Tag Archives: Lhasa

Potala Palace, Tibet – A Physical and Spiritual Journey at 12,000 feet

By Lakshmi:

Who?  Anyone who is in Lhasa, Tibet

What? The Potala Palace, the winter palace of the Dalai Lama for many centuries is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is also the highest palace in the world standing at 12,000 feet.

How? The Potala Palace is the most imposing structure in Lhasa and you can get there by taxi, walking or taking one of many guided tours.  Each day, only a limited number of visitors are allowed, so it is best to get your tickets ahead of time.  Since we wanted to understand Tibetan history, context and religion better, we hired a guide to take us in.

The palace is located at

No.35 Gongqian Alley, Beijing Middle Road, Chengguan District, Lhasa 850000

Why?  Visiting the Potala Palace is such a physical and spiritual journey on so many levels.

– The altitude at which the palace is located makes it a physically challenging climb, but you are rewarded with some amazing vistas of Lhasa.

– It is of course a home of the Dalai Lama, someone whose smile and endurance we have known and followed.  A visit to one of his homes gives an inside peek at so many aspects of Tibetan life, duty and religion.

– The palace originally built as a gift from a king to his wife has over 1,000 rooms and is divided into the white and red palaces.  The lower white palace is the center of government and the upper red one is the center of religion.

– As you walk from room to room, there is a plethora of art and murals depicting Tibetan life, religion and history.

– There are many shrines in here and the tranquility felt is amazing.  Our special moment was when one of the monks at a shrine called out to us (We were the only ones he called!).  He proceeded to say that the Tibetans would always be friends with the Indians since the Dalai Lama now lived there and proceeded to offer special prayers ending with the ultimate blessing of white scarves that he placed around our necks.

– As my younger daughter put it, the visit to the Potala palace while enriching was bitter-sweet, especially since you can walk a space freely that the rightful owner can’t.

To learn more about this UNESCO World Heritage site, click here.

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/707

24,901 Miles A Second

By: Siddhi (written after a trip to Lhasa, Tibet in 2007) 

The globe spins, rotating effortlessly beneath the twirl of my fingertips. The blur of colors surge in a whirlpool motion, fascinating, but incoherent. 24, 901 miles flash before my eyes every few seconds.  I just saw the entire world twenty times in a single minute.

Our jeep rattled forward on the rugged, mountainous terrain of Lhasa– the sacred origin of Tibetan Buddhism. The landscape was a living still-life painting; the beauty I had only seen in museum art splattered on a canvas of reality. It was exactly how the travel books had described it – dreamy. My camera’s shutter snapped every few moments as I reveled in the sight.

That was until I saw the walking scarecrows. They were haggard, bent over rails of bone. They were emaciated, barefoot corpses with cloth satchels. They were children on their daily three-hour walk to school. Almost suddenly, the majestic beauty of the Himalayas was reduced to nothing but those languished faces. The yellow mustard fields, the snow-capped plateaus, the skies of white gold – everything felt hideously out of place. The earth our tires tread belonged to a class of peace-driven people who for generations worked to uphold their beliefs in karma and nonviolence. And these same people were now, in front of my own eyes, walking a deathly walk, only hoping that the Chinese soldiers that infested their land wouldn’t beat them to the ground.

I was numb. Somehow I managed to bring the camera to my eyes, and clicked.  This time, it wasn’t just a digital image I had saved onto a card, but a fresh wound in the flesh of my conscience, a permanent scar in my naivety.

One month after I returned home, mainstream news channels flashed with clips of violent Tibetan uprisings against Chinese soldiers. The families of those skeletal kids, who walked under blazing furnaces every day to be educated, were portrayed as the savages. They were greedy, selfish monsters that were unwilling to sacrifice personal freedoms for the “better good”.   I felt irascible desperation. I was there. I had seen through my viewfinder those same impoverished villages, living in raw fear.

The naked, poverty-stricken children selling flutes for food in the heart of Cambodia; the Chinese freedom of expression being squashed by the oppressive fist of communism; Thai citizens in constant limbo between life and death. Unlike most teenagers whose vista of the world is based on reported realities in the media, I have been fortunate enough to experience these global truths firsthand. From the moment the plane scrapes the runway, what I know about the world I live in is mutated, enlarged and ultimately diminished. The more I see, the more I realize I’ve seen nothing. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse, I don’t know, because my innocence is gone. I don’t believe things at face value anymore because I know there’s something beneath the surface.

I need to help tear down these walls. Countries have stories, people have stories; truth, that is subdued by bias and ignorance. These realities lurk beneath the filmy surfaces of the piles and piles of photographs I’ve taken over the years. Going back and looking at some of these pictures almost always unleashes that same feeling of discomfort and angst I felt when I saw that slanted view of Tibetan uprisings. With my camera, maybe I’ll be able to do a sliver of justice to the human condition. Before I can do anything though, I have to know.

The globe slows down, the mar of colors gradually forming a fluid image. But it’s still incoherent. I don’t see the familiar oceans, continents, islands- I see a vastly uncharted map, an enigma that I have yet to completely understand. Luckily, I’ve got a camera. And I’m only eighteen.

