The Barkhor is the heart of Lhasa, or rather it is the area that surrounds the heart of hearts, the Lhasa Tsuklhakhang. This 7th century structure was commissioned by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gompo, and built in Newari style by artisans brought over from Nepal. Its main temple, the Jokhang (house of the Jowo) houses the statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha brought from China by Songtsen Gompo’s Chinese wife. The temple itself was originally built for the statue brought from Nepal by his Nepalese wife, but at some point in history, the statues were switched and the Nepalese Jowo is now situated in the Ramoche temple nearby.
Pilgrims come from all over Tibet to pay their respects to the holy statues in the Tsuklhakhang, spread out in a multitude of chapels. They circumambulate the temple on the Barkhor’s main street which draws a wide circles around it and other temples and noble’s houses. Tibetans being very practical people, the Barkhor is today as it was in the past also a place to trade, and a bustling market.
I came to Lhasa in late November and found the place teeming with pilgrims. Dechen, Yidam and I dedicated an afternoon to shopping and thoroughly enjoyed the bustle of shoppers, sellers, professional prostrators, men and women with their prayer wheels, people on cell phones, men from Kham huddling in groups selling fake dzis, as well as dogs of all sizes going about their business in a very assertive way. I was amazed by the extraordinary array of Tibetan goods; here in one place was everything Tibetans use and eat; dried meat, butter, strung up cheese, dried cheese, spices and roots of all kinds. There were Tibetan hats, ready-made chubas, traditional materials to make chubas, somba shoes, blenders to make buttered tea, incense burners, ladles and Tibetan style thermoses. There were of course religious paraphernalia and many other things, including a meat market run by Huis from Gansu and cheap clothing especially appreciated by the far dwelling winter visitors. We all stocked on dried cheese, locally made thermoses and a beautiful wooden bowl from a store that sold only wooden bowls.
We sat in a rooftop restaurant enjoying the sun, looking down at the passers by, the older ones carrying a cane and prayer wheel or both, and clad in a wide array of regional styles from all over Tibet. We were told that they come in winter when farm or herding work slows down and enjoy the warm Lhasa sun. Lhasa people tend to find the winters too cold and often spend the winter months in Chengdu. The Barkhor has retained its character though most of its two-story houses were replaced by three storied ones built of whitewashed stone. Here and there, an older house has survived, a larger complex around a courtyard, looking a little dilapidated. From the roof, where we could see the pagodas of the Tsuklhakhang and the Potala in the distance, friends pointed to several old houses. One, Surkhang House only seemed to retain a wall, probably knocked down in stages. Pongda Tsang House, across the street, was still in one piece.
This year, I returned to Charlottesville after 40 years. Kalsang and I lived there two years which turned out to be turning points in our lives. It was from Charlottesville that we decided to go live in India, but it was also where I was most closely introduced to Buddhism, through the studies I made there and the two lamas we both became close to.
In the 70’s Charlottesville, home of Jefferson, UVA and Monticello became the stronghold of Tibetan and Buddhist studies in the South of the USA. Kalsang and I enrolled in the PHD program in Buddhist studies at UVA where Jeffrey Hopkins, who initiated it, invited Tibetan lamas and scholars yearly. We lived there in 1977 and 78, with Kalsang and Lati Rinpoche, from Ganden Shartse then Locho Rinpoche from Drepung Loseling being the only Tibetans in the area. We were often visited by Tibetan friends from New York and my family members, sisters, nanny and my parents, my father meeting Kalsang there for the first time. There were numerous visits to Monticello, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the University grounds.
Genam and I took the train from DC on a cold and snowy February morning. The main campus looked the same, though the shops had a different, more contemporary look and the area beyond the immediate campus was changed beyond recognition. I took Genam to visit Monticello and took him to the main campus, that dates back to Jefferson’s time. We met with the group of Tibetan student entrepreneurs from Tibet, enrolled in a six week program in which Dorje Rinchen, Norlha’s Sales Manager, was a participant. We saw a few professors and attended a Losar party where I met the local Tibetans who numbered over two hundred. My old classmates had all moved on to other Universities, but it was heartening to see that so much had grown and branched out in forty years.
