“In the far west of Tibet, there is a mountain some call the CENTER OF THE WORLD… MOUNT KAILASH.”
The opening of Nine-Story Mountain, a documentary film directed by Augusta Thomson, reveals soaring blue skies and a wealth of white clouds and the Kora, the route pilgrims follow around Mount Kailash, a holy pilgrimage site. Originally from the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire, Thomson is a dynamic and engaged world citizen, now in her final year of studies in Archaeology and Anthropology at Oxford University. She has been involved in other documentary projects, including as Director Corporate Screenings and Outreach Coordinator for ongoing screenings of Girl Rising, a strong and stunning documentary about nine girls in developing countries, and how education has transformed their lives and their communities. The powerful message of Girl Rising has inspired a global movement for the right to education for girls around the world, just as the panoramic footage of Nine-Story Mountain will raise awareness about the cultural and environmental impact of pilgrimage practices in Tibet.
“Nine-Story Mountain charts the journey of three western researchers on a path of self-discovery, from Lhasa to Mount Kailash, Tibet… to understand the secrets of a mountain and landscape that have magnetized millions of people for centuries.”
Four young Tibetan Bon pilgrims come barreling down the incline. “So, so, so, so, so,” they sing as they run. When they are directly in front of me, they raise their hands. “Tashi delek,” they say. “Blessings and good luck.”
I am in western Tibet, on the path leading up to the highest point along the Mount Kailash pilgrimage route, or Kora, a significant site for many faiths—Buddhists, Hindus, Bonpo, and Jains. I carry my karma with me—a 40-pound backpack filled with assorted books, clothes, notebooks, snacks; a Canon d550; and a 35-pound tripod. With the aid of two expedition members, I am researching the material culture of pilgrimage—the offerings left by pilgrims along the sacred route and the rituals associated with them.
“Not only does material culture have implications for spiritual devotion, but it also connects individuals and communities to the geographical landscape.”
Augusta, tell us about your background, your interest in Tibet, and how you came to filmmaking as a student of Anthropology and Archaeology?
People always ask me where my interest in Tibet came from. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Tibetans would say it’s Karmic. I do have one memory of when I was around thirteen and a group of Tibetan monks came to visit my middle school. They chanted for about an hour during an all-school assembly with these deep and haunted voices; during and afterwards I was completely transfixed.
Later, I did some research. And the more I learned about the Tibetan diaspora the more I felt compelled by Tibetan culture. I was intrigued by Buddhist philosophy, and especially, the concept of compassion. There was something so graceful about the way that Tibetans handled the Cultural Revolution and corresponding religious persecution. I thought then and still feel that grace like that is a valuable teaching tool.
Later, when I was studying at Wellesley College I remember watching my peers respond to academics and adopt career paths, and being struck by the realization that so many people seemed to be “running before they could walk.” They were filtering into finance jobs and career paths they hadn’t chosen intentionally, with self-awareness. It made me want to do something to help—to fill that gap. I decided to leave Wellesley and apply to Oxford University to study Archaeology and Anthropology—to learn more about alternative perspectives on the world and especially the culture of the Indo-Tibetan region. In the interim before the start of my first year I spent six months working on a Tibetan text preservation project in Cazadero County, California. For six months I worked in a bookbindery set up by the Nyingma Lama, Tarthang Tulku. I spent much of that time dyeing the sides of sacred Tibetan texts a traditional red hue, and preparing them for shipment to Bodh Gaya, India. Tarthang Tulku set up Yeshe De, the Buddhist text preservation project after fleeing Tibet during the Cultural Revolution and subsequently recognizing the need for cultural preservation through literature. Over the course of that time I developed a deep reverence for Tibetan culture, and especially, for the significance of cultural preservation in the Indo-Tibetan region. Every year the Lama funds a world peace ceremony in Bodh Gaya, India, the Monlam Chenmo, when thousands of monks and nuns pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya to receive offerings of the sacred texts prepared by Yeshe De—texts they might otherwise never have access to. To be honest, working in the bookbindery was the first time I felt wholly connected to a humanitarian project—probably because I could really see where it was going and how it was benefiting people. That sense of connection to the deeper intention behind the project was really transformative.
