Tibetan Culture - Twelve days in Tibet
by Sheena Singh
It is 6:30 a.m. and in about three hours I will be at Delhi airport to join my friends for a flight to Kathmandu, and then on to Tibet—a mysterious civilization that has existed since 4,000 BC.
My main focus was to reach Lhasa, capital of Tibet, on Buddha Purnima (May 7). Buddha Purnima, or Wesak as Tibetans call it, is the holiest day for Buddhists and just three years ago in Ladakh, I had participated in the celebrations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
I organize theme-oriented spiritual tours to India. They are attended by people of diverse backgrounds from the USA and Canada. Those who traveled with me to Tibet were no exception. I had spoken to Tanuja (the actress) about it. Jaideep, her brother, was also interested. Soon Tanuja's cousin, Naina Coulagi from Mumbai and Jaideep's friends, Bharat and Radhika Godkhindi from Dubai, wanted to be counted in. Duncan Campbell, an amazing American whom I had met at a conference in Yucatan, Mexico last year asked if he and his girlfriend Glennis could join us. Now we were eight!
Luckily, we quickly got our visas for Tibet in Kathmandu and our flight to Lhasa was scheduled for May 5. In Kathmandu, we decided to visit Lumbini, the Buddha's birthplace. It seemed right to take his blessings before entering Tibet. We arrived in Lumbini on May 2 only to discover that no guides were available. No problem. We would find our own way.
The Buddha's birthplace is simple and did not require more explanation than what we gleaned from our Lonely Planet guidebook. We walked around the compound in silence, absorbing the sacredness of the place. We saw the pond, where in the sixth century BC, Siddhartha's mother took a dip when she began experiencing labor pains. The pillar that Emperor Ashoka had erected in 249 BC to certify his birth, sat under a beautiful old tree near the pond. The base of the tree is now a little shrine smeared with vermilion. Strings of prayer flags offered by pilgrims from all over the world hang from the branches of the tree.
Our flight to Lhasa was only an hour long, but just flying over the snow-clad Himalayas and passing eight of its highest peaks, including Mt Everest, prepared me to shift mentally to another dimension. What will Tibet be like? Our Tibetan guide met us at Gonggar International Airport. We drove for an hour-and-a-half into Lhasa in our three Land Cruisers.
Lhasa is the spiritual and political capital of Tibet where the ancient kings and successive incarnations of the Dalai Lama lived. My first impression while driving into Lhasa was that it was partly Ladakh, and partly China, which I visited in 1996. Our little hotel was clean and managed by pleasant Nepalese. There was even an internet cafe! It was close to the Muslim Tibetan quarter and the Jokhang monastery.
I awoke from a restless sleep after a night of intense dreams bordering on nightmares. Apparently most of the group had the same restless night. The energy of the place already felt different and seemed to be affecting us all.
We soon left for the Drepung Monastery, built in 1416 by a pupil of Tsong Kha Pa, founder of the Gelugpa sect. For over 500 years, Drepung served as a major pillar of the theocratic state and as the main political headquarters for the Gelugpa sect. It was also the residence of the Dalai Lamas until the Potala Palace was built in 1645.
We took a long time going through the temples, taking in information about the different deities, kings, thangkas and high lamas. I wanted to touch everything, feel the walls, the statues, the cloth, the scriptures piled high in the library. We were told that these manuscripts contain the Kangyur, which are 108 translated volumes of ancient Indian scriptures as well as 225 volumes of Tangyur, which are a commentary on the Kangyur written by Indian and Tibetan scholars.
In the main courtyard, everyone was looking up in amazement at the sun. A wide, circular dark cloud surrounded the sun with a thin glowing edge. Our Tibetan guide, Karma, said that this was a rare occurrence and probably signified the reincarnation of a lama. Our trip to Tibet seemed to have had an auspicious beginning.
Not far from Drepung monastery is the Nechung Oracle, the official oracle for the Dalai Lama. It is the residence of the protector deity Pehar, who lived in the form of a dove on a tree. The state oracle, through which Pehar works, is also in exile with the Dalai Lama. The energy still existed though, and the paintings of wrathful deities, demons, snakes, dragons that covered the walls and pillars, evoked the pre-Buddhist magic of Tibet's Bon tradition.