When I saw all my friends posting photos of theirs or of dogs I thought the Year of the Dog was the time to remember the creatures that have populated my life and given our family so much joy. We have had dogs big and small, very big and very small, smart and not so smart, beautiful and not so. I realized that dogs are much like people; smart, kind, loyal, dull, sneaky, indifferent or mean and you never know what you are getting.
As children, and until our parents moved into an apartment in Paris, we usually had a dog. There were two and they both lived long lives. First Youpi and Croco, two Airedales, one reasonable, the other boisterous. When I came along in 1956, our mother and Germaine gave our father an ultimatum saying it was Croco or me, that one had to go, and of course, it wasn’t going to be me.
Youpi passed in 1965, at the ripe age of thirteen and the next year I was given Tilou, a cairn Terrier who was intelligent and loving. He lived until 1982, long after I had left home. In India, I decided one dog was not enough and since there was no one to stop me, Kalsang and I had dozens of dogs, some inside the house, others outside, some given, some picked up, some left by departing cooks or guests, some born to our dogs, others who just wandered in. We had dogs before we had children and they were children to us. We slept with them, and my parents brought them toys when they visited. In the evenings, we watched them play, and their chases and scuffles replaced TV. There was Yangki picked off the street, Norzon the mongrelized Apso who visited the lama next door and stole his socks, Boubou who, as a puppy was small enough to fit in my hand, and Tashi, who belonged to the Gadong oracle up the road but decided to move in with us.
When the first wave of dogs had died off or disappeared, which was sadly the case for Boubou, we started with the second batch around 1991. First came Dikyi, the daughter of the Norbulingka matriarch who ‘owned’ the land, was privileged to welcome all important visitors, among them Madame Mitterrand and was respected by all the other dogs. Then the monks who lived in our house making dolls (that is another story) picked up a very large, yellow dog, impressed by his size. I nicknamed him the Godfather, as he was involved in shady operations that included killing the sheep of the local farmers on the hill behind our house, and teaching his skills to Dikyi. He also attacked monkeys, a rare occurrence as the two species generally learn to measure each other, and had his tendon bitten, acquiring a permanent limp. Around 1996, the renegade couple was joined by Chophel, found on the roadside. The children loved Chophel, who grew up to be the Godfather’s right hand until they had a huge fight. The Godfather came out of it with a scarred face and Chophel lost a piece of his ear.
Inside the house, where things were a little calmer, we had the spitz/apso/Pomeranian combination twins, Yanga and Tashi, given to our daughters by a friend. The children loved them and treated them like dolls. Then another friend, to whom we had told some years before that a Pekinese would please us, suddenly sent one over in a box. Dolma, who was a more country style Pekinese with less of a flat face and a silky auburn coat, became one of our favorites. Around 1994, they all started to multiply, beginning with Dikyi with the Godfather, then Dolma, with the twins. At one time we had over 17 dogs and the children, who wanted to keep them all, would leave little notes everywhere saying “Please let us keep all the puppies”
Sad things happen too. Whiles some puppies we given to loving families, a large number of Dolma’s offspring stayed with us and vanished in stages, caught by civets and leopards in the garden after dark. In 2003, Dolma herself disappeared while I was away. I was told me she had died of a heart attack, which seemed plausible due to her obesity, when in fact, as I discovered years later, she also had been caught by a nocturnal carnivore. The twins died of old age, though Yanga narrowly escaped being eaten, saved only by the howling of the other dogs that brought on our timely intervention. We figured the civet that had preyed on him was old and missed Yanga’s main artery, leaving a tooth in his neck instead. Yanga was so shaken he spend weeks hiding under the coffee table in the living room, trembling like a leaf. Tashi lost all his coat in old age and Sochoe massaged him daily. He loved her caring touch, and would totter over to the living room for his massage every day at the appointed time.
