Monday 5 January 2015

Day 198: Shigatse - Acres of parchment

A monk watches the sunset at Sakya monastery
By now it goes without saying that the day began with a visit to a monastery.  Shigatse's offering is a white and gold complex and, like each monastery we visited, it seemed even more beautiful than the last, as past wall hangings and thangkas, statues and turquoise gems blurred into memory.   The highlight, for me, was a series of shrines to past Panchen Lamas (the Dalai Lama's second-in-command, resident in Shigatse).  Gargantuan gold statues abounded, as in Lhasa's many shrines, but other features seemed both different and appealing: geometric designs on the ceilings in place of a swaddling of cloth, and simple but repeated icons on the walls, in place of larger-than-life painted figures.  But this was not only a question of taste; it was also a question of age.  Surely these shrines were new?

I looked at the dates and found that some were less than a decade old.  One celebrated the life of the last Panchen Lama, who died in 1989, so its recency was a matter of course.  But a second shrine celebrated the fifth to the ninth Panchen Lamas, the last of whom died in the 1930s, so why the newness?  It turned out that the original had been destroyed in the cultural revolution and recently rebuilt, obviously with the blessing (also the funding?) of the Chinese.  Signs in Mandarin all around the site, here and at other monasteries, read 'preserving cultural heritage is everyone's responsibility'.  The Chinese have obviously realised the value for tourism of preserving Tibet's heritage, but their outlook is still different from that of Tibetans.  Taking responsibility (finally) for preserving cultural heritage is different from experiencing that heritage as a lived part of each day.  Those Tibetans bowing before the lamas' tombs were not simply nodding to the beliefs and architectural accomplishments of the past; they were celebrating the holiness of today.

Our guide was not on hand to explain the history of the tombs as he had to obtain permits for our onward travel through Tibet, but another guide came over to see if he could help.  He started telling us about the Panchen Lama and we asked if he meant the Panchen Lama who was taken by the Chinese.  The guide immediately turned away.  "No politics," he said.  We have obviously been lucky in other people's openness, as we had previously been told all about the debate over the eleventh Panchen Lama.

"When the tenth Panchen Lama died, the Dalai Lama identified the eleventh," someone had said.  "But the Chinese chose their own Panchen Lama instead and they took the Dalai Lama's choice away."

"What happened to him?"

Young monk fetching water
The speaker shrugged.  "No one knows.  He was only six years old at the time and he hasn't been seen since.  The Chinese say he is living a normal life."  Again, the speaker gave us the wry smile that told us what he really thought without the danger of open comment.

"Some lamas would not visit the Chinese Panchen Lama at first," he continued, "as they didn't believe he was the real one."

"What happened to them?" we asked.

"They lost their salaries."

Nuns at Shigatse
Choosing a rival Panchen Lama sounded like a dubious strategy, but I could not also help wondering how the portraits of the Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama came to be so ever-present in the first place.  Did they always smile back from every wall, every shrine, or have they multiplied in the face of Chinese oppression?  In any other country where two men's faces stare so ubiquitously from the walls of a town, we would call this a cult of personality.  The Dalai Lama smiles from each gompa as regularly as the face of Assad smiled from the walls of Damascus and Aleppo, when I visited in 2000, or King Hussein's face in Amman (in the same year), or Mao's statue in Chinese cities.  But I have never heard the word 'cult of personality' spoken about Tibet.  Do we have dual standards for Tibet and other parts of the world when we consider a leader's omnipresent image malign or benevolent?

Pilgrims at Shigatse
But how dare I think this thought?  People like me believe in a free Tibet, a free Palestine, no war on Iraq and could we all join Amnesty International please?  Don't we believe that?  And don't people who visit Tibet in general come here with a pre-conceived interest in Tibetan Buddhism and a disdain of Chinese oppression (rather than a blank slate of opinion)?  Criticism of Tibet, that poor downtrodden nation under the fist of ruthless China, is something of a no no.  Yet the endlessly-produced image of the Dalai Lama still looks very much like a cult of personality to me.

We wandered out of the monastery and I asked a little more about what is and is not allowed in Tibet.  I have seen the colourful Tibetan flag flying in Dolpo, but it cannot be flown in Tibet itself; so 'dangerous' is its fringe of red, its neatly-stacked squares, its waft of green and yellow and crimson, that the authorities have banned it.  And what about the language?

Shigatse Street
"The children learn Mandarin at school, not Tibetan," we were told.  "The alphabet is different so Tibetans will soon not be able to read their own language."

I looked around at the many inscriptions and brightly painted characters, then thought of the mani walls, the prayer flags, the drawers on drawers full of scrolls in the monasteries - all illegible.

But I had yet to see the king of Tibetan libraries.  We would do so that afternoon after a long drive made longer by speed restrictions which are set at 30km per hour not only in towns but on wide, empty rural roads as well.  We had to pull over and spend half an hour waiting in a hamlet before passing through a checkpoint, to ensure enough time had elapsed since the last speed check.  As we waited, carts drove by, dwarfed by their loads of hay, safeguarding the wheat from the approaching winter.  Then we were on our way again and turned into a side road weaving past villages that departed, for the first time, from Tibetan white.  The houses here were all grey.  "Mongolian villages," our guide told us.

