganzou, Qinghai, and the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Exhibition ceremony of the sacred painting in the monastic town of Langmusi which is located at the eastern end of the Tibetan plateau, nestled in a valley shared between the Chinese provinces of Gansu and Sichuan. Langmusu- Gansu, Sichuan, China.

The monks parade in procession. In the foreground, the Tibetan Mala is used for reciting Mantras. Each mala is made up of 108 wooden beads representing the 108 Buddhas evoked to protect, help in difficulties, obtain wealth, and ward off any threat.

The Cham dances are practiced by the monks themselves, through stories and tales they have the function of teaching the faithful population the complicated teachings of the Dharma. Langmusu- Gansu, Sichuan, China.

Pilgrims watch the procession of monks in Labrang. The third most important Lama in order of reincarnation after the Dalai Lama resides in Labrang. Labrang, Gansu, China.

Pilgrims queuing to enter the ancient monastery of Rebkhong. In the bags they bring gifts of yak butter which will be used to fuel the candles inside the monastery and for the creation of religious statues. Rebkhong, Quingai, China.

During several years of exploration in the regions of Kham and Amdo, within the historical Tibetan cultural sphere, David Marciano immersed himself in the traditions and festivities of Buddhist doctrine and Tibetan nomadic culture. These captivating photographs capture the essence of Monlam Chemno in the monastic towns of Labrang, Rebkhong, and Langmusi, taken between 2018 and 2019.

The faithful parade clockwise around the monks as a sign of devotion and bringing offerings and gifts to the monastery. Rebkhong, Quingai, China.

Pilgrims follow the Thangka scroll carried on the shoulders of the monks. It is believed that touching the fabric brings the Buddha directly into contact with the believer. Labrang , Gansu, China.

Pilgrims prostrating around the Kora of Labrang Monastery. The Kora is a pilgrimage route around Buddhist monasteries, often dotted with prayer wheels, which is circumnavigated by the faithful strictly clockwise as they pray and recite mantras. Labrang, Gansu, China.

David Marciano

David Marciano

David, originally from the province of Pisa, Italy, developed a profound passion for photography alongside his career in hydrothermal systems. His journey into photography began in the early 90s during a volunteer stint in India, where he acquired his first reflex camera. Since then, photography has become inseparable from his pursuits in travel and solidarity.

Initially drawn to black and white photography, David honed his skills within Italian photographic circles, transitioning seamlessly into digital photography while maintaining his fervor for capturing human experiences. His photographic repertoire primarily focuses on portraiture, street photography, and storytelling. David’s lens is consistently trained on the human sphere, weaving narratives that delve into the cultural, customary, and religious tapestries of the countries he visits.

Since 2012, David has embarked on a series of journeys through the Tibetan regions of the Himalayas, driven by a profound fascination with the religious rituals of Buddhism and the nomadic lifestyle.

The article has been edited by our Founder & Editor-In-Chief Apratim Saha.

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