For a while after that, we had a rather disjointed pack, collected here and there, mostly by guests, cooks and Sochoe on a summer visit from college. That pack, which numbered about six mostly died of a mysterious disease at the same time, except for Traga, a black dog collected as a puppy near the house. We suspect he was a victim of torture by children, and was blind and had no use of his back legs when we found him yelping in a ditch at the back of our garden. He recovered both sight and use of his legs in time, but never allowed human beings to touch him. He is still with us today. Other dogs just left, as did Buns, found as a tiny puppy standing in the middle of the road and saved from a truck by Noryang. He had a singular attraction to monkeys who returned the favor, and his presence in the garden would attract dozens of them who took turns playing and grooming him, several dutifully picking his lice while he basked in the sun.
At one point, when we were totally out of small dogs, Kalsang said he wanted something tiny to keep on his lap, and Sochoe obliged with a Chiwawa, our very much loved Chichi. Then we began to feel unsafe with no dangerous dogs to greet visitors and I talked about something big that could scare people but not bite them. Sochoe obliged again, with a Saint Bernard. I wasn’t happy about that, but after five years, grew used to it. Sangpo is charming, but SO big. He is afraid of thunder and one day, as the lights went out during a dinner, he pushed himself into the living room and unto the lap of our guests. I couldn’t help laughing but was told afterwards that no one else had found it funny.
Then of course, there was Daisy, Sochoe’s exceptionally charming and intelligent dog, who had her own story (in a previous blog) and joined our household in 2011. Chichi and her, in spite of their size difference, were best friends. Chichi became everything he had hoped to Kalsang, living on his lap, sharing his life of shunning any form of exercise. She is overweight with oversized nails which she won’t let us cut. She is also very defensive of her master, jumping out at any hand that nears him.
Daisy left us in July leaving a big hole, and Tenor gave Sochoe Luna, a Shiatzu, who is now friends with Chichi, who is starting to have white hairs.
And of course, there are Dechen’s family dogs in Tibet, whom I meet quite often; Thopdan the mastiff, now the same age as Norzin, and Norbu the chocolate poodle, who follows Dechen everywhere she goes. And life goes on….
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.
My connection to Drepung comes through my husband Kalsang, who was a monk there until he left in 1959. In the late 70’s I also became acquainted with many monks, lamas and former monks from Drepung, who were part of our circle of friends. From Locho Rinpoche, who passed away three years ago, I heard the story behind the construction of the new Loseling Hall. In the 1920’s the Loseling College bursars decided that a new hall was needed and the celebrated Gen Locho, Locho Rinpoche’s former incarnation, a Geshe from Drepung with an imposing countenance and a prodigious memory was appointed to the task of raising the funds. Gen Locho travelled to Mongolia and though he had few connections there, in time became famous for his ability to recite the Kangyur by heart and received offerings of gold rubles that filled a trunk towards the building of the new Hall. The communist army was closing in on Mongolia and he had to make a run back to Tibet, where he delivered the funds. The new hall was build and was a source of great pride.
Kalsang was a Chunsel in Nyare Khamtsen, a rank sponsored by the monk’s family, that gave him status equal to that of a lama. He had his own rooms, an attendant who made sure he was properly attired and focused on his studies. Kalsang loved to debate, and I heard detailed descriptions of the chora, the tree shaded debating ground situated across the alley from the main Nyare Khamtsen area. Each monk I knew had his own vividly told story of life at Drepung, and I pictured them walking up and down the narrow alleys, their long cotton wrapped books bouncing over their shoulders.
In the 80’s many of the monks and lamas returned and visited Drepung. Their reaction was that it was ‘so small’, so much so than the size the monastery took up in their memory, when it was filled with monks and bustling with activity. One lama told me that it was actually much bigger but that the lack of merit had shrunk it. I doubted that, but remained politely silent.
