I began working with a Rolleiflex at the age of fifteen, and a year later, had my own. It was my favorite camera. I like street photography best, and though the camera was rather indiscreet and cumbersome, one didn’t have to aim it directly at the subject through a view finder which, to an extent and depending on the amount of discretion used, protected one from immediate notice. The large negatives delivered the crisp images I loved and minimized my endless blunders in the darkroom.
The Rolleiflex ended up being my only surviving analog camera. My father’s Leica was stolen in DC in 1977, when I left my car door wide open while asking directions for the Smithsonian zoo, the succeeding Pentax was sold in 1983 to a friend who had had his camera stolen in an Indian railway station and needed a new camera for a trip to Tibet. My two Nikons, which succeeded the Pentax, were left in a plane to Hong Kong by Genam in 2005. The Rolleiflex stayed put, and spent some time with Noryang though none of my children discovered its charms, preferring their 35 mm analog cameras.
In 2017, we found a stash of 120 film left by visiting photographers. The Rolleiflex found its way from Seattle to Ritoma, and I peeled it out of its cracking leather case. It felt light and comfortable in my hands, bringing back the comfort and excitement it had brought me for years. The old reflexes, discarded in the age of digital photography returned: The awareness of the limited number of shots, the challenge of catching the best possible moment and the long wait to see the results. The wait now was particularly long; in the past I would step into my darkroom and in a few hours had the film and a contact print. Now I had to wait to return to Delhi or Paris, where a surviving analog photo lab would develop the film, which I would scan or choose to have printed later.
On a sunny November afternoon, Norzin and I made our way to the kora, the merit building road that circles Ritoma Monastery. I took my first photos of the main hall, circumambulated by a few regulars, and a monk doing household chores to the side. A small yak came trotting along in the opposite way from that of the pilgrims. As I clicked here and there, Norzin reminded me each film only had twelve shots; “do you really want to take that?” By the time we had made our way around, meeting up with the returning herds of sheep, my film was gone, but so was the light.
Christmas was the most exciting event of the year. Until my sister Mimi moved to Shri Lanka, then Australia following her wedding in 1965, my three sisters, who were always away either in America or Spain would convene for a few days of fun. The food, the decoration of the tree, the bustle, the whispering, and the presents brought on a level of intense excitement, Christmas fever, I suppose. There were Christmas cookies in the shape of trees and Hansel and Gretel made with American cookie cutters and even food coloring bought from the American commissary. There was also Santa who showered us with gifts, until my friend Deirdre at school told me, just before the Christmas of 62, that Santa didn’t exist and that the presents came from one’s parents. It suddenly seemed so logical and would explain the toys I had seen hidden up in the closet, that accepted with no regrets and moved on. Germaine, my nanny, explained that Christmas was all mixed up, that Santa was an American fabrication borrowed from Belgian St Nicholas, the protector of children (there was a gory story attached to that which I can’t remember) who brought Children presents on December 6th. In Spain, by contrast, they did things late and it was the three-star gazing Kings who showered children with gifts on January 6th. “When I was little, she said, Petit Jesus came and put something in our shoes” and continued by deploring what Christmas had become; one big commercial party. My mother looked disappointed but resigned when I told her about Deirdre’s revelation, muttering that Deirdre could have waited until after Christmas. Then she went on to say how when she was a little girl in Mississippi during the great depression, they had a bar of chocolate for Christmas, and maybe an apple and some soda pop. My father said nothing, enjoying the moment and his family. Christmas was something he had only encountered in America during and after the war.
The curtain was lifted and I joined into the task of wrapping presents and disposing them under the tree. Beginning in 1966, we moved Christmas to our country house in St Maclou. After a year or two, I convinced my mother to buy a Christmas tree with roots, the after Christmas with the falling needles and dead tree just made me too sad. Everyone agreed and after some years, we had a little forest of Christmas trees in the garden.
Part of the fun around Christmas were the presents for everyone else. My pocket money didn’t go very far, so I made them. In the 70’s I had a darkroom, and made calendars for most members of my family, with a photo per month chosen from the ocean of negatives piled into a box in the upstairs closet. I made a big print, then glued it onto the top part of a large sheet of Canson paper and wrote the dates by hand. One year, I stuck too many calendars in a closed room, got high on the glue and was sick the next day.
