Monasteries and Mountain Retreats. Lhasa Tibet
Here I am, in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, the highest plateau on Earth. Apart from a mild headache, I am handling the altitude of 3,650m rather well, thanks to the Diamox substitute (for altitude sickness) twice a day. I am looking forward to spending the next six days in this contentious region.
On arrival, I have been given a ‘notice’ which tells me to refrain from any political activities, drinking alcohol or doing any strenuous exercise (in order to acclimatize better), and to expect very basic living ‘conditions’, etc. I am also under supervision of a Tibetan travel guide because restrictions require foreign travelers to pre-arrange a tour with a guide and transport for their time in Tibet, making independent travel impossible. This is because of China’s stronghold on Tibet and its people, which led to the deposition of the Dalai Lama in 1959.
I check in to the Yak Hotel, an understated, yet comfortable hotel located in the center of the old town.
Lhasa is quite a contrast to Beijing. It is colourful, charming, and totally chilled (no pun intended). This holy city is the center of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the political, economic and cultural hub of the Tibet Autonomous Region, located in the middle of the Qinghai Tibet Plateau, north of the Himalaya Mountains.
Some of the main highlights of Tibet are the magnificent monasteries with their reverberating prayer halls of monks chanting mantras, the long strands of fluttering prayer flags that gently spread the vibes of compassion and coexistence, the heavy aromas of juniper incense, the deeply devoted and religious Tibetans prostrating themselves in front of deity, the vibrant pallets of reds, oranges and yellows that add colour to the city, and meeting locals (Tibetans) who are so disarmingly friendly and curious about foreigners. This is what makes Tibet so fascinating.
Tibetans have a level of devotion and faith that seems to belong to an earlier, almost medieval age.
Founded in 1416 by a monk called Jamyang Chöje, the Drepung Monastery is on a steep mountainside. At its peak, this monastery used to be home to over 15,000 monks and was one of the most prestigious Buddhist institutions in the land. Today, the monastery has seven colleges; Gomang, Loseling, Deyang, Shagkor, Gyelwa (or Tosamling), Dulwa, and Ngagpa, each teaching different aspects of Tibetan Buddhism to the 300 monks residing here. This monastery was the home of the Dalai Lamas before the Potala Palace was built in the 17th century.
The monastery is made up of walled and narrow alleyways, leading into massive halls that can fit up to 7,000 monks at one time. It also houses the largest kitchen in Tibet that caters daily to the resident monks. Stunning tapestries hang from high ceilings, red robed monks sit in meditative silence, lone scraggy cats sun nonchalantly, and the occasional Lhasa Apso (Tibetan dog) yaps and scampers about, disturbing the quietude of the monastery despite the constant stream of devotees and visitors.
I taste yak-butter tea, yak cheese, and flour-milled from roasted barley called tsampa offered to me by a monk.
Outside, on a mountain face are rock paintings. These drawings depict the movement of tribes, herding and hunting, religion and events, and Tibet’s penchant for natural worshipping of animals and nature.
I proceed to the Sera Monastery. Founded in 1419 by Sakya Yeshe, a disciple of Tsong Khapa, this monastery was home to more than 5,000 monks.
Unlike the Drepung, this monastery is not as magnificent and grand but its specialty are debates amongst monks in the shaded courtyard.
Every day, red-robed monks assemble in small groups and practice their debating skills pertaining to Buddhist rituals. They clap, stamp their feet, finger point, whoop, holler, and throw their prayer beads about, making it a highly entertaining spectacle.
Located in the center of Lhasa (and very close to my hotel), on Barkhor Street, is the Jokhang Monastery. Back in 647 during the Tang Dynasty, this monastery was better known as the spiritual center of Tibet.
According to one legend, the King threw his ring into the air to show where to build the temple. The ring fell into a lake and a stupa emerged from the water. Then the lake was filled with sand and soil carried by thousands of white rams, which was the main means of transport at that time. The construction took over three years to finish. The temple was first called Rasa, meaning the Land of Ram and thereafter changed to Jokhang- the House of Buddha. The city was named Lhasa, which means the Land of Buddha.
Inside the Jokhang Temple is an atmospheric labyrinth of shrines dedicated to various gods and bodhisattvas, lit by votive candles and thick with the smoke of incense. There are literally thousands of Buddhist statues and images which were brought by the two princesses (Wencheng & Bhrikuti) as part of their dowries.
Around this temple, Tibetans walk clockwise prostrating themselves in reverence to their beliefs and their god while I take my chance to explore the colourful and tempting souvenir shops along Barkhor Street.
Tucked away from the usual tourist route is the Sangye Dhongku.
Also known as the Chak Pori rock carvings, I join a handful of Tibetans walking the kora or “circumambulation” along the rock face which has a collection of painted rock carvings. To the right of the carvings, is a beautiful stupa built entirely of carved mani stones- rocks that are painted with various Buddhist mantras.
This is one of the largest prayer wheels to be found in Tibet.
Also closer to the entrance is a large hall with 1000 lamps lit as offerings to the deity.
Visiting Tibet is like going back in time…to a place where time has stood still. Tibetans are deeply entrenched in their Buddhism which is extremely philosophical, they still practice ancient cultural traditions and rituals and have the utmost reverence for life, death, rebirth, and existence. They still practice “sky burials” where dead bodies are chopped up and left to be picked clean by vultures ‘who take the dead to Heaven’.
It is a place where one can experience a sense of peace and appreciation.