The Lhasa Barkhor

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.

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View of a Barkhor street from a rooftop
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Man selling a sheepskin
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Selling somba shoes in the old Barkhor 1940’s. (Heinrich Harrer photo)
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Selling scriptures in the old Barkhor, 1940’s (Heinrich Harrer photo)
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Mani wheels in a religious paraphernalia store
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Food stall in the 40’s (Heinrich Harrer photo)
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Selling rolls of tie dyed woolen cloth, 1940’s (Heinrich Harrer photo)
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Selling ‘Tsering Kyilkhor’ hats, popular in Central Tibet
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Bread stall

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.

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dried roots
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doing our shopping
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butter store, next to the dentist
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The back (and only remaining wall) of Sukhang House, so we were told. Now a spot for pilgrims
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someone’s laundry
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Pilgrims near the entrance of the Tsuklhakang
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Waiting in line and prostrating
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Three generations visiting Lhasa
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Lhasa from a rooftop
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Tea seller in the 40’s, (Heinrich Harrer)

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copper goods, the factory is near Sera Monastery
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Butter churns and religious paraphanalia
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Woman from the Kokonor Area in Amdo
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The dentist
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stalls selling butter for offering lamps inside the Tsuklhakang
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Old woman in a pink chuba
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Cat in a tailor’s workshop

Revisiting Charlottesville

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.

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With Lati Rinpoche, on the Quad,1977
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Kalsang on the Quad, 1978
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With Locho Rinpoche and visiting Tibetan friends Yeshi Khedup and Thupten Golok 
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Locho Rinpoche at Monticello, 1978
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With Locho Rinpoche in the Blue Ridge Mountains 
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Monticello
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Kalsang and my father at Monticello
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My mother at UVA 
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My parents with Kalsang 
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With Locho Rinpoche in our apartment on Colonnade Drive, just before we left 
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Kalsang with the movers, packing for India 
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Genam on the Quad, 2018
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Monticello, 2018
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With the Tibetan students, Dorje on the right 
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Meeting new friends at the Losar party 

Celebrating Dogs in the Year of the Dog

The Year of the Dog

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.

 

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Dharamsala in 1980, with Yangki, Norzom and Boubou
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Christine in 1954 with Youpi and Croco
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With Tilou, in 1967
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Germaine with Tilou in 1971 
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In Paris with Tilou in 1978
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Dharamsala with Yangki and Boubou, 1979
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Kalsang with Boubou, 1979

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”

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Tashi, our white Apso, who moved in with us from the Gadong Oracles’s house 
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The twins Yanga and Tashi 

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.

 

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Dechen and Genam with the ‘Godfather’ 1995
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Sochoe and Dechen with Dikyi’s puppies, 1992
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4 children and twin dogs in 1991
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Dolma with her puppies, 1994

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Noryang asleep on the couch, Tibetan homework in hand; with Shindro, one of Dolma’s puppies 

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Washing puppies

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1999, after I broke my wrist, with Dolma and Yanga 

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With Shekshi around 1997
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The old couple’ Dolma and Tashi 
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Sochoe massaging Tashi, around 2003
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With Chichi the Chiwawa, 2009
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Lap dog on lap 

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Norzin with Chichi, 2009

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Daisy loved to prance 
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Baby D and Daisy, 2013
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Norzin with Sangpo, 2012

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Noryang with Daisy and baby Yulha 
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Kalsang teaching Noryang, lap dog on lap 2015
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Sometimes, they get sick; Sochoe with Chichi at Animal rescue, 2017
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Genam and Noryang with Dolma and Shekshi 1996
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Daisy after a bath, 2014
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In Ritoma, 2009, Dechen with Norzin and Thopdan, born the same year 
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Norbu the poodle came into Dechen’s life in 2016

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With Thopdan, 2016 

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….

The Norbulingka in Lhasa

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.

 

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Entering the Norbulingka, circa 1956 
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The pavilions built by the 7th Dalai Lama, stood in islands within a pond, that now stands dry
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Yidam on the bridge between the pavilions 
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Dechen 
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Pilgrim from the Changthang area of Northern Tibet 

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.

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The gardens are a favorite site for photo shoots 
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The Chensel Podrang sometime in the  30’s 
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The Chensel Podrang shortly after its completion 
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The 7th Dalai Lama’s pavilion in the 50’s when the water was still in the moat 
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One of the entrances, sometime in the 30’s 
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The Chensel Podrang today 

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The Naga in the pond 
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The 13th Dalai Lama’s audience hall, where his carriages are now stored 
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Garden on the front of the Chensel Podrang 

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The 14th Dalai Lama’s residence, completed in 1956 

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.

 

 

Drepung Monastery, Lhasa

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.