Colourful Sakya
In the metropolis of the Mongolian valley, a small town with gompas on both sides of the river, we stopped for lunch and ordered banana pancakes.  A plain naan bread emerged.   Chris manfully chewed half uncomplainingly before real banana pancakes arrived for me and Guy and he realised he had been hard done by.  But even the real pancakes hardly gave us all the calories of awe needed for Sakya monastery.  We passed through two grey-walled courtyards and a passageway into the main chamber.  It seemed vast, and vastly more beautiful, than previous audience halls; in place of a labyrinth of small, cluttered shrines, stifled with wall cloths and groaning under the weight of gold, here was a large, almost airy room combining the key features of several chambers from other monasteries in one.  It had the long red benches of an audience hall, strewn with saffron robes; one corner of the room contained shelves with red, orange and gold cloth drawers holding the monastery's scrolls; along the opposite wall ranged dozens of tall gold statues of Buddhas and boddhisattvas.  In between lay space, air.  We have seen little of this simple compound amidst the sea of draperies and gems elsewhere in Tibet but it made the Buddhas look all the more beautiful.  Two other roomy but still dazzling chambers also led off the courtyard, but in the corridor behind the main audience hall lay the greatest wonder of all.

"I will ask if we can go and look at the scrolls," our guide told us.  "Sometimes it is possible."

The library at Sakya
We were in luck.  A monk led us into a corridor where we collectively gasped.  From floor to ceiling stood shelves of scrolls - dozens of them, fathoms of them, kilograms, tons, acres worth of parchment (if you spread it all out); every unit of measurement applies to this monks' library of all monks' libraries, so long as it is large.

Each compartment of the shelving had room for thirty-six 'books'; eight compartments stretched from floor to ceiling; forty-four ranged the length of the corridor.  I did the maths.  There was a minimum of 12,672 scrolls here.  The greatest of literary and theological luddites must gasp.  Remember that this was not the chief library of London or New York or Toyko but of a monastery in a small town in a valley of Mongolian farmers, nearly four thousand metres above sea level.  Even someone who could not read would surely have heard their jaw crash to the ground as they looked at it.

We paced the length of the corridor to where the 'oversize books' had a special shelf at the end, then walked back to our starting point, then paced along the corridor again.  It took a while before we were ready to return to the audience hall with its mere statues, mere thangkas, mere paddling pools' worth of gold.

Sakya almost has the feel of a fortress
rather than a monastery
Why so much gold, after all?  As we paid a final visit to the roof tops of the monastery, to look out over the grey walls of the Mongolian town, I felt almost drunk on the beauty of Sakya monastery, but when I came back down to earth the collective weight of the last week's gold intake pressed down on me.  Why, I asked again, so much gold?  The ranks of gilt statues striding across the hills of Tibet are not only beautiful but oppressive, weighty, absurd in their numbers and their majesty.  Was there really nothing better that could be done with so much wealth than to stuff the monasteries full of it?  Was there no portion of gold that could have improved a Tibetan peasant's life instead of turning it into another metallic god, shining with indifference?  Was the pre-Chinese Tibet really so perfect as we nostalgically make it, as we dream of rolling back the Chinese tanks and the ban on the Tibetan flag and the Mandarin script?  There is always oppression, but some types of it upset us more than others and perhaps cultural and religious oppression offend us more than economic oppression.  But does a monastic class hoarding tons of tons of gold while most Tibetans thresh wheat outside not count as a type of oppression too?  Or did the wheat threshers really feel that this gold was theirs as much as anyone's?

Why, I wonder, does the oppression of Tibet by the Chinese upset the West so much?  They are not the only population around the world ruled by force against their will, yet few others can have as many support groups in other countries as Tibet.  How many British universities, for example, do not boast a Free Tibet group amongst their students?  This support may well be justified but it is not always as forthcoming for other national groups as for the Tibetans.  It is hard to help wondering whether a group whose monasteries were not so very beautiful would not attract quite so keen an interest.  Perhaps, after all, we do not care so very much whether the Tibetans can fly their flag or learn their language in school as how stunning are their architectural achievements?  (East Timor, where are your monasteries?!)  And I am as stunned as anyone.

More musings.  But no more monasteries.  For the rest of the afternoon we drove towards Tibet's main natural attraction: Everest.  Just before sunset, we saw it needling the dusk with Lhotse for company - two ghostly figures on the horizon.  We will drool over it from closer to hand tomorrow, but first we have to get through a night in rooms built around a hotel courtyard, rapidly shedding all their heat into the night air.  Incongruously, this is not a hotel for a cold climate.  It's time to zip our down jackets up to our noses.

Our first view of Everest and Lhotse
Solar "kettle" in the car park at the Shigatse monastery
Gate guard at Sakya
That's a scarf around one of the scrolls in the library at Sakya
Gilded statues abound
Large open rooms give Sakya an imposing feel
That "fortress" feel I mentioned before...

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