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Why Hair Needs to Be Long

Religious Identity, Embodied Divinity and Power among the Repkong Tantrists (North-East Tibet)
De la nécessité des cheveux longs : identité religieuse, divinité incorporée et pouvoir parmi les tantristes du Repkong (nord-est du Tibet)
Nicolas Sihlé

Résumés

Les tantristes tibétains (des pratiquants bouddhistes non monastiques de rituels tantriques) accordent beaucoup d'importance au fait de garder leurs cheveux longs. L'importance des cheveux des tantristes est particulièrement frappante dans le district du Repkong (nord-est du Tibet), qui est célèbre pour son grand nombre de tantristes, dont beaucoup portent des dreadlocks nouées autour de la tête. L'objectif de cette étude de la culture capillaire des tantristes du Repkong est de montrer que, dans leurs cheveux, situés à l'interface du corporel, du social et du politique, nous avons un marqueur identitaire surdéterminé. L'approche analytique des cheveux de Bromberger, qui se concentre surtout sur des facteurs sociologiques, tels l'appartenance au groupe ou la norme et la marginalité, est pertinente ici, mais laisse de côté des dimensions culturelles clés du phénomène. Les notions tibétaines relatives à l'incorporation du divin ou au pouvoir rituel associé aux cheveux montrent l'importance d'inclure des questions sur les perceptions culturelles de la nature des cheveux et de leurs relations avec la personne ou avec les êtres qui peuvent y résider.

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Introduction1

  • 1 My warmest thanks go to my Tibetan hosts, assistants, interlocutors and friends (too numerous and, (...)
  • 2 For instance, in a text on Padmasambhava we find the wording: rab byung ngur smrig gi sde dang gos (...)
  • 3 In order to make the reading of Tibetan terms easier for non-Tibetanists, I provide phonetic transc (...)
  • 4 See Stein, [1962] 1987: 65; Karmay, 1998: 9 and passim; Ramble, 1984: 30; Sihlé, 2013a: 15-16. The (...)

1As a common, albeit rather literary expression has it, in Tibet the Buddhist clergy is twofold, made up of “the category of the saffron-robed monks, and the category of the long-haired [ones] clothed in white”.2 The former hardly need an introduction. The latter are most commonly known as ngakpa [sngags pa],3 “mantra/tantra practitioners”, or tantrists, as the term is often rendered in Western languages.4 These non-monastic religious specialists are typically married and very often form family lineages, from father to son. Although to a large extent their religious activities overlap with those of their monastic counterparts, throughout Tibetan areas they are the primary specialists of the tantric practices situated at the powerful, violent end of the ritual spectrum, such as strong exorcisms.

ill. 1 – The dual clergy of Tibetan Buddhism: tantrist and monk

ill. 1 – The dual clergy of Tibetan Buddhism: tantrist and monk

© Nicolas Sihlé, Khyunggön temple, Repkong, 2012

  • 5 This style is similar to the “turban of matted hair” worn by many Hindu ascetics (Hausner, 2007: 27 (...)

2Despite the popularity of the above-mentioned literary expression, the available empirical evidence suggests that most tantrists have never worn white clothes (nor, for that matter, do Tibetan monks generally wear saffron robes). However, the long hair, which also appears in this expression as a defining characteristic of tantrists (in implicit but very clear contrast to the short or shaven hair of the monks), is indeed a key element of ngakpa subculture. This is particularly true in Repkong [Reb kong] county in northeastern Tibet, an area known for its particularly large numbers of Buddhist and Bönpo [Bon po] tantrists, for the awe-inspiring ritual power that, collectively and sometimes individually, they are perceived to wield, and—not unrelatedly, as we shall see—for the equally impressive signature hairstyle that many Repkong ngakpa sport: a massive coil of twisted dreadlocks wound around their head.5

Aims and methodology

  • 6 See Bromberger’s introduction to this special issue, as well as a fuller exposition of his work in (...)

3The aim of the present article is to analyze and interpret, from an ethnographic perspective, the cultural grammar of this particular religious and capillary subculture, focusing on the Repkong case. What makes the study of Tibetan tantrists’ hairstyle(s) of particular interest is that we find in these capillary entanglements—at the intersection between the bodily, the social and the political—an overdetermined religious identity marker. This paper will also argue that Bromberger’s powerful comparative analysis of “hair logics” (or trichologiques), with its four key dimensions of analysis (gender, social identities, norm and order vs. margin, and finally aesthetic norms),6 intriguingly leaves us somewhat ill-equipped to appreciate certain key associations of tantrists’ long hair, such as embodied divinity and ritual power. A somewhat wider range of analytical/theoretical concerns is needed.

4It should be stressed that in matters of tantric hair practices and ideas, we are dealing with a weakly or inconsistently codified domain. The texts called “explanation of the dreadlocks”, relshé [ral bshad], such as the one studied by Bogin (2008), are not always specific in matters of actual hairstyles (as acknowledged by Bogin, 2008: 108), nor are they always consistent with one another. This latter difficulty was once pointed out to me by one of my Repkong ngakpa friends, who had spent quite some time trying in vain to identify consistent, standard norms in this respect in the various literary sources at his disposal. Similarly, actual local practices, norms and ideas vary to some extent, as we will see. This highlights the importance of what a precise, ethnographically based enquiry can contribute in such matters. One of the more highly educated tantrists I met emphasized that common ideas and textual religious sources regarding tantrists’ hair vary widely in content. The sphere we are about to explore should thus be seen as located at the complex juncture of regional and more local traditions of practice, learned literary traditions, and the play of interpretation and constitution of meaning.

Socioreligious context

  • 7 The Nyingma order is literally that of the “Ancient [translation of the tantras]”. Most tantrists b (...)
  • 8 In Amdo, “Alak” is a respectful term of reference and address for masters (particularly reincarnate (...)
  • 9 The Minling tradition originated in the Mindröling monastery, a major Nyingma monastic institution (...)

5In religious terms, the Repkong tantrists are not a very homogenous group. They live in dozens of villages scattered across the county, some of them boasting several dozen tantrists, while others have more modest contingents. I use the phrase “tantrist village communities” to reflect the important place of the tantrists in many of these villages’ socioreligious life. Most of them follow Nyingma [rNying ma] traditions of tantric practice, though a very substantial minority belong to the Bön [Bon] tradition.7 The latter form a somewhat more unified group, as for decades they have all been followers of the same revered Bönpo master, known as Alak Böngya [A lags Bon brgya], the head of the Böngya monastery in Repkong (whose demise in the summer of 2018 coincided with the final touch-ups to this article).8 In contrast, the Nyingma tantrists are more divided. They are all followers of one or several masters among a handful of local religious figures (some very active, others less so). The primary structuring feature is the practitioners’ (whether lama or rank-and-file tantrist) association with a common ritual tradition. To simplify somewhat, there are two locally dominant ritual traditions: tantric cycles of the Minling [sMin (grol) gling] tradition on the eastern side of the main valley, or of the Longchen Nyingtik [Klong chen snying thig] on the western side.9 The structuring of the Repkong tantrists’ collective religious activity around a few major temples seems to have begun in the early eighteenth century (Dhondup, 2011: 47).

  • 10 On the various factors at play in tantrists’ decisions about whether or not to take part in these s (...)

6Unlike monks, who generally lead cenobitic lives with daily collective religious activities, tantrists are primarily householders who only occasionally get to meet other tantrists in religious contexts. They congregate for a few monthly or annual collective rituals within their respective villages, as well as for a limited number of larger annual supra-local ritual gatherings (just one or two in many cases), which may last three or four days, rarely more.10 During their initial training, they may spend substantial time—the equivalent of several months over a period of a few years—learning from one or two teachers (typically knowledgeable tantrists from their own villages), but aside from that, they only rarely and sporadically gather to receive teachings or tantric initiations. In Repkong, these are given by Alak Böngya in the case of the Bönpos, but in the case of the Nyingma tantrists, in recent decades, many of their teachers and masters have come from other parts of eastern Tibet. There is thus a certain variety and irregularity in the flow patterns of religious content (ideas, practices) among tantrists, and as we shall see, this is particularly true with regard to their somewhat inconsistently codified “hair culture”.

7Of course, the basic socioreligious (and trichologically relevant) categories with which the people of Repkong operate extend beyond the simple duality of the (shaven-headed) monk versus the (long-haired) tantrist. First, the figure of the layperson needs to be brought into the discussion. Today, laymen in Repkong generally keep their hair short, but up until the 1950s they often had long hair. At that time (and again in the 1980s to an extent), it was actually very common to wear a braid or queue in the “Chinese” (originally Manchu-imposed) style, made with the hair from a disc-shaped area on the crown of the head, keeping the rest of the hair short—this even applied to a number of tantrists, at least in their early years. This being the case, long hair was not a sufficient criterion for identifying a tantrist; if external differences were present at all, they were to be found in the different hairstyles (something we will return to later). However, among today’s Repkong men, long hair has become a quite distinctive marker of the tantrists—at least at a normative level. As we will see, in practice, some young adult tantrists keep their hair relatively short, such as most of those with jobs, like taxi drivers. (Conversely, some young lay intellectuals and artists like to sport long hair, as Robin mentions in her article in this issue.) As for elderly tantrists, who were forced to cut their long hair in the period spanning from 1958 to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), some of them explain that their hair growth has been weakening with age, and that this has made it difficult if not impossible for them to grow long hair again. Below we will see the creative solutions that post-Mao tantrists have found to meet the requirement to wear long hair.

  • 11 In Repkong, the first term, amchö [a mchod], commonly designates a monk who enjoys special patronag (...)

8However, the situation is slightly more complex than a simple monk-layman-tantrist triad (roughly in increasing order of hair length). In a few Repkong villages an additional socioreligious category of more modest non-monastic practitioners is recognized. Depending on the village, these practitioners are called either amchö or amchö gyawo11. They are described as not being held to the same standards of religious/ethical discipline as ngakpa (for example they can kill livestock, as tantrists sometimes point out) and they are not obliged to wear their hair long: thus the association between (real) tantrists and long hair is indirectly reaffirmed.

  • 12 Similar hairstyles are to be found among monastic virtuoso yogis of the Drukpa-Kagyü [’Brug pa bka’ (...)

9There are also some exceptional figures that somewhat transcend the duality between (short-haired) monk and (long-haired) tantrist. Without a doubt, the most famous example in Repkong is the great yogi and saint Zhapkar Tsokdruk Rangdröl [Zhabs dkar tshogs drug rang grol] (1781-1851), himself a native of Repkong. Although born into a community that included numerous Nyingma tantrists, he became a monk, but let his hair grow long again during his extended meditation retreats.12 Since he was still wearing the lower dress characteristic of the fully-ordained monk, his mixed appearance left many of the people he encountered during his travels unsure of how to classify him. A number of the spontaneously composed songs that Zhapkar recorded in his autobiography answer these people’s questions by extolling the concrete benefits or symbolic associations of his long hair—and of his categorial in-betweenness itself (Ricard, 1994: 107-108, 129, 359; Zhabs dkar, 1985: 207-209, 255-256, 707-708).

10In the questions and in Zhapkar’s responses, this in-betweenness is expressed as a hesitation between (or play on) two opposite categories, sometimes with a third category bridging or resolving the tension. Once he is asked if he is “a Bönpo or a [Buddhist] tantrist” (bönpo am ngakpa [bon po’am sngags pa]) (Zhabs dkar, 1985: 208); on other occasions he states that he is a yogi (neljor [rnal ’byor]) who is “neither Nyingma nor Geluk” (ibid.: 707-708), or even a “Nyingma [who is] neither a [Buddhist] monk nor a Bönpo” (ben min bön min nyingma [ban min bon min rnying ma]) (ibid.: 256). One of my local interlocutors, quoting the autobiography from memory, inadvertently reformulated this last passage in a sociologically telling way: Zhapkar was neither a monk nor a tantrist; he was a hermit, ritröpa [ri khrod pa]. Another educated interlocutor, preferring to think of the problematic duality in Zhapkar as a conjunction rather than a logically exclusive duality, claimed that Zhapkar should be called a ngak-tsün [sngags btsun], literally “tantrist-monk”—a rarely used term that would seem to refer sometimes to a tantrist, sometimes to a monk who performs tantric rituals; ultimately, however, it does not resolve the issue presented by Zhapkar’s highly unusual hairstyle for a monk.

11Adding mythological and other types of simile to the expressions mentioned above, Zhapkar’s songs also play on the categorial uncertainty produced by the combination of his monk’s robe and long hair to hint at higher truths beyond apparent dualities. The Tibetan duality between the short-haired monk and long-haired tantrist would appear to be a cognitively and symbolically (or poetically) powerful one—making Zhapkar’s transgression of these categorial boundaries an unsettling sight.

  • 13 See, however, some examples mentioned in Schrempf and Schneider (eds.), 2015.