Last year, in November, I went to Drepung for the first time. We began our visit with the celebrated Ganden Podrang, the seat of Spiritual and Temporal Power and the residence of the 5th Dalai Lama before he moved to the Potala, then in construction. The place was crammed with pilgrims, most carrying bottles and thermoses full of margul or melted butter to offer to the many, enormous butter lamps in the different chapels. When passing through the 5th Dalai Lama’s chambers, I remembered a story Gyeten Namgyal, who had served under the 13th Dalai Lama and later become Master of Robes or Namsa Chenmo, had told me. Sometime in the 30’s, he had been called to the Ganden Podrang to renovate the quarters of the Great 5th. It was a simple monk’s room, and his possessions were stored in trunks, which were all opened and inspected. Namsa Chenmo was surprised to see that all his garments were made of shenma, or Tibetan woolen cloth, without a hint of brocade. I then asked to be shown to Nyare Khamtsen. Our daughters Sochoe and Dechen had visited in 2002 and brought back pictures of the main courtyard and Kalsang had identified one of the doors as being that of his room. It was easy to find, but the main hall was locked, with a note and telephone number pinned to the door. We tried to call, but the number didn’t go through. No one seemed to have the key. The chora, which was right behind, was also locked, but we could peer over the wall at the deserted debating grounds, shaded by trees.
We then moved on to the Loseling Great Hall, which was empty of pilgrims. It was well kept, with the running mats ready to receive monks. The murals were darkened as if by soot and though they couldn’t have been older than 90 years, the age of the building, they bore the brunt of the constant burning of butter lamps that left a layer of dark grease over the walls and ceiling. I noticed that older temples had murals in styles no older than the 18th century and concluded that repainting them when the walls went black was standard procedure, with major renovations or just patch ups by area every 200 years or so. Only in Gyantse, in the tiny chapels of the celebrated stupa did I see original 15th century murals, which were of a very different style.
Drepung Monastery, Lhasa
The entrance to the Ganden Podrang, former residence of the Fifth Dalai Lama
The Loseling main hall did strike me as ‘small’, though it was probably much bigger and grander than the one it replaced some 9 decades ago. I began to understand what the lama meant about ‘shrinking’; it wasn’t a physical reduction that had occurred, but the heart of the place, which pulsed for over 500 years with the philosophical and religious discussions and debates that animated the courtyards of every House, prayers, ritual and religious music that filled the halls, kitchens bursting with activity, that had come to a near standstill. Drepung’s grandeur lay in its power as a receptacle of knowledge and the fame of its scholars, who came there to study from every corner of Tibet, and not in its architectural merits. Drepung was a center of activity, and building was done over the centuries as need arose, whitewashed specks visible from a distance, spreading over the south facing hill it was built on, soon resembling a ‘mound of rice’ -the meaning of its name in Tibetan.
I spent my first week ever in Lhasa doing what the Tibetans called ‘chojel’ the Tibetan term for pilgrimage. Every day, we visited one or more places, joining the hundreds of pilgrims come from all over Tibet and a lesser flow of tourists, Chinese with a sprinkle of foreigners. It was the beginning of winter, when nomads and farmers have less work and find time to spend time in Lhasa, shopping, visiting and praying. I was told whole areas fill up for the winter months, while Lhasa residents leave for warmer areas, returning for Losar.
I was particularly keen to see the 13th’s Mausoleum; many of the officials had donated jewelry to adorn the stupa, and Gyeten Namgyal, who later became a monk, gave his long earring, his most prized possession, and was very proud of having secured a conspicuous spot for it in the center of the South facing side. As Head of the Guild, he was in charge of creating and sewing all the brocade ornaments, appliqued banners and thangkas to hang in the area around the stupa. His design and execution of a large banner of the Three Kings was his first publicly acclaimed feat, and he was particularly delighted with a new technique of his invention that gave relief to the work.
There are over 300 steps to climb to get to the Eastern Terrace, a large platform used for ceremonies and ritual dances, from where one enters the White Palace. One only gets to see a small part, shepherded through the tiny rooms and chapels and up and down stairs as steep as ladders. We have one hour to get through the complex, entering through the White Palace which housed the government offices and into the red Palace of the Dalai Lamas which holds the mausoleums. The place was packed full of pilgrims and tourists and we need to keep a stable pace. The richness was extraordinary; cabinets stuffed with ancient clay and bronze statues, banners and brocades, thangkas of extraordinary quality. The mausoleums were marvels in their own right, but to my disappointment, the only one not to be open to view was that of the 13th. It was accessible only through rickety stairs which were deemed unsafe, and open to the public only during the New Year. Somewhere along the way, our guide pointed to a cabinet that made the whole width of an assembly hall; it housed the Great Kyigu.