I never actually thought that I would make it to Tibet, and later, when I had the opportunity to launch an anthropological research expedition to study Tibetan culture, I realized the blessing of that opportunity. Tibetans and other pilgrims from different faith groups used to spend their whole lives dreaming of the chance to visit Kailash. In the past, pilgrims would walk or prostrate over 1000 kilometers from Lhasa to the Ngari Prefecture of Tibet just to visit the mountain.
To think that we would have the chance to live that dream was deeply humbling. And before Lara, Don, and I even left I remember thinking that we had to turn that gift into something more—a blessing for others—with the simultaneous purpose of memorializing the stories and myths of a mountain that are at risk of becoming lost. This film is our attempt at painting a picture of a mountain that deserves to be protected and preserved, as a landscape of peace.
“Nine-Story Mountain memorializes the sacred myths and stories surrounding Mount Kailash— myths and stories in need of preservation.”
Nine-Story Mountain focuses on “pilgrimage practices across the Tibetan plateau,” specifically around Mount Kailash. What is it about pilgrimage that calls to you?
As an anthropologist and artist, the concept of pilgrimage has long fascinated me. I am intrigued by the individualistic and community-focused elements of pilgrimage journeys, which seem to meander easily between the personal and the communal. For some time now I have been drawn to the ways that pilgrims cement their ties to transitional pilgrimage landscapes—either through storytelling, the construction of small shrines and sculptures, and/or the collection of photographs and other sacred mementoes in the landscape. Taken one step further, the material culture of pilgrimage might be viewed as a sort of meta-language, left by pilgrims in a sacred landscape, to connect them to the landscape, to past legends and stories, and to other pilgrims.
After sifting through assorted literature on pilgrimage I knew that I had to travel to Tibet. In Tibet pilgrimage is almost universal. Pilgrimage routes circle sacred monasteries, shrines, and even towns. Larger pilgrimage circuits weave from sacred monasteries to sacred lakes, on circuits stretching thousands of kilometers. Pilgrimage in Tibet is undertaken as an exercise in purification; pilgrims walk to cleanse their defilements and karma. Offerings comprise an ingrained part of Tibetan pilgrimage culture, as do stories and myths.
“As one of the few landscapes… where people of different and historically oppositional religious and cultural traditions can peacefully coexist, the story of the pilgrimage community begs viewers to consider how the mountain’s culture of tolerance might be a useful tool for different conflict zones around the world.”
“As some of the few westerners to make it into Tibet… they travel alone through an empty landscape, a landscape witness to changes most people will never have the chance to see.”
What did you, along with your fellow Oxford University researchers, experience and learn on the expedition across Tibet?
Over the course of five weeks we learned a landscape unlike any other we had ever experienced. Our amazing guide and Tibetan crew introduced us to locals and took us to locations off the beaten path to aid in our research. When we were on Kailash, our guide and translator, helped to facilitate the interview process, such that we captured never-before-seen footage and anecdotes of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims, Tibetan Bon practitioners, Hindu pilgrims, Western pilgrims, Chinese pilgrims, Tibetan teahouse owners, Tibetan guesthouse owners, Tibetan nomads, Tibetan monks and caretakers, and Tibetan mantra carvers. I spent most of the research period learning Tibet through a lens, and I will never forget how the colors of what we saw and experienced gave life to our film and story.
Nine-Story Mountain is our tribute to the landscape and culture, not only of Tibet, but of a sacred mountain on the Tibetan Plateau, with the incredible ability to transcend territorial ties. Mount Kailash is one the few places in the world, claimed by oppositional religious faiths, where pilgrims of different ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds walk together in peace. It is one of the few transitional landscapes in the world, shared by people of different ages, genders, cultural, and faith backgrounds, where the culture is unequivocally one of tolerance and acceptance. Throughout the research project I kept looking for a hole in the fabric and culture of Kailash; I kept searching for the one broken strand. In the end, I found that the only broken strand was my resistance to believe.
“The Tibetan woman holds a bright purple umbrella.”
At Drolma La Pass, “the most sacred point along the Kora,” which “represents the point of rebirth,” you came across the woman with “the purple umbrella,” as mentioned in your essay in the Summer 2013 issue of Wellesley Magazine. Would you describe this encounter?
I made my way up the incline toward Drolma La for the second time. The last time I’d climbed up to the pass, on our first Kora, the wind bit my face and the path was blanketed with snow. This time the rocks were clear, the sky cornflower blue. Behind me, a young Tibetan woman with a baby strapped to her back held a bright purple umbrella.