On Christmas day, if the weather permitted, we would drive over to Deauville and walk on the beach and maybe have a coffee on an open café on the Planches. The family grew, and by 1971, Mimi and Louis came yearly over the channel in a ferry with their three children. Santa came back, acted by either of my parents. Little Louis, in awe, said to Santa that he ‘smelled like Mamouche’ his grandmother.
In 1979, I moved to India where Christmas was a religious holiday for Christians and since there were none in Himachal, Christmas was just another day. I didn’t try to export it and it remained in France. My sisters had their Christmas with their families and sometimes we joined in, the cookie cutters and the aged food coloring would find their way out of a tin and my children had fun with their cousins.
Now Christmas is everywhere. I first reconnected with it in Singapore and Malaysia in the 90’s then in Thailand where three of my grandchildren were born. It then moved on to China and the Tibetan Plateau, where waitresses in Santa hats served in Tso hotpot restaurants. In India in the age of globalization, it has become a time for parties and fun.
In the mid 70’s, when I was an undergraduate at Vassar College, I spent all my weekends in New York with my Tibetan boyfriend Kalsang and his friends. On Sunday, we would walk down to Chinatown from the East Village, eat dumplings and shop for groceries. Yeshi Khedup, Kalsang’s roommate was a wonderful cook and found everything he needed in our favorite store on Canal Street. On the way back, we would stop by the Chinese newspaper stand and buy the latest copy of China Reconstructs, a propaganda magazine mainly about Tibet. Kalsang and his friends would often spot someone they knew in the photos, and though we all scoffed at their brand new clothes, hats worn inside and gleaming thermoses, there was a certain nostalgia in seeing the familiar sceneries and carefully picked landmarks.
One issue had several pages about the newly opened Museum of the Tibetan Revolution. Set up in the early 70’s, just when a trickle of visitors was beginning to be allowed in, it comprised life size clay statues depicting ‘Life in Tibet before the Revolution’. There were emaciated serfs being whipped by aristocrats in brocades, children in rags, and particularly, a terrified, screaming child being forced into a box by a monk, to be buried live in a sacrificial offering. We were aghast and embarrassed that visitors were being told about Tibet in that light. The next year, I included a few of these photos in my Senior Thesis, which expounded on Tibetan Identity.
The original text that accompanied the photo in China Reconstructs, 1975 issue.
Last February in DC, I was having dinner at the house of a friend, Tseten Wangchuk, who works at VOA. Soon after I arrived, Tibetan artist Gongar Gyatso also dropped in, he was passing through town to give a lecture at the Smithsonian Institute. They were schoolmates on and off in Lhasa, and later at the Minorities School in Beijing. The subject veered to Tibetan artists, and to the Museum of the Tibetan Revolution. Gonkar commented that the best artists, Tibetan clay artists and famous Chinese sculptors had been commissioned to make the statues. Tseten Wangchuk lit up and said: “would you know that I was the model for the boy being put into the box? My cousin’s husband, a clay sculptor, brought me along, and before I knew it, I was posing for the artists. They were pleased and I had to come back every day, which didn’t enthuse me much as it was excruciatingly boring and extremely uncomfortable standing with my arm outstretched for hours on end”. Gongar exclaimed, “That was you? Did you know I was a guide in that museum as a teenager? The boy being put into the box was quite a sensation” I asked what had happened to the Museum and they said it had been closed, then dismantled. The authorities found the displays embarrassing and felt that these times had passed. The statues had probably been destroyed. Gonkar couldn’t help feeling it was a pity; they illustrated a moment in history and though the subject may have been distasteful, the work was that of talented artists.
Soon after that, when I was cleaning out a closet I found my thesis, typewritten pages falling out their black binder. The magazine cut out of the boy in the box was there, along with the caption that accompanied it. I googled ‘Museum of the Tibetan Revolution’ but found only clay statues or deities and the Lhasa Museum. It was really gone.
Every morning before dawn, when I open the metal blind to let out Chichi our Chihuahua, I would find, rain or shine, Traga, our black dog, sitting on the patio waiting for the special meal Jamphel la would bring him later. Two days ago, I found the patio empty. He was seen the night before but was nowhere to be found.
