On top of the world

On top of the world

Archana Srivatsan is taken in by the natural and spiritual bounty of Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, also known as the land of the gods.

Tibet. The mere mention of its name and elusive mystique spurs one’s imagination. Having been isolated from the exploring eyes of tourists on several occasions, merely
holding the special permit to set foot on this mystery land brings a feverish excitement.

With a beautifully blue Yarlung Tsangpo river (Brahmaputra) flowing through, Tibet is
most visited by nature enthusiasts, and spiritual seekers in their quest of Mt Kailash and Mt Everest. But what really defines Tibet goes beyond its stunning mountain ranges, blue rivers, dizzying heights, five-coloured prayer flags swaying gracefully along colourful streets. There’s an innocent warmth and cheer that exudes in every small thing that stays etched in your memory.

An old lady spins her prayer wheel, murmuring the Buddhist chant — Om Ma Ni Pae May Hum — with gentle eyes and a shy smile — both of which seem to shine despite her wrinkles and all odds. An old monk at Jokhang Temple was nearly ecstatic to learn that we were from India, and very kindly beckoned us to gift a special khatak, bestowing blessings for “good life and good friendships.” Little children ran towards us on the streets with their inquisitive eyes and rosy pink cheeks. A young girl at a local restaurant whispered in my ear, and hesitantly made a humble demand — an Indian rupee note to keep as a souvenir. Fighting an unrelenting chill in the air, we found ourselves amidst a wonderful family of vendors in Barkhor Street, who offered to let us join their little private tea party, pouring us some hot salted butter tea. Men in market places shouted out enthusiastically, “Tashi Delek! Namaste...we love India!” There’s an unmistakable excitement in their step while they share songs about their farmers, animals and love, strumming soulfully on the dramyin (traditional instrument). At their very core is a gentle and unquestionable respect for all things dear to their life — the Brahmaputra, the yaks they breed, their religion and above all, the beloved Dalai Lama.

Tibet radiates an aura of simplicity, softness and spirituality, all trapped in evident solitude. Seeing is believing, the Chinese say about Tibet. But, only feeling its heart is to have truly experienced Tibet, I would say. What better way to understand the soul and charm of this tucked-away territory (with Chinese army squads at every unsuspecting corner) than from its capital city, Lhasa. One of the highest cities in the world at 11,450 feet, every nook and corner of this city holds an insight into its unique culture.

Majesty on a hill

A UNESCO world heritage site, the Potala Palace is the most impressive and imposing sight in Lhasa. A crimson and white fortress-like structure, it was built on Marpori (Red Hill), originally by Emperor Songtsen Gampo and later expanded by the fifth and thirteenth Dalai Lamas. Chief residence and winter palace of the Dalai Lama until the uprising, this 12,100 feet, hill-top attraction is well worth straining some muscles, to ascend its winding stairs! The palace holds two sections — white (living quarters, administration centre of Dalai Lama), and red (stands out in the centre, and is devoted to religious study and Buddhist prayer).

Intricately decorated with colourful thangka paintings describing stories of Buddhism and the emperor, the interiors house well-preserved thrones, stupas and ancient scriptures. Statues of protector snow lions mark its entrances; holy symbols hang in the bright white-and-yellow courtyards as monks quietly chant their prayers in its red quarters.

Jokhang Temple is the most sacred in Tibet and a star tourist attraction of Lhasa, located in the centre of lively Barkhor Square. Built in the seventh century by Emperor Songtsen Gampo, it houses important Buddhist statues, brought during his marriage to Princess Bhrikuti (Nepal) and Princess Wen Cheng (China), some of which are believed to have been found in and transported from India. The spiritual atmosphere around this temple is overwhelming. Hundreds of pilgrims from across Tibet visit daily to worship Buddha Shakyamuni (the main deity), circumambulating its complex, marked by giant incense burners. Pilgrims tie their feet together by a rope, as a sign of respect, before prostrating in front of the temple walls — sometimes a thousand times a day.

The interiors of Jokhang Temple reverberate with the melodious sound of prayers and hymns being chanted by monks and pilgrims. Dark winding passages open to grand rooms decorated with exquisite thangka paintings of Kalachakra, golden stupas of Dalai Lamas, scriptures wrapped in silk and prayer halls. Standing on the terrace brings spectacular views which probably characterise one’s imagination of Tibet. Hundreds of five-colour prayer flags sway in the breeze, between ornately designed golden rooftops, surrounded by brown mountains underneath a blue sky. This is as close to the gods as I have ever felt.

Translating to ‘Jewel Park’, Norbulingka, a world heritage site, was primarily built by the seventh Dalai Lama to access hot spring waters to heal small pox. Subsequently expanded with lush green gardens, small lakes and exquisite interiors, this became the summer residence of the Dalai Lama’s until the exile. Walking along its orange walls with red doors, traditional designs in yellow and blue, golden roofs displaying protector symbols — all its colour holds an unmistakable calm and cheer. Every year, Tibetan folk dances and songs are performed in these gardens, decorated with colourful hanging rugs and canvases, to celebrate Sho Dun or Yogurt Festival.

Sera Monastery is one of the largest in Tibet, built with huge assembly halls, colleges and monk living quarters. Here, you can literally walk amidst the home and school of Tibetan Buddhism. The ‘Debating Ring’ is a remarkable and refreshingly different insight into their ‘classroom’. Monks clad in red cloth sit around in groups beneath trees, answering questions posed to them by their teachers on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. The animated mannerism of slapping hands when posing a question and signalling an incorrect response is intriguing.

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