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Drepung Monastery, Lhasa

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My daughters Sochoe and Dechen in front of the Loseling College Assenbly Hall in 2002

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The entrance to the Ganden Podrang, former residence of the Fifth Dalai Lama KYLH201117045

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Pilgrims carrying their offerings of butter for the lamps 
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Climbing up the hill towards the main areas 
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The hills above the monastery used to be a place where monks meditated in caves 

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Loseling main Assembly Hall today 

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Drepung Monastery’s kitchen 

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Inside Loseling’s Assembly hall
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Detail of a door 
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The entrance to Nyare Khamtsen 
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In Nyare Khamtsen’s courtyard 
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The debating ground 
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Typical stair case. Ropes are provided to avoid slipping 

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.

 

The Potala Palace in Lhasa

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.

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Front view of the Potala Palace. The White Palace, is on the left and the Red Palace on the right 
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A visit to the Potala entitles climbing a total of 700 steps 
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Door curtains made of yak hair, on the White Palace 

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Bronze garuda 
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This ventilation point gives and idea of the thickness of the walls. 

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Ancient, unadorned pillars made from several tree trunks held together 

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The Potala in the 40’s with the Great Kyigu hanging on the front. 

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In the White Palace, the apartments of government officials in former times 

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A pilgrim facing the White Palace 
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The Eastern Terrace, point of entry to the White Palace and formerly used for religious ceremonies. 
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Behind the Potala is a lake with the Naga House of Lukhang at its center. A favorite spot for ducks and geese on their way to south. 

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.

 

 

Shoot on a Roof

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A Day on a Nomad’s Rooftop
Pema Kyap always has a story to tell. A few years ago, Dechen wrote about him in her blog; she met him on and off at a Ritoma’s friend’s house where he often joined in for dinner and entertained with his colorful story. After a stint in prison for stealing televisions (he got caught when the television he was running off with dropped on his foot and has been limping ever since) his life took a better turn with his son being recognized as a lama, which meant status and material comfort all in one package. He renovated his isolated winter house and the local authorities brought electricity there just for his family, a single pole cutting across the landscape for several kilometers. Now, with his son studying in Labrang Monastery, he lives comfortably, dabbling in little schemes here and there and keeping a few animals. He likes hanging out with our team during photo shoots out on the grassland and is always handy lending us animal props; a lamb here, a horse there.

 

 

 

 

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Passing up the props 
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We had a major shoot last November and decided to set it up on his rooftop. We came to his little valley in our truck containing all the props, and borrowed more from him, mainly bunches of hay which we laid out as background. He proudly showed Yidam his collection of wild yak, or drong skulls, and during lunch entertained us with more of his stories.
Pema Kyap told us that every year, he drove several days Southwest into the Changthang grasslands where he met up with nomads who grazed their yaks in the most remote areas, in the proximity of drong herds. Drongs are seen as the ultimate, original  yak whose superior size and gait is a subject of great respect and admiration; as tall as 2 meters at the shoulder, they charge with their imposing horns, waving about their long, straggly belly hair and for this reason are better spotted from a distance. In summer, the drong bulls mingle with the herds of their domesticated cousins and breed with the dris. Pema Kyap travels a thousand kilometers to buy the offspring from these summer encounters to resell to Amdo nomads eager to improve their yak breed. Once, he also bought  drong skulls from the carcasses the Changthang nomads occasionally find, especially in the wetlands, and brought them back in his truck, where he hid them carefully, as drong hunting is strictly forbidden.  

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He then went on to talk about the other dangerous creatures of the Chang Thang. At first he talked about the megeu, or Yeti, describing it as so mean and scary that the locals are wont to pronounce its name (like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, I thought). His description of  the creature as extremely tall, standing upright and yellow in color sounded more like a tremo, or Brown Bear, indeed a very large and dangerous animal. According to Pema Kyap, this creature attacked people in their dwellings, scratching their faces with their claws (he claimed to have seen some of their victims) taking their provisions, scattering their possessions and killing their smaller animals for sport. A few weeks later, in Central Tibet, a local told me about the megeu, sighted by people he knew and similarly mean and dangerous. He refused to admit it was a brown bear, describing more what sounded like a giant ape.
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Norzin and Baby D collecting hay for the shoot 
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We remained on the roof and around the house most of the day. By afternoon, Yidam had struck a deal with Pema Kyap and bought all the drong skulls. He eyed the best pieces, but Pema Kyap threw in the more weathered ones into the bargain. He didn’t buy them as trophies, though as this concept is not present in Tibetan culture. Owning the skull or skin from a mighty animal is not about having killed it, but more about attributing its power to the individual. Killing wild animals is frowned upon and though some Tibetans did engage in it in the recent past, mainly responding to the explosion of the shatoush market and the material gain involved in its participation, protecting wildlife is seen in the same light as conserving one’s heritage for future generations. There is also an innate fear in Tibetans that creatures are driven to become smaller as their natural environment is gradually depleted and project that the drongs, like the yaks in many areas already have, will grow smaller with time. These skulls will be reminder of drong’s might for generations to come. 
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Pema Kyap bringing a young gazelle borrowed from a neighbor as an animal prop for a shoot. Nomads often find orphaned gazelles and raise them until they are ready to return to the wild. 
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Pema Kyap in his home, telling stories over lunch  

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