One evening in the spring of 2004, we hear a puppy squealing somewhere beyond our garden. This was not uncommon, as most dogs in our area are only loosely or not at all affiliated to owners and lead their own lives. Puppies are abandoned, or dumped by their owners or just wander off. The screams persisted until we decided to investigate. My children returned with a tiny black puppy, who seemed blind and couldn’t stand on its legs. We kept him and nursed him back to life, resigned at the thought of having another puppy dyeing on us or a disabled dog. He did nothing of the sort. His legs seem to unfold, and one day, he could stand, then walk. His sight seemed no problem at all. He grew into a handsome, eccentric dog who never allowed anyone to touch him and lived fourteen years.
Other dogs came and went but Traga was with us a record stretch. There are so many ways in semi-rural India for a dog’s life to be cut short. Most of our small ones were taken away at night by leopards and civets. Others died of diseases, some wandered off and were poisoned in anti-rabies drives lead by the town council. Others were trucked away by our neighbor, the Tibetan Medical Institute, who got tired of their large population of their semi-independent dogs (and those of their neighbors) and dumped them in a wooded area some 30 kilometers off. Some made their way back, but we went looking for ours and found most of them. Traga hardly ventured beyond the gate and stayed safe. When disease killed our dogs in 2011, only he and our Chihuahua survived.
Traga got along with all the other dogs; Chichi the Chihuahua, Sangpo the St Bernard, Pishi the mongrel and Daisy, Sochoe’s much loved wannabe German Shepherd, then Luna, her Shiatzu. His relationship with humans complicated and the most we ever got to touch of him was the tip of his nose. Visitors sometimes complained of being nipped and he had the strange habit of pooping in each and every one of the flower pots that line our patio. Jamphel la accused Daisy, whom he thought to be over loved for ‘who she was’, but we knew it wasn’t Daisy. Still, it would take sophisticated acrobatics to aim that well and so often, so Sochoe stayed on the lookout and actually saw him pull it off.
About 3 years ago, Traga began to lose his strength and drag his paw. He didn’t always get his food, so Sochoe began to feed him separately and Jamphel la gave him a mat to sleep on. This winter was cold, and his mat was often taken over by the other dogs, so Sochoe decided to give him his own doghouse, just outside her door. Jamphel la began to feel competitive and said he wouldn’t sleep in it, but after two days of foul weather, we found him tucked in. Jamphel la said he needed a light and drilled a hole into the roof of the doghouse and installed a bulb.
We have no idea where he went, but semi free dogs are known to go away to die. Lately, he had found a way, following Sangpo the St Bernard, to squeeze out and do little rounds outside. He must have slipped beyond the gate at night, after he was seen last. ‘ A good dog goes off to die’ they say around here.
Traga was aloof, he didn’t photobomb group pictures or cuddle up to anyone so putting this piece together, I realized how few photos we had of him.
Dolls… when I was a child, every little girl had a doll, seen as the must have toy, whether she liked it or not. Many girls loved their dolls and the toy market was the first to take advantage. I didn’t care for them at first, preferring my red and white rabbit with a plastic face that I needed to fall asleep. Later, I loved cars and trucks and a had a garage and a collection of little cars that I played with for days on end. In 1962, my cousin Sally came from the US and brought me a Barbie as a gift. My nanny Germaine, thought it was a strange toy for a little girl and my sisters mocked her large breasts and tiny waist. In the summer of 64, my cousin Jacqueline’s daughter Danielle came to visit for the summer from Ohio. She liked dolls, but her parents, both University professors, disapproved of Barbie, so we turned to conventional dolls, playing obsessively for the three months she was there. For us, dolls, like stuffed animals, were like live beings. We projected a personality on each, felt guilty for not taking care of them, and tried to love and care for the ugly ones like we would our favorites. Seeing an abandoned doll or bear was a disturbing sight and one day, when I saw two little boys tearing apart a teddy bear, I felt I was witnessing a murder. It took me a long time to rid myself of this perception.
Twenty years later, I introduced dolls to my daughters, who all loved them. In the 80’s someone came out with a baby doll in newborn or 3 month old baby sizes. No need to buy clothes, it could wear a baby’s outgrown wardrobe. Part stuffed fabric, part plastic, it looked like and held itself in one’s arms like a real baby, eerily so.