Resilient Souls

By: Siddhi (written after a trip to Lhasa in 2007) 

There was a welcoming coldness that radiated from the gaping, dark hole of rock in front of me. Relief. My ravaging hunger and exhaustion were, for a moment, alleviated by the thought of escape from this furnace. I felt like some sort of ethereal being after this ascent: physically existent, but mentally hollow. I was standing on the rocky summit of the Drepung Monastery, the heartland of Tibetan Buddhism.  But I really didn’t care. This was my fourth monastery visit in a row, and the “spiritual journey” was getting old.  All I could feel were drenched clothes clinging to my slimy skin; acid pincers gnawing at my stomach. I was going to pass out.

But the moment I stepped foot into the cave, a damp and humid air heaved down my chest. I couldn’t breathe. And thinking about breathing made it even more unnatural. Tibet was reputed for altitude sickness; people came here with more oxygen bottles than water in their bags. Sharing the cramped space with my family and guide only pushed claustrophobia to gain a stranglehold on me. I shut my eyes, inhaled deeply, and slowly peered to absorb my surroundings.

The shelter was lit by a single ring of candles that burned hazily in the dust. I could see two cloaked figures with their backs faced to the entrance of the cave, but I could barely make out the crimson red of their robes and the wrinkled skin beneath.  Yet, I instantly sensed the anxiety that crept into their motions when they heard our cautious footsteps, as if some foreign and undesirable thing had penetrated their space.

They turned around. I saw sags of skin under eyes that seemed worn by a troubled history.  I saw bony, gaunt cheeks. I saw pale faces strained by weakness. And then, after a few dead, frozen seconds, I saw smiles that softened the concern and eased my growing discomfort. They knew our guide, and understood we were just tourists accompanying him. We weren’t intruders to be feared.

In a soft, scarcely audible voice, I asked our guide the unmentionable question, the one he had reprimanded me many times for asking in public: Did these people keep a picture of the Dalai Lama? The younger monk must have heard me, because she instantly turned towards our guide and they exchanged a few words. After taking a closer look at my sister and me, and with a faint smile on her face, she gingerly walked up to a barely visible black cloth against the edge of the cave. It was like she was opening a part of the wall itself.

Beneath the sheet was a photo of the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader who had been banished by the Chinese and forced to seek refuge in the hills of India. He was the man who wasn’t allowed to step on the earth of his own home, the man whose land I, the tourist, was permitted to freely roam. The image was in such contrast with its black surroundings that it was blinding. To me, the American, it was just a photo. To her, the suppressed Tibetan monk, it was a portrait of a hero she would be brutally murdered for worshipping. Courage, danger, defiance- all of it lurked unnervingly beneath an act as simple as hanging a photograph on a wall.

These were simple, moral people. They were once children with ambition, just like me. They were students who had been taught by their spiritual elders about right and wrong, the meaning of karma, and loyalty to their beliefs.  But because of something as scathingly pitiful as politics- greed – they had degenerated into an existence in which they were barely surviving.

The monk put her fingers on the tranquil face of Tenzin Gyatso, then delicately placed her hands on our faces, as if transferring to us some of the enduring hope he gave them. The elder monk, who had till then observed in silence, beckoned us to sit and took out an oval object covered in cloth. As she unwrapped it, the moving folds revealed a light brown object resembling a stone. Her coarse hands picked it up and struggled to break it. She finally tore off a large portion and put it in my hands, lifting her wrinkled arm and motioning towards my mouth. I realized that this wasn’t a stone. It was a single chunk of stale bread, the women’s only meager ration for several days. She wanted me to eat it. I couldn’t. But I had to. To not would be the most offensive form of disrespect.  I put it in my mouth, and let it soften under whatever saliva was left in my parched throat, refusing to work my tongue, denying the taste. It was equivalent to chewing on a rock.

I watched the monk pack away the trivial remains of bread. After a few moments of being lost in a wave of pensive silence, she moved closer to me. Our eyes locked. Out of her fatigued black pupils leaped an invisible force that tugged ferociously at my gut, and then ripped it out. I was overwhelmed by emotion. The heat, the painful heaviness, the lethargy and hunger- it all just faded into insignificance. I still saw the sags under the eyes. I still saw the gaunt cheeks. And I still saw the physical weakness. But this time I also saw the unwillingness to surrender.   It was at that point, that for the first time in my life, I felt raw pain. There is something deeply profound that transpired when I looked into those pools of relentless hope, of inexplicable peace. It was too surreal, too impossible for happiness to exist on a face so weathered by eternal terror and paranoia.

The world no longer existed. It was just the two of us, experiencing the most honest connection I have ever felt, the purest manifestation of human sentiment.   Our lives are defined by those small moments when we figure out things we are never going to be told. They are those split second flashes that somehow enlighten us better than all the books and teachings in the world; like that moment did to me.

Gratitude has taken on a different meaning for me.  Till I came to Tibet, the concept was almost entirely intertwined with material abundance. And yet, both in this cave and beyond, I experienced a class of people who the world would term as impoverished, but in my observation were enriched with the scarcest possession of all: contentment. Knowing that one can stay alive by believing in small and fleeting moments has convinced me that I have way more than I really need. The encounter with the monks in Tibet was a defining experience in weaving the fabric that binds together the idealist and the realist within me.

I am confident that the further I journey into the unknown, the deeper these revelations will become, and the stronger my urge to pursue them. Maybe they will be beyond my power. But the least I can do is know.