Almost at the top of the pass, the sun hit my back, and I found myself gasping for air. Around me Buddhist pilgrims blessed the sky with lungtas—five-inch paper images of the Tibetan “windhorse,” thrown into the air like confetti. Bonpo pilgrims sang mantras and shook strands of prayer flags to honor the sacred mountain. A small urn smoked; the smell of juniper mingled with the clear smell of Kailash. In Tibet, juniper is believed to possess healing and restorative properties.
As I passed another rock littered with prayer flags and other pilgrims’ mementoes, I saw the woman with the purple umbrella. She sat, picking tufts of juniper, her baby sheltered under the purple arc, then stood, approached me, and gestured at me to watch. She took the juniper, rubbed it between her fingers, and threw it into the air. “Ah,” she said. “Ah.” Then she gathered a bundle of the savory green shoots and placed them in my palm. She carefully closed my hand with her hand, looked right though me, and nodded. When her baby began to wail, she turned away, my gesture of thanks unnoticed. Drolma La Pass, in the mid-morning, was full of pilgrims. Together we sat—to share snacks, to smile when communication faltered, and to watch others learn the landscape—rebirth everywhere.
“In Tibet, pilgrimage sites are everywhere. They dot the landscape: lakes and rivers, monasteries and shrines.”
To have assembled the research team and funding for the expedition, traveled to Tibet and trekked the Kora, interviewed Tibetans and others about the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and captured these moments and the landscape on film—really, this is beyond accomplishment. You must feel astonishment and an incredible kind of pride. And in exactly one month—on March 8, 2014, International Women’s Day—Nine-Story Mountain will premiere at the inaugural Women’s International Film Festival at Oxford University.
What are your thoughts at this point, about the film, in terms of the audience, and in wider scope, in terms of the world? And in close-up, what does this mean to you personally?
This film is about the power of community. It is a testament to the strength of stories to connect people of different cultures and backgrounds. It is a testament to the power of hope and perseverance, to the beauty that exists, always, at the foundation. Even as the landscape changes and evolves to welcome tour operating companies and hordes of pilgrims, I have faith that the beauty of Kailash will inspire a renewal.
I never thought that I would be the one to film Kailash, to capture its transcendence with a tiny HD camera. In the end, Kailash captured me.
Hearthside, mountainside, or deep within an archive of sacred Tibetan texts?
I love this question. But, I would have to say, “none of the above.” I’d like to hope that the most comfortable place I find myself is always the place I am most needed. That could be any or all of the above. It could be anywhere. A little like a snail—I carry my home on my back.
What is your idea of absolute happiness?
For me, happiness is the feeling of running through a summer thunderstorm, of the wind on my face cutting through the waves of a wide ocean, of being totally and completely free. Absolute happiness is the experience of passing that on to someone else—bringing others into the immediacy of that joy. It’s something that drives my work; I truly believe that if everyone could feel that “splash-in-a-puddle, tennis-in-the-rain” type of freedom the world would be made better. So much of joy is tied to space—to the sense of expansiveness that comes with opening one’s heart. In my opinion, joy channeled into positive action, inventiveness, and productivity will change the world. That would make my absolute happiness ABSOLUTE.
Augusta Thomson is currently a student at Oxford University, where she is studying for a B.A. in Archaeology and Anthropology. She spent the last year living and working in New York City, as Director of Corporate Outreach and Distribution at 10×10/Girl Rising, and simultaneously interning with the filmmakers, Sarah Teale and Lisa Jackson. During that time she wrote pieces on the Girl Rising movement and spoke at schools and venues throughout New England. She is the Director of Nine-Story Mountain, a documentary film about an Oxford University and Royal Geographical Society-sponsored research expedition, which took place in July 2012, to study pilgrimage practices across the Tibetan Plateau and around Mount Kailash, a sacred mountain in the far western Ngari Prefecture of Tibet. The film will premiere in March 2014. At present, she is working as Regional Ambassador for Girl Rising, to help launch the movement in the UK, and is coordinating the first Women’s International Film Festival at Oxford University— to celebrate International Women’s Day, on March 8, 2014.
Photo credits: Don Nelson
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
First posted at Hothouse Magazine.