In 1984, my mother sent Sochoe and Dechen, then 3 and 2, two babies that arrived from Paris in yellow “la Poste” cardboard boxes in the Tibetan settlement in Mundgod, South India where we were spending the winter. They were an immense success, not only with children, but with anyone we encountered. On the train, women would ask to hold them and pass them around. Baby would be taken on a walk and passing a mud home, would end up in the courtyard in a grandmother’s arms. Things were a little rougher in India, where there were rats who chewed on doll faces or hands, mold that stained them or friends who didn’t treat them like human beings, but they remained infused with a feeling of reality projection, and were treated with care. Later, my daughters watched horror movies involving dolls and suddenly found them spooky, especially when they were old and shabby and had glass eyes.
Thirty years later, when Dechen was expecting her 3rd child I bought her second daughter, Baby D, a newborn size baby to ease her into the idea of a younger sibling. She loved baby, and had dress competitions with her new little cousin, Yulha, eying the clothes she was outgrowing. Baby travelled to Tibet with Baby D, and wherever her mother carried her little sister. It was ‘You have your baby, I have mine’. One day, she took Baby to Labrang on a weekend visit to her grandparents. The family poured out of the car in front of the Norden Café, a semi busy street across from the monastery. Several things rolled out, including Baby, and Dechen hurried out to collect the fallen contents of her bag…and baby. Passersby stood watching from the sidewalk, jaws dropping at the sight of what they thought was a real baby popping out of the car onto the road while the ‘mother’ gingerly collected her wallet and other fallen items before casually scooping it up. Horror gave way to hilarity and surprise.
I was sixteen when I met Paul, and sixty-two when I saw him for the last time in his hospital room in Paris, after he had suffered a bad fall. He seemed recovered and upbeat, had sold his apartment and secured a nice room with a terrace in an assisted living facility. Then he passed away before I could see him again.
Meeting Paul at sixteen, my life took a different turn. It was convoluted circumstance that brought us together, eventually leading me on the path I took. It all started with math; I was poor in the subject and my mother always on the lookout for a tutor. One day, the guidance counselor at the American School of Paris where I was in 11th grade, informed me that a young American would be teaching me math three times a week after school. Scott was just out of college, and I found him very American. Although he had lived in France as a child, nothing much of that seemed to remain and he no longer spoke French. Unlike the Americans I was used to, who had been expats in France for years, he was ‘fresh from America’ something which I found simultaneously exciting and very unfamiliar. We held the lessons at my home in St Cloud. He lived the life of the poor American student in Paris, lodged in a tiny unheated ‘chambre de bonne’ or maids room under the roof of a seven-story building on the rue d’Argenteuil in the 1er arrondissement, a quiet street near the Louvre and Palais Royal. I figured that food would please him, and before beginning the lesson, I took him to the kitchen, opened the fridge and let him fill his plate with whatever there was, which he deemed both delicious and plentiful. He taught me how to brew tea properly and we would sit at the kitchen table, me sipping from my large cup while he bit into a last night’s left overs. Forty years later, he reminded me of those moments which I had almost forgotten.
Scott took teaching very seriously and it is not surprising that it later became his profession. He taught me math, but when we had finished the lesson, we would talk about the world, the universe, spirituality. He had something to say about everything and didn’t mind, from the height of his 22 years, tell me his thoughts. He had come to Paris to connect with the students of Saint-Bonnet, a French mystic, spiritual teacher, and remarkable healer from the Rosicrucian tradition. Saint-Bonnet had passed away over a decade before, but there were a great many of his students in Paris, and Scott was studying with them, including the only English speaker, Paul Vervisch, the owner of the maid’s room where Scott lived. Paul lived in an apartment on the 5th floor, with his partner of over twenty years.
I was already interested in spirituality, and my conversations with Scott took a fascinating turn, like unravelling an unknown depth in everyday reality. Suddenly, what seemed drab and boring no longer was, and the world began to feel very exciting. My father had always admired Buddhism for the way it holds the individual responsible for his or her actions, and connecting to this idea, I felt a deep sensation of freedom; not the freedom of action, but to discover, to open my mind, change my perception.
