Photograph by Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
“It was a humbling experience watching her perform with total discipline this exhausting ritual over the mud and rocks at six o’clock on a very cold, damp morning,” photographer Ed Jones tells TIME. He was on assignment for AFP/Getty Images on May 21, 2013 in China’s northwestern Gansu province, a “flashpoint,” in recent years, for Tibetan protests against Chinese authorities.
The woman pictured in the image above, also featured in this week’s issue of TIME and in LightBox Pictures of the Week, is “prostrating,” Jones says, “a Buddhist gesture used as a way of achieving purification, accumulating merit, or preparing for meditation, among other things.”
The process involves repeatedly kneeling and extending arms forward until one is completely flat. The duration varies from tens to hundreds or even thousands of repetitions, often covering considerable distance. Blocks of wood, used to protect the hands, often leave trails in the mud.
“She was probably in her mid-twenties, and had a relaxed expression revealing nothing of what I can only imagine must have been an extremely arduous task,” Jones says.
The Labrang monastery, seen in the background, is a common location for Tibetans to practice the ritual. “There was no reaction from the people walking past her; as this is something they are accustomed to seeing,” Jones says. “A short distance behind her is another woman, standing up in between performing prostrations.”
“To find out exactly why and for how long this woman was prostrating would have required disturbing her in order to ask, which is something I wanted to avoid,” he adds.
Critics of the Chinese regime that has been investing in the region say the ritual is a fading marker of traditional Tibetan culture, according to AFP.
“I was struck by the color of her clothes,” Jones says, explaining what drew him to photograph the woman. “In a place full of deep, rustic colors, which on that day were faded by an overcast sky, the artificiality of her fluorescent pink top seemed at the time starkly representative of a modern, outside influence.”