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Père Gerbillon:
A Visit to a Lama, c. 1690

OUR ambassadors, upon their coming into the town, went directly to the chief pagoda, several lamas coming to receive them and to conduct them across the square court, quite large and well paved with square tiles, to the pagoda, where was one of their chiefs. He was one of those whom the impostors say never die. They affirm that when his soul is separated from his body, it immediately enters into that of a newborn child. The veneration which the Tartars have for these impostors is incredible, even worshiping them as gods upon earth. I was witness of this respect which our ambassador and a part of his retinue, particularly the Mongols, paid him. The person who then pretended to be thus brought again into life was a young man about twenty-five years old. His face was very long and rather flat. He was seated under a canopy at the farther end of the pagoda upon two cushions, one of brocade and the other of yellow satin. A large mantle of the finest Chinese yellow damask covered his body from head to foot, so that nothing of him could be seen but his head, which was quite bare.

His hair was curled, his gown edged with a sort of parti-colored silk lace, four or five fingers broad, much as our church copes are, and which the mantle of this lama was not much unlike. All the civility which he showed the ambassadors was to rise from his seat when they appeared in the pagoda and to continue standing the whole time he received their compliments, or rather adoration.

The ceremonial was as follows: The ambassadors, when they were five or six paces distant from the lama, first veiled their bonnets to the very ground, then prostrated themselves thrice, striking the ground with their foreheads. After this adoration, they went one after the other to kneel at his feet. The lama put his hands upon their heads and made them touch his bead-roll, or string of beads. After this, the ambassadors retired and made the same adoration a second time; then they went to sit down under canopies got ready on each side. The counterfeit god being first seated, the ambassadors took their places, one on his right hand, and the other on his left, some of the most considerable mandarins seating themselves next to them. When they had sat down, the people of their retinue came also to pay their adoration, to receive the imposition of hands, and to touch the bead-roll; but there were not many there who had this respect shown them.

In the mean time there was Tartarian tea brought in large silver pots, with a special one for this pretended immortal carried by a lama, who poured it out for him into a fine china cup, which he reached himself from a silver stand that was placed near him. The motion he at that time used opened his mantle, and I observed that his arms were naked up to the shoulders, and that he had no other clothes under his mantle but red and yellow scarfs, which were wrapped round his body. He was always served first. The ambassadors saluted him by bowing the head both before and after drinking tea, according to the custom of the Tartars; but he did not make the least motion in return to their civility.

A little after, a collation was served up, a table being first set before this living idol; then one was set before each of the ambassadors, and the mandarin who attended them. Père Pereira and I had also the same honor done us. There were upon these tables dishes of certain wretched dried fruits and a sort of long thin cakes made of flour and oil, which had a very strong smell. After this collation, which I had no inclination to taste of, but with which our Tartars and their attendants were very well entertained, tea was brought a second time. A little after the same tables were brought covered with meat and rice. There was upon each table a large dish of beef and mutton half dressed, a china dish full of rice---very white and clean---and another of broth, and some salt dissolved in water and vinegar. The same sort of meat was set before the attendants of the ambassadors who sat behind us. What surprised me was to see the Great Mandarin devour this meat, which was half dressed, cold, and so hard that, having put a piece into my mouth only to taste it, I was forced to turn it out again.

But there was none played their part so well as two Kalkas Tartars who came in whilst we were at table. Having paid the adoration to and received the imposition of hands from the living idol, they fell upon one of these dishes of meat with a surprising appetite, each of them taking a piece of flesh in one hand and his knife in the other, and cutting unusually large slices, after which they dipped them in the salt and water, and swallowed them down.

All being taken away, tea was brought once more, after which there was quite a long conversation, the living idol keeping his countenance very well. I don't think that during the whole time we were there he spoke more than five or six words, and that very low and only in answer to some questions which the ambassador asked him. He kept continually turning his eyes around and staring very earnestly on each side, and sometimes smiling. There was another lama seated near one of the ambassadors who kept up the conversation, probably because he was the superior, for all the other lamas who waited at table as well as the servants, receive orders from him.

After a short conversation, the ambassadors arose and went about the pagoda to take a view of the paintings, which are very coarse after the manner of the Chinese. There is not a statue in it as in other pagodas, only figures of the deities painted on the walls. At the bottom of the pagoda there is a throne, or sort of altar, upon which the living idol is placed, having over his head a canopy of yellow silk; and here he receives the adoration of the people. On the sides there are several lamps though we saw but one lighted. Going out of the pagoda we went upstairs, where we found a wretched gallery with chambers on all sides of it. In one of them there was a child of seven or eight years old, dressed and seated as a living idol, with a lamp burning by him. It was probable this child was designed one time or other to succeed the present idol, for these deceivers have always one ready to substitute in the place of another in case of death, and feed the stupidity of the Tartars with this extravagant notion that the idol comes to life and appears again in the body of a young man into whom his soul passed. This is the reason for their so great veneration for the lamas, whom they not only implicitly obey in all their commands, but make them an offering of the best of everything they have; and therefore some of the Mongols of the ambassadors' retinue paid the same adoration to this child as they had done to the other lama. This child did not make the least motion nor speak one single word. We found also in another chamber a lama singing his prayers, written upon leaves of coarse brown paper.

When our curiosity was satisfied, our ambassadors took leave of this impostor, who neither stirred from his seat nor paid them the least civility, after which they went to another pagoda to visit another living idol, who came to meet them the day before; but Père Pereira and I returned to the camp.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 169-173.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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