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.
One is lucky if, at least once in a lifetime he or she had the privilege of sharing it with a very special dog. There have been many dogs in my life, but Daisy stands out as a very unique one. Yesterday, she left us, and with it, a big, empty space.
Daisy was Sochoe’s dog, and hers is a great story; A smart dog who had a good start, then had to fend on her own, relying on her charm to work her way to be owned by the human being of her choice. Through Daisy, I came to understand many things about the relationship between man and dog, from the point of view of the dog. A couple of years ago, I wrote down her story, in view of making an illustrated children’s story. Now is the perfect time to share it and remember Daisy, the wonderful times we all had together, and the insight she gave us on Man’s Best Friend.
Sochoe pieced together Daisy’s life from people who had seen her around in her early years, as she was not an easily forgotten dog. She was born to the dog of a Russian-Tibetan couple in the area around Norbulingka, in lower Dharamsala. We are not quite sure when, though we calculated it must have been around 2004. Her mother was an ordinary dog, who had been adopted by the couple. One day, they left for Russia. They took the mother and left her puppies to fend on their own, probably with some recommendations to friendly neighbors and the baggage of having once belonged to a loving family.
Daisy must have lost no time looking for opportunities. A dog’s life in India is unregulated, and depending on the area, dogs can have their own life with no owners, live and packs and find their own source of livelihood. They have their friends, competitors and enemies, and move around as they please, bound only by other dog’s territorial rules. Despite that they still depend on humans for food and have to face much hardship and competition with only the strongest and cleverest surviving.
Outside Norbulingka’s lush gardens are many shops and small restaurants where there is always a little something for a friendly dog. Knowing Tibetans are generally responsive to dogs, people in the area dumped their puppies outside the Norbulingka gates, thinking they have a better chance of surviving there. The cleverer ones gradually find their way inside, though they were always subject to the acceptance of the already established packs.
Daisy was a puppy with expectations. She had tasted the warmth and security of a home and craved for the love of a well provided human. In the meantime, she went for whatever she could get. All the best places inside the Norbulingka Gardens were taken. One had to carve out a place, and the best way to do that was to get the attention of a special human.
Daisy had large round eyes and could stare in a way humans found cute and endearing, which earned her the attention food and a temporary home from various store owners.
There were different types of dogs that patronized the Gardens. There was the group Sochoe called ‘the losers’ who depended on people’s leftovers and the smarter ones who had discovered the restaurant and fiercely defended their hard-won territory. To get to the restaurant, a dog needed a sponsor, a human to tag along with to give it weight. Daisy gradually found her way into the Gardens, learned to welcome the tourists, the men and women who trudged along in walking shoes and cameras. Many liked dogs and Daisy knew how to be welcoming; not too much, a friendly yelp, a little dance, just enough to get near the table, sit and stare and get a few tidbits and even a pat on the head.
Tourists were handy, but they came and went. Daisy learned that she needed a more permanent solution; an owner. There were many dogs with owners, and she must have decided that belonging to the right human (or owning a human, depending on the point of view) was a worthy goal. The local owned dogs still roamed freely but got food every day, had place to go home to at night and someone to love them and call out their name. Most were prettier than Daisy, too; small with pointed ears, curly hair or flat noses, or large and wolf-like. Daisy was neither; she was too small to be a big dog and too large to be a small one. She had pointed ears, though one sagged. An animal organization regularly neutered all the dogs in the area and Daisy was caught, spade and to make sure she wasn’t again in a later raid, they marked one of her ears with a big dent so that it now sagged forward.
Daisy eventually spotted two humans she would like to belong to. One was an older Tibetan man who had a house that was something of a hostel for dogs like Daisy. Big dogs, medium dogs and old dogs. They all had a bed with their name on it and the favorite got to sleep inside the house. Daisy made sure the man noticed her and greeted him every time he came in sight; she danced around him and ran ahead barking, announcing him, like one does for an important person. He liked Daisy and fed her sometimes. Though he seemed willing to have her come to his hostel, it was hard work to get accepted by the resident dogs. Daisy knew it would take time, and was ready to wait.
The other interesting human Daisy spotted was Sochoe. She watched her arrive every day in a car. Her arrival always caused a stir among the dogs, and waiting for her was a part of their daