The Tibetan epic King Gesar is the longest of its kind in the world and a "living" story that remains popular, as it continues to have new content incorporated.
Among the many mysteries surrounding King Gesar has been the ways folk artists started their storytelling careers. Most mysterious of all are those who claim to have received instructions from gods.
Of the 65 Gesar storytellers the Popular Arts Center of Nagqu prefecture has certified, "everyone insists he is god-enlightened", says Sonam Wangdu, who is in charge of the center.
The most unusual aspects of such storytellers, according to professor Chymi Dorji of University of Tibet, include:
1) Illiteracy. Most, if not all, of them were illiterate when they first displayed their talent.
2) Dreams/Illness. Almost all of the artists attribute their story-telling capacities to a dream, followed usually by a coma, and then a religious ritual.
3) Young age. Most started telling Gesar stories around ages 9 to 13.
This is unbelievable and difficult to explain, Chymi Dorji concedes. "But we Tibetans do not feel it's weird. Our people believe in a previous life and afterlife."
Professor Tsering Phuntsog with the Academy of Social Sciences (ASS) of the Tibet autonomous region, however, has reservations about the theory of enlightenment by gods.
"That such storytellers share a veil of mystery indicates that scientific studies of the human brain are yet to explain the phenomenon," he contends. "Artists love to label themselves as god-instructed. But oftentimes you can find inconsistencies in their accounts."
But nothing has prevented scholars from recording the stories told by the outstanding folk artists.
The ASS Institute of Ethnology, where professor Tsering Phuntsog works, has various hard copies of King Gesar and recordings of stories told orally since the early 1980s.
Currently, professor Tsering Phuntsog and his colleagues are working on stories told by the late artist Samdrup. Chymi Dorji, whose school has spearheaded the "rescue" of King Gesar, which has been a major government-sponsored project since the late 1970s, is working on recordings left by the late Drawa, who was the first Gesar storyteller to participate in the project. The goal is to have the stories published in book form.
In spite of its continuing popularity in the mostly remote grasslands, both scholars acknowledge the prowess of new media forms and agree the increasingly diversified forms and content of the mass media may sooner or later prove a threat. Some artists thinks otherwise, however.
"King Gesar is derived from the tribal era. That it has survived till this day owes much to Buddhism and mouth-to-mouth succession, as well as its larger characteristic, which is advancing with time," says Chymi Dorji. "But religious beliefs are slowly fading, and modern entertainment is taking over. Gesar storytelling might ultimately disappear."