12Last but not least, let us now bring gender explicitly into the picture. Laywomen keep their hair very long, and nuns keep theirs shaven or very short. As for tantrists, throughout Tibetan areas they belong to a very masculine part of the religious field: according to most Tibetan understandings, tantrists are always men, and non-monastic female members of the Buddhist clergy are virtually unheard of in many areas.13 In Repkong, however, and to a lesser degree in some neighboring areas, a new phenomenon has powerfully emerged over the past generation (with modest roots going back at least to the early twentieth century): female non-monastic tantric practitioners, trained in the same ritual traditions as the local tantrists. These are now increasingly called ngakma [sngags ma], a term that until a decade ago was still very uncommon in Repkong, and remains unknown in most areas beyond the neighboring counties. Nyingma masters who have been providing support to the Repkong ngakma have advised them to wear their hair in a single braid, as many (male) tantrists do, instead of the common female hairstyle with two braids, one on each side of the head. However, not all ngakma have followed this recommendation: most women have a large amount of long hair, so some ngakma have chosen to keep two braids, arguing that a single, thick braid is too stiff and unwieldy for domestic work.

ill. 2 – Several ngakma, wearing their hair in a single braid

ill. 2 – Several ngakma, wearing their hair in a single braid

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

Terminology and typology of forms

  • 14 Another list of Tibetan terms appears on a website maintained by a group of Western tantric practit (...)

13Beyond these broader sociological distinctions, tantrists’ hairstyles vary in complex ways. There are recognized regional variations. Repkong tantrists are renowned far beyond the county boundaries for their taste for very large coils of dreadlocks wound on top of their heads. In neighboring Labrang [Bla brang] to the east and Tsekhok [rTse khog] to the south, these bulky coils of dreadlocks are far less common. Within a county or even a single village community, hairstyles vary quite widely according to age (as we will see), but also in more personal ways. At the outset, it is essential to establish a working typology and pay close attention to local terminological usage.14

  • 15 The term also refers to a “mane”, such as that of a lion.
  • 16 Dreadlocks are also occasionally subject to some form of care and styling; however, as Bogin points (...)

14In Repkong and probably far beyond, the single most important category in tantrists’ discourse is relpa [ral pa] (pronounced rawa in Amdo). According to its primary meaning, this term refers to hair that has been left unkempt and allowed to grow long and matted (such as while the person is engaged in a prolonged meditation retreat)—in other words, hair that has formed into dreadlocks (see Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 88).15 Having relpa hair is the primary criterion for being recognized as a “real” tantrist in Repkong discourse (a point to which we will return shortly). However I hasten to add that, strictly speaking, the above description of relpa hardly fits anybody. The dreadlocks worn by a number of tantrists (primarily elderly or middle-aged ones) have been actively produced through precise technical manipulation of the hair (as discussed below)—they are by no means the ideologically postulated “uncontrived” or “unfabricated” (machöpa [ma bcos pa]) results of a prolonged lack of attention to one’s hair.16

15The disjunction between the primary meaning of relpa and its uses in common discourse is, however, more profound. Most Repkong tantrists (especially among the younger generation) have long hair but no dreadlocks, and the term relpa is very often used in a broader sense to refer simply to long hair. For instance, the common expression relpa zhak [bzhag, lit. “leave”] is generally understood to mean “to let one’s hair grow long”.

  • 17 Local informants were generally unable to provide a spelling for the term gyələ, which may have no (...)

16The key term relpa, or rawa in Amdo, thus has a strict meaning (hair in the form of dreadlocks—the quintessential relpa, so to speak) and a very common, much broader meaning (long hair—that is, in the case of a tantrist). The context is not always unequivocal enough to distinguish clearly between the two, and two other Amdo terms are sometimes used: the noun gyələ, literally “twisted locks”, and the related verb gyi, “to twist”.17 Dreadlocks are generally made by twisting two strands of hair into one thin, cord-like “twisted lock” (just a few millimeters in diameter), which becomes matted over time. One says gyələ gyi or rawa gyi, “to twist dreadlocks”. (For an example of recent dreadlocks, with the cord-like structure still clearly visible, see ill. 14 below.)

  • 18 Nyida Heruka gives the term reltak [ral thag], literally “relpa cord” (Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 88).

17Other terms for hairstyles are far less commonly used by tantrists. Tantrists who do not have dreadlocks generally keep their hair braided (in a single braid, as mentioned above) or in a ponytail. A short ponytail is left hanging at the back, but if the hair is long enough, whether braided or not, it is most often tied, wound and fastened around the head using a long, thin band of fabric (red, orange, or in rare cases black) which in Amdo is called ramtel [ral mthud, lit. “(that which) joins the hairs (or locks)”].18 The same device is also used to attach dreadlocks in a coil around the head.

ill. 3 – Tantrists’ hair, fastened around the head with the ramtel band

ill. 3 – Tantrists’ hair, fastened around the head with the ramtel band

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2011

  • 19 Nyida Heruka also expresses a critical opinion on this matter (Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 90).

18There are terms to describe these hairstyles—for instance, braiding one’s hair is called tra lé [skra sle] (Amdo: kya la) or go lé [mgo sle] (Amdo: go la), “braiding the hair (or head)”—but they are rarely used, and distinguishing between the braid and ponytail styles is not an issue. What is much more of an issue is the tendency among some tantrists to wear a Chinese-style braid or queue, gathering the hair from a disc-shaped area at the crown of the head, keeping the rest of the hair short or even shaven. The “Chineseness” of this style is downplayed by those who adopt it, but key for those who criticize it. As we have seen, this hairstyle was quite prevalent among Repkong men in the 1950s; today, some of the critics argue that this choice of hairstyle stems from a certain confusion between the tantrist’s relpa (which must comprise absolutely all the hair, as they insist) and the Chinese queue19. Furthermore, in the tense current political context, some also point out that it is a misguided choice from an ideological perspective.

ill. 4 – Opposed styles: dreadlocks and the Chinese-inspired queue

ill. 4 – Opposed styles: dreadlocks and the Chinese-inspired queue

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2012

19Finally, one much more rarely sees tantrists letting their hair flow freely over their shoulders, in a style colloquially called *somo. This one is suggestive of the “uncontrived” (machöpa) state—but only suggestive, of course: the hair is actually combed and washed.

  • 20 On this important local figure, see Dhondup, 2013: 118-120.

20In literary sources and iconography, the topknot (zurpü [zur phud] or torchok [thor cog]) is associated with tantrists (but also with the upper ranks of the Central Tibetan nobility—see Cassinelli and Ekvall, 1969: 122), and this association also appears to some extent in Repkong. One of the founding figures of the Repkong Nyingma tantrists’ tradition, Palchen Namkha Jikmé [dPal chen nam mkha’ ’jigs med] (1757-1821),20 is depicted with a topknot—and freely falling hair (see ill. 5).

ill. 5 – Palchen Namkha Jikmé, a founding figure for Repkong Nyingma tantrists

ill. 5 – Palchen Namkha Jikmé, a founding figure for Repkong Nyingma tantrists

© Nicolas Sihlé, Khyunggön temple, Repkong, 2011

  • 21 Nyida Heruka defines the term changlo as “dreadlocks coiled on the crown of the head and attached w (...)

21Finally, the term changlo [lcang lo], which seems to refer to braided or matted hair, is rarely heard. It is used mainly in a classic, rather literary expression characterizing the tantrist (a less common version of which has already been mentioned above), gö-kar changlo-chen [gos dkar lcang lo can], “those with long hair and white clothes”.21

22Along with relpa/rawa (and to a much lesser extent gyələ), the most common term used when referring to tantrists’ hair is actually the designation of a substitute: chörel [bcos ral] (in Amdo chira). This is literally a “fabricated relpa”, that is, a wig imitating the tantrist’s long dreadlocks. These wigs are used to meet the widely claimed need to have long hair (a relpa) in cases where the tantrist’s personal history (most often including the forced cutting of their hair during the Maoist period) or poor hair growth have made it impossible to grow the requisite long hair.

23In an ideological context in which “uncontrived” hair is so highly valued, there is of course something delightfully ironic about using a “fabricated relpa”, and this is not totally lost on local tantrists, who sometimes tease those wearing a wig, paying them tongue-in-cheek compliments on their “impressive” (Amdo: tsaya) hair. We will come back to this intriguing element of the local hair culture later.

  • 22 In his study of Bönpo tantrists (of Repkong in particular), Tsering Thar uses the term relshup [ral (...)

24Another object that should be mentioned here is a black cloth that is sometimes wrapped around the hair to protect it from dust. In Amdo this is called ratəm [ral thum], literally “hair wrapping”.22 It is often used by tantrists with dreadlocks, but not exclusively or constantly; tantrists wearing a wig may also use one.

25Among Tibetan tantrists, how widespread is the tradition of wearing dreadlocks? Precise data is lacking; but keeping one’s hair long and combed, either braided or simply tied in a ponytail, is perhaps the most standard style throughout Tibetan tantrist environments. Beyond Repkong (and the neighboring counties to some extent), so far Dolpo [Dol po] in northwest Nepal is the only other Tibetan area where a strong dreadlock tradition has been documented (Jest, 1975: 305-306).

Capillary biographies

26The Repkong tantrists’ strong emphasis on the relpa category (hair in the form of dreadlocks strictly speaking, but more generally just long hair) obscures the substantial diversity of hairstyles. As we have started to see, this diversity is partly informed by the age factor. In the photograph below of a group of tantrists from one particular village (ill. 6), we see tantrists ranging in age from around 20 (the youngest and most junior recruit, with much shorter hair) to 70; dreadlocks are to be found primarily among the elderly and middle-aged (sitting in the second row). Taking inspiration from discussions of the socially determined character of human hair (Turner, 1980; Bromberger, 2010) and the “cultural biography of things” (Kopytoff, 1986), let us more precisely examine the biographical trajectories of tantrists’ hair.

  • 23 On the striking presence of “white [and red] shawls” (zenkar [gzan dkar]) in this picture, see belo (...)

ill. 6 – A variety of hairstyles informed by age23

ill. 6 – A variety of hairstyles informed by age23

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2012

Childhood

27A young (potential) future tantrist’s socialization into tantrist culture often begins at a very early age, as most of them have a tantrist in their immediate family environment—typically their father or grandfather. Culturally, following in their (grand)father’s footsteps is understood to be one of their main options. The only son of one very committed tantrist from a highly regarded tantrist community in a Repkong village did very well at school and actually went on to study economics at university. However, he told me that as a child, he used to put on a wig and go play at the village temple. This detail, although minor, is revealing: the defining character of the tantrist’s hair is clear even to small boys.

Becoming a tantrist

  • 24 The tenth-day worship of Padmasambhava is a key element of Nyingma tantrists’ ritual culture, but i (...)

28In contrast to entering the monastic orders, becoming a tantrist is rarely marked by a formal ritual procedure and a clear change of socioreligious status. One starts by learning to read and by memorizing basic texts with one’s father or grandfather, or with a knowledgeable tantrist from the same village. At a certain point (nowadays usually around the beginning of adulthood), one starts to take part in the tsechu [tshes bcu] (lit. “[ritual of] the tenth day”), the monthly ritual gatherings held in each tantrist village community on the tenth day of the lunar month. These are devoted to the worship of Orgyen Rinpoché [O rgyan rin po che], literally the “Precious one from Uddiyana”—one of the Tibetan names for Padmasambhava, an Indian master who, in Tibetan historiography, is considered the main introducer of tantric teachings into Tibet, and was subsequently given a central position in the pantheon of the Nyingma order. In many tantrist communities, starting to participate in the tsechu marks the beginning of one’s commitment to the tantrist path.24 In the Gurong [dGu rong] community north of Repkong, the procedure is a little more formal: the young candidate asks the local master for his permission, and then some red thread is attached to his hair to mark his new status.

29At that point, the young man is not expected to already have long hair, but it is considered appropriate for him to start letting his hair grow.

Letting one’s hair grow long

30Typically, young tantrists start with a short ponytail at the back of their head, which gradually gets longer. As one middle-aged, somewhat more religiously sophisticated tantrist put it to me, he became a tantrist “externally” when he started to keep his hair long—that is to say, becoming a tantrist “internally” (at a higher level and therefore more fully) implied other criteria: a code of conduct, tantric commitments (Skt. samaya), practices, etc.

  • 25 Politically, in the decades preceding the Communist takeover in 1949, Repkong and most of eastern Q (...)

