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Day 86: Lijiang

Lijiang, China 
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Dongba checks the instructions during purification ritual.
Michael Palin - HimalayaThe chickens are dangled over the fire and the air fills with the smell of scorched feathers. The two assistants, one boy and one girl, seem uncertain what to do next and they lay down the blackened chickens and wait for the Dongba to help them out. Their confusion is hardly surprising. Tradition dictates that ancient scriptures are only communicated to males, and then not until the Dongba who communicates them is over 75 years old. So the chicken's fate is currently in the hands of a girl who can't know what to do, and a boy who won't know what to do for another ten years.

The ceremony now shifts inside to a room with a fire and a candlelit altar. As he makes various moves, the Dongba peers closely at an old book of pictographic texts, rather like someone following the instructions on a new video.

At one point he lays the book down and fumbles around. We watch in some suspense, as he reaches deep into his robes, only to produce a cigarette, which he lights up before carrying on reading.

For what seems like an interminable time he moves around the fire, passing chickens over the flame, before indicating to his assistants to fetch him a big black cooking bowl. The bowl is filled with water and the hapless, still-feathered chickens (which some of us think are not absolutely dead) are dropped in and imprecations muttered. At the edge of the firelight, behind the crouching Dongba, I can see Peter, face pale and eyes round as saucers.

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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 86: Lijiang
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Lijiang
  • Book page no: 202

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