A Travellerspoint blog

June 2011

Reflections on Tibet whilst in Lhasa, Tibet

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



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.

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.

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)

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.

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.


To be continued………

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:57 Archived in China Tagged buddhism tibet lama lhasa potala dalai Comments (0)

Living with the Dani People of Beliem Highlands.....

papua Journal...Volume 2

We packed all our supplies in several bed- raggled cartons covered with tarpaulin and set off for our trek. It was not like Amundsen or Scott setting off for the poles, calculated, organized and fighting every impulse for failure. Ours seemed to be one of practicality, a
vague lack of purpose and leaving a lot to chance. The A-Type me simply ignored getting involved since the weather was always pleasant, the mountains filled with villages and the land as lush as it could be. We boarded a beat up mini van that took the six of us on a 20-minute ride. Why? That is where the road ended. Wamena is a jungle town with a 5-mile highway running on either side of the airport built by missionaries, block by block.
Kilese was our destination. My lonely planet research was pooh- poohed by Scorpio, my guide, who was sincerely interested in showing me the real Papua. It took a lifetime to get my police permit to travel the areas we were planning to traverse. The climb was steep and my porters lifting heavy loads were moving fast in order to reach the village before nightfall. Scorpio and Hanuman (a name I have used here to notate the faithful caretaker of mine, since I do not remember his name) were with me during this lovely trek in misty rain with a Chinese ponchodoing a slow water torture on my body.
The path leading to the village, which was about 6 km to the hilltop comprised of wild flowers, hand carved sweet potato plantations, old growth trees and lovely vegetation that seemed to be well tended. We passed small huts with families tending pigs and washing sweet potatoes on the mountain streams. Here is where I realized that Papua is all about pigs and sweet potatoes. It was their Nasdaq and DJIA.
As the evening was wearing thin I was wondering about our camp. Scorpio was very vague about our campsite causing me considerable anxiety. Close to 6:00 PM I noticed kids and families moving about the trail. It was very foggy and the rain ahead picked up in intensity making me wonder if wipers on glasses will indeed be a practical invention. Alas! We arrived. If the opening scene from the Lord of the Rings, showing an idealistic gnome community in a fantasy landscape was a “Ten”, then Kilese was a 20. An arched floral gateway, very natural in its presence, followed by several steep steps brought me to this commune of several huts holding about 30 members of an extended family. We were first shown to our common habitation, a large hut with plenty of firewood and hay for flooring.
We dried ourselves in the fire and the cook who had already arrived earlier was brandishing his ware in front of the smoky hearth, which served as light, stove and heater: it was certainly the most important element that evening.
Scorpio whispered into my ear that I should proceed to one of the huts in the far extreme corner of the commune. It was still raining, but I could see flickering light and some figures in the hut. I walked in from the rain to see the most impressive sight any adventurerc could expect to see. It was the daily evening congregation of the men folk of the commune in front of the fire. The chief had a whisk, a conch shell necklace and spectacular feathers in his headdress. His brother a wiry muscular figure had a boar’s tusk going through his septum, an uncle dressed less exclusively sat in the far side and a brother-in law who seemed to have more curls in his groin than on his head sat quietly with a lonely feather sporting out of his ornate head
The whole scene was so unexpected that I was short for words. Several thoughts raced through my mind, Do I whip my camera (a little one) and start shooting, or should I attempt to make gestures or just simply let them enjoy the sight of an Indian, whom I suspect they had never seen. Along with the thick smoke emerging from their wet timber hearth they were all smoking cigarettes and instead of offering me one asked for some more from me. A habit certainly started by the Dutch who ruled this land, as a barter item. I slowly eased my camera out of its moorings on my hip and tried to take some pictures only to
realize that it was completely fogged from my trek in the rain. Photographers reading this article will sure share my anguish at this importune moment, as my SLR was in a far away hut.DSC07072.jpg
Scorpio after letting me simmer inside with no communication, cigarette or camera finally came in with some smokes and sweet conversation. It seemed that after all the chores are done in the plantations the men-folk retire to their “Alpha Hut” where they discuss their day’s issues: pigs, swine, sweet potatoes, war paint and old tales of blood and gore. They also wonder about Christianity that is being pushed on them, something called the Indonesian Government, tourism & brown people who offer cigarettes without barter and above all the threat to their unique way of life. The Alpha hut serves as a meeting room, a 'men only' gathering place where every male member (only) is accepted, a place where an ancestor or two are smoked after mummification and preserved and a place where all the elders sleep on a platform away from their wives and families.
I offered a few cigarettes to the elders from my new stash while smoking one myself. I had a feeling of hometown bonhomie with the Dani at that moment. The altitude, the tedium, the cheap tobacco and the overall atmosphere was indeed taking me to a higher plane.
Scorpio proceeded to explain to me that the men slept next to each other on the platform above the fire (see plates attached), but did their matrimonial duties by visiting their family hut briefly where the wives and kids along with their pigs slept. In fact within the compound of each family hut there was an interconnected stockade, where the swine would spend their daytime hours. Like stashing any other valuables, these pigs would occupy the living quarters in the night providing financial security and physical warmth.
Nature had provided them a perfect climate for this type of arrangement to evolve. Jarred Diamond, the author of “Guns, Germs and Steel” observed that this living arrangement of man and beast led to virus jumping species in Papua amongst other places. The same is true with sheep in the Middle East, cattle in Asia (I remember SenKhazani, our milkman in Madras living with his favorite cow in the Government provided housing, dogs and cats in Europe and monkeys in Central African Republic.DSC07054.jpg
I felt very touristy trying to take my pictures with the elders. Upon review of the pictures one could see the stupidity of that enterprise (See plates) we took leave after several introductions, handshakes and pleasantries. After a dismal meal in the communal hut, I was shown my hut. It was a hut and just that. I was given an old pillow, which I quickly covered with a jacket and a straw mattress. The floor of the hut was made of cane reeds and the door was an excuse for a portal. It was pitch dark inside the hut but after midnight and after the rains had abated out came the stars; the milky way, constellations, star clusters, white dwarfs, red dwarfs, black holes?. This humble traveler was soon stargazing in absolute awe.
The only other time I had observed such an event was in the Sahel Desert in Mali. Every time I tried to crawl back into my hut to sleep, out came the creepy crawlers. They were moving, gnawing, chewing and boring into the straw floor. It was not the former cannibals with whom I was lodging that would give me the
creeps, but the unseen critters encompassing my space was simply too much to bear. I barely slept.