31Embarking on the path of the tantrist and getting married often follow each other in fairly quick succession, and this period is one of increased economic responsibilities for a young man. Some young adult tantrists are able to find work outside the village doing jobs in which long hair might sometimes seem odd (taxi driver for example), so they keep their hair relatively short for a number of years. They might have a relatively modest level of religious activity during these first years, though they try to participate in the monthly tsechu rituals as often as possible. Their elders or their lama [bla ma] might put some pressure on them to adopt a more conformant tantrist hairstyle, and they will ultimately need to make a choice: either remain on the periphery of the “tantrist” category, or more fully embrace their tantrist identity and the embodied mode of being this entails. Switching back and forth between their religious moral communities and their partially secularized world of capitalist economic opportunity means navigating conflicting demands. However, we should not assume that this kind of situation is entirely new. As we have seen with the case of the widespread Chinese-style queue, prior to the 1950s, Repkong tantrists already lived in a world partially exposed to Chinese powers, norms and influences.25

32A key formative phase in a tantrist’s career is the performance of a ngöndro [sngon ’gro], a series of preliminary practices that prepare him for tantric activity. These include for example one hundred thousand prostrations and the same number of recitations of the buddha Vajrasattva mantra (key purification practices). A ngöndro is also a prerequisite for obtaining certain tantric initiations—or the “hair consecration”, relwang [ral dbang], which is generally associated with the formation of dreadlocks, as we will see. There is no precise moment in life when these preliminary practices have to be carried out, and there are some serious practitioners who carry out several series of them over the course of their religious careers (ideally in retreat, but often spread out over longer periods, because tantrists cannot neglect their household responsibilities). In principle, however, performing a (first) ngöndro is a key initial phase, and some say that one should simultaneously start engaging in the practice and begin keeping one’s hair long. A tantrist’s long hair may also receive ritual attention at the beginning. An acquaintance from Gyawo Gang [rGyal po sgang] village said that a decade or two earlier, when a young tantrist embarked on his preliminary practices, his hair was braided by a woman married into a family with an uninterrupted line of tantrists, one who had both husband and children—an auspicious image of continuity and completeness befitting this important launch into ritual practice.

Starting to grow dreadlocks

33The two key steps of starting to grow dreadlocks and receiving a “dreadlock consecration” (relwang) are often interrelated and concurrent, but not always, as we will see in the set of examples below. Some tantrists might go through none of these steps or only one of them, and even if they undergo both, they do not systematically occur at the same time, nor do they always come in the same order. What I have not encountered in my conversations with contemporary Repkong tantrists (though in recent generations it might have happened in exceptional cases?) was the ideal pattern of developing dreadlocks as a result of prolonged retreats of religious practice—see the aforementioned case of Zhapkar or that of the Central Tibetan master Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu [Yol mo ba bsTan ’dzin nor bu] (1598-1644), who depicted this process in his illustrated autobiography:

ill. 7 – Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu in extended tantric retreat

ill. 7 – Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu in extended tantric retreat

Source: Bogin, 2013: 129, by permission of the author

ill. 8 – Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu with dreadlocks, after his retreat

ill. 8 – Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu with dreadlocks, after his retreat

Source: Bogin, 2013: 131, by permission of the author

  • 26 All personal names given here, aside from those of masters, are pseudonyms.
  • 27 This is the Tibetan age, and corresponds roughly to the Western age of 23.

34Dorjé Gyal [rDo rje rgyal]26 (1920-2010), a tantrist I met several times in 2003-04, recalled that at the age of twenty-four,27 he was summoned by the previous Alak Khyunggön [Khyung dgon] and told to undo his hair. The lama then proceeded to make a “twisted lock” (gyələ) with one strand of his hair, and the rest of his hair was subsequently turned into twisted locks by other tantrists. (The lama always only begins the process, with just one or a few locks.) The young man’s father was reportedly unhappy about this early start to his son’s dreadlocks, but since they had already been made, he insisted that his son perform the preliminary tantric practices (ngöndro) that same year, and the young man did. Two years later, the young tantrist had the opportunity to receive a “dreadlock consecration” from the eminent Nyingma master Dilgo Khyentsé [Dil mgo mkhyen brtse] Rinpoché, who was traveling through that part of Amdo.

  • 28 Local understandings diverge on this point. Some tantrists heard that Alak Khyunggön had conferred (...)
  • 29 One also hears “Ma Za Dor, the three” [Ma gZa’ rDor gsum]. Both expressions refer to Mamo Ekajaṭī [ (...)

35A similar order of events is seen in the case of a middle-aged tantrist from another village, who is currently in his forties. In 2011, he told me he was planning to have twisted locks made sometime in the near future, and hoped thereafter to obtain a dreadlock consecration. However, in contrast to this statement, the most common motive in the narratives I have heard (as in the previous case) is that the decision to initiate the process of growing dreadlocks was made by someone else, such as one’s master or teacher. In 2013, on the occasion of a large ritual gathering, the current Alak Khyunggön (born in 1986) summoned eight ngakpa and made three twisted locks for each of them, and then the rest of the hair was turned into twisted locks by various acquaintances of each of the tantrists. (These helpers need not be tantrists themselves: for instance, they can be pastoral herders, drokpa [’brog pa], who are reputed to be skilled in rope-making.) The young Alak Khyunggön apparently did not give the eight ngakpa a “dreadlock consecration”28. While making the twisted locks, he only recited a text, through which each of them was entrusted (te [gtad]) to the most important Nyingma triad of fearsome protectors, “Ma Za Dam, the three” [Ma gZa’ Dam gsum].29

  • 30 Dudjom Rinpoche, 2012: 482-483. These eight “Awareness-Holders” are Indian masters. However, the sa (...)

36My interlocutors noted that the event constituted a tendrel [rten ’brel]—an event organized auspiciously so that it will lead to positive future developments—the eight tantrists being symbolic of the “Eight Rikdzin” [Rig ’dzin, Skt. Vidyādhara, lit. Awareness-Holders], eight great tantric practitioners entrusted with the initial transmission of the important set of teachings called the Kagyé [bKa’ brgyad, “Eight Transmissions”].30 (Interestingly, this event echoed an earlier, similar one: in the early 1990s, Lama Tsering [Bla ma tshe ring], a senior, highly learned tantrist from Linggya [Gling rgya] village whose stature was close to that of a master, assembled eight tantrists on the occasion of a large collective Kagyé ritual, and conferred a dreadlock consecration upon each of them, making each tantrist’s first twisted locks. The symbolic connection to the Eight Rikdzin was clearly present at that moment as well.)

  • 31 Whereas in many other Tibetan areas the emphasis is on a ngakpa’s “bone-lineage” (dunggyü [gdung rg (...)

37Nowadays at least, Repkong tantrists typically only start to wear dreadlocks when they are middle-aged. The youngest case that I heard of was a tantrist I interviewed in 2011. His first “twisted locks” were made in the late 1940s, when he was 14 by the Tibetan count, and he received a “dreadlock consecration” at the same time. His religious training only began in earnest that same year. It is unclear why the local master, Alak Yeshé [Ye shes], decided to make the twisted locks and perform the consecration at such an early stage. It should be noted that Alak Yeshé is remembered for having also conferred hair consecrations upon male lay villagers—a very uncommon practice. However, it may also have been that the master took into account the fact that the boy belonged to a highly-regarded “ngakpa house”, ngak-khyim [sngags khyim].31 Alak Yeshé also told the boy that he would become a “fine tantrist”.

  • 32 See also Jest (1975: 306) for the Dolpo case.

38As we have seen, although tantrists’ dreadlocks are sometimes mentioned in reference to the “uncontrived hair” ideal, they are actually all but uncontrived. The initial twisted locks are produced using a technique very similar to two-ply cord-making. Furthermore, some tantrists make their locks thicker and longer by adding yak’s hair, as Thar (2008: 545) has already pointed out in the case of Bönpo tantrists in Repkong.32 Tantrists sometimes discuss this very question among themselves. In 2011, during a major collective ritual, a group of young tantrists taking a break outside the temple approached Shawo Gyal [Sha bo rgyal], the chant master, umdzé [dbu mdzad]—a tall, large, imposing figure with a powerful voice—and asked about his hair, wanting to know if his particularly impressive mass of thin, cord-like locks was only made up of his own hair. He insisted that it was. They were somewhat surprised, and one of them briefly fingered a lock or two, still unsure whether or not to believe him. In 2015, I asked him the same question. In the meantime, the locks had partly lost their finely woven cord-like aspect and become more matted and indistinct. He explained to me that when he had first fashioned the “twisted locks”, he had added some of his own fallen hair, which he had collected over time when combing. But he firmly insisted that he had not added anything like yak’s hair. Most of these added hairs had probably fallen out again later on, he assumed. Basically, he really just had a lot of hair.

39However, his account of how his first “twisted locks” were made came with an unexpected twist—something more personal that he had never mentioned during our previous discussions on the topic (since 2011 Shawo Gyal has gradually become one of my main interlocutors, a frequent host and a friend). A senior tantrist in his village, whom he and many others considered their master, had repeatedly promised to make him some “twisted locks”, but had kept postponing it, until one day (in Shawo Gyal’s mid-thirties), when he visited his master in his practice and retreat cell, tsamkhang [mtshams khang], he found him rearranging his own dreadlocks. Shawo Gyal asked if his master would make him some “twisted locks”, and the old tantrist agreed, having checked the day’s astrological qualities and noted that they were excellent. They prepared the ritual materials for a “dreadlock consecration”, which the master then conferred on his disciple, while making eighteen “twisted locks” for him. (The other twisted locks would be made later by his maternal uncle, a layman and rope-making expert.) Then the old tantrist suddenly pulled a dreadlock out of his own hair, and attached it among Shawo Gyal’s locks. He pointed out that this was a tendrel (an auspicious act carrying the potential for positive future developments): he was 80, and he told his disciple that he too would live a long life. His hair was white, and easy to pull out. To the best of Shawo Gyal’s knowledge, this was a rare, possibly unique gesture. With one possible exception, he had never heard anyone mention having received a lock of his master’s own hair. His relationship with the old tantrist was a particularly close and affectionate one. In his village, he was the only one of his generation to maintain a high level of participation in the large ritual-practice gatherings at the regional level, as his master advocated. Shawo Gyal kept the white lock in his own hair for three years, but then it started falling out. Ultimately, with the risk that someone might inadvertently step on it (which would have been inauspicious and polluting), he decided to store his master’s dreadlock in his altar room. “It is my most precious possession”, he told me.

  • 33 The closest that comes to mind is perhaps (albeit with a very different, sacramental logic) the dis (...)
  • 34 See Huber’s discussion of the place of materiality, substance and the body in Tibetan pilgrimage pr (...)

40In the Tibetan context, this is probably a very uncommon, if not unique, case of religious transmission being made more auspicious through the master’s gift of a body part (one with powerful, divine associations, as we will see below).33 Although it is a rarity owing to the particular form of bodily gift involved, this case also needs to be understood in a cultural context characterized by a whole economy of religiously charged body parts or substances (e.g. relics), and ritual procedures involving physical contact with dead or living embodiments of religious virtuosity, either directly or through substances (leftover food, clothes, religious or nonreligious objects, and even excreta) that have been in contact with these sources of blessings and religious power.34

Receiving a “dreadlock consecration”

  • 35 The term relwang is also found in textual sources: Ehrhard (2008: 106) mentions one title based on (...)

41In the temporal sequence most commonly described by my Repkong interlocutors, the creation of the first “twisted locks” is immediately followed by a “dreadlock consecration”, relwang. However, in some cases a relwang can be performed for a tantrist with no dreadlocks, or even with no first “twisted locks”, and in these cases it might be regarded more simply as a “hair consecration”—which happens to be the literal translation of an equivalent term that is quite common in literary sources: trawang [skra dbang].35

  • 36 In matters of terminology, here I primarily follow Snellgrove (1959: 131-133; 1987: 165 n. 86, 213) (...)
  • 37 In the iconography, Vajrasattva is represented with long hair, with one part attached to the top of (...)
  • 38 Similarly, Boord (1993: 152) mentions a consecration of all the hair on the adept’s body (within a (...)
  • 39 This text was kindly brought to my attention by my former assistant in the field, Kunchog Tseten, a (...)
  • 40 A similar fourfold structure is mentioned for Bönpo relwang by Thar (2008: 545).

42Technically speaking, just what is a “dreadlock (or hair) consecration”?36 My Repkong interlocutors were sometimes rather at a loss when asked to define what a relwang “did”. A Bönpo tantrist told me that the relwang came “after all the [other] wang”—referring to the fact that a relwang is typically obtained at an advanced stage of one’s career as a tantrist, but leaving unclear whether or not a relwang was seen to be similar to initiations received at earlier stages. However, other tantrists clearly distinguished between the two, in the sense that a relwang is not a procedure that authorizes and empowers the recipient to engage in a set of ritual practices associated with a given central deity, as initiations do. Judging from the comments of more erudite interlocutors, a relwang seems to consecrate the tantrist’s hair and establish it as a place where tantric deities reside (on this theme, see the final section below). Finally, is it structurally similar to a full tantric initiation, or more similar to one of the various forms of consecration that constitute an initiation? My data is not fully conclusive on this point. In a number of occurrences that were mentioned to me, a relwang was actually conferred on the occasion (and as an optional extension) of a Vajrasattva initiation, which comprises a number of consecrations associated with the various attributes of Vajrasattva, including the deity’s consort, and the deity’s own hair37—this last consecration being the basis for the relwang.38 However, one short trawang text—written by the great Nyingma master Düjom Lingpa [bDud ’joms gling pa] (1835-1904) and associated in its colophon with one of the masters of the Khyunggön temple in Repkong, in guise of the instigator39—appears to include four consecrations that constitute a classic sequence for initiations of the “higher” classes of tantras (Tribe, 2000: 233).40 Thus the relwang may sometimes reflect the structure of a tantric initiation, but considering the dominant direction of my data, “dreadlock (or hair) consecration” seems a more accurate translation for relwang (or trawang).

