In a land whose past is decorated with tales of conquering warlord horsemen and magical tantric monks, it is surprising to find oneself compelled most by something as simple and familiar as a window. Yet, while winding through the dusty back-alleys of Lhasa, that is exactly where we found ourselves.
Set against the plain white buildings of the city, the windows were an island of life and beauty, much like Lhasa was among the overwhelming emptiness of the Tibetan plateau. And perhaps that’s what made us so intrigued by the windows, the fact that they were a metaphor for the city itself. The thick black frames surrounding them, enclosing the wealth of color and detail that was each window, were much like the once self-imposed and now not-so-self-imposed seclusion of Lhasa from the world around it. Above each window, ruffled curtains rippled gently in the wind, their movements caused by a force unseen in the same way as the thing that gave Lhasa life – that moved pilgrims around temples, spun prayer wheels, and inspired muttered mantras – was also an unseen force: Buddhism. Whether wind or faith, whatever couldn’t be seen in the city, could most definitely be felt.
We were introduced to Lhasa much in the same contradictory manner as we imagined others were: with a trip to the local police office to make sure all of our papers and permits checked out followed by a khata, a long white scarf meant to symbolize one being welcomed into a place, being hung around our necks; the latter of which was done with such routine and urgency that it made it feel hardly like a welcome at all and more like the hanging of an ID badge around our necks to identify us as outsiders, which we needed no additional help in doing. For us, this experience summed up the entirety of our time in Tibet, of being officially granted the permission to travel around the plateau, but never feeling truly welcome in it. Perhaps it was due to the Orwellian police state pervasing the streets, or the fact that we weren’t allowed to enter temples or board buses without our guide with us, or even that we were tourists treating places that held enormous spiritual significance to others as mere attractions. In any case, however uncomfortable we felt at times being in the city, the warmness of locals and brilliance of the culture and places they built quelled any feelings we had of whether or not we should actually be there.
Our first morning in Lhasa started in the same way as the others we would spend in Tibet, with a bowl of tsampa, a kind of barley porridge, paired with a hot cup of yak butter tea. Neither were particularly delicious but enjoyable all the same as is any traditional cuisine eaten in the place of its origin. To make the meal tastier, we began adding a considerable amount of sugar to the tsampa much to the chagrin of our waitress, who informed us that parents add sugar to the porridge only to coerce their children into eating it. Adults, we were told, eat it plain. We were content with being children.
After breakfast we met our guide, Lobsang, and headed towards Drepung Monastery, the first of two monasteries we would be touring that day. Upon leaving the van and walking up to the monastic complex, we got our first indication of what it meant to to tour a city 3,600 meters in the air, twice the altitude of Denver. As we walked up the slight incline leading to the main temple, our breath, or lack thereof, became extremely noticeable. Despite our physical exertion being at almost zero, we still found ourselves inhaling deeply and frequently as if we had just finished a long run, our lungs grasping at an air supply that always seemed hollow and insufficient. For some, a date with an oxygen machine becomes necessary, but, luckily for us, the symptoms remained minor. If the diluted air supply wasn’t enough to remind us of our spot on the roof of the world, then the exaggerated effects of the sun overhead were. Dementor-like in its ability and persistence to suck the life from our bodies, the debilitating intensity of the sun made us feel as if we were in the glare of a spotlight, which followed our every step as we made our way through the monastery’s grounds.
If outside the monastery’s temples featured the sun’s most exaggerated qualities, then inside featured the complete lack-thereof. Dark, cloistered, and miraculously void of sunlight, the temples were a world apart from their bright, sprawling exterior.
Our tour of the temple was illuminated by the glow of butter candles, large vats of butter that served as fuel for the flames glowing overtop of them, which glinted upon the golden statues and and wall-encompassing murals, pulling them from the shadows, one after the other, as we passed through the temple’s halls. All around us pilgrims shuffled about, muttering mantras as they left offerings in front of deities and poured melted butter into the candles, whose rich scents mingled with those of incense to create a heavy odor that permeated the air. However much we wanted to stop and take in what was around us, the current of pilgrims carried us through the temple and back outside where our contempt for the sun was rekindled as we made our way through the rest of the monastery’s grounds before heading to our next destination: Sera Monastery.
Sera Monastery was set apart from Drepung due to the lively debates that took place between resident monks in its courtyards each day. In the debates, one monk challenges the ethereal knowledge of his opponent by asking pointed questions about Buddhist philosophy in the hopes of eventually stumping him. Being entirely unfamiliar with the workings of Buddhism and even more unfamiliar with the Tibetan language, we found intrigue in not what was being said during the debates but how it was being said. Before delivering a question, the challenging monk would stretch the open palm of one hand towards his opponent, and stretch the other far above his head. Then, with a resounding smack, he would bring both hands together with the conclusion of his question, after which his opponent would recede into a flustered contemplation before muttering a reply.
Younger monks seemed to relish in the challenge of stumping their friends, delivering and answering questions fervidly, while older monks took a more tedious approach, partaking in the debates in a manner that suggested they were doing it based more in routine than a desire to prove their intellectual worth to others. After watching the debates for some time, we retraced our steps through the alleyways of the monastery, returning to our van and eventually our hotel where would end the day.
The next day we awoke to rainy weather, which was a shock to us as we couldn’t imagine anything, clouds included, being able to come between the sun and the streets of Lhasa. While the rain would spell inconvenience for the day’s tour of Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace, two of the cities most important and iconic landmarks, we were happy for a respite from the considerable amount of squinting and slogging we had done the day before.
Throughout its history, Jokhang Temple has gone through periodic phases of irrelevance at the hands of those who feared the influence of Buddhism on Tibet. As early as the 9th and 10th centuries, it was used as a stable. A century earlier, after Buddhism had been introduced to the plateau, Tibet was devastated by a plague which left little doubt among Tibetans that their traditional gods had been offended by the upstart religion and explained the transformation of the holy site into a lowly one. During the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet in the 1950s, machine guns were mounted on the temple’s roof to shoot down advancing soldiers from the Chinese military. And as recently as the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the temple was boarded up and reportedly used to house pigs, a slaughterhouse, members of the People’s Liberation Army and even a small hotel. Much like its first fall from grace, the Jokhang and the devotion it inspired had upset the powers that be, this time threatening the new gods of the plateau, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. As we’ve seen in other religious sites though, attempts at diminishing a place’s appearance can never really diminish what it means to others. Countless times, we’ve come across dilapidated statues of deities being worshiped as if they were the Buddha himself. We felt that the same was true for the temple and all of Buddhism to Tibetans.
Had we not known prior to visiting Jokhang Temple that it was the most revered religious site in all of Tibet, we would have guessed its esteemed status rather quickly after approaching it. Set amidst the old city of Lhasa, the temple was unmistakably the center of life. Like an ocean, it served as a final destination for all of the serpentine alleyways which ran like rivers through the old city, funneling pilgrims and tourists alike to the temple.
As we walked through the main doors of Jokhang, it became clear to us that we were entering a manifestation of antiquity. Not often are you able to physically see time, but inside the labyrinthine halls of the temple, the centuries were as visible as the countless statues and paintings that filled its interior, noticeable both in the buildup of lacquer and sediment that sat over the wooden beams that held the temple up and also in the worn appearance of steps and doorways, their deep grooves evidence of the innumerable pilgrims whose feet and hands had passed over them. However impressive the different features of the temple were though, it was always the pilgrims on whom we found our attention unconsciously returning to.
Through the temple and around Barkhor Street outside of it, the pilgrims walked in a clockwise fashion, many in the hope of being able to circumambulate Jokhang 700,000 times in the course of their life, which is the desired mark to achieve an upgrade in status upon their reincarnation. Some were young, walking with ease as they breezed by the less fortunately aged, who, cane in hand, hobbled along, paying no attention to the large swathes of tourists accompanying their religious pursuits. Some prostrated as a means of transportation, raising their hands above their head, taking three steps and then diving forward on the ground before standing up and repeating the process again. Their tattered clothes, knee pads, and tightly clenched bottle of water evidence of just how difficult their worship was. We would learn later that some prostrated to Lhasa from faraway hometowns which could take anywhere from months to sometimes even years to complete. Like all difficult things undertaken, the pilgrims, walking and prostrating alike, were trying to earn a better lot in this life or the next.
As we left Barkhor Street the gray skies that had been covering the city finally opened and began to rain, a slight nuisance that we were easily able to escape in the cavernous inner rooms of the Potala Palace, our next destination.
Much like attending an afternoon movie and being startled that it is still daytime upon leaving the theatre, so we emerged from the palace surprised to find the sun shining amidst a backdrop of stunning blue skies. As we zigzagged down the stairs of the palace, our attention was drawn back to the windows and once more, we thought of the people of Tibet. Distracted by the beauty of the outside of the window, one often forgets that there is a dark and largely unnoticed world behind the panes of glass.
The world will always be looking into Tibet, distracted by its majestic surface while Tibetans, most of whom exist in places devoid of an onlooker’s thought or attention, will always be looking out, never quite able to join the people and world that they see moving past them.
Here are some pictures of the Potala Palace at night:
And, lastly, a poem by Kate:
create a fringe
above a black trimmed,
The top tapers
into a wider base
that goes unnoticed
at a glance.
A breeze ruffles
the tattered fabric
releasing a whisper
of a dance.