Yarlung Tashi Sholpa: A Unique Tibetan Opera with Yellow Masks

About Yarlung Tashi Sholpa

The yellow mask opera type in the white mask genre of Tashi Sholpa Tibetan opera is a national intangible cultural heritage. When performing, they wear a yellow mask, which symbolizes the wise man. It has a long and rich history and exudes a powerful artistic atmosphere. The performance is grand and awe-inspiring.

Yarlung Tashi Sholpa is the birthplace and headquarters of the troupe. Tibetan Opera is believed to have been created by the 14th-century lama Thangtong Gyalpo, who was also an accomplished architect, metallurgist, and artist. Throughout his supposed 125-year lifespan, he constructed 58 iron-chain bridges, significantly enhancing the road system in this mountainous area. Consequently, Tibetans hold him in high regard.

Yarlung Tashi Sholpa is a genre of Tibetan Opera, distinguished by its rhyme scheme, dance steps, costumes, and props. It retains many unique details associated with its founder Thangtong Gyalpo. For instance, each performance begins with the yell of “yi hahaha,” imitating Thangtong’s unrestrained excitement when he received additional iron chains donations for bridge making.

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Yellow Mask of Tashi Sholpa Opera

Yarlung Tashi Sholpa Opera performers wear yellow masks with white rims to honour Thangtong’s dedication to forging iron for the bridges. While toiling by the charcoal furnace daily, his chest turned black and his face grew sallow.

A craftsman, mentions that it typically takes approximately two years to craft a single yellow mask. The most time-consuming aspect of this process involves creating the goat hair used to adorn the mask. However, not all goats possess fibres that meet the necessary standards. Consequently, the craftsman diligently selects a material based on stringent criteria and then delegates the responsibility of raising it to a local herdsman.

To ensure a robust hair coat, the animal is nourished with high-quality feed and groomed daily using a specialized technique. Once the goat reaches the age of two, it is culled and its skin is removed. The hide is then processed, trimmed, and combed before being securely attached to the mask.

Maha Siddha Thangtong Gyalpo 

Thangthong Gyalpo was a renowned Tibetan Siddha who extensively travelled in China, Tibet, and other eastern countries. He constructed numerous temples and metal bridges and established monasteries in Dergé and other places.

Thangtong Gyalpo, an embodiment of Guru Rinpoche’s mental aspect, is renowned as the King of the Empty Plain. While meditating in Gyede Plain, Tsang, he gained fame for creating Ache Lhamo, the Tibetan opera, and constructing multiple iron suspension bridges to facilitate travel and pilgrimage in the Himalayas. To fund the bridge construction, he formed a troupe of seven sisters who performed songs and dances.

Thangtong Gyalpo opened the route through Kongpo, where he obtained iron for his bridges and rights for Tibetan pilgrims to visit holy places in Tsari, near the Indian border. He built 108 iron-chain suspension bridges, including the famous one over the Yarlung Tsanpo near modern Chushul. He is often depicted in murals with long white hair and holding chain links from his bridges.

Old Chain-Bridge at Chaksam Chowo Ri.

One of his iron chain suspension bridges, Chakzam Bridge, was still standing in 1948 near Lhasa, approximately 65 km away in Tsangpo. However, it was no longer in use and required repairs. Instead, a ferry was being used for crossing. The old bridge was eventually demolished when a new one was opened about a hundred meters to the west.

The previous bridge had an ancient design, with two thick chains connected to sturdy wooden beams beneath the pillars. Hanging from the top of these chains were 12-foot (4-meter) ropes, which supported wooden boards measuring one yard (1 meter) in length and one foot (30 cm) in width. These boards allowed one person to pass through. The bridge spanned a distance of one hundred paces.

Thangtong Gyalpo’s main Gompa, Chaksam Chuwo Ri, was located at the south end of the Tsangpo bridge. He resided in the Chaksam Labrang, the primary building of the complex, which included the assembly hall. The gompa housed a hundred monks who were financially supported by the toll collected on the bridge. Additionally, there was a large Chorten called Tangtong’s Kumbum situated at the southern end of the bridge.

This chorten contained his relics, and there was a chapel at the top with an image of him. According to Dowman, all traces of its existence have now disappeared. It is said that Thangtong Gyalpo built 108 iron-chain suspension bridges, although another account mentions 58 suspension bridges and 118 ferry crossings. The most renowned bridge he constructed was the one over the Yarlung Tsangpo near modern Chushul (Qüxü). In murals, he is often depicted with long white hair and holding chain links from his bridges.

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