A 20-year-old Tibetan named Sitar Doje is garnering attention for being the youngest known performer of the world's longest poem: a thousand-year-old and one-million-line Tibetan epic known as the "King Gesar" poem. How could such a young man possibly remember a million line poem? Would you believe that he ate it? Symbolically, of course.
Doje says that when he was just 11, he was summoned by King Gesar himself in a dream: "I dreamed I was taken to the tent of King Gesar, on a grassland I'd never been to. Someone said, in Tibetan, 'Yes, he's the person we're looking for' and forced a huge pile of books into my mouth."
The next morning, Doje felt like he was choking on the books that he'd "eaten," and that day, in the middle of class, he began singing uncontrollably. He continued for hours. His classmates, he says, "were all stunned and said I was crazy." Doje's teacher recognized the song as the King Gesar epic and recorded it, and Tibet's cultural bureau has since published 30 recordings of him singing. Doje, from a poor village in Tibet, claims that before the dream he had never heard of King Gesar.
Stories of the half man/half god Gesar from the 11th century are common throughout Tibet and parts of China. He is remembered as a great warrior for the weak against the powerful, and as a unifier of tribes. His stories, as was long the case with the ancient Greek epics, are recounted orally, and they play a key cultural role for many Tibetans. For a thousand years, the Gesar poem has taught listeners about Tibet's history, morality, religion and traditions. Here's an excerpt from a written translation by Douglas J Penick:
There, descending on this perfumed bridge of smoke and longing,
Swirling and roaring in the smoke clouds, as in a gathering storm,
Surrounded by a host of mounted Drala and Werma warriors,
Whose golden armor and steel sword blades glitter like lightning,
Ride the great and ever-youthful conqueror
Gesar, King of Ling, Lord of the four kinds of warrior,
Destroyer of the four great demons who enslave men's minds.
He rules over the high snow mountains and the rolling plains.
He conquers fear, doubt, corruption and deceit in the hearts of men,
And is the great friend and protector of the life of all.
His reddish-brown face is implacable and his dark eyes fathomless.
His ferocious tiger smile is enticing.
His crystal helmet blazes like the sun.
His silver shield shines like the moon.
His chain-mail armor glitters like the stars.
He wears a tiger-skin quiver and his arrows are lightning itself.
His leopard-skin bow case holds the black bow of the north wind.
His sharp crystal sword is the invincible wisdom of spontaneous liberation.
With his right hand, he raises a terrifying whip that slashes through
And with his left, he raises a victorious banner the color of the dawn.
With saddle and bridle of pure white jade, he rides the miracle horse,
Kyang Go Karkar, who is the power of confidence, the wind of winds.
There are an estimated 150 Gesar storytellers alive today. Some use bronze mirrors, sound effects and facial expressions, while others use instruments and improvised singing. Many of the storytellers were illiterate when they were inspired to begin singing the poem.
Now that he's begun, Doje claims that he could sing the epic endlessly.
You can watch clips of Tibetans singing about Gesar below.