Bon shamanism prevailed in Tibet before the eighth century, when Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism. Tibetan art reflects a combination of both traditions. Another presence of the Bon tradition were tormas, little statues made of barley dough, butter and water, that are used instead of live animals for sacrifice rituals. As we walked into the temple, we were greeted by the haunting sound of drumbeats.
It was Buddha Purnima. I had arranged to be at the Potala Palace in the morning along with the pilgrims and take part in the ceremonies at the Jokhang temple in the afternoon. Thoughts of the Dalai Lama were strong that day and now we were going to his home. As we climbed up the Marpo Ro hill to the palace, I imagined His Holiness alongside me. What would he think and feel? What changes would he have noticed? How would he feel about the wide expanse of land, earlier rolling green meadows and now covered by ugly cement buildings? I sent out a silent prayer that he may come home one day.
The Potala is one of the most famous architectural works of Tibet. Luckily, the Chinese have made the Potala their headquarters, sparing most of the architecture. The construction of Potala began in 637 BC when Emperor Songtsen Gampo, the first king of Tibet, wanted a pavilion for meditation. Gyalwa Ngapa, the great fifth Dalai Lama, later enlarged it in the 17th century. The Potala has about 1,100 rooms, 35 richly carved and painted chapels, and mausoleums of seven Dalai Lamas, some 30 feet high, covered with solid gold and precious stones. Karma pointed out the current Dalai Lama's apartments on the topmost floor.
Mornings are the best time to visit Potala because the pilgrims are circumambulating Lingkor, a circle nearly five miles around the perimeterof the ancient city that passes through the grounds of the palace. In silence, they walk through the chapels lighting butter lamps, their strong and weather-beaten faces devoutly reverent. I too lit the yak butter lamps.
We then entered the most sacred shrine of Pakpa Lhakang, which contains the Potala Jowo Lokswara. Tibetans gently bump heads two or three times under the shrine and then touch the bottom of the encasement with their hands. As we followed suit, a voice called out to us: "You from India?" Indians are a rarity and we stood out wherever we went. As we replied we saw a near duplicate version of the Dalai Lama with the same light, jovial energy beckoning to us. He was the head Lama of Potala and remarked happily: "Tibet, India very good friends." He then found three katas, prayer scarves of white silk, tied a knot on each, and placed them around the necks of Duncan, Tanuja and Naina.
On reaching me, he looked around for a good quality scarf, made two knots and placed it around my neck. While we took photographs on the terrace, a Chinese man stepped out of nowhere, photographed and quickly vanished. I noticed a headache coming on.
In the afternoon we visited the Jokhang Temple built by Sonsten Gampo (609-649 BC) to house a Buddha statue gifted by his Nepalese wife, Queen Bhrikuti. Soon afterhis death, the original statue was replaced by the image of the Buddha given to him by his Chinese wife, Wenchung Kongjo. The atmosphere here was subdued. Tibetans were allowed to celebrate only in the temple. Some pilgrims prostrated every foot of the way. Karma explained that when you walk a circular route, your feet touch the earth with big spaces between them, but when your prostrate, your whole body connects with the sacred ground to close the circle or koras around the shrine. Other pilgrims walked around with spinning prayer wheels in their hands. Each rotation sends forth prayers, both from the engraved surface and the papers stored within, which read 'Om Mani Padme Hum'.
In the inner shrine, we witnessed the disrobing and repainting of the statue of Sakyamuni Buddha, a ritual that happens on Buddha Purnima. We visited the Ramoche, considered by some to be a more powerful shrine than the Jokhang because it housed the 7th century image of the Jowo Chungwa or Manjuvajra, given to the Emperor by Bhrikuti. Tragically, the original statue was destroyed during the Chinese invasion.