  • 41 Outside of Repkong, he is also widely known as Orgyen Kusum Lingpa [O rgyan sku gsum gling pa]. See (...)

43Let us now close this technical digression and examine from a more ethnographic perspective what the relwang means in the present context. The aforementioned case of Shawo Gyal clearly illustrates that a relwang is not always linked to the creation of “twisted locks”, and can be conferred years before a tantrist transitions towards dreadlocks. The “dreadlock consecration” that Shawo Gyal received from his old master was actually his third relwang. (Receiving several such consecrations is not exceptional.) He obtained the first in his early twenties (i.e. in the mid-1980s) from Alak Sherap [Shes rab], a local master particularly active in the northern part of Repkong, who on that same day bestowed a Vajrasattva initiation. He remembers that he did not understand what the master said while conferring the relwang. Some years later, he received a second hair consecration from Alak Pema Tumbo [Padma gtum po] (1933-2009), a famous master from Golok [mGo log],41 with long-standing links with the Nyingma tantrists of Repkong, who had gone there to give a long series of tantric initiations over a period of twenty days—an occasion on which hundreds, perhaps a thousand tantrists assembled. Alak Tumbo told Shawo Gyal and the other recipients of the hair consecration that they could continue to wash and comb their hair. Clearly this was not specifically a dreadlock consecration for the Golok master.

44In several of our discussions, Shawo Gyal recalled that he was initially “afraid” of receiving a relwang, particularly fearing that he would eventually be induced to start wearing dreadlocks. He explained that this would have been very impractical. As a young adult, he needed to be able to engage in a number of activities, and the dreadlocks would have hindered him. He could picture himself maybe starting to wear dreadlocks in his thirties, but not immediately. (In fact, when Alak Sherap started the preparations for Shawo Gyal’s first relwang, some of the latter’s young codisciples quickly left the master’s room in fright.) However, Alak Sherap reassured him that he could keep his hair as it was after the hair consecration. Reflecting on the variety of situations associated with relwang, Shawo Gyal suggested that they could be seen as placed within a hierarchy of different levels of relwang. From that perspective, he thought that the consecration he received from Alak Sherap as a young man, without really understanding what it implied, was probably a lower-level consecration. It might have served an educational purpose, to make him more conscious of the fact that, as a tantrist, his long hair was not the same as that of an “old [lay]man”, gepo [rgad po]. In comparison, the consecration bestowed by Alak Tumbo was of a superior kind (*tsaya). He did not understand everything, but the master entrusted (te) him to the fierce protector Za, the text tending towards the powerful, violent, drakpo [drag po] side of the ritual spectrum. It was a somewhat intimidating moment. Then during the consecration, a rainbow appeared in front of the temple. That relwang was definitely special.

45Among Repkong Bönpos (but not among Buddhists), when a master performs a dreadlock consecration, a piece of fabric with a sacred syllable written on the inside is attached at the base of one of the twisted locks. This is called wangtak [dbang rtags], the “sign of the consecration”. An elderly Bönpo tantrist showed me the old wangtak that was still attached to the original lock—a twisted lock that had by then become an impressive dreadlock that had grown one meter longer, as the position of the fabric indicated.

ill. 9 – Attached to the dreadlock, the Bönpo “sign of the consecration” (wangtak)

ill. 9 – Attached to the dreadlock, the Bönpo “sign of the consecration” (wangtak)

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2003

46Once a tantrist has received a relwang (hair or dreadlock consecration), a number of constraints shape his capillary life. My Repkong interlocutors have mentioned a large set of rules and tantric commitments (damtsik [dam tshig], Skt. samaya) related to the fact that, as we will see, this procedure establishes a relationship between the hair, the practitioner and the tantric protector deities. However, there are variations, for instance according to the master who states the rules. Shawo Gyal recalled that on the occasion of the hair consecration conferred by Alak Tumbo, the master mentioned that letting the hair fall freely down the back was permissible (a hairstyle rarely seen among Repkong tantrists). However, a decade later, he heard Alak Maksar [Mag sar], a local Nyingma master, explicitly forbid that very same style, stipulating that the hair needed to be kept wound around the head. Similarly, a quite erudite tantrist mentioned that some masters say one’s hair should not be washed after receiving a relwang, but he had never come across any textual justification for this. The rules perceived to be linked to the hair consecration can be quite extensive. As another relatively learned tantrist expressed it, many divine assemblies (lha-tsok [lha tshogs]) dissolve (tim [bstim]) into the hair with a relwang, so it is forbidden to engage in any unvirtuous acts, whether they involve the body, speech or the mind; the hair virtually becomes a sign of one’s commitment to this ethical regimen.

  • 42 This also includes a few monastic contexts, such as the (fully ordained) tokden [rtogs ldan] yogic (...)

47One of the most frequently mentioned rules is that tantrists should not cut their hair. This is generally understood to become an absolute proscription once a relwang has been received. One also encounters a similarly strong sense of prohibition among practitioners who have let their hair grow long during a prolonged tantric retreat.42 The integrity of the hair needs to be protected in every way possible: from being touched by inappropriate people or by their clothes, from someone stepping over it, etc. Prior to the 1950s, if a young tantrist was involved in a fight and his opponent inadvertently pulled out even just one of his hairs, elders representing the Repkong Ngakmang [sNgags mang] (the “Collectivity of tantrists of Repkong”) would go to the culprit’s house. The perpetrator of the offense would have to present substantial apologies, and a heavy fine would be exacted. The Repkong Ngakmang was famous and feared; a matter such as this would not be treated lightly. However, even the main prohibition against cutting one’s hair apparently allowed some exceptions. The aforementioned Dorjé Gyal (1920-2010) recounted that, because his dreadlocks were very large and heavy, he asked Lama Tsering whether it would be permissible to cut them. The prominent, learned tantrist answered that the protector deities would not tolerate it, and that the external signs of the tantrist have to be maintained. However, he agreed to a compromise solution, namely trimming the bulky coil of dreadlocks. Several of my other interlocutors considered this option entirely unacceptable, though a tantrist from neighboring Labrang did independently mention the same possible solution.

Aging, death and beyond

48Dreadlocks constitute the culmination of the ideal capillary trajectory for Repkong tantrists—a culmination that is usually attained, if at all, in the latter half of a tantrist’s career. As we have seen, there are strict rules against cutting one’s hair, and some tantrists’ dreadlocks grow to be over two meters long. However, hair growth does not necessarily simply amount to a cumulative process: over time, hair loss and weakening hair growth can also take their toll. Some elderly tantrists end up with common male pattern baldness, with thin hair on the crown of the head or a receding hairline, but their dreadlocks stay attached to the sides and back, and they can still be wound around the head in the usual way. Other elderly tantrists have had more difficulty with later hair growth, particularly in connection with the forced cutting of their long hair during the Maoist period. We will return to this presently.

  • 43 On this form of death, see Guidoni, 2006: 180-186.

49The theme of death was brought up spontaneously by very few interlocutors in the course of my explorations of the Repkong tantrists’ capillary biographies. Within this limited material, a recurrent theme was the notion that some virtuoso adepts (particularly those practicing “Great Perfection” or Dzokchen [rDzogs chen]) die in a so-called “rainbow body”, jalü [’ja’ lus]. When they die, their physical body dissolves into a form of light, leaving only the nails and hair.43 This display of extreme virtuosity is an apt symbol of the adept’s perfect liberation, and the hair left behind attains the status of precious relic.

50With regard to more “ordinary” deaths among tantrists, one of my interlocutors (from Zhompong Shi [Zho ’ong dpyis], a village with a large tantrist community in the northeast of Repkong county) mentioned that if a deceased tantrist had received a hair consecration, then his hair needed to be cremated separately, not with the rest of the body. (This person had a penchant for theoretical considerations, but in the present case he said he remembered this procedure being carried out for elderly tantrists from his village.) For the burning of the hair he used the term jinsek [sbyin sreg], “burnt offering” (Skt. homa). Exactly how prevalent this practice is (or perhaps was) still needs to be ascertained. Similar practices have been described for the Drigung [’Bri gung] monastery in Central Tibet (see the introduction by Schneider in this volume).

Codes and convenience: tying and untying the hair

51In this section, let us turn our attention to a feature of hair that is at once material and symbolic. When it gets long, a question arises at the junction of cultural codes and practical convenience: what should one do with it? As we have seen, hair lends itself to a variety of styles and shapes, from letting it hang loosely, to tying it in a ponytail (possibly alternating between the two), to weaving it into a braid, or eventually starting the virtually irreversible process of letting the finely twisted cord-like locks turn into dreadlocks. Whatever the case may be, with the help of a simple device—the long, thin band of fabric called ramtel (lit. “[that which] joins the hairs [or locks]”)—it is possible to either wind and fasten all the hair around the head, or untie it and let it hang loose. In short, to tie or not to tie: this simple choice has received some substantial cultural elaboration among tantrists, as we will now examine.

  • 44 On various understandings of the “Twelve (Inner) Divisions” (Shokha Chunyi [Shog kha bcu gnyis] or (...)

52A first observation is that the longer the hair—particularly if it is over two or three feet long—the more likely it is to be kept attached around the head most of the time, for obvious practical reasons. However, when considering the winding of the hair around the head, first an eminently cultural choice must be made: should it be wound clockwise or counterclockwise, or, as Tibetans would put it, towards the right or the left? As is immediately sensed by any traveler (or, as their armchair counterpart, any reader) in possession of some minimal familiarity with Tibetan ways, this question is far from religiously irrelevant, given the prominence of clockwise vs. counterclockwise circumambulation of religious sites, as a public marker of Buddhist vs. Bönpo religious affiliations. When asked, many Repkong tantrists state that Buddhist tantrists wind their hair around their heads clockwise, and Bönpo tantrists counterclockwise. This answer accords with the deep-seated cultural model just mentioned, but interestingly it fails to account for an empirical reality: as far as I know (and as many other local tantrists confirm), almost all Repkong tantrists wind their hair counterclockwise, whether they be Bönpo or Buddhist. The main counter-example that I was told of is the (Buddhist) Hor Tertön Chögar [Hor gter ston chos sgar] community, located just south of Repkong county (but within the somewhat broader area historically known as Repkong44), in the north of neighboring Tsekhok county. There, the tantrists are said to wind their hair clockwise.

  • 45 As Françoise Robin (personal communication) also notes, Tibetans are mostly right-handed, and it is (...)

53Whether their comments are spontaneous or elicited, Repkong tantrists often initially address the question of how the hair is attached around the head by quoting a standard literary expression that is well-known among them, and applies more specifically to dreadlocks: “twist [the dreadlocks] towards the left, wind [the whole lot around the head] towards the right” (yön-du chü-ne ye-su tri [g.yon du gcus nas g.yas su dkri]). However, textual authority notwithstanding, we have seen that the common Repkong practice is to wind the hair around the head towards the left. We can observe this in the following demonstration, kindly provided by one of my tantrist friends.45

ill. 10 – Twist all the dreadlocks towards the “left” (counterclockwise)

ill. 10 – Twist all the dreadlocks towards the “left” (counterclockwise)

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

ill. 11 – Then wind the whole set around the head, again towards the “left” (counterclockwise)

ill. 11 – Then wind the whole set around the head, again towards the “left” (counterclockwise)

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

ill. 12 – Finally, fasten everything with the long “[band which] joins the locks” (Amdo: ramtel)

ill. 12 – Finally, fasten everything with the long “[band which] joins the locks” (Amdo: ramtel)

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

ill. 13 – Done

ill. 13 – Done

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

54It could be said, at least in the case of very long hair, that the “default” style is to keep it wound around the head. In a number of circumstances, however, long hair is expected to be unfastened, primarily as a sign of respect. This could be when handling ritual offerings, or receiving the “realizations”, ngödrup [dngos grub] of a tantric ritual (see ill. 14), or prostrating oneself, or when meeting or welcoming a master.

ill. 14 – Receiving the ritual “realizations” (ngödrup). Note the still-clear cord-like appearance of the recent dreadlocks

ill. 14 – Receiving the ritual “realizations” (ngödrup). Note the still-clear cord-like appearance of the recent dreadlocks

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

  • 46 Note the variability of cultural codes: here it would be disrespectful not to untie the hair, but i (...)