Scott told me about Saint-Bonnet. Paul, who was an actor, had met Saint-Bonnet through his theater connections in the 50’s, where he attracted a following among prominent actors. He employed meditation-type-exercises, which Paul taught Scott and were, I surmise, a point of interest for him.
Scott had great respect for Paul. He described him as ‘old’ in body at least for us, (forty-two years old) but very young in spirit. Since 1961, Paul acted the character of Mr. Martin in a daily performance of the Bald Soprano by the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco in a tiny theatre called la Huchette near the Place St Michel. His English was excellent, having lived several years in New York in the early 50’s. Besides acting, he wrote and translated. Then Scott explained that he lived with another man, George, and paused, gauging my reaction. I may have been sixteen, but I knew what that meant, and thought nothing of it.
Math began to take on another dimension. I never grew to like it, but it became tolerable and I made a genuine effort to get through the material. What came attached with it, though, made me look forward to every lesson and our discussions widened into all types of metaphysical subjects. The mind could possibly do anything, Scott wondered; bend spoons, materialize objects, cause us to levitate. I thought to myself how convenient it would be to materialize a bottle of wine. Months later, I scoffed at myself; if my mind were capable of the extraordinary feat of materializing a bottle, why would I ever want to dull it with its contents?
Soon, we shifted some of our lessons to his tiny room, sometimes crowded with American friends, and Scott introduced me to Paul, ‘downstairs’. He was as Scott had described him ‘young’ One has to remember that this was 1972, a time still hovering around the height of the generation gap. I didn’t feel it in Paul, and though he did have his own strong ideas, they were free of prejudice and the bounds of what was considered ‘normal’. I could ask all the questions I wished. Paul’s appearance was that of a man approaching middle age, one whom no one would notice on the street. He had learned to be what he wanted without attracting attention and in that, he was like my father. I liked that; one didn’t need to waste time explaining oneself to others, just do as one pleased by staying discreet. Paul and I related to each other immediately, and he showed an interest in what I thought though he was never shy to give his opinion. Soon I had joined his yoga class, given by Henri Legay and Patrick Planquette. Yoga in France was quite a novelty at the time, and their regular classes took place in a small apartment in the 14 eme with students of all ages, though all older than me.
My parents gave me love, moral and material support, though I didn’t expect them to understand my curiosity for metaphysics and need for mind development. I didn’t tell them about Paul, I just couldn’t see myself explaining him to them, and sometimes pretended I was going out with school friends, behavior they thought normal for my age. I continued to see my friends at school, but took more time on the weekends to attend yoga or spend time with Paul and Scott. I tried to interest my then boyfriend, Richard, in my new discoveries, and though he tried, he couldn’t relate.
Scott and Paul were the first pillars of support in my search for what I wanted, which turned out to be Tibetan Buddhism. We spent a few happy months together in the Spring of 1972, gathering in Paul’s apartment, going on strolls in the Tuileries gardens nearby. I had unlimited access to bring friends to see Paul act in the Bald Soprano and saw the play multiple times. We all went to see a Tibetan lama, Kalu Rinpoche give public teachings, my first introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. I became a regular at Yoga, and convinced my mother to pay for the classes. My mother was pleased; my grades had improved and she found me much more agreeable and easy going. She liked Scott and would always offer that he join us for lunch before or after a lesson. Then June came and Scott left. We parted at a metro station, going different directions, me watching him get into the train on the opposite track. He promised to write, and said we would meet again soon, maybe in the US, when I went to college.
After Scott left, I continued to see Paul regularly. I went to his apartment where we had lunch or just talked over tea. I showed him my photography, told him what I did, how I felt, about life, about what Scott was doing, as he didn’t write much; he was in Switzerland, then back in the US, then traveling in Guatemala. Paul and I sometimes met at Yoga. In between, we wrote to each other, to point out this or that. One day Paul wrote urging me to quickly go and take pictures of the demolition of the Halles district; ‘they are knocking down all the houses, and one could see inside, like in a doll’s house, wall paper, bathroom fixtures, everything’. I went, to witness the last phase, a round metal ball crashing into six or seven story buildings, reducing them gradually to rubble. I also met his friend George, an Englishman, who worked for a travel agency and was often absent.
