Villagers singing the praises of legendary hero over centuries

Updated: Apr 4, 2019 China Daily Print
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Tens of thousands of people flocked to plateau last year to enjoy epic and hear herders perform ancient tradition.

The story of King Gesar, an 11th-century Tibetan warrior with boundless supernatural powers, has for centuries been preserved by singers and storytellers living in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Herders from a plateau village in Qinghai province are passing on the oral tradition of the millennium-old heroic epic, which is inscribed on the UNESCO list of world intangible cultural heritage and believed to be the world's longest epic.

Every night, Palmo, a 25-year-old herdswoman from Durbud village in Golog Tibetan autonomous prefecture, sings episodes from King Gesar to put her 8-month-old daughter to sleep.

A statue of King Gesar at a cultural square in a Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Qinghai province. Provided to China Daily

"Sometimes, my baby daughter would make funny noises when I sing, as if she understands what I am singing," Palmo said. She added that many children in her village learned the epic as bedtime stories.

The village, at an average altitude of more than 4,000 meters, is home to some 860 herders, most of whom can sing at least a few lines from the epic.

According to local legends, the village was the battlefield where King Gesar and his invincible army vanquished the enemies and brought help to local people.

"Every family in the village would sing the epic to commemorate King Gesar's birthday each year, which falls on Dec 15 on the Tibetan calendar," Palmo said.

She added that a wide variety of activities and religious rituals related to King Gesar are held in the village throughout the year, such as singing contests and horse racing.

"During every winter vacation, some 30 children in the village would gather together to learn how to sing the epic," said 55-year-old Druju, Palmo's father and a veteran singer.

In 2014, Durbud village was recognized as a national-level King Gesar culture protection zone, due to its well-preserved oral tradition of the epic.

A large King Gesar museum, which displays the epic's history and introduces the singers, was also set up in the village.

The first floor of the museum has become the place where villagers gather to chant the stories of the mythical demigod king.

"Our village has built a King Gesar-themed park, which attracted some 20,000 visitors last summer," said Tselob, a local official. "Visitors can watch the villagers sing the epic while appreciating the natural sceneries on the plateau."

"The epic of King Gesar is a collective memory and unique culture created by Tibetan people," said Jampel Gyatso, a researcher with the Institute of Ethnic Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The preservation of its oral tradition in Durbud village is the living embodiment of Tibetan people's wisdom."

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