Ramdas Iyer can be contacted at riyerr@aol.com

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Deep inside Yali, Dani and Lani territories, Papua,Indonesia

A fascinating trek amongst a unique people..... Author Ramdas Iyer



The third and fourth days of trekking took us to greater heights and deeper into Dani territory. It was an exciting time for a photographer with the land and its unique people offering many opportunities around every corner. The climb was very vertiginous slowing down our pace considerably. We crossed many mountain waterfalls tumbling towards the white water Rivers below, traversed several vine built bridges and saw some magnificent flora.
The Baliem valley consists of three main tribes; The Dani, the Yali and the Lani. The Lani are – like their neighbors, the Dani - experienced farmers and use a highly sophisticated irrigation system to produce mainly Sweet Potatoes, Tobacco, Beans, Taro, Spinach, Sugar Cane and Bananas. 
Their villages in a beautiful surrounding southeast of Wamena are larger than the small compounds of the Dani and the Yali.
The Lani men, who are stubbier than the Dani, wear thick kotekas (penis gourds), which also serve as a “handbag”, a case for tobacco and valuables. Men sometimes wear hairnets, but the Lani extensively use bird feathers as decoration. Quite often a feather crown is worn even when the men are dressed in western clothes. The women wear short grass skirts, but like everywhere in the valley tend to wear western clothes more and more today.

Like their Dani and Yali neighbors, the women carry everything – like vegetables, small pigs and even their small children – in net-bags across their backs.The Yalis on the other hand resided on the steeper slopes at higher elevations. As a result they were not discovered until 1976. They were the fiercest cannibals in Western Papua. They not only ate the bodies of their enemies, they also ground the bones and scattered them in the mountains to totally annihilate them.. Though very tiny in stature (Average make height was 5 feet or less), they were the most feared. They wore their penis gourds parallel to the ground in a pointed manner, but of a relatively smaller size.
As a photographer, I hate to see these magnificent tribesman wearing jeans and T-shirts saying “Jesus Saves”. While not a big fan of proselytization, I must admit that the Christian missionaries have done yeoman’s work in this harsh land trying to bring modern comforts and education to these people. Like many before them these cultures will be relegated to the history books and I count my blessings to have witnessed them prior to extinction.

As a traveler the Dani and Lani can be distinguished by the relative sizes of the Kotekas (Penis gourds or more scientifically called Phallocrypts) and the Yali by their height. The Lani live 3-4 day trek from Wamena while the Yali live 5-6 days trek from Wamena. Since more Papuans are adapting to western clothing it gets harder to identify them. I was fortunate to meet a Yali man about 4 days trek into the mountains, but unfortunately he was wearing western clothes (See Photograph)

Upon arrival at the village for nightfall around 3:00PM, the heaviest downpour ever witnessed by me continued straight for 8 hours trapping me with my porters and the occasional naked villager straggling into our kitchen hut. I took this opportunity to explain life in the USA to the porters through Scorpio to a fascinated audience. They asked me if I had sat in one of those flying buses that are seen from the mountains. We also discussed their individual lives, their farming techniques, relationships with women, ancestral stories etc, etc. Our cook was making the same noodles with cabbage and eggs every day that I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized that I had not eaten anything tangy in 4 days but I noticed a lemon plant in the fringe of the village. I grabbed a few lemons and offered to cook them all noodles my way, much to everyone’s satisfaction except perhaps the stunned cook.
There was a time inside the hut when 5 naked villagers were sitting around the fire with us, just watching. The highlands after rain cools down to about 60degrees F and the men, instead of wearing an outer garment rely on the warmth of a hearth. They live in such perfect harmony with nature that I fear any changes in global climate would adversely affect them.

The next morning we spent 3 hours walking around the village and studying their homes, farms, pigs and enjoying the mountaintop vista. Here is where I met a Yali member. He was passing through the village, along the trail that would eventually take him to his destination in higher terrain. He was no taller than 4 feet 6inches, with an elf like ear. In the 2is century we still live with homo erectus who have not closed the gap with the civilizations from the fertile crescent.

I met a woman who was constantly waving both her hands with open palms. It struck me as odd for her to continue to do it for an extended period of time. Scorpio explained that she was proudly showing all her 10 fingers, since none had perished in her family: a sign of a very brave and successful warrior family See photograph). An elderly gentleman actually took the time to demonstrate the art of septum piercing and nasal decoration (see Photos). This was our turn around point and to head towards Wamena for 2 days in a very different trail along the ridge of the mountain.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia dani papua jayapura cannibals lani wamena Comments (0)

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