55When prostrating oneself or handling offerings, the end of one’s long hair can be tucked into one’s belt, to keep it in place and be able to move freely. When welcoming a master, the hair is commonly hung down the front of the body (see ill. 15).46

ill. 15 – Welcoming a master on his arrival at a ritual gathering

ill. 15 – Welcoming a master on his arrival at a ritual gathering

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

56Respect was the primary concern voiced by my interlocutors, but in the case of welcoming a master, aside from the question of positioning the hair, there is also clearly an overall concern for a pleasing aesthetics of auspiciousness and tantric imagery (see ill. 15 and 16).

ill. 16 – Welcoming a master: tantric aesthetics

ill. 16 – Welcoming a master: tantric aesthetics

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

57However, living with dreadlocks is not entirely reducible to these codes. Their bulkiness can prove to be a constraint in certain ritual contexts or in ordinary, everyday situations. I once witnessed two ritual assistants struggling to fit a five-lobed crown (rik-nga [rigs lnga])—which had its own symbolic representation of long hair attached at the crown of the head—onto the head of a senior tantrist already well-endowed with dreadlocks, who was officiating as the vajra-master for a burnt offerings ritual (jinsek, Skt. homa). Dreadlocks are commonly unwound and left hanging down on these occasions, but the officiant’s head might still be a little too bulky and unwieldy for the crown to fit easily (see ill. 17—or ill. 3 to see the same officiant without crown).

ill. 17 – Wearing the five-lobed crown with dreadlocks

ill. 17 – Wearing the five-lobed crown with dreadlocks

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2011

58On a more pragmatic level, how does one sleep with a mass of dreadlocks? One of my acquaintances told me, chuckling, that he untied his hair at night and put it on a second pillow next to the one for his head. Shaking his head in mild amazement, he added that his uncle apparently slept without untying his (equally impressive) dreadlocks.

59The practical constraints of large dreadlocks also come with some minor advantages. One of my interlocutors mentioned something that the great Zhapkar points out in one of his songs: the hair wound around the head can be pulled down to protect the ears from the winter cold. Others told me that prior to 1958, long-distance travel was fraught with dangers, particularly due to the number of bandits. However, if one traveled with a companion whose bulky coil of dreadlocks (and red garment in some cases) could be seen from far away, then one could be confident that the risk of being attacked was greatly reduced. The Repkong tantrists’ ritual powers were very much feared.

Long hair: an overdetermined religious identity marker

60Let us now come to what is, in effect, one of the key analytical features of the tantrists’ long hair: its complicated position at the interface between the biological and the social—the latter itself being a complicated bundle of socio-religious, socio-economic and socio-political dimensions. On the one hand, it is a part of the body, one that allows for considerable latitude in its shaping, but is subject to biological rhythms and determinations, in its growth for example. On the other hand, as we have started to notice, it is subject to multiple social determinations. As we will see, it is an overdetermined key element of a tantrist’s religious identity.

  • 47 Nyida Heruka’s discussion of the tantrist’s garments mentions primarily the “white shawl” (Nyi zla (...)
  • 48 A photograph like the one in ill. 6, taken in 2012, could not therefore have been taken in Repkong (...)

61Although there is, as already noted, a clear structural opposition between the tantrist’s long hair and the monk’s shaven head, the Repkong tantrists often point to a functional equivalence between their long hair (relpa) and the monk’s monastic robes (chögö [chos gos]). They both truly constitute their outer trademark features or, as some of my interlocutors put it, their chaluk [cha lugs] (traditional attire, accoutrement, appearance). This asymmetry (hairstyle vs. clothing) must be understood in the context of the lack of any widely shared type of distinctive religious garment among tantrists. As already noted, literary expressions describe tantrists as “those with long hair and white clothes”. In actual practice, some tantrists are found wearing a white skirt—the non-celibate hierarchs of the Sakya [Sa skya] order spring to mind here. Among the Repkong tantrists, a white skirt is very rarely seen. Somewhat more often (but, until recently, primarily among virtuoso practitioners), tantrists are seen wearing the “white [and red] shawl”, zenkar [gzan dkar].47 Over the past decade or two, Nyingma masters have been increasingly advocating tantrists systematically wearing “white shawls” in ritual contexts in accordance with expressions like the one mentioned above, and actual usage patterns in Repkong and other areas are changing significantly.48 This will most probably have implications in terms of how people understand tantrists’ religious identity markers, but for the time being, the “white shawl” has been appropriated only very partially, and the relpa or long hair retains pride of place in these matters.

  • 49 Amdo: dompa yöno, xwecha yöno, go-na rawa yöno [Tib.: sdom pa yod pa/ dpe cha yod pa/ mgo la ral pa (...)

62When asked about the importance or meanings attached to their long hair, tantrists very often answer with statements about how the relpa constitutes a key religious identity marker, and how keeping one’s hair long is an obligation for them. Or along similar lines, they say that this hairstyle marks them as followers or successors (jenjuk [rjes ’jug]) within a historical lineage that goes back to prestigious figures of the beginnings of the ngakpa tradition (on these connections, see more below). Keeping one’s hair long is also mentioned spontaneously (and almost systematically) in discussions about what constitutes or defines a tantrist, or a “real tantrist”, ngakpa ngoma [ngo ma]. Other criteria are sometimes included, as in the following definition offered by Alak Böngya, the Bönpo master: “those with [tantric] vows, with texts, with long hair on their heads”.49

63These discussions are sometimes triggered by very practical concerns. To give just one example: in 2004 a master who lives at Achung Namdzong [A chung gnam rdzong], a historically important Buddhist site in Chentsa [gCan tsha] county to the north of Repkong, organized an exceptional, very large ritual gathering, in which more than 3,000 tantrists participated (primarily from Repkong and neighboring areas). The temple and its courtyard barely offered enough room for this massive turnout. On arrival, participants had to register in a small purpose-built tent, where they were given badges that enabled the organizers to strictly control access to the temple grounds during the week-long ritual. As the main disciplinarian of the ritual explained, registration was only open to “tantrists with long hair (relpa)”. This capillary requirement obviously meant that participants were expected to conform to an important norm and identity marker of ngakpa culture (even if, as we have seen, not all tantrists actually have long hair). In practical terms, it also constituted a workable criterion by which registrants could be identified as valid participants—even if this meant that some short-haired tantrists simply arrived wearing a chörel wig in the style of a tantrist’s dreadlocks.

64Of course, this criterion offers no proof of proper religious identity, only a reasonable indication, so the system is not foolproof (but then the same could be said of short hair and red robes in a monastic context). A young Repkong layman I met seven years later told me that, since he came from a “ngakpa house” (ngak-khyim) and his father was unable to go himself, he decided to go to the Achung Namdzong ritual gathering as a representative of his family so to speak, even though he himself only had minimal religious training—knowledge of the common Nyingma prayers (khandön [kha ’don]), but not much more. He put on a chörel wig, was able to register, and simply took part in the recitation whenever he could. Given the extraordinary blessings that were to be expected from such an exceptional ritual gathering, he was probably not the only one that week for whom a borrowed wig of dreadlocks opened the doors to the Achung Namdzong temple.

65However, in collective ritual contexts, the chörel wig is very often the only way for a number of trained tantrists to conform to the normative long-hairedness that is associated with their ngakpa religious identity. This was particularly the case when religious practices resumed after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

66As part of the Cultural Revolution’s agenda of eradicating the old ways (one major campaign was called “smashing the four olds”: old ideas, culture, customs, and habits), Tibetan men had to cut their long hair (Wu Qi, 2013: 46). This also applied to tantrists of course. An elderly tantrist from Labrang (born in the early 1930s), who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, told me that in prison, the Han Chinese and Hui Muslims were afraid to cut his relpa (probably dreadlocks). He had to cut his hair himself with the help of a fellow prisoner from Repkong. To atone for the sin (dikpa [sdig pa]) they were committing, while cutting the hair they recited the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva (a key tantric purification practice). Altogether, the old tantrist had to cut his hair three times during the Maoist period, starting in 1958. He was allowed to keep the hair he had to cut in prison, but many other tantrists’ hair ended up being thrown into the Yellow River (Tib. Machu [rMa chu]). In the evocative words of a Repkong tantrist, “the Machu was black at that time”.

67Overt religious activities started again very tentatively in the early 1980s, first at the household level, including funerary rituals and monthly ritual gatherings of tantrists to worship Padmasambhava on the tenth day of the lunar month (tsechu). Collective public religious practice started on the occasion of a visit to Repkong by the Panchen Lama [Paṇ chen bla ma], who was traveling to Tibetan areas to tell his compatriots to resume their religious activities. During the great master’s visit, the Nyingma tantrists performed a large Zhitro [Zhi khro, “Peaceful (and) wrathful (deities)”] ritual—their most widely known major ritual—and word was sent out slightly in advance that they needed to have long hair (relpa). It was understood that this meant wearing a chörel wig if their hair was still fairly short, as was the case for most of them. Recourse to the chörel substitute was massively widespread in the early 1980s (before decreasing again, once the tantrists had grown long hair). Many tantrists prepared this wig specifically in order to take part in the above-mentioned Zhitro ritual.

68Beyond these very special political and historical circumstances, tantrists also resort to wigs for a simpler personal reason, namely insufficient hair growth. In some cases, a tantrist might acquire a wig either from another tantrist whose hair has grown long enough for him to dispense with his own chörel, or in rare cases from an acquaintance who has abandoned his religious career as a tantrist. However, most of my interlocutors had made their own. For this, they use the soft hair from the lower flank of the yak, or from young yaks’ tails. The hair is steamed to further soften it, then twisted into the shape of “twisted locks” (gyələ), which, as we have seen, are the first step towards acquiring dreadlocks. These fake locks are then attached to approximately half the circumference of a circular headband. They are positioned over the forehead and sides of the head, and pulled over the head towards the back, where they are tied together with a cord; the ends of the long locks are held together by a ramtel band of fabric (just like normal hair). The resulting wig (see ill. 18) is one 1 to 1.5 meters long—sometimes even longer. When wound around the head, it looks distinctly like the bulky coil of dreadlocks very much appreciated by the Repkong tantrists.

ill. 18 – A wig to satisfy the long hair requirement: the chörel (Amdo chira)

ill. 18 – A wig to satisfy the long hair requirement: the chörel (Amdo chira)

© Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013

69The headband that keeps the wig in place needs to be fairly tight, and tantrists admit that the wig is only moderately comfortable. At ritual gatherings not presided over by a master, short-haired tantrists sometimes arrive without a wig, but may be rebuked by the disciplinarians (gekö [dge bskos]); at rituals held in the presence of a master, most short-haired tantrists would not dare turn up without a wig. As we have noted, however, wearing a chörel wig may generate mild teasing from peers. A Bönpo tantrist recently told me that nowadays, tantrists with little hair prefer to simply keep their existing hair long and dispense with the (perhaps increasingly) awkward wig. A number of wigs have been confined to places like the cupboards in which tantrists keep their books and ritual texts. Chörel wigs remain utilitarian objects devoid of the associations of divine embodiment found in the case of tantrists’ real hair.

70Thus long hair as a bodily marker of religious identity can be replaced by an artefact. This substitute is conventionally valid in the absence of a better identification criterion and constitutes a solution to quandaries resulting from the overdetermined character of hair, at the interface between religious norms and sociopolitical or biological determinations. It is, however, only a partially satisfactory answer, not only because it can be misappropriated as we have seen, but also because of the complete fabricatedness that its name implies, a fabricatedness that is the total opposite of the ideal uncontrived (machöpa) quality of the tantrist’s hair. The artefact as substitute for one’s own bodily hair also lacks one religiously important quality: it does not share the hair’s potential to become a locus of embodied divine presence (a point we will explore presently).

71Finally, is it not somewhat reductive to speak of a “centrality of appearances” at play in the tantrist’s dreadlocks (Bogin, 2014)? Or as Bogin previously expressed it:

[…] the seventeenth-century Tibetan Buddhist lama […] Yolmo Tendzin Norbu (1598–1644) […] was a monk until his mid-twenties, when he decided to become a ngakpa. Interestingly, his writings about ngakpas focus on […] the mass of dreadlocks bound above the ngakpa’s head. This focus on external appearances challenges assumptions that locate questions of religious identity in some immaterial interior. The importance of the superficial is repeated throughout Tendzin Norbu’s autobiography […] (Bogin, 2008: 86; emphases added).

  • 50 Similarly, it could perhaps be argued that long hair was a key identity and status marker for the p (...)

72What we have seen regarding the chörel wig may seem to point towards a “focus on external appearances”, but as I have just argued, it is an incomplete substitute, and there is more to real hair. The tantrist’s long hair (relpa)—whether his own or a wig—is a key religious identity marker.50 Perhaps its characterization as “superficial”, as opposed to the presumably more common “immaterial interior” features, fails to recognize the recurrence of “external”—or, more precisely, visually distinctive—markers of religious identity across religious traditions, starting with the monk’s robe and shaved hair—in Buddhism but also in Catholicism and other religious traditions. In a sense, these material, visually distinctive elements are greater than themselves, in that they are part of, and make implicit reference to, complex webs of meanings and symbolic orders. Beyond being situated on a “superficial” vs. “interior” axis, these are markers that convey key messages in fields of social convention. They also sometimes need to be examined (as we will now do for the tantrist’s long hair) in light of their complex ontologies and their endowment with power that can be mobilized in efficacious procedures that, depending on the case, aim at either blessing or healing (as with monks’ robes), or for instance forcefully compelling or even destroying. Here we are dealing with something much richer and much more complex than “external appearances” and “superficiality”.

