Rugs and rituals: discovering a tantric Tibetan weaving community

Hidden away in the high Himalayas is Olanchung Gola. Deki Chholing, the 450 year old Tibetan monastery perches above this age old weaving community, whose intricate rugs have barely been seen by outsiders.

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Image Adrian Bottomley

Straddled between the giant 8000m peaks of Kanchenjunga and Makalu, Olanchung Gola takes some getting to. The week long journey from Kathmandu begins with a dusty two day bus ride east across Nepal, before arriving at the trailhead in Taplejung. The five day trek then climbs gradually up through lush cardamom forest and the Himalayan foothills before arriving at the remote village framed by spectacular snowy peaks.

The village is home to the ‘Walung’ people and was originally settled by seven families who crossed over from Tibet in search of ‘terma’ – sacred texts believed to have been hidden throughout the Himalaya by Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddism. The famous Tantric master is believed to have spent five days meditating in a cave nearby, and the surrounding mountains are still said to conceal several ‘nye’ (sacred places in Tibetan).

Image Adrian Bottomley

Situated above the village is the revered Deki Cholling Monastery, a 450 year old treasure trove of ancient thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings) and religious texts. It also hosts an esoteric Tantric festival that takes place every year that centres around a number of elaborate rituals performed by local monks and other dedicated practitioners who travel to the ceremony from Kathmandu, Tibet and Sikkim.

So what exactly is tantra? Famously misconstrued by Sting, and often associated with other new-age jargon, tantra has been commonly, but incorrectly, associated with sex. It’s more a set of practices and techniques, with a strong focus on rituals, mantras and meditative visualisations, that are intended to transform the body and self. The three day festival is a colourful combination of ritualised dances, ceremonies and offerings.

Image Adrian Bottomley

The local community participate in the tantric ceremonies of the festival in the hope that they will carry the community back to an archetypal ‘original’ condition, thereby giving the village an annual fresh start. The festival ends with the blessing of everyone in the community by the local head lama and is followed by some traditional celebratory dancing by the women of the village dressed in their traditional pangden (colourfully striped aprons).

The women of the village, are also some of the last remaining true artisanal Tibetan weavers in the Himalayas. The colourful hand knotted rugs, which are central to the self-identity of the village, each take four to six weeks to make and typically depict traditional checkerboard and tiger pelt designs as well as other Tibetan tantric symbols.

Image Adrian Bottomley

The Olanchung Gola weaving tradition dates back hundreds of years and uses a rare doubled crossed knotting technique. The yarn is knotted over a metal rod that is pushed horizontally across the warp. When the whole knot is made, a crossed cotton weft is put across to separate the pile, then combined and compacted with a wooden hammer. It is then slit with a sharp blade across the metal rod to make a beautiful thick pile.

Two of the locally sourced natural dyes are ‘panjar’ and ‘kohim’. Panjar is a plant leaf used to produce the brown coloured wool that often provides the background to many of the brightly coloured motifs, while kohim is a local tree root that is used to dye the wool orange and red (by adding natural Himalayan salt). By soaking the wool in the dyes for varying amounts of time, different tones of the same colour are also created.

Image Adrian Bottomley

These beautiful rugs have only made it out of the Himalayas recently. I brought some down the mountain trails by yak to share the beautiful craftsmanship of the Olanchung Gola with a bigger audience. I’m planning to go back again this year to trek beyond the village up to a sacred lake surrounded by 6000m peaks that has never before been visited by outsiders. Local villagers believe that those of advanced spiritual progression can see their future karmic path reflected in the crystal clear waters. Perhaps I’ll see mine.