I learned more about Paul’s life; he was born in 1929, his father was from Belgium and his mother from Pau, in Southwestern France. His father was an authoritarian figure who had served in Congo, and on his return had settled in Biarritz where, with his natural aptitude at making connections and his knowledge of 3 languages, became a chauffeur at the Hotel du Palais, where he became the favorite of the celebrities and aristocrats who frequented it, among them the Prince of Whales and Gloria Swanson. Unfortunately, the 1929 crash considerably reduced the hotel’s clientele and the family’s financial situation and they moved back to Belgium in 1933. They remained throughout the war, suffering from the bombs and acute lack of food. In 1943, Paul, a skinny 14-year-old, was evacuated and sent to a smith’s family where he cleaned, cooked and did farm work for the elderly couple. Belgium was cut off and he had no news of his family. When Paris, and finally the Montauban region were liberated, the couple who harbored Paul were arrested as German collaborators and interned. The war over, Paul’s father decided to become a gentlemen farmer, ‘so they could eat well’. He bought a 14-hectare farm, karakul sheep and Sussex hens. The land was too poor for cultivation and the Karakul sheep constantly ran away, only the hens brought some success. Paul grew prunes while his sister minded the chickens.
Paul finally went to Paris in 1951 against the wishes of his father, with a little money saved up from the sale of his prunes. Two years later, he inherited some money from his godfather and bought the apartment at rue d’Argenteuil. In 1954, he met George, saying it ‘was love at first sight’ George was married, though separated from his wife. He left for New York and Paul followed him there and worked as a delivery boy in an upscale wine store. Through George, he met many celebrities in the arts and had a memorable time.
In 1958, Paul and George decided to return to Paris where they moved into the apartment on rue d’Argenteuil. George continued to work for the travel company Percival, representing them in Paris for Europe. Paul began his acting career in 1961. I knew that Paul wrote for a magazine, as he mentioned it often in his letter, but neither Scott nor I remember which.
In early 1973, through my yoga teacher, Patrick, I was introduced to his Tibetan teacher, Ngor Phende Rinpoche, a Sakyapa Teacher, and I began receiving teachings from him. Paul was interested in all esoteric practices and encouraged me in my endeavor. My father also did.
In the fall of 1973, I left for the US to attend Vassar College. After Paul passed away, I took out all the letters he wrote to me in those years, responding to what must have been very long and detailed writings of my life; they were full of encouragement and advice, probably responding to questions I had. There were many mentions of what Scott was or wasn’t doing, of whether he had or had not heard from him. I learned he met Krishnamurti in Switzerland and had an affair with an older, married woman. We all got together a few times in Paris in the later 70’s; by then Scott was a student of Krishnamurti and was living in England, I had met Kalsang, whom I would marry in 1979, and was a Tibetan Buddhist.
I didn’t see Scott for many years after that, but we kept in contact through Paul. I gave birth to all my children but one in Paris, and Paul came to the hospital with flowers each time and once brought me an antique embroidered Chinese robe as a present, which he suggested I cut up to use for my Tibetan Losel doll project. Much of it was frayed, but there were some beautiful parts which I used. My father bought those dolls, which are now in boxes in my daughter Dechen’s closet in Amdo.
Years went by. Sometime in the 90’s Paul had a bus accident in Algeria and had to give up acting Mr. Martin, which he said had become second nature to him after more than 30 years. I continued to visit him sometimes with my children.He already knew Kalsang from the time of our marriage.
In the last few years, I made it a point to visit him each time I was in Paris. Last year, I found him very frail, and he spoke of settling his affairs and selling his apartment, in a way that would allow him live in it as long as he could. It didn’t last very long. Later that year, he had a bad fall in the bathroom and had to wait almost 24 hours before a child heard him calling for help from the outside staircase.
I started seeing Scott again in Portland in 2012. In an American setting, he seemed very cosmopolitan. After all, he had spent twenty-five years in England and travelled the world. He also spoke perfect French. Circumstance is so random. Scott told me that he first heard of Saint-Bonnet around 1970 in Hong Kong, where he met one of his disciples by chance. He had a very powerful dream and this man gave him Paul’s name so that he could connect with Saint-Bonnet’s teachings, saying he spoke good English. Scott traveled to Paris after college to meet Paul and my bad math led me to Scott, who needed the tutoring money to survive in Paris. Scott led me to Paul, who led me to Patrick who introduced me to my first Tibetan teacher.
