This morning, I had the opportunity to go along with some friends who were making this a devotional day, being the last day of Saga Dawa. They decided to perform full body prostrations (chak tsel) around the Potala palace. Full prostrations are a common form of devotion here. You can see people performing them clockwise everyday around the Jokhang, the Potala and even the Lingkor, which takes three hours just to walk.
The prostrator starts by putting the palms together and touching the forehead, throat and heart, then kneeling. The body is then stretched out until the nose and forehead touch the ground. The hands are stretched out in front then brought over the head, palms together. Then, the individual pulls back to the knees, stands up, walks three steps (or the full body distance), and performs it all over again, while praying.
This is a strenuous activity, and really serious prostrators, some of whom have prostrated from their homes to Lhasa, have large callouses on their foreheads and noses from the repeated touching to the ground.
I went along as a helper. My job was to carry and provide drinks or food or whatever, to those who were actually prostrating. In order to get this done before it got hot, we were at the Potala about a quarter after 5 this morning. The Potala korra takes maybe half an hour to walk if one walks at a reasonable pace. To circumambulate it with prostrations takes anywhere from 5 to 7 hours. (I hears someone say three, but I don't buy that. You'd have to really be booking to make it in three.) So, the prostrations started at 5:30 this morning...in the rain. It had been raining during the night and was drizzling when we left. The walkway around the Potala is incredibly uneven, making large puddles everywhere. Not only was it going to be a long and strenuous morning for my friends, but a cold and wet one as well.
I waited to make sure they didn't need anything, then I began walking the korra. It was nice to walk while it was still dark and people couldn't tell I was a foreigner. Once the sun came up, there were masses of people, most with a comment, although for once, the fat comments were not so prevalent. Mostly people were thrilled to see a foreigner wearing a chuba. Women would ask me if I was alone or if I had friends on the korra, and guys would give me a thumbs up. My butt was only touched twice, by women who were really happy to see my chuba.
Every time I came around the korra, I would ask my friends if they needed anything. I, myself, took a few rests along the way. Each korra is a little over a mile, and while I started out walking rather quickly, my shoes were soon soaked and it is a bit painful to walk in wet socks, although that is nothing compared to full body prostrations.
My friends managed to complete the korra in five and a half hours, a good time in the rain, when the hands aren't sliding so well, and the clothes are heavy. They even stopped for a longish rest with Tibetan tea and bread on the back side of the Potala.
I wore my pedometer today and burned over a pound just by doing korra. Another friend has agreed to go with me everyday if I want, so that I can get a little more exercise in than I already get from walking almost every day.
By the time the morning was over, I could not even count the number of times I had heard, "A ma!" a Tibetan expression of surprise, which slipped from many mouths when people saw my chuba. It was nice, though. They say the rain makes Lhasa people happy, and I definitely have to agree. People all seemed to be in a good mood today.