Home > Lhasa, Tibet, Travel > The Many Lives Of Lhasa

The Many Lives Of Lhasa

The rich scent of incense smoke drifted in through the window carrying with it the murmur of Tibetan mantras. The atmosphere was punctuated by the clack of wooden blocks attached to the hands of prostrating pilgrims. Our room at the Mandala hotel overlooked the heart of Lhasa’s Old Town, the Jokhang temple. The area is known as the Barkhor and the energy within these cobbled streets mesmerises every visitor. From dawn to dusk, devout Buddhists circumambulate the holiest temple in Tibet, a process known as a kora. This always takes place in a clockwise direction around any temple, pagoda or holy site, a practice in keeping with the clockwise turning of the Dharma wheel, the Buddha’s teaching. In addition to this, many spin prayer wheels, and prayer flags are strung from every vantage point, releasing wishes of goodwill into the air. This constant motion soon became a part of our psyche while in Tibet; the perpetual movement a gentle comfort like being rocked to sleep.

It was with great excitement that we joined the cues to enter the Jokhang temple on our first full day in Lhasa. The building was constructed in the 7th century AD, the era of the famous Tibetan King Songsten Gampo, widely regarded as one of the main forces in defining the course of Tibetan culture. It houses the gold, Jowo Sakyamuni Buddha statue, one of the most important in Tibet; locals queue for hours from sunrise to enter the chapel and make offerings of melted yak butter, which is carefully poured into golden lamps to serve as fuel.

Before we even entered the temple we watched in wonder as pilgrims performed full body prostrations towards the entrance. Hands are first raised together above the head, then to the forehead and finally to the chest, followed by a drop to the knees and full extension of the arms while flat on the floor. Further in, a large crowd clamoured to get inside, but once in the main hall we were able to appreciate our surroundings. The history of the building was written in every detail, the damp atmosphere lifted by the mass of butter lamps. Huge Buddha images stared down at us while monks recited prayers; moving in a clockwise direction, a multitude of statues lined the walls, interspersed with further chapels. We climbed to the roof and looked out across Barkhor Square as Tibetan labourers sang while performing repairs.

The Potala Palace was our next stop, a truly magnificent construction, and the former residence of the Dalai Lamas. It was the 5th Dalai Lama who decided to have his government reside here in the 17th century, and since then many sections have been added and many Dalai Lamas have taken residence, including the current 14th. Since the 17th of March 1959, the Potala has ceased to be the heart of Tibetan governance, as on this day the Chinese military forced the current Dalai Lama into exile. All this history came to life as we stepped inside. The enormity of the place becomes immediately apparent, though tourists are only permitted to see a limited number of the Dalai Lama’s previous rooms of residence. Tight corridors interconnect the areas where the Dalai Lama had received the local people and international guests. All that remains now are spooky, upright jackets to mark his presence; no images are allowed and individuals face jail for possession of photographs.

It was at this point that Hazell and I began to feel uncomfortable. Chinese tourists pushed past us on mobile phones; the head of Mao stared back at us from the banknotes given as offerings. A Chinese flag adorned the top of the palace, and in view below was the sickeningly named ‘Monument To The Peaceful Liberation Of Tibet’, standing tall in a newly built, concrete square strikingly similar to Tiananmen. What was previously the centre of Tibetan governance is now being exploited by the Chinese as a tourist attraction. Financial gain is being extracted from the very thing they previously attempted to destroy, while the Dalai Lama and his government are unable to govern from within their homeland. There is a sorely evident vacuum within Tibet; the people miss their leader and the void is being filled with resentment.

Our concerns continued with our visit to the Norbulingka ‘Summer Palace’, a beautiful area which was continually developed by each successive Dalai Lama. The 14th Dalai Lama had the most recent Summer Palace addition built and sadly, it served as his summer residence for only two years before he fled. The grounds maintain a certain charm, but again, one can only view a small fraction of the complex, and the once living, breathing community has become a stagnant Chinese cash horse. Our bitterness increased when we were taken to the Chinese developed ‘Tibetan Museum’, and within ten minutes of entering our emotions turned to anger. There were some interesting exhibits on display, but the blatant propaganda was too much to stomach. Every notice board seemed to contain the phrase ‘the peaceful liberation of Tibet’, or ‘the considerate actions during Chinese intervention’. In addition to this, the last fifty years of turmoil seemed to have disappeared from the history books. We began to question whether we should even be in Tibet spending our money.

It was a welcome change to visit the active and vibrant Sera monastery, situated to the north of central Lhasa. The complex is principally of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and also has strong ties to Manjushri, the Buddha associated with wisdom, study and education. This fact makes Sera an especially important monastery for local children, and youngsters of all ages can be seen on the grounds having received blessings.

The main event is the ‘Monks Debate’, which takes place in the afternoon and as a spectacle, took us all by surprise. We entered the gravelled courtyard and were met by approximately 30 monks, all appearing as though they were practicing Karate on each other while shouting at the top of their voices. Robes and prayer beads flew through the air, as one monk would yell in Tibetan while lunging towards his seated audience and slapping his hands together violently. ‘This is all rather aggressive’, we thought! Our guide explained that the debates were on philosophical issues; one candidate chooses a topic they feel passionate about, and then has to use every method of persuasion to convince his seated listeners that his argument is sound. It was a delight to watch even though we couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, and we guessed the monks quite enjoyed the showmanship as well!

The following morning, before we moved on from Lhasa, I set out at sunrise to join the pilgrims on their morning kora. The sky was constantly changing colour and shifting in mood; from black, through greys and blues; supplemented by the warm glow of the street lamps. The street vendors had not yet started their day, but the area was already alive with worshipers. I performed my circuit and stood for a while at the front of the Jokhang as light began to break. A young monk in front of me clacked the wooden blocks on his hands above his head, dropped to his knees and swooshed along the floor towards the temple. He then took two very deliberate steps clockwise and repeated the process. I wondered how long it would take him to complete the 800 metre kora.

Turning towards the south-western corner of the square, my eyes met with the huge orange sign of ‘Dico’s Chicken’, a marker signalling the start of the developed, Chinese end of town. I tried to form a balanced argument in my mind; it is extremely easy and indeed fashionable, to jump on the ‘Free Tibet’ bandwagon, but there are two sides to every story. The Chinese have undeniably brought more money, jobs and services into Tibet, but at what cost? I looked up to see the Chinese military in position on the rooftops around the Jokhang. Is force ever the correct method with which to ‘intervene’? I am from a country which in recent years has ‘intervened’ under false pretenses; where is the moral line to be drawn? This undertone of oppression is in stark opposition to the principles of Tibetan lifestyle; as our guide Tenzin would always remind us, the most important act for the Tibetans is ‘compassion, compassion, compassion.’ As the sun lit up the square, I put my doubts about visiting Tibet to rest. I vowed to enjoy my time within this incredible culture, as there are no guarantees on how long it will last.

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  1. Uncle G.
    September 5, 2010 at 2:38 am

    A wonderful insight for us who have never been there. Great writing.

    Uncle G.

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