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Reflections on Tibet whilst in Lhasa, Tibet

Flight over the Himalaya into Lhasa......................Ramdas Iyer, Author

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As one gets older the 11 hour jet-lags seem to linger longer than in the past. So at 4:00 Am today I decided to share my thoughts and experiences during our Tibet trip earlier. As an Indian at heart, Tibet is held in a lofty place in my mind. It is the abode of our Gods (Mt. Kailas), the roof of the world and the land of snows. Yes, I have an affinity for snowy places. It has been a subject of many British adventures during the great game of the 1860s, when England was paranoid about Russia invading India and therefore wanted a beachhead in Lhasa to monitor them. (Read The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk).During my childhood and thereafter I have been a great fan of the Dalai Lama and have been closely following China policy in Tibet with some revulsion.

So what is Tibet today? how are the Tibetans faring?, what is China up to in Tibet? these are the few questions I am trying to answer in this article.

First let me explain the geography of this land. A vast land, it is bordered by Nepal & Sikkim &India in the south, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces in the east and Xinjiang province to the north. My earlier travels in Nepal (1997), Sichuan (2004) and Xinjiang (2007) were always about Buddhism and by default Tibet’s spiritual influence on those regions.
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Pre Buddhist religion of Tibet was known as “Phon”, an animist religion until the local kings invited Indian scholars from Bengal to educate the king, teach the masses, create an alphabet and spread Buddhism as a state religion around the 7th century. This happened during the reign of Songtsen Gampo, their greatest ruler who presided over their golden age. ( I just realized that the Tang Dynasty in Xian was also at its Zenith in the 7th century with Buddhism as the state religion).. Pre-history dates Tibetan rulers from 2nd BCE and real emperors from the 7th century AD. Great scholars like Padmasambhava & Chandrasekhara moved to Tibet from India and are still revered there like Gods. At one brief moment in history the Tibetan empire reached Bengal, encompassing all the Himalayan states including Siliguri and Kalimpong in North Bengal. Even today, any trinket or object from India is first placed on their head as a holy relic by older Tibetans.Being in Tibet made me feel proud to be an Indian because they emphasized the fact that we are their protector and savior of their future.
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We flew over some spectacular ice fields and ice peaks before we landed in Lhasa. The air was heavy and our movements strained upon landing. There was a heavy military presence at the airport with pointed machine guns. An intimidating presence for the visitors to remember during their short and well monitored journeys. Expecting Lhasa to be a hamlet as indicated in Heinrich Heirers novel “Seven years in Tibet”, we came upon a growing metropolis of modern buildings, good roads, clean surroundings. However upon further investigation and time walking in Lhasa one finds the Tibet of yore around the temples, markets and in the Tibetans themselves. China which has built a spectacular railroad for 1800 km on permafrost is currently transporting18 train loads of fortune seekers into Tibet daily. Lhasa has grown from 100000 denizens to 350,000 in 10 years.

I wondered why that with 6 billion people on earth, let us make it 5 by subtracting the Chinese, we were the only non mongoloid people in all of Lhasa, barring an occasional European or two. The beauty of travel at this time of the year especially in Tibet is that all the local people from various provinces and villages make their annual pilgrimage to Lhasa and the Jokhang Temple, the mother of monasteries for the Gelugpa (yellow hat sect). This affords us a unique opportunity to watch and learn the religious and spiritual side of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism evolved from the red hat sect to the Black hats and since the 14th century the yellow hats. They followed different philosophies there and often collided in the past making many monasteries very war like in medieval times. Most of the great monasteries have walls and ramparts around them. Today the red and yellow hats co-exist with the former a minority.

The Potala palace a medieval fort and eventually the spiritual and imperial seat of Tibet is truly a marvel in architecture. The treasures inside, the tombs of the Dalai Lamas, the 1000 plus alters and shrines. Most people including me are not aware that Tibet had a long imperial lineage where State and religion were separate. In the 14th century during civil strife the Head of the Gelupa sect was asked by the various chieftains to take the mantle of State and religion. Around this time Altan Khan, the king of the Mongols invited Sonam Gyatso,the head of the Gelupa sect to Hohot to teach Buddhism to the Mongols. He named him “Dalai Lama” in mongol meaning Ocean of knowledge. This enhanced the power of the Gelupas and the Dalai Lama lineage began. The 14th Dalai lama whom we adore is actually named Tenzing Gyatso( Tenzing meaning Protector of Dharma and Gyatso meaning river of knowledge).( Altan King's son became the 4th Dalai Lama)
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It is indeed one great world heritage site. During summer months the government restricts visits to 1000 visitors per day with a one hour cap on the tour. Tour guides are punished 1000 Yuan($150) for violations. It is almost impossible to see anything let alone climb the hill with altitude sickness!. All the tickets have a time stamp. We on the other hand spent 4 hours inside the Potala and drank the air of spirituality until we decided to descend. The elating (and sad) sight every morning is to see Tibetans with their prayer wheel walk many times around the Potal praying and worshiping the last sign of their ancient religion, the home of their Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader.
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We were lucky to see the local pilgrims ( local means travelling several hundreds of miles by either foot, prostration or some rickety mechanical conveyance) decked in their finery eagerly bowing to the many thousand Buddhas, touching everything they consider holy, spinning yards of prayer wheels mounted alongside the walls of the Potala or simply looking at the palace with deep seated longing and achieving a sense of deliverance.

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To be continued………

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:57 Archived in China Tagged buddhism tibet lama lhasa potala dalai

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