Extraordinarily, a 16-year-old girl and a 42-year-old man from opposite worlds, found a profound friendship that lasted for almost 50 years. It was a friendship which altered my life completely, and I will forever be grateful to Paul.
I couldn’t have my fleeting trip to Central Tibet not include a visit to Gyantse, the main attraction being of course its celebrated Stupa, Gyantse Palgor choten, with its ancient murals and statues that had survived practically untouched the wear, tear and destruction of the last five centuries. A relatively fragile building made of stone, clay and wood, for the supporting pillars. Constructed around a central core, its religious intention is the same as the stupa in Borobudur; it is meant to elevate the instructed worshiper who circumambulating the stupa, from the bottom to the top, reaches higher levels of spiritual realization through the viewing of the iconographic journey depicted in the form of hundreds of murals and statues distributed throughout the many chapels.
Palkhor Choten was built in the early 15th Century by the Prince of Gyantse during a period of peace and prosperity achieved through skillful diplomacy balancing the influence of Mongol rulers and Chinese Ming Emperors, which enabled the Prince to embark on this ambitious project which comprised several buildings including the famous stupa, whose construction began in 1427. Eventually, it became a large compound of 15 monasteries belonging to three schools of Buddhism, Buton, under Shalu monastery, Sakya and Geluk.
After driving along the Yumtso and going over a high pass, we reached a wide valley with farming villages and fields. It was not until evening that I realized, through shortness of breath, that we were almost 1000 meters above Lhasa. Upon reaching Gyantse we went straight for the stupa, and bought tickets from a monk engrossed in a conversation with another monk. There was no one about save for a few pilgrims and artisans working on copper pieces destined to large statues and temple rooftop decorations. Photos were not a problem here; no need to sneak around, I just paid the 100 Yuan fee.
I admit that I had expected a much more imposing, forbidding structure. It was anything but that. The Choten stood there, where it had for the last five centuries, in the afternoon sun, exuding delicacy and subtlety, all whites, blues and light orange and the glint of gilded copper. It was inviting, and so was the ambiance around it. We began the climb, which was done in stages, circumambulating the structure at each level and entering the many chapels each with its own wall paintings and statues. I was surprised how well everything had survived the cataclysm of the Cultural Revolution and was told that the Chinese military officer who had lodged there had stuffed the chapels with grain to prevent their destruction. Before that, it had probably survived wars, fires and earthquakes. The main temple, administered by Tashi Lhunpo, had also survived in part but the hill that flanked the north of the complex was still covered in ruins, some rebuilt. The painting and statue style was similar to that of Tabo, in Spiti, near the border with Western Tibet, though it was newer by a few hundred years and more evolved in style. I supposed that the walls had suffered less from the smoke of butter lamps, a situation that made necessary the repainting of most murals every two century of so. The statues were all clay, the preferred medium at the time, and the man accompanying us told us that he had been a clay sculptor in his youth. I always had a particular love for clay sculpting and had worked for years with the monk who sculpted the doll heads for the project I ran with Drepung Loseling. Clay sculptors are hard to come by, and I asked him why he hadn’t continued. He said it was excruciating work as in Tibet a clay sculptor, especially a junior one, has do everything from collecting to treating the clay, a long and arduous process. There had been quite an effort at restoration, and save a few excesses of shiny paint, it was discreet, done in the traditional way, so that one could hardly notice.
The assembly hall, next to the stupa houses large and beautiful clay statue of past and future Buddhas and Arhats. Its protector chapel, sets the tone with a dark interior, murals and a display of ancient weapons.
We climbed to the top of the stupa, where some chapels were closed, and admired the view. We could see the old town of Gyantse with its traditional houses and fluttering prayer flags, and the rebuilt fort that dominated the ridge, the site of a battle with Younghusband’s British troops. Beyond that were fields, filling the valley. I remembered how one of my friends, from Gyantse, had told me how he played hide and seek in the abandoned chapels in the 80’s and thought how far things had gone since then.