Lhasa, Serene No Longer (2014)

Lhasa, Serene No Longer (2014)

Our small plane takes a sharp turn to the left, dodging the towering massifs that line up to form an amphitheatre and eases itself neatly into a narrow gap to begin its descent into the Lhasa valley. For the better part of the last five hours, we have flown over a densely layered mountainscape, virtually all of it barren and some of it dusted with powdery snow. An occasional lake would dazzle, like a turquoise jewel amidst the greys and whites, but, for the most part, there has been no sign of any habitation. But now, we can see the neatly laid-out tin roofs of an army camp; soon we glimpse the settlements; the iconic Potala comes into view, atop a tiny hillock.

At last I am in Lhasa, the part of Tibet I had missed out on an earlier trip to Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar 18 years ago. But, the 32-day trek of 1996 seemed like a cakewalk compared with the efforts involved in organising this week-long trip. All foreigners visiting Tibet are required to obtain a Tibet Travel Permit, which can be procured only through an authorised travel agency. Without the travel permit, one cannot even book plane or train tickets. Identifying a reliable agency that will deliver the permits on time from a plethora of service providers crowding the cyberspace is like going on a blind date. There were some anxious weeks before things fell into place. Besides, independent travel through Tibet is no longer possible and the entire trip must be arranged as a package tour which turned out to be far more expensive than it might otherwise have been. But then, here we are, my friend Indu and I, landing in Lhasa on a balmy June morning this year.

Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, is a city of stark contrasts like no other. Gleaming SUVs speed through its metalled roads which are smooth as silk; well-stocked stores flaunt the latest designer labels from around the globe, seductively draped over an array of elegant mannequins; hairdressers and beauty parlours do brisk business, their windows displaying the latest nail art, alongside oversized coiffures waiting to adorn a willing head; smart Chinese girls deploy their persuasive skills to sell fake yak bone bangles and plastic keychains to souvenir-hunting tourists; night clubs and casinos proudly announce their star performers for the night; there are ATMs every few yards, accomplices to giant billboards tempting you to go ahead and indulge yourself in the myriad modern pleasures this remote city has to offer; elsewhere, metal cranes move purposefully, dismantling antiquated structures and installing sleek, prefabricated concrete complexes to rival the toniest anywhere in the world.

The majestic Potala, Lhasa’s holy shrine-palace, appears to watch over all this with amusement and disdain. Tibetans themselves seem oblivious of the transformation that their city has undergone in recent years. Untouched by modernity or materialism, their single-minded focus on religion and faith is evident everywhere. It manifests itself in myriad ways. Hundreds of Tibetans throng Lhasa city throughout the year, especially in summer, to feast their eyes on their beloved Potala and prostrate themselves before their favourite deity. Many have trudged long distances over hostile mountain territory in a pilgrimage of a lifetime, one that would perhaps cost them years of labour to fund. Some perform a parikrama of the temples entirely through prostration, a practice that is not uncommon in Tibet; unmindful of the piercing ultraviolet rays of the blazing sun and unencumbered by their heavy traditional garments and unwieldy footwear, they roll on flagstones and temple courtyards, their hands raised in prayer; others march steadily towards temples and chapels, swinging their prayer wheels and chanting mantras. Tibetan women sport several strings of coral and turquoise jewellery that must weigh a tonne; their faces seem creased and so weather-beaten that some of them look like walking mummies; their rheumy eyes skim past all the worldly goodies as they thumb their prayer beads and press their heads to the flagpoles and chortens to commune with their gods. Yet, Tibetans are a remarkably friendly people, ready to smile, ready to help and never letting language get in the way of communication.

We are delighted to find that our hotel is in the heart of old Lhasa, a quarter that has escaped the bulldozers and modernisation. Lhasa is situated at a height of 11,975 feet (3,593 metres) and we have not had the time to acclimatise before venturing out on the very day of our arrival. A mild headache lingers persistently. It also rains intermittently, although when the sun does come out, it blazes mercilessly and tans your skin within minutes. But we decide to ignore both the altitude sickness and the weather and explore Barkhor Market, which is the only place we can go to unaccompanied by the guide.

A short walk brings us to the busy Barkhor Square where pilgrims and tourists converge, the former to worship at the stunning Jokhang temple and the latter to soak in the ambience of this ancient square. In fact, Barkhor is a paradox of deep religiosity and a pushy market economy. There are shops galore that sell everything from gorgeous thangkas to skulls of yaks to hang on your living room wall. Like our temple agraharams in South India, Barkhor fans out in concentric quadrangles. While the innermost layer is lined with shops selling typical Tibetan artefacts like coral and turquoise bead jewellery, prayer wheels, bronze Buddha statues and figurines of Tara, and yak wool carpets, the outer layers are residential. There is a profusion of Tibetan crafts everywhere although we learn that most of them are sourced from India—metal statues from Moradabad’s Pital Nagari, shawls from Himachal Pradesh and plastic beads from factories in Noida.

