Once found, 100 Chickens Temple proved to be something of an understatement; it was more like Hundreds of Chickens Temple. I had hunted for days for the pathway up to the tiny temple I could see above Old Town. It was easy enough to navigate to Zhongdian’s main temple, the Lahki, with its massive golden prayer wheel, but despite directions in broken English, Chicken Hill was proving elusive. As these things often turn out – the trail ended up being not 350 feet from where I was staying, discreetly marked by a weathered and hand-lettered sign.
And so, one Sunday, along with dozens of others, I threaded my way up the steep dirt trail, past stalls of incense and juniper, to 100 Chickens Temple.
Because Buddhism frowns upon the harming of sentient beings, temples, especially those on the edge of town or near farms, tend to be refuges for all manner of domestic creatures: chickens, goats, pigs, and the ubiquitous temple dogs. Once an animal wanders into the temple precinct, it won’t be harmed or killed – at least not by a human.
No, the chickens on Chicken Hill had no one to fear but themselves. Here was the wild side of our domesticated Henny Pennys laid bare.
As I joined the Sunday throng executing the prescribed circumambulations of the temple, I noticed, on the second time around, a Chinese gentleman intently watching a thrashing spot in the weeds. Close inspection revealed it to be a mass of writhing, attacking chickens of all colors and sizes. There were roughly a dozen chickens dog-piling a fellow unfortunate. This was no mere establishment of the pecking order. It was full-blown poultricide – a peck to the death.
This was an aspect of chickens that I had never really seen in my flock. My concerns over the hierarchical pecking I had dealt with from time to time seemed rather misplaced as I observed just how lethal a chicken beak can be. It is one thing to read about cannibalism in a poultry book – it is quite another to see chickens revert back to their jungle fowl roots. I suppose those who have seen cock fighting would be less impressed than I was, but what caught my attention was that this was not rooster fighting rooster. This was simply a weaker chicken being taken out by a posse.
After my third circuit I decided that, unlike my fellow chicken-observer, I was too squeamish to watch this to its final denouement. Steering clear of the path circling the temple, I wandered around the temple grounds. Through the thick smoke from the chortens and wafting from bundles of incense stuck among tree roots, chickens could be seen everywhere. They were roosting in trees, scratching in the dirt, scattering under the feet of the circumambulators, nesting under bushes. Chickens were more plentiful and more dominant than people. The only thing more numerous than chickens were the prayer flags strung in the trees filling the air with a monotonous thrumming as the winds swept through from the Himalayan foothills.
One of the better aspects of traveling in a place where there is little to no common language is that one is not distracted by the pursuit of brochures, signage or informants to provide context and history to what one observes. There probably was a reason why this small temple was overrun by chickens, but it wasn’t going to be something I could find out with my limited Chinese. By the time I met up with a Tibetan who spoke English – the how and why of 100 Chickens Temple no longer seemed to matter and so I never asked.
For me, Chicken Hill is a place where chickens no longer managed for their meat or eggs are a heck of a lot closer to their wild ancestors. It didn’t take much imagination to see the jungle fowl within the silhouette of a hen, or with a bit more of a squint, one of those smallish, lithe and vicious reptiles – like the velociraptor stars of Jurassic Park.