Multivocal symbol and hybrid ontology: embodied divinity, power and more

73Considering the variety of ways in which hair can be shaped (even just within tantric contexts), it comes as no surprise that local ideas and locally relevant tantric literary sources offer a rich range of symbolic constructions that focus on the tantrist’s hair. Beyond analyzing this interrelated web of meanings, ontological notions, and ideas of associated power, my aim here is to highlight crucial dimensions in tantrists’ hair that seem to remain unrecognized in Bromberger’s grid of trichological analysis.

  • 51 In his discussion of the Bönpo context, Thar mentions a fourth “natural condition” (machöpa): the u (...)

74As we have seen, a primary layer of meaning associated with the tantrist’s long hair is the notion that it reflects an unfabricated, natural state. Along with the white clothes (at least in this ideal vision) and the mind dwelling in the natural state, it is part of the tantric commitment to the “three uncontrived” (machöpa sum) (Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 84).51 This layer can be described as primary in the sense that the historical emergence of relpa capillary styles (marked by not cutting the hair and in some cases neither combing nor washing) is probably to be found in Indic and then Tibetan environments where ascetics and meditators professed ideals of virtuoso, prolonged, intensive religious practice and a lack of attention to “external” worldly activities like hair care.

  • 52 See these figures’ biographies on The Treasury of Lives website (Gardner, 2009; Mandelbaum, 2007) a (...)

75These origins are reflected in some of my interlocutors’ statements on the symbolism of the tantrist’s hair, statements that emphasize not the underlying concepts, but rather a notion of faithfulness to a tradition dating back to the originators of the Tibetan ngakpa path. These include the “Great Master” or Loppön Chenpo [Slob dpon chen po] (a name of Padmasambhava), or Nupchen Sanggyé Yeshé [gNubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes] and Nanam Dorjé Düjom [sNa nam rDo rje bdud ’joms], identified by Tibetan historians as two of Padmasambhava’s main Tibetan disciples.52 My interlocutors presented these illustrious figures as having acquired their long hair as a result of prolonged retreats dedicated to tantric practice. In a Buddhist religious environment marked by a strong ideology of faithful adherence to the tradition as passed down since its perfect origins, these figures are seen as archetypes of the ngakpa and as models to be emulated. (Similarly, as we saw above, symbolic associations are made between a hair consecration or the fashioning of twisted locks and the Eight Rikdzin or Awareness-Holders, eight great adepts entrusted with the initial transmission of the important Kagyé tantric practices.)

  • 53 For an example from Baragaon, a Tibetan society in the Nepalese Himalayas, see Sihlé, 2013a: 224 n. (...)

76Beyond this primary layer of meanings, another key cluster of ideas focuses on the relationship between hair and tantric divine agents. These ideas most commonly revolve around the notion that individual strands or locks of hair are places where particular kinds of deities reside (zhukné [bzhugs gnas], “place(s) of residence”, in some textual formulations). However, tantrists who have received more modest training may not be familiar with these ideas, and many of them might hesitate to claim the presence of deities in their hair. One also sometimes hears expressions that suggest a higher degree of bodily fusion with the divine, for instance with deities said to have been absorbed or to have dissolved (tim) into the hair. In this context of the hybrid ontological status of the tantrist’s hair, one can all the better understand why there is so much emphasis on the prohibition against cutting it. Finally, one also encounters cases (or anecdotes) in which the hair is physically used as an instrument (it is typically untied, and sometimes hurled over the head,53 or used to beat the ground) to act upon divine or other invisible beings (not necessarily residing in the hair): to summon or coerce them for example, or even to destroy them in the case of harmful forces.

  • 54 A closely related notion is that each of the myriad hairs on the practitioner’s entire body is the (...)

77To return to the most common theme, with deities residing in the tantrist’s hair, one finds a further range of views on the identity and location of these deities. Perhaps the most widespread idea is that individual hairs are the abode of khandroma [mkha’ ’gro ma] (Skt. ḍākinī: female deities that assist tantric practitioners).54 According to a slightly more elaborate scheme, as quoted to me by a quite learned Repkong tantrist,

  • 55 This number should more specifically be understood as referring to the buddhas of the five families (...)

the 21,000 hairs (tralo [skra lo])
are the place of residence of 21,000
ḍākinī;
the 58 braids (or, here, dreadlocks?) (
lenbu [lan bu])
are the place of residence of the 58
heruka (Tib. traktung [khrag ’thung, “blood drinkers”], buddhas in a wrathful manifestation).55

skra lo nyi khri chig stong de /
mkha’ ’gro nyi khri chig stong gi bzhugs gnas yin /
lan bu lnga bcu rtsa brgyad de /
khrag ’thung lnga bcu rtsa brgyad kyi bzhugs gnas yin //

  • 56 Maksar Pandita’s personal name was Künzang Topden Wangpo [Kun bzang stobs ldan dbang po] (1781-1828 (...)
  • 57 We find a similar theme in a number of accounts; see for instance Bogin (2008: 104-105) or Schneide (...)

78The same scheme—but with 58 heruka and 10,100,000 ḍākinī—is found in a spiritual song about the religious symbols that characterize the ngakpa, composed by the first Alak Maksar, known as Maksar Pandita (the “Scholar from Maksar”) [Mag sar paṇḍi ta], an early-nineteenth-century Nyingma master from Repkong.56 An echo of these ideas can also be found in an anecdote mentioned by Thar. A great Bönpo tantric adept wishing to take monastic vows went to see a master, who refused to cut his hair, recognizing that there were a couple of wrathful deities on each “braid” (Thar, 2008: 546).57

79A related, fairly common notion is that the tantrist’s hair is associated with the divine assembly, lha-tsok (technically, the maṇḍala), of one hundred peaceful and wrathful (zhi-tro) deities (42 of the former, 58 of the latter) that figures prominently in ritual literature on the intermediate stage between death and rebirth. In this connection, one tantrist mentioned having heard that one hundred dreadlocks should therefore be made (in actual Repkong practice, the number is generally much smaller).

80A learned tantrist shared with me another more elaborate variation on these divine trichological topologies: in the “hair consecration” procedure, hair at the front is associated with the peaceful (zhiwa [zhi ba]) deities, hair at the back with the wrathful (trowo [khro bo]) ones; hair on the right is associated with the “male class” (po-gyü [pho rgyud]) protector deities, hair on the left with the “female class” (mo-gyü [mo rgyud]) protectors—distribution principles that echo the ordering of these deities in a maṇḍala.

81From the perspective of tantric practice, there is of course greater consistency in the various close associations between the tantrist’s hair and tantric deities. A number of tantric meditations involve visualizing the deity dissolving into oneself, or being placed either within oneself or on one’s head. As Maksar Pandita’s song puts it: “The deity’s palace is established in my body”.

  • 58 The account mistakenly situates these tantrists in Golok, which lies much further to the southwest, (...)

82Though the notions of embodied divinities (including powerful protector deities) described above are relatively widespread, explicit associations with actual power practices are much more sporadic in the oral and written data that I have gathered. One quite colorful mention can be found in one of the earliest Western-language sources to make reference to the Repkong tantrists: a passage of around two pages in the autobiographical account of a Tibetan, published by Combe (1926: 151-153).58 There we read that these tantrists (for Combe, “monks”, albeit monks whose long hair and married status were strangely unorthodox) “are known as Agba [= ngakpa], and have a great name as sorcerers and exorcisers of devils” (ibid.: 151). They engaged in prolonged tantric retreats, sometimes for up to 7 or 9 years [figures that would be absolutely exceptional today], at the end of which a sign of achievement could be a vision of “the Za, one of the most powerful and most dreaded chöjong [= dharma protectors (chos skyong)] in Tibet” (ibid.).

When he has seen the Za and at last leaves the cell, assured of the Za’s support, the Agba is a person of great and peculiar power. If anyone strikes or otherwise insults him, he pulls down his long hair, shakes it three times, when fire comes out of it, and he calls on Za to punish the offender. Shortly afterwards the latter dies, or at least falls very sick (ibid.: 152).

83Maksar Pandita’s song also associates the tantrist’s long, empowered hair with violent ritual action:

If you make a top knot (sic, for topknot) it is the exquisite ornament of the yogi.59
If [the hair] falls loose it is the splendid style of the yogi.
If wrapped around the forehead it is a method to protect against sun and cold.
If it is whipped on the ground it will abolish enemies and obstructers.60

  • 61 Incidentally, note that this story echoes the connection between awe-inspiring dreadlocks and snake (...)

84The awesome power of tantrists’ dreadlocks also appears as the key theme in a variant that I heard in Repkong of the well-known Tibetan story of how one of the originators of the ngakpa tradition, Nup Sanggyé Yeshé, succeeded in protecting the Buddhist dharma. In the ninth century, at a time when institutionalized monastic Buddhism was being eradicated (according to Tibetan historiography), he made his dreadlocks turn into snakes in front of the “evil king” Langdarma [Glang dar ma], and this made such a powerful impression on the king that he promised not to harm tantrists.61

85However, many of my Repkong tantrist interlocutors hesitated or refused to see any direct link between a ngakpa’s long hair and the wielding of ritual power. As one of them put it (in a doctrinally very consistent way): ritual power, nüpa [nus pa], is not located in the hair; it derives from spiritual accomplishments, tokpa [rtogs pa], which is something more internal. The account I heard which came closest to positing a link between hair and power was a story about a former tantrist who used to mix precious Mani [Ma ṇi] pills with his dreadlocks—a quite idiosyncratic procedure. These pills had been empowered in a large ritual gathering focusing on the great deity Avalokiteśvara and the recitation of his six-syllable mantra, the Mani. The tantrist’s reasoning was based on the principle that the ritual text mentions that each pill is Avalokiteśvara. The narrator of the story, a quite knowledgeable elderly tantrist, said that he could well imagine that some power must come out of a procedure of that kind.

86If a number of my tantrist interlocutors preferred to emphasize other, doctrinally valid sources of ritual power, it may well be that popular perceptions more closely echo the lore expressed in Maksar Pandita’s song or in Combe’s account. We also find something suggestively similar in the context of Hindu ascetics (even if in their case, the initial religious initiation involves shaving the hair):

Many daśnāmī renouncers [a set of Śaiva sectarian orders] […] let their hair become matted into jaṭā, or dreadlocks, from the time they are initiated and their heads shaved. The length and thickness of their jaṭā serves to show how long they have lived the renouncer life and how religiously powerful they have become. Renouncers with extremely long or extremely thick jaṭā are generally considered to be extremely powerful (Hausner, 2007: 47).

  • 62 Erudite discussions of the ngakpa’s hair (such as Nyida Heruka’s essay) suggest even more layers of (...)

87Finally, a third important component of symbolism in matters of the tantrist’s long hair, after the primary theme of uncontrivedness, and the key complex of notions centered on embodied divine presence and ritual power, concerns the relationship with the master.62 According to Nyida Heruka, here we find the “central meaning” of the coils of long hair gathered on the top of the practitioner’s head (Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 89). However, the author gives comparatively very little attention to this branch of associations, and similarly it appeared much less in my interlocutors’ discourse.

  • 63 The term used here for the lama, rikdak [rigs bdag], literally “lord of the [buddha] family”, is ac (...)

88One of the links between the master and one’s hair is specific to practitioners who have received a hair consecration. In those cases, the master’s blessing or empowerment (jinlap) is perceived to have physically entered one’s hair. The more general link stated by Nyida Heruka is that, as such, the long hair gathered on the top of one’s head signifies the inseparability from one’s lama (ibid.).63 This seemingly abstract connection echoes a fairly widespread notion that one tantrist from Labrang expressed by quoting a textual formulation:

At the moment of winding the long hair around the crown of the head,
do not forget your refuge lama, and pray to him!

mgo ral pa spyi bor dkri ba’i dus /
skyabs bla ma ma brjed gsol ba thobs /

89The hair a tantrist carries on his head can thus be seen as evocative either of his respect for his master, or—as Nyida Heruka further suggests—of the common guruyoga meditative practice, in which the master is visualized as being on the top of one’s head (ibid.), an idea also found in Maksar Pandita’s song.

*

* *

90At the close of our exploration, the question arises: to what extent do these Tibetan capillary modalities reflect more general, well-known patterns in matters of hair culture, or to what extent do they perhaps teach us something new, giving us a glimpse of features that have so far received little attention?

