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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2005 - 12:26 a.m.

It is said that the people living on the Tibetan plateau are washed only three times in their lives, once at birth, a second time when they get married, and a final time when they die.


The vaginal opening is seen as the passageway from another world to here. In a hut on the steppes, a woman is giving birth. She is in the traditional birthing position of the half-squat, her arms supported by two older women. A third rushes in with a fresh basin of hot water and kneels on the dirt floor with her forearms crossed over each other, ready for the baby's emergence. It is dusk, and the men are outside the hut talking amongst themselves and smoking. A particularly loud scream brings them all to the window. Then a new sound is heard, a baby's cry which echoes across the sleek faces of the steppes. The baby is passed delicately from woman to woman, as they chant the sutras. Then he is placed on a towel and bathed in warm water by the new mother and her weak trembling hands. All this while the baby's crying continues, a seemingly mass of inchoate sounds, but it is actually a repeating declaration to the surrounding hills: I have arrived.


In the capital of Lhasa, a wedding procession consisting of fifteen men, three monks and a disgruntled yak move through its narrow streets like a colourful streamer unfurled in the wind. They arrive before the wooden, blue double doors of the bride's house and make a lot of noise outside. The musicians start blowing the brass trumpets while the monks chant and spin the prayer wheels in their hands. Inside the house, the sound is muffled as the bride sits naked in a large wooden tub. Her mother uses a scoop to slowly pour a stream of water down the bride's head, and tells her that she is entering a new life where two people will build a world. But the bride is not listening. As the water slides past her eyes she is trying to remember the first washing of birth, that first emergence of her body from the water.


The body is placed on a wooden pyre next to the river. It has already been washed by the son and daughter-in-law. Just earlier, the two of them had laid the naked body next to the river, and carefully cleaned off all the dirt of this life with a wet white towel. Though the son had accepted his father's death and thought he had used up all his tears already, he would cry a further three times that day. Once as he wiped his father's unmoving face, a second time as he watched the body burn through the layers of flame. The third time was the most unexpected of all. It was when he had gotten home and opened his hand - in it was the white towel, now stained with brown streaks of grease and grime. This was the complete history of someone who was here no longer, and the totality of all that was left.


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