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In Search of the Tomb of Songtsang Gompa, Tsetang, Tibet

In Search of the Tomb of Tsongsang Gompa, Founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsetang, Tibet..........................................by Ramdas Iyer

sunny 28 °F

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The spread of Buddhism in Asia, first through the Silk Route to China and Japan and by Buddhist Emperors of India to SE Asia, who sent missionaries by trading ships, are fascinating subjects that lay the foundation of early religious and political history of Asia. Having visited almost all the great centers of Buddhism in Asia I wish to discuss two areas, Tibet and Mongolia, that came into the fold of Buddhism only after the 7th century, almost 800 years after its initial impact in Central Asia.
There were two reasons for this. Firstly, Tibet and Mongolia lay off the main caravan routes along which merchants and pilgrims travelled between India and China. Secondly, the Tibetan and Mongolian people who were nomads and warlike, were generally indifferent to the Teaching of the Buddha and the higher level of culture that came with it.
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In Tibet, however, all this changed in the seventh century. The Tibetans, who had long been divided among many warring clans, were united under the rule of a great king, Srong-tsangam-po( also known as Songtsang Gampo). His success in uniting the Tibetans brought him and Tibet newfound prestige in Asia. As a result, he was able to wed both a Chinese (daughter of Tang Emperor Zhang-Zung) and a Nepalese princess(daughter of King Bikrut). His Chinese and Nepalese queens were both Buddhists and before long he, too, became interested in Buddhism.
Srong-tsan-gam-po sent representatives to India and China to study the Teaching of the Buddha and to bring back Buddhist texts. The result of these missions strengthened the king's faith in the Buddhist religion. He had many Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan and encouraged the people to practice the Buddhist teachings. He also constructed many temples throughout Tibet. Thus Srong-tsan-gam-po was the first patron of Buddhism in Tibet.
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The thirteenth century saw the rise of Mongolian power in Central Asia. Under Genghis Khan, an ambitious and brilliant chieftain, the Mongols soon made their influence felt throughout the region. By the middle of the century, links had been established between the Mongol court and Tibetan Buddhist masters.
During the reign of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, China was conquered and as a result the Mongol court came increasingly under the influence of Buddhist and Tibetan cultures. Thereafter, a succession of Mongol Khans continued to look to Tibet for religious inspiration.
In 1578 the Mongol ruler Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonyam Gyatso, third in a line of reborn lamas of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The title means "ocean of wisdom" .In the eighteenth century, the Manchus intervened to end a long period of political strife in Tibet. They appointed the then Dalai Lama as the ruler of Tibet. In this way, the Dalai Lamas became political as well as religious leaders. This situation lasted until the People's Republic of China assumed control of Tibet in the middle of this century.
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Like the Tibetans before them, Buddhism transformed the Mongols from a primitive people to a nation respected for its learning and wisdom. From the thirteenth to the twentieth century, Mongolia remained a stronghold of Buddhism. There, the Teaching of the Buddha was preserved in many monasteries as well as in the homes of the people. Although Mongolia today came under Communist rule, Buddhism survives in the hearts and minds of the Mongolians.( I will write about it in a future article)

Upon arriving in Lhasa I was eager to visit the great Jhokahang Temple ( my very first article in the blogosphere can be read in Travellerspoint). This temple was built by King Songtsang Gampo in 642. For most Tibetans it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. It is in some regards pan-sectarian(Black and yellow hat sects have conflicting philosophies), but is controlled by the Gelug school(yellow hats). The temple's architectural style is a mixture of Indian vihara design, Chinese Tang Dynasty design, and Nepalese design.
According to tradition, the temple was built for the two brides of the king, Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both wives are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet as part of their dowries, and they were housed here.
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The more one travelled in Tibet one begins to see the importance of this person who transformed a medieval warlike nomadic people who practiced a pagan religion called Bon. When I planned our trip to Tibet (2011) ,I made sure that I visited the valley of Kings where the tomb of Songtsang Gampo and his successors are buried in mounds, as was the practice in Tibet and China then. The Valley of the Kings or Chongye Valley branches off the Yarlung Valley to the southwest and contains a series of graveyard tumuli, approximately 27 kilometers south of Tsetang, Tibet, near the town of Qonggyai ,Shannan Prefecture.
The site possesses eight large mounds of earth resembling natural hills that are believed to contain at least eight to ten buried Tibetan kings.
One gets a classic flavor for Tibetan village culture as one travels through this interesting valley of the Tsang Po river ( Brahmaputra in India), one of the largest river systems in the world.
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Traveling in Tibet requires police registration in each province who may change itineraries depending on the unrest in the region. During our travel, my wife Pushpa and I, only missed one obscure monastery in which a monk had immolated himself in protest the previous day. However, we decided to take an excursion off the main road to visit a small village guarded by huge decrepit walls of a monastery destroyed by the communists in the 1950s. We visited several homes, played with young kids and met several pilgrims who were making their round to many monasteries by foot, often covering hundreds of miles. We met a young nun who proudly displayed her pendent image of the Dalai lama. A punishable offence that could land her in prison. My photographs are self explanatory and show life in a typical village in the countryside.
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Similar to the great mound in Xian, China where the Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Do is still unearthed, the tombs of the Tibetan kings are undisturbed in the mounds. However due to the great reverence the Tibetans had for Songtsang Gampo they built a temple on top of the mound credited with his burial. When the Tang emperor Gaozong(650-683)came to the throne, that made Songtsang Gampo the emperor's brother-in-law, he was awarded the title Prince of the Western Sea and was promoted to the position of Prince of Bin. Upon his death, emperor Gaozong held a mourning ceremony and sent an envoy to express his condolences. We visited this small temple and was enamored by its simplicity. A great man who transformed a nation is still worshiped daily after 1600 years.
The End.
email me @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Information Sources:

China Tibetology Magazine. tanjia-Hong
BDEA/Buddhanet-2008/ Buddhisn across the Himalayas
Wikipedia

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:07 Archived in China Tagged temple buddhism tibet mongolia lama tang hats dynasty khan dalai songtsang gampo yello jhokahang tsetang kublai srong-tsan-gam-po Comments (1)

Reflections on Tibet whilst in Lhasa, Tibet

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

sunny

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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 Comments (0)

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