Norbulingka, meaning Jewel Park, was the Dalai Lama’s summer Palace, begun by the 7th Dalai Lama Kalsang Gyatso in 1755. Unlike the massive and fortress like Potala, Norbulingka was set on a wide expanse of green 2km West of the Potala. Composed of small structures built by successive Dalai lamas and surrounded with trees and gardens, it was a place that inspired contemplation and closeness to nature.
Kalsang, my husband remembered Norbulingka from the Tibetan opera performances the people of Lhasa would occasionally be invited to watch in the gardens. Whole families would bring food and drink, settle on the lawns and watch performances that lasted several consecutive days. People chatted and offered each other snacks, girls and boys flirted and children played.
I learned more about Norbulingka trough Namsa Chenmo, or Master of Robes Gyeten Namgyal, who served as the head of the Tailor’s guild for over twenty years and who verbally guided me through the grounds, Palace by Palace, telling me of the moments he spent there, serving two consecutive Dalai Lamas. The Great 13th, ,who was a patron of the arts, surrounded himself with various workshops which he visited often. He liked to walk among the artisans, who were told to ignore his presence, and observe them working. The Great 13th wore brocade robes which he changed daily, choosing them to match his mood of the day and everyone knew that red was not a good sign. In the 30’s he had a new palace built, the Chensel Podrang (the Clear Eye Palace) and Gyeten Namgyal was in charge of the decorations and soft furnishings. He told me of the many quarrels he had over the choice and placement of these with a man called Kumbela, who was one of the Dalai Lama’s close aids.
I visited the Norbulingka for the first time on a brilliant November day last year. The poplars had turned gold, contrasting against the intense blue of the late autumn sky. We walked through a path edged in bamboo, their pointy leaves reflected on the yellow mud walls. Except for a few pilgrims, it was rather deserted, and we wandered from Palace to Palace. I was surprised by the small scale and simplicity of a place so infused with history. We wandered into the Chensel Podrang, the main hall of which was used for public audiences. It was now filled with the various vehicles that had belonged to the Great 13th, horse carriages of various European make and palanquins. There was also, squeezed between two carriages, a tricycle that the 14th rode as a young child. Upstairs was a smaller reception room reserved for foreign dignitaries, furnished in art deco chairs.
The 14th Dalai Lama’s Palace, built in the 50’s was meant to be more modern, a sprawling bungalow in Tibetan style designed by Jigme Taring, an aristocrat who had travelled to India. The front afforded plenty of light, and there was a bathroom. The bedroom was simple, furnished with a Western 50’s style bed. The audience room had elaborate carvings and Tibetan decoration, and I noticed a beautiful appliqued Thangka that must have been the work of Gyeten Namgyal, who often described various pieces he had designed and commissioned to his team.
In a pond near on of a buildings was the emerging golden body of a Naga, offering a jewel. Our Thangka painting Master Tencho la always talked of this Naga and wanted to make a similar one at Norbuligka Institute.
There was a quiet, sleeping beauty feel about the Norbulingka grounds; it reflected timeless charm, a mix of cultural richness and a closeness to nature.