We were treated to a typical Tibetan dinner and entertained with songs and dances, including the hilarious Yak Dance. We ate Yak meat while apologizing to the yak for doing so. Slaughtering is a sin for Tibetans, so Muslim of Chinese descent are employed for this job. The entire community shares the karma resulting from this activity, making each person's share miniscule.
The yak is to a Tibetan nomad what a cow is to an Indian farmer or the camel to an Arab. The hair is spun and woven into the coarse cloth that tents are made of, and the milk products not only serve as daily nourishment, but also produce wealth. Yak butter is carved into intricate ornamental patterns and placed in temples as offerings. It is burned in lamps, women smear it on their hair and faces and it is mixed with tsampa and tea.
Another vivid nightmare last night. Perhaps the altitude is fertile ground for creating altered states of mind and this might also explain the paintings of frightening deities and ferocious animals that cover the walls of Tibetan monasteries.
I decide to take my breakfast with me to Samye. It was the first monastery in Tibet, built by two Indian scholars, Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita in 770 AD. Although Buddhism had already reached Tibet, it became established only in Padmasambhava's time. Also known as Guru Rinpoche, he is remembered for his legendary magical powers with which he exterminated countless demons and monsters from Tibet. It is here that Tibetan translations from Sanskrit scripts began, and monastic institutions introduced. Karma explained that the Tibetan alphabet was derived from Sanskrit so that Buddhist religious works could be translated and read by Tibetans.
A three-hour drive along the Yarlung Tsangpo river (the Brahmaputra in Tibet) brought us to the ferry. The boat was a flat-bottomed bargedecorated with prayer flags. After a 90-minute boat ride, my headache finally cleared. As I looked at our Tibetan boatman, I could have transposed a photograph of Lake Titicaca in Peru with the same scene. The features of our boatman resembled the Peruvian and the altitudeof the lake (3,830 meters) was as high.
We were deposited on the banks at Songa, and boarded an open-backed truck. The 35-minute drive took us past five white stupas built by King Trisong Detsen to commemorate the arrival of Guru Rinpoche. The five spires are said to represent the monk's five fingers. When the King asked for proof of his powers, Guru Rinpoche had stretched and fire sprouted from his fingers.
We were suddenly in a mini desert! The Samye monastery in the middle of nowhere was built according to a symbolic representation of the mandala of the Buddhist cosmos, based on the design of the Indian vihara of Odantapuri in south Bihar.
The morning visit was to Yambulakang, the first Tibetan fort and home of the Yarlung kings. Our guide informed us that His Holiness had come to this fort and showed us the room he stayed in. It was peaceful here and we sat on the walls of the fort and meditated. An old Tibetan walked slowly around with his prayer beads. I handed him 100 yuan. Throughout our journey, I would let my heart decide on random gifts of money to people who were least expecting it. It brought great joy to watch their incredulous expressions.
We wanted to visit Samten Ling, a nunnery on Gampo Ri Mountain. Their little temple was full of female deities. The few young nuns who lived here were shy, with beautiful clear faces and one 21-year-old had lived there since she was seven. We were stunned at how well-decorated and colorful their rooms were. On our way back, Karma pointed out His Holiness' escape route to India.
It was a long but spectacular 10-hour drive through the Tibetan plateau. We feasted our eyes on yaks grazing on undulating hills, nyans (Tibetan sheep), pashmina goats and nawas (Tibetan blue sheep). Nomads called drukpas tended their herds. Images of deities and animals were imprinted on the rugged mountain slopes. The first of the two high passes, Carol-la at a height of 16,000 ft, over-looked Yam Druk, the scorpian-shaped lake. Prayer flags fluttered in the skies. At this height, the light isolated each detail; it sculpted the surfaces of stone and rock and brought out the hues of mountains, far and near.
What strikes you about the Tibetan plateau is its four-dimensional silence. The blue-white peaks of the mountains; the yellow ochre silence of the gho (vultures) that soar around monasteries; and the silence of the lakes. It's the silence that induces an automatic meditative state.
As we drove along Yam Druk's shoreline, it began to snow lightly. We arrived late in the evening at the Gyatse Hotel. Our fears of less than adequate hotel accomodation in Tibet are dispelled by now. The Chinese-run hotels have good rooms with fresh bed linen, silk-covered quilts, attached bathrooms and running hot water.
