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Launching Sagaalgan: The Festival of the White Moon 2/14/06
"Your brand has been potatoes," said Did Danzan Khambo Lama to about 400 fur-robed people sitting and standing in the packed Harganna community center, cold enough inside to see your breath, yet far warmer than the - 44 outside. "Sweet tasting potatoes that you know I have enjoyed," referring to his ample waist, a comment received with great laughter and warm smiles, "but soon you will be known the world over as the birthplace and village of Khambo Lama Itigleov's mother. This will be you new brand."
Yanzhima, Did Danzan Lama and I, along with reporters from a Buryat and Moscow newspaper and a Ulan Ude television station had come to attend the Sagaalgan "White Moon" Festival at the tiny farming village of Hargana, located about 100 kilometers southeast from Ulan Ude. Ourselves, and others coming for this first holiday and celebration of the Buddhist New Years, were greeted at the outskirts of the village with a traditional welcome of fire, vodka, pickles and sweets and then led to the village center by two men on horseback, again a tradition that has gone back for centuries.
Yanzhima and my Sagaalgan began the day before attending a three and a half hour concert, interspersed with many speeches at the Buryat Theatre, that featured the talent and traditions of Selenginsky, one of several regions in four successive days that had hosted and modified a core presentation that welcomed and launched the Year of the Dog, Fire Dog that promised a difficult year as far as the weather is concerned. Having attended another region's event three days earlier, I can attest that the Selenginsky people threw out the stops, which included a huge post-performance reception with over twenty tables literally bending under the weight of food and vodka. The building was teaming with people wearing their traditional dress and it seemed as if the speeches and performances simply shifted from the stage as that part continued as if it had never ended.
Out in the lobby it seemed as if Yanzhima was either related to or went to school with everyone present. Since she took her turn on stage, in part, to extol my support of her institute's activities, I was hauled all over the room to sample one blood sausage pudding or milk-based dish after another, including vodka made from milk, or pose for photographs with young and old. At least I wasn't asked to sing or make a speech, one of the few present not given the honor. It was a grand celebration of a region, its people, their talents and traditions, and their clans.
After awaking at 10:00 AM the next day, an exceedingly late start for those who know me, I was somewhat taken aback to realize I had less than an hour to get ready for our trip to Hargana. As I lay there I remembered her parting words the night before, "Dress warm. It will be very cold. We will spend much time outside. Yes?" Fortunately, I had accepted a white fur coat pressed on me earlier in the week by a friend concerned by my seemed inability to take Siberian weather seriously. I had thought, I've handled - 48 in Kemerovo, what's -44. Still, Yanzhima's "much time outside" comment dinged in my head so I threw it on, nearly collapsed under the weight, but later experiencing the temperature inside the community center, cool enough to freeze water, I was damn glad I did.
The land around Hargana is flat. Like most Russian villages, a large concrete sign in the shape of the number 4, about twenty feet tall, announced the turnoff to the tiny village. The hamlet consisted of many old wooden houses huddled together, the horizon only broken by a water tower used to create water pressure to pump hot water from the wood-fired heating plant to the school and government administration buildings, all other structures in town heated by individual stoves. Our small caravan of two cars pulled up to a small fire in a triangle of the road where four villages elders awaited us along with two men on horseback. We were barely out of our cars, when six other vehicles joined ours including a white Korean caravan containing Did Danzan Lama.
There I had my second taste of vodka made from milk and was presented a green hadak in welcome. We all greeted each other with our two arms out stretched and pressing our opposite cheeks together four times. A similar welcome was repeated outside the village community hall, where a yurt had been set up in the yard. This time bowls of milk, held in a hadak, were presented to us to sip from as a sign of welcome. Before going inside the hall, we were taken to a nearby building for the gift of another hadak as a welcome to their chapel, where our prayers and offerings were made. Once back to and inside the community center, the village "mayor" gave me a tour of an exhibition of carvings by students and local craftsmen, a mixture of figurines and wall relief many exquisitely done, along with paintings, birch containers and embroidery. A full array of traditional foods was on display separated by those made from sheep, milk, cows, and grown from the earth. While I was pressed to taste everything, and did my best to restrict my intake knowing much more was to come, Yanzhima rescued and pulled me into the performance hall. The show was about to begin.
Following Did Danzan Lama's words of welcome, Yanzhima unveiled a segment of a video interview with a village elder talking about her memories of Khambo Lama Itigelov, the 12th Khambo lama who "died" seventy-nine years ago and whose body was unearthed four years ago to all appearances still in the meditative state he then entered, and of her family's memories of his mother, who was raised in this village of Hargana. "We need your help," said Yanzhima. "We know she came from here, but we do not know when she was born, much about her family, or indeed her name. We do know that many people the world over are fast learning about Khambo Lama Itigelov, that many want to learn about him, and that many will want to come here to get a sense of his roots. Many people don't know about your potatoes, but they do know that this is where his mother was born. They will come. We need your help in telling her story."
Indeed it was this recognition that brought the media out to cover Hargana's Sagaalgan and they were hot at it interviewing all manner of local residents. Later after the concert, I found myself in an impromptu meeting with the faculty and administration of school. The building inside was very attractive with many murals, paintings, brightly wall-papered or painted walls reflecting the quality of performances that impressed everyone at the community center by the range, depth and quality. The school was known for its mission to preserve their cultural traditions, well on display since the moment we arrived, including teaching the Buryat language to all the children, which begins in first grade.
When I was asked to speak, I praised them for being the place that was home to the Khambo Lama's mother, and his feminine side; for the commitment they had given to preserving their traditional arts, and said that I felt that if his mother had come back today she would feel at home; that the core values she passed on to her son were very present here today. I felt that if anything, that was their great gift; and that articulating those values would be most helpful to Yanzhima in telling their story.
Later that evening, towards the close of the Sagaalgan dinner, Did Danzan Lama rose and spoke about responsibility; the responsibility we each have to our own spirit and body, to our family and loved ones, to our community, to our ancestors, and to our children, grandchildren and their grandchildren. He felt that Hargana was a special place. He said his two best friends lived in Hargana, pointing to each. And he said while the world would start to come here to learn about the Khambo Lama, for him their brand would always be the potatoes because they stood for the people of this community and their kindness.
Note: Danzan Lama is holder of the Maltese Cross, in recognition for his work with the children of Chernobyl, and is the Assistant Director and Vice President for International Economic Relations, one of three lead deputies to Pandido Khambo Lama Damba Ayusheyev, the 24th Khambo Lama of all Russia.
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475