91The long hair of tantrists, whether in dreadlocks or in less spectacular forms, has obviously been subject to a great deal of creative elaboration, due to a convergence of factors ranging from its inherently pliable, workable nature to the tropical-growth-like abundance characterizing the tantric ritual culture (its pantheon, ritual traditions and so forth), but also simply general human inventiveness in generating meanings and symbolism. Throughout this discussion, we have observed how alternative meanings coexist, some of them widely shared and others much less so—not to mention common situations in which one does not know: as one elderly interlocutor put it, when he received a dreadlock consecration as a young man, there was no way of knowing what the master had in mind at that moment. This complex landscape of ideas (with its areas of obscurity, of incomplete understanding) is informed not only by a sociology of knowledge, with substantial differences in degrees of learning, but also by the wide diversity and relative lack of homogeneity within the tantric realm.

92In the context of Indic ascetic traditions (with which Buddhist tantric traditions have historical links), according to Olivelle (1998: 28):

As with most condensed and central symbols of a society, indigenous exegesis of hair is neither extensive nor frequent. The ascetic literature, for example, never tells us why an ascetic must shave his head […] [although] native exegesis […] generally waxes eloquent in most other areas of ritual practice […].

  • 64 Sources such as the autobiographies of Zhapkar (Ricard, 1994) and Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu—as well as (...)

93Actually, Tibetan tantric traditions have a lot in common more specifically with Śaiva ascetic environments where, as we have seen, after initiation, the common practice is to grow long, matted hair. Irrespective of this, it should be noted that the Tibetan situation only partially echoes Olivelle’s assessment. Although it is true that the exegesis of ngakpa hair is not a common, frequent social practice, it is not absent in religious literature64. As we saw in the introduction, what one of my Repkong interlocutors found in his exploration of the written sources was more of a fairly heterogeneous multiplicity of exegeses.

94If we now look at actual indigenous and academic modes of hair interpretation and their key themes, it is first worth noting one of the most influential approaches in academic texts: the association (often but not exclusively psychoanalytical) between hairstyles and sexuality (Berg, 1951; Leach, 1958; Obeyesekere, 1981; Olivelle, 1998). According to Leach (1958: 154), at least at a normative level,

an astonishingly high proportion of the ethnographic evidence fits the following pattern in a quite obvious way. In ritual situations: long hair = unrestrained sexuality; short hair or partially shaved hair or tightly bound hair = restricted sexuality; close shaven hair = celibacy.

  • 65 For more about the symbolism involved here, see Lang, 1995: 35 ff.

95It is clear that the last part of this pattern finds echoes in Tibetan Buddhist monastic contexts,65 and to some extent in lay contexts as well. However, things are much more problematic with regard to tantrists. The roots of their tradition, that is to say the early period in which Indic tantric traditions developed, were marked (at least for certain adepts—for instance in ritual gatherings/feasts called Skt. gaṇacakra) by ritual modes of sexuality that were socially transgressive, transgressing caste boundaries for instance (Davidson, 2002: 318-320). These practices were later largely “domesticated” or “sanitized” (ibid.: 318). Some strong sexual symbolism remains in the Tibetan tantric tradition, and a tiny elite of advanced virtuoso adepts are still said to engage in ritual practices involving intercourse with an actual partner, but basically the sexuality of the Repkong tantrists is very much like that of ordinary laypeople. In our discussions, some of them actually stressed that their vow to avoid sexual misconduct is something they take very seriously. Leach’s own attempt to explain the case of ascetics with matted hair is not entirely coherent, as pointed out by Hallpike (1969: 260). Finally, it is clear that the empirical data produced in the present discussion simply does not warrant an interpretation in terms of sexuality.

96To simplify things somewhat, the other single most common and prominent analytical approach to hair in the social sciences has been very sociological in its thrust (see in particular Hallpike 1969 and Bromberger’s writings). Bromberger in particular has developed a four-pronged analytical scheme for looking at hair based on the dimensions of (i) gender, (ii) identity, (iii) norms and marginality, and lastly a less sociological dimension: (iv) aesthetics (see Bromberger in this special issue). In his discussion of the third dimension, looking at the case of various Hindu, Buddhist or Christian religious specialists, Bromberger highlights the duality between rule-bound renunciation on the one hand and religious wandering and transgression on the other, associated respectively with shaved hair and long, unkempt hair (see Bromberger in this special issue, or a more detailed treatment in Bromberger, 2010: 161-182). More specifically, the elements that Bogin provides in his discussion of Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu’s “dreadlocks treatise” (2008) are interpreted somewhat incautiously by Bromberger in terms of the tantrist’s (assumed) “neglect” of his appearance, appetite for sex and alcohol, and socially transgressive orientation (2010: 167).

  • 66 For a book-length exploration of these issues, see Sihlé, 2013a: introduction, chapters 4-5, and pa (...)

97Parts of Bromberger’s general analytical grid are relevant for our purposes. As we have seen, the tantrists’ hairstyles quite clearly function as markers of group identity and distinctiveness—consider the key defining and authenticating requirement that the tantrist’s long hair represents in Repkong discourse, as well as its structural contrast with the monk’s shaven head. This clearly echoes Bromberger’s second axis of analysis. However, if we consider Bromberger’s more specific comments on the Tibetan case, the elements of “transgression” found in the tantrists’ religious profiles and practices are moderate at best. They are generally householders, not itinerant specialists. In some local traditions they drink alcohol quite liberally in ritual contexts (Sihlé, 2013a: 55, 236, 237, 245); but the Repkong tantrists do not. Finally, they are the prototypical specialists of rituals involving violence, such as powerful exorcisms aimed at slaying demons (if not sorcery, at least in the popular imagination)—a ritual orientation that is often perceived as ethically transgressive (or at the least very sensitive).66

98Thus although moderate elements of transgressiveness can certainly be found in the tantrists’ religious profile, these simply have not warranted any significant discussion in the present article’s analysis of the Repkong tantrists’ hair. The rejection of social conventions in favor of a “natural state” (a cognate theme more briefly mentioned by Bromberger) is assuredly a more accurate and relevant description of one of the key ideological themes underlying the tantrists’ dreadlocks and other forms of long hair.

99Ultimately, focusing on transgression (or the rejection of social conventions) leaves out a rich field of other absolutely key associations, particularly the twin themes of embodied/resident divinity and ritual power. It is known that in a number of societies “spirits or divinities [are believed to] reside in the head and hair” (Olivelle, 1998: 31, citing Frazer, 1913: II, 252-253; see also Bogin, 2008: 88, with reference to Sikes, 1912: 474). The case of the Repkong tantrists suggests that, in an analysis of hair logic along the lines of Bromberger’s four-pronged, primarily sociological scheme, some broader issues with regard to cultural understandings are at least omitted or devalued as avenues of comparative analysis: how is the nature of hair perceived? What is the person’s relationship with the hair, or sometimes with the beings that can inhabit the hair or manifest themselves in it? Here one is reminded of Hertz’s famous analysis of widespread patterns relating to the right-hand/left-hand duality ([1909] 1973): would cultural, cosmological understandings of hair—at the dual interface between the biological and the sociocultural on the one hand, and between the person and the outside world and its beings on the other—not warrant similar attention? If long hair as an essential marker of socio-religious identity is the most striking feature in Repkong tantrists’ discourse on their hair, this is only one thread in a much more complex web of practices and meanings.

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Bibliographie

Berg, Charles
1951 The Unconscious Significance of Hair (London, Allen & Unwin).

Bogin, Benjamin
2008
The Dreadlocks Treatise: On Tantric Hairstyles in Tibetan Buddhism, History of Religions, 48 (2): 85-109. DOI: 10.1086/596567.
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Notes

1 My warmest thanks go to my Tibetan hosts, assistants, interlocutors and friends (too numerous and, in some cases, too vulnerable to be named here) who have helped me in my exploration of this theme, as well as to my co-editors and the anonymous reviewers of this text.

2 For instance, in a text on Padmasambhava we find the wording: rab byung ngur smrig gi sde dang gos dkar lcang lo’i sde zhes dge ’dun gyi sde gnyis. See: http://rywiki.tsadra.org/index.php/pad_ma_'byung_gnas (accessed 22 January 2016).

3 In order to make the reading of Tibetan terms easier for non-Tibetanists, I provide phonetic transcriptions according to the relatively standard “THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan”, provided by David Germano and Nicolas Tournadre (2003). (For terms specific to the language of Amdo [A mdo], or northeast Tibet, I sometimes slightly adapt the transcription to the Amdo—or more precisely Repkong—pronunciation; when the term is not a toponym, for the sake of clarity I add the indication “Amdo: …”.) I add the transliteration in square brackets at the first occurrence of a term, following the version of the so-called “Wylie” system (with capitalization of root letters) used mainly in European academia (see Cantwell and Mayer, 2002). Terms for which a spelling could not be ascertained are preceded by an asterisk. Sanskrit terms are marked by “Skt.” and Tibetan terms by “Tib.” whenever the context is not clear enough.

4 See Stein, [1962] 1987: 65; Karmay, 1998: 9 and passim; Ramble, 1984: 30; Sihlé, 2013a: 15-16. The tantra are core texts of what Western languages refer to as tantric Buddhism, which is a major component of Tibetan Buddhism and is characterized by the centrality of ritual, ritual power, the use of mantras, initiatory practices, deity visualization and the like. For a recent discussion of attempts at defining the Buddhist and Śaiva tantric traditions, see Wallis, 2016.

5 This style is similar to the “turban of matted hair” worn by many Hindu ascetics (Hausner, 2007: 27).

6 See Bromberger’s introduction to this special issue, as well as a fuller exposition of his work in Bromberger, 2010.

7 The Nyingma order is literally that of the “Ancient [translation of the tantras]”. Most tantrists belong to this order; the other Tibetan Buddhist orders place more emphasis on monasticism. Bön is a religious tradition that is very similar to Tibetan Buddhism, and in particular to the Nyingma order, in both religious and sociological matters.

8 In Amdo, “Alak” is a respectful term of reference and address for masters (particularly reincarnated ones). It is somewhat equivalent to the term Rinpoché [Rin po che, lit. “Precious”] used in many other Tibetan areas, but some Amdo speakers are of the opinion that it should only be used for local and regional masters, and is not suitable for the highest masters of Tibetan Buddhism, who should be addressed as “Rinpoché”. Another linguistic difference with “Rinpoché” is the fact that in very polite speech, when “Alak” is followed by the master’s name, the respectful ending -tsang [tshang] is sometimes appended to the name, as in “Alak Böngya-tsang”.

9 The Minling tradition originated in the Mindröling monastery, a major Nyingma monastic institution in Central Tibet. The Longchen Nyingtik tradition, one of the most widespread Nyingma traditions, was revealed and authored by eighteenth-century visionary Jikmé Lingpa [’Jigs med gling pa].

10 On the various factors at play in tantrists’ decisions about whether or not to take part in these supra-local ritual gatherings, see Sihlé, 2013b.

11 In Repkong, the first term, amchö [a mchod], commonly designates a monk who enjoys special patronage relations with a given lay household; however, the present specialists are non-monastic. The second term, gyawo, might be derived from kyawo [skya bo], meaning a layperson, although the phonetic shift would be unexplained. It might also be the term gyawo [rgya bo], meaning “bearded man”. In any case, its etymology was very unclear to my Repkong interlocutors.

12 Similar hairstyles are to be found among monastic virtuoso yogis of the Drukpa-Kagyü [’Brug pa bka’ brgyud] tradition at the Tsari [Tsa ri] sacred mountain (Huber, 1999: 85 ff.), as well as among some monastic retreat practitioners of the Drigung-Kagyü [’Bri gung bka’ brgyud] tradition in Ladakh [La dwags].

13 See, however, some examples mentioned in Schrempf and Schneider (eds.), 2015.

14 Another list of Tibetan terms appears on a website maintained by a group of Western tantric practitioners and followers of the ngakpa tradition: http://aroencyclopaedia.org/shared/text/n/ngakpas_th_01_01_eng.php. The list was compiled by Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, the founders of this group (Métsal Wangmo, personal communication, September 2016).

15 The term also refers to a “mane”, such as that of a lion.

16 Dreadlocks are also occasionally subject to some form of care and styling; however, as Bogin points out (2008: 101), they are never cut or combed, and in that sense there is an association (at least a symbolic one) with the notion of unfabricatedness.

17 Local informants were generally unable to provide a spelling for the term gyələ, which may have no equivalent in written Tibetan. One suggestion was [’gyi li], but I have been unable to locate this in dictionaries or other written sources. The term (as well as the Amdo verb gyi) may be cognate to the verbal forms dril [sgril] or dril [’gril], “to twist, to wrap”.

18 Nyida Heruka gives the term reltak [ral thag], literally “relpa cord” (Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 88).

19 Nyida Heruka also expresses a critical opinion on this matter (Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 90).

20 On this important local figure, see Dhondup, 2013: 118-120.

21 Nyida Heruka defines the term changlo as “dreadlocks coiled on the crown of the head and attached with the relpa cord (reltak)” (Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 88). This is far more specific than most sources (dictionaries and others).

22 In his study of Bönpo tantrists (of Repkong in particular), Tsering Thar uses the term relshup [ral shubs] (Thar, 2008: 545), “hair covering”.