Next morning, on our way to Shigatse, we visited the Kum Bum pagoda, the Great Chorten of a Hundred Thousand Images whose very sight is supposed to grant liberation. If the Potala is the Vatican of Upper Asian Buddhism, the Kum Bum is its Assisi. Prince Chogyal Rabten built it in the early 15th century with its 73 chapels and murals depicting gods in 26,000 images. Each chapel has its own theme and in one, I actually found images of the Indian god Ganesha!
I was fascinated by the images at the fourth level. They were the tantric figures of the male divinity representing karuna (compassion) in a carnal embrace with the female divinity, prajna (perfect knowledge). It corresponds with the Hindu concept of Shiva or male energy that generates Parvati, the female energy who becomes his consort.
We were back on the road heading towards Old Tingri to visit the base camp of Mt. Everest. Our little hotel was built around a courtyard overlooking the mountain. The night sky was ink black dripping with huge stars, wishing you could just reach out and touch them. The planet Mars shone bright and red. It was magical.
A four-hour, gruelling ride to the base camp, but it was worth it. We were looking at the southern face of Mt. Everest against a clear sky and a few puffs of clouds.
Most of us could clearly make out the figure of a woman with a child on the peak in front of Everest. However, another figure appeared on Everest. All except me saw Ganesha. I clearly saw a sadhu with his hair knotted on his head. Maybe some great rishi, or was it Lord Shiva himself? As the 'Chants of Shiva' once again wafted through the thin air, I sat by the stream, taking in the silence and fell into a grateful meditation.
We continued on to Zhangmu, the border between Tibet and Nepal with one of the Land Cruisers stalling every 15 minutes. Or Tibetan drivers were good-natured and patient as they tinkered with the gas tank every 15 minutes while I seriously doubted that he would make it to Zhangmu. We eventually did, of course.
Now for another miracle! On the way, we stopped at the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa's cave, where he had meditated for many years. We walked down halfway into the valley to this sacred cave. It was dark inside with just a silver light coming through. Apparently, one day the roof was about to cave in when Milarepa stood up with his arms above his head and stopped the rock. The handprints are still there and we placed our hands right into those grooves!
Milarepa (1040-1123) was a great mystic, wizard, poet and hermit who had first mastered black magic to help his mother. When he realized his mistake, he found a guru in Marpa, a translator of Sanskrit texts for another realized guru, Naropa. Marpa taught Milarepa tantric mystical wisdom. Milarepa became an ascetic, moving from cave to cave, composing and singing well into his old age. We meditated in the cave in complete silence, soaking up the energies of this place.
Half way to Zhangmu, the vegetation started to change. Hillsides were covered with green trees and grass and there were beautiful yellow and pink flowers everywhere. The air was moist and everything seemed to have come back to life. Golok horses grazed the lush pastures. Goloks are descendants of warriors sent to guard the northern edge of Tibet during the ninth century.
What a beautiful country, this Tibet! It broke our heart to see huge bins of garbage being dumped over the hill once we reached Zhangmu. On our last evening, we found a small Indian restaurant and enjoyed a hearty meal of familiar Indian food.
After going through Immigration, we walked a final 500 yards across the Friendship Bridge into Nepal. It was a moment of sadness and joy. Sadness at leaving this beautiful country and our Tibetan guide and friend. Tibetans are gentle and beautiful people. The joy is mixed with gratitude that we count ourselves fortunate to be amongst the few Indians who have had the rare oppurtunity of visiting our remote neighbour.
Observing our interaction with each other and with the Chinese and Tibetan people, I felt that the most important lesson for me was that a true sense of connectedness with other sentient beings can only happen through compassion—a difficult learning. And as His Holiness had told us: "We don't need more Buddhists. We need more people with compassion."
|HOME | SUBSCRIBE | WALLPAPERS | ADVERTISING | POLICY | PRACTITIONERS | WRITERS | PEOPLE | ABOUT | CONTACT|