While the pedestrian-only Barkhor Square wears a perpetual festive look with rainbow-hued prayer flags fluttering from specially erected poles, it is in the back alleys that the Tibet of yore comes alive. The houses are built in traditional style, with tiny windows to shut out the chilling winds. The threshold is decorated painstakingly and beautifully, and we get a glimpse of the expansive courtyards just beyond the gates. Tibetan women and children lounge around in the alleyways while men play mahjong and board games right in the middle of streets. Local produce is piled high. Your olfactory nerves are tickled by mounds of yak butter and stacks of dried yak meat. We are constantly dodging speeding, motorised three-wheelers that come hurtling down the bends. But, mercifully, the residential lanes are too narrow for automobiles.

Our stroll brings us to the Muslim quarter, where there are two mosques within a few hundred yards. We learn that there are five more mosques in Tibet, all catering to a Muslim population of about 2,000. According to Wikipedia, Tibetan Muslims are called Kachee, meaning Kashmiri, probably because they came originally from Kashmir, Ladakh to be specific, and Nepal as traders and merchants. They settled down in Lhasa and its outskirts and married local women and thus arose the Muslim population of Tibet, small but significant. There are also Tibetan Muslims of Persian, Arabic or Turkic origin. With Tibet’s tolerant Buddhist culture, Islam flourished and evolved a hybrid culture of its own that blends both Tibetan and Islamic traditions. Incidentally, Tibetan Muslims of Kashmiri origin who chose to come back to Kashmir after 1959 were given Indian citizenship. There are reports that there is a sizeable Tibetan Muslim community that has settled in Kashmir.

We spot Tibetan Muslim women in black silken gowns and scarves while the men sport white flowing garments and wear a fez. The Buddhist Tibetan women, however, are attired in their traditional woollen garments: long heavy gowns with an apron at the waist, although daytime temperatures in June hover around 25 Celsius. Tibetans, both men and women, seem to be very fond of headgear, probably for climatic reasons, and sport a variety of hats. Yet, these hats highlight rather than hide their long plaited hair. Older Tibetans have weather-beaten and creased faces, possibly because of the ultraviolet rays they are exposed to at this altitude.

While Lhasa’s main market sells largely goods from China, Barkhor is almost entirely ethnic and local. Flour mills do brisk business, milling mountain barley which goes to make tsampa, the Tibetan staple. Milled barley is mixed with jaggery and yak butter to make delicious cakes. This is complemented by gurgur chai which is Tibetan green tea brewed in a long cylinder and flavoured with salted yak butter. While tsampa is delicious, gurgur chai takes getting used to. Thukpa, a soupy broth with noodles, is another Tibetan delicacy. Since language poses a serious problem to finding out its contents, we stay away from it, preferring rice and lentils served by Raju, the Nepali cook in our hotel. The next day, Nimo, our guide, comes to take us out. As we dodge the traffic on Lhasa’s main roads, it becomes clear that in Lhasa, automobiles have right of way. The bigger the automobile, the greater this privilege. Pedestrians often risk life and limb to cross the road even at designated pedestrian crossings. Nimo takes us to the Norbulingka Palace, the summer residence of the Dalai Lama. Built in the 18th century by the 7th Dalai Lama, this garden retreat is a feast for the senses with its forest of bamboo, vividly coloured summer blossoms and ponds teeming with carp. The palace was rebuilt extensively recently.

Happily, the reconstruction has been meticulous in its adherence to the original structure. The murals on the walls depict the origin, life and times of the Tibetan people through the centuries. The Dalai Lama’s private quarters contain the furniture used by the present Dalai Lama while he stayed there and the chapel in which he used to worship. The Assembly Hall where the Dalai Lama received dignitaries hosts a golden throne and the walls are covered in delightfully cartoon-like murals depicting contemporary scenes from Tibetan court life. Tibet Museum, situated opposite the Norbulingka, is a painstakingly put-together collection of Tibetan objects of antiquity. There are also more recent exhibits, such as Tibetan musical instruments, masks, ornaments, rugs and carpets.

The following day, our itinerary includes a visit to the Potala palace, but you are required to strictly adhere to the time stamped on your entry tickets. Once you enter the precincts of Potala, you have to exit in an hour’s time; considering the crowds that throng Potala, such regulation is beneficial. Our entry time is later in the morning so we have enough time to stroll through the western part of the town, past expansive squares, wide roads and a neat row of shops. Lhasa’s weather is eminently suited to walking once you have gotten over your altitude sickness. We don huge hats like the local people, sling our water bottles over our shoulders and set out.

Soon, we find ourselves in the electronics district. Virtually every brand is available, be it cameras, computers or mobile phones, but the most ubiquitous are the Chinese brands. We find that Chinese silks have travelled all the way to Tibet and here it is available at a fraction of the price we paid in Beijing for similar articles. Exquisite brocades with gold dragons breathing fire are also on display. These are used for framing thangkas in typical Tibetan style.

Today’s Lhasa is just like any other modern city in the world. Restaurants offering international cuisine do brisk business while bars remain open into the wee hours of the morning. If you travel to Lhasa looking for something unique and original, it has little to offer other than its surviving temples and shrines, some painstakingly rebuilt in faithful imitation of the original. Considering the vast and barren wilderness we had to cross to reach here, it is a wonder that this remote, landlocked city is second to none anywhere in the world in terms of the material goods and services on offer. What seems to have changed little, of course, are the Tibetans themselves.

(Published in Frontline dated Aug 22, 2014)

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