23 On the striking presence of “white [and red] shawls” (zenkar [gzan dkar]) in this picture, see below.

24 The tenth-day worship of Padmasambhava is a key element of Nyingma tantrists’ ritual culture, but it is also common in other contexts, such as among lay villagers (Dollfus, 1989: 60-61, 163-165; Sihlé, unpubl.). It typically focuses on prayers to Padmasambhava and a “ritual of the multitudes” (tsok [tshogs], Skt. gaṇacakra), in which consecrated food offerings are distributed among those in attendance or to the local community. In some contexts, it is also associated with beer drinking.

25 Politically, in the decades preceding the Communist takeover in 1949, Repkong and most of eastern Qinghai were under the Muslim Ma rulers’ control, which was efficient and state-like in some respects, but sometimes brutal (Weiner, 2012: 106-131).

26 All personal names given here, aside from those of masters, are pseudonyms.

27 This is the Tibetan age, and corresponds roughly to the Western age of 23.

28 Local understandings diverge on this point. Some tantrists heard that Alak Khyunggön had conferred a relwang but, according to one of the main tantrists in the group of eight, this was not really the case.

29 One also hears “Ma Za Dor, the three” [Ma gZa’ rDor gsum]. Both expressions refer to Mamo Ekajaṭī [Ma mo E ka dza ti], also known as Ngaksungma [sNgags srung ma], Zachen Rāhula [gZa’ chen Ra hu la] and Damchen Dorjé Lekpa [Dam can rdo rje legs pa] (see Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1956: 94; Vessantara, 2008: 125-128). However, my Bönpo ngakpa interlocutors did not associate the hair consecration with particular named deities in their tradition—perhaps simply out of a lack of understanding of the technicalities of the act?

30 Dudjom Rinpoche, 2012: 482-483. These eight “Awareness-Holders” are Indian masters. However, the same designation can also refer to a secondary, later set of eight Tibetan great tantric practitioners (disciples of Padmasambhava) entrusted with the further transmission of the Kagyé teachings. See: http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Eight_vidyadharas_of_Tibet (accessed 10 May 2016).

31 Whereas in many other Tibetan areas the emphasis is on a ngakpa’s “bone-lineage” (dunggyü [gdung rgyud] or sometimes rügyü [rus rgyud]), in the sense of a patrilineal family lineage, in Repkong the emphasis is much more on the house. On the house as a key unit of Tibetan social organization, see Fjeld, 2008: 250; Sihlé, 2013a: 85 n. 15.

32 See also Jest (1975: 306) for the Dolpo case.

33 The closest that comes to mind is perhaps (albeit with a very different, sacramental logic) the disciple’s partaking of a drop of the master’s semen in some rare tantric initiation contexts in the Indo-Tibetan tradition (Davidson, 2002: 197)—a theme that has so far never been mentioned to me in my ethnographic experience in Tibetan contexts.

34 See Huber’s discussion of the place of materiality, substance and the body in Tibetan pilgrimage practices (1994: 84-93). On Buddhist relic cults, see Trainor (1997), Germano and Trainor (2004), and specifically for the Tibetan case Guidoni (2006).

35 The term relwang is also found in textual sources: Ehrhard (2008: 106) mentions one title based on this term.

36 In matters of terminology, here I primarily follow Snellgrove (1959: 131-133; 1987: 165 n. 86, 213) and The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism edited by Buswell and Lopez (2013: 97-98, 115-116): the initiation into a given tantric practice (often simply called wang [dbang]) generally involves a series of consecrations (wang or wangkur [dbang bskur], Skt. abhiṣeka), the number and exact nature of which vary according to the class of tantra; and these consecrations also involve empowerments (jinlap [byin rlabs] or jin-gyi lappa [byin gyis brlabs pa], Skt. adhiṣṭhāna—terms that outside the initiation context are often glossed as “blessings”). On the term “consecration”, see also Kvaerne, [1975] 2005: 164-165. For a summary of the structure of an initiation rite, see Tribe, 2000: 231-233.

37 In the iconography, Vajrasattva is represented with long hair, with one part attached to the top of the head and the rest flowing down freely over his shoulders.

38 Similarly, Boord (1993: 152) mentions a consecration of all the hair on the adept’s body (within a standard sequence of nine or ten consecrations included in an empowerment context).

39 This text was kindly brought to my attention by my former assistant in the field, Kunchog Tseten, as well as my colleague Chenaktsang Hungchen, who has just edited and published a version of this text on the precious Ngakmang.net website: http://www.ngakmang.net/chok/760.html (accessed 21 September 2016).

40 A similar fourfold structure is mentioned for Bönpo relwang by Thar (2008: 545).

41 Outside of Repkong, he is also widely known as Orgyen Kusum Lingpa [O rgyan sku gsum gling pa]. See Terrone, 2010: 146-152.

42 This also includes a few monastic contexts, such as the (fully ordained) tokden [rtogs ldan] yogic practitioners of the Drukpa-Kagyü tradition who practice at the sacred mountain Tsari (Huber, 1999: 86).

43 On this form of death, see Guidoni, 2006: 180-186.

44 On various understandings of the “Twelve (Inner) Divisions” (Shokha Chunyi [Shog kha bcu gnyis] or Nangshok Chunyi [Nang shog bcu gnyis]) and “Eighteen Outer Divisions” (Chishok Chopgyé [Phyi shog bco brgyad]) of Repkong, see Reb gong pa mKhar rtse rgyal, 2009: 43 ff.

45 As Françoise Robin (personal communication) also notes, Tibetans are mostly right-handed, and it is easier for right-handers to twist the locks counterclockwise (towards the left).

46 Note the variability of cultural codes: here it would be disrespectful not to untie the hair, but in Indic legal codes “[u]ntying the hair before a king […] is regarded […] as an insult subject to punishment” (Olivelle, 1998: 16).

47 Nyida Heruka’s discussion of the tantrist’s garments mentions primarily the “white shawl” (Nyi zla he ru ka, 2003: 85, 87), as well as items of clothing of other colors.

48 A photograph like the one in ill. 6, taken in 2012, could not therefore have been taken in Repkong a decade earlier.

49 Amdo: dompa yöno, xwecha yöno, go-na rawa yöno [Tib.: sdom pa yod pa/ dpe cha yod pa/ mgo la ral pa yod pa/].

50 Similarly, it could perhaps be argued that long hair was a key identity and status marker for the pre-1950 Tibetan aristocracy, who strongly resisted outside pressure to cut hair, and were known in some cases to use wigs (see the introduction by Schneider in this volume).

51 In his discussion of the Bönpo context, Thar mentions a fourth “natural condition” (machöpa): the use of a skull cup as a “natural” container (Thar, 2008: 545).

52 See these figures’ biographies on The Treasury of Lives website (Gardner, 2009; Mandelbaum, 2007) as well as, regarding Nupchen, Dudjom (2012: 607-614).

53 For an example from Baragaon, a Tibetan society in the Nepalese Himalayas, see Sihlé, 2013a: 224 n. 17.

54 A closely related notion is that each of the myriad hairs on the practitioner’s entire body is the residence of a khandroma deity. On the term khandro(ma), which also refers to virtuoso female practitioners, see also Schneider’s article in this issue.

55 This number should more specifically be understood as referring to the buddhas of the five families in their wrathful manifestations (heruka), along with their entourage; see: http://rywiki.tsadra.org/index.php/khrag_'thung_lnga_brgyad (accessed 19 August 2016). On the Heruka figure, see Gray, 2007: 35-54.

56 Maksar Pandita’s personal name was Künzang Topden Wangpo [Kun bzang stobs ldan dbang po] (1781-1828). This song is entitled “Removing the Darkness of Doubt: The Suddenly Arising Song Which Deciphers the Symbols of the Yogi’s Three Secrets” (Thol byung glu gzhas rnal ’byor gsang gsum brda grol the tshom mun sel). An English translation has been published by Lama Tharchin Rinpoche and the Vajrayana Foundation, a version of which can be found at: http://www.nyingma.com/artman/publish/darkness_of_doubt.shtml (accessed 19 August 2016). (Thanks to Nuno Gonçalves for this link.)

57 We find a similar theme in a number of accounts; see for instance Bogin (2008: 104-105) or Schneider’s article in this issue.

58 The account mistakenly situates these tantrists in Golok, which lies much further to the southwest, but there is no doubt that it concerns the Repkong tantrists, given the name “Regong” (Repkong is often pronounced “Rekong”) and the fact that the number of Nyingma tantrists is 1900. This figure is part of a traditional designation of the “Community of tantrists of Repkong” (Repkong Ngakmang), namely “the 1900 ritual dagger holders” (see Dhondup, 2011: 47).

59 Although tantric ritual activity is not by any means always yogic in nature, the Tibetan term equivalent to yogi, namely neljor(pa) [rnal ’byor pa], has often been used as a valorized literary designation for a ngakpa (see also Sihlé, 2013a: 123).

60 http://www.nyingma.com/artman/publish/darkness_of_doubt.shtml. Links between the tantrists’ hair and ritual power are also mentioned by Terrone (2010: 236-237).

61 Incidentally, note that this story echoes the connection between awe-inspiring dreadlocks and snakes discussed most notably by Obeyesekere (1981: passim). For a more standard version of this Tibetan story, see Dudjom, 2012: 612.

62 Erudite discussions of the ngakpa’s hair (such as Nyida Heruka’s essay) suggest even more layers of symbolism, but I will limit myself here to the themes that emerged as important from the discourse of my Repkong interlocutors.

63 The term used here for the lama, rikdak [rigs bdag], literally “lord of the [buddha] family”, is actually somewhat polysemic, but the following sentences clearly refer to the figure of the master.

64 Sources such as the autobiographies of Zhapkar (Ricard, 1994) and Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu—as well as a short treatise by the latter (Bogin, 2008, 2013)—or a spiritual song by Maksar Pandita have already been mentioned. See also some brief elements in a treatise by a certain bKra shis rgya mtsho (14th-15th C.?), reprinted in Bu byung dbang ’dus (ed.) (1996: 67).

65 For more about the symbolism involved here, see Lang, 1995: 35 ff.

66 For a book-length exploration of these issues, see Sihlé, 2013a: introduction, chapters 4-5, and passim.

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Table des illustrations

Titre ill. 1 – The dual clergy of Tibetan Buddhism: tantrist and monk
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Khyunggön temple, Repkong, 2012
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 384k
Titre ill. 2 – Several ngakma, wearing their hair in a single braid
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 468k
Titre ill. 3 – Tantrists’ hair, fastened around the head with the ramtel band
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2011
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 216k
Titre ill. 4 – Opposed styles: dreadlocks and the Chinese-inspired queue
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2012
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Titre ill. 5 – Palchen Namkha Jikmé, a founding figure for Repkong Nyingma tantrists
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Khyunggön temple, Repkong, 2011
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 192k
Titre ill. 6 – A variety of hairstyles informed by age23
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2012
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 420k
Titre ill. 7 – Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu in extended tantric retreat
Crédits Source: Bogin, 2013: 129, by permission of the author
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k
Titre ill. 8 – Yolmowa Tendzin Norbu with dreadlocks, after his retreat
Crédits Source: Bogin, 2013: 131, by permission of the author
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 172k
Titre ill. 9 – Attached to the dreadlock, the Bönpo “sign of the consecration” (wangtak)
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2003
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 408k
Titre ill. 10 – Twist all the dreadlocks towards the “left” (counterclockwise)
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 144k
Titre ill. 11 – Then wind the whole set around the head, again towards the “left” (counterclockwise)
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 148k
Titre ill. 12 – Finally, fasten everything with the long “[band which] joins the locks” (Amdo: ramtel)
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 200k
Titre ill. 13 – Done
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 160k
Titre ill. 14 – Receiving the ritual “realizations” (ngödrup). Note the still-clear cord-like appearance of the recent dreadlocks
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 124k
Titre ill. 15 – Welcoming a master on his arrival at a ritual gathering
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-15.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 264k
Titre ill. 16 – Welcoming a master: tantric aesthetics
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-16.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 128k
Titre ill. 17 – Wearing the five-lobed crown with dreadlocks
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2011
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-17.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k
Titre ill. 18 – A wig to satisfy the long hair requirement: the chörel (Amdo chira)
Crédits © Nicolas Sihlé, Repkong, 2013
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/docannexe/image/10562/img-18.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 242k
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Référence électronique

Nicolas Sihlé, « Why Hair Needs to Be Long », Ateliers d'anthropologie [En ligne], 45 | 2018, mis en ligne le 20 novembre 2018, consulté le 11 décembre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ateliers/10562 ; DOI : 10.4000/ateliers.10562

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Auteur

Nicolas Sihlé

Chargé de recherche CNRS, Centre d’études himalayennes–UPR299
nicolas.sihle@cnrs.fr

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Ateliers d'anthropologie – Revue éditée par le Laboratoire d'ethnologie et de sociologie comparative  est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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