Saturday 3 January 2015

Day 195: Lhasa - Debating monks

Arrival at the Potala Palace
As you've probably noticed, I was in 'Go China!' mode when I arrived in Lhasa.  The sight of clean streets, traffic that flows, female professionals and the generally high standard of living in Chengdu proved welcome relief from Delhi's open sewers trodden by the feet almost entirely of men.  Where Delhi has democracy, Chengdu has a standard of life worth living, and isn't the value of democracy that it enables you to choose the guys who you think can offer a better life to everyone?

Lhasa, like Chengdu, has new railway bridges, high rise buildings and wide streets on the outskirts of the city, but the old centre retains its narrow traffic-free lanes with line on line of white buildings coloured with reds and blues and greens and golds around the windows.  Alas, to enter the central square you have to pass through a police checkpoint manned by Chinese officers and put your bags through an x-ray machine as though boarding a plane.  Amongst the pedestrianised streets with the white glowing terraces, here was the first pause for thought.  Was I still in 'Go China!' mode?

Most Tibetan passers-by swung prayer wheels continuously as they walked.  I have never seen religious devotion so embedded in an every day action like nipping out to the shops.  When these prayer wheel-wielders leave the house do they pick them up in the same way that I pick up my mobile phone or don my coat, or are they really conscious of prayers fluttering relentlessly from their hands as they walk?  Is such continual religious fervour possible?

China's "Liberation Square"
Our first major port of call was the Potala Palace where we climbed the steep zig-zagging path with birds-eye views across the city.  Once we would have seen large areas of open space below us but a six lane road now cuts along the base of the hill that hosts the Palace.  Across the way lies a large square with a monument at one side.  "It commemorates the liberation of Tibet by the Chinese," someone told us (I think we'll dispense with names in this week's blog posts).  He was a Tibetan man and a wry smile hovered around his lips, but he left the gasps of dismay to us.  Liberation?  Is it really possible that those who rule over a province against its population's will can be so insensitive as to build a monument to their LIBERATION bang in the capital city?  Apparently so.  I later walked through another square commemorating forty years of 'liberation'.  Whatever.  (Still 'Go China'?)

Ordinary Tibetans (strangely mostly women)
encircle the palace
Inside the Potala, we entered an audience chamber that is almost recognisable from reading 'Seven Years in Tibet'.  It is a long narrow room with the Dalai Lama's 'throne' in the centre; I can imagine Heinrich Harrer's first presentation there, as he bowed and presented his white scarf, as he had been instructed.  The custom has changed little but the Dalai Lama himself is no longer present to receive the scarves; a heap of them sprouts in front of his empty chair, possibly the most poignant image of his absence of any we saw in Tibet.  Some women wept at the sight.  "They still miss the Dalai Lama," we were told.  "He left in 1959 so younger people do not miss him; they never met him.  But the older women miss him."  

The number of people visiting the Potala dwarfs the
number visiting "Liberation Square"
"Do people travel to India to see the Dalai Lama in MacLeod Ganj?" we asked.  The speaker shook his head.  

"Many people try but the authorities will not give them passports; they cannot leave Tibet."

On the walls of the palace, illustrations showed old Lhasa - a smattering of palaces with wide green spaces between them.  But the golden buddhas, visiting bodhisattvas and tombs of previous Dalai Lamas stole the show.  We are not talking about gold plating or gold paint or a gilding of gold.  We are not talking about milligrams or grams or even kilograms of the stuff.  We are talking about tons and tons of gold sprouting and flourishing and growing inside the Potala Palace.  It makes Rome look like a house of peasants; Catholicism, by comparison, is a place of moderation, even stinginess.  Tibetan Buddhism, after all, is the real home of precious metals!   

The rear of the palace is just as beautiful
The fourteenth Dalai Lama's picture is not permitted inside the palace but the thirteenth's photo sits on a chair.  Each Lama before him rests in a monument worth more, no doubt, than whole villages or entire towns.  They are adorned with turquoise and red gems, which reminded me of Ladakhi jewellery stalls (also a Tibetan society, once answering Lhasa's potala with the palace in Leh).  "They are local stones from the hills around Lhasa," we were told. "Once they were only used in the monasteries.  Now China takes them for many uses."

Modern Lhasa consists of 3/4 Han Chinese
When we stepped outside I was ready to breath the air.  The Potala Palace is beautiful but cluttered, labyrinthine; a home and public gallery and mausoleum all at once - probably many other things too that we did not see.  It was time to step into the sunshine which had finally begun cutting through the morning frost and daring us to unzip our jackets.  We walked back down the hill and returned to central Lhasa to marvel at the white buildings and the blur of prayer wheels.

In the afternoon we were taken to Drepung monastery to watch the monks debating.  I don't know what I envisaged, but I must have had something like the House of Commons in mind; one person at a time stands up to make their point then another replies (but hopefully without all the jeering).  What we saw looked more like a school playground, emitting an indecipherable babble of voices, only all the pupils wore saffron robes.  But there was order in the chaos.  The monks operated in pairs, one sitting and one standing.  The standing monk asked questions about the Buddhist scriptures; the sitting monk answered; and the standing monk clapped his hands, varying his gestures to indicate a correct or incorrect response.  "The monks are training," we were told.  "The more experienced ones test the knowledge of the apprentices."  It was a dynamic scene - the clapping looked almost aggressive compared to the stillness of Buddhist meditation - punctuated by chatter and jokes.  A general blur of sound enveloped the courtyard.

Debating monks
Back in Lhasa a more punishing form of worship was taking place.  Tibetan worshippers prostrate themselves in front of the Jokhang temple, then take a few steps forward before bending flat to the ground again.  They raise their hands to their foreheads, chests and waists in prayer between each prostration.  Then the whole devoted (weary?) sequence repeats itself until they have completed a full circuit of the temple, however many hours this takes.  

There are aids to help them (is there even a prostration industry?!); some worshippers wear padding on their elbows and knees; most cover the fronts of their hands with wooden boards so they can slide their palms along the ground without grazing the skin.  I hope the gods value their efforts, but I for one struggle to understand them.  I can think of many ways of appreciating a green and fertile planet experienced through human eyes, but bowing to the ground is not one of them.  Grow a tree, teach someone to read, study a disease, clean something that's spilled, smile - the options are plentiful.  But all this tarnishing of knees and rubbing of faces against the ground?  I have never seen a place of such fervour - a place where religion seems to be so deeply felt amongst ordinary men and women unconnected with religious institutions.

Spinning the prayers
It is an incongruous world where worshippers bow deeply while Chinese soldiers direct civilians through x-ray machines before they may pass through the streets of their own city.  As we sat in a restaurant in the evening, a Chinese military vehicle the size of a luxury tour coach pulled up in Lhasa's central square, dwarfing the prostraters and passers-by.  How did we feel about the Chinese presence now?  We passed through the security checkpoints surrounding the temple yet again (my rucksack has never before been x-rayed so many times in twenty-four hours, or indeed in a year) and reflected that in a single day we had switched from 'go China' mode to 'grrrr, China' mode.  Both are simplistic reactions, devoid of nuances, but this is only day one - a day of wide-eyed first impressions.  Our trip to Tibet is yet young.

The traditional view of the palace
Tier upon tier
Gate guardian
Colourful gates
Entry to the palace proper
The debate
Still time to relax 
The assembly hall
Kitchen at the monastery 
The hillside was dotted with colour 
Autumn time
The canyon-like streets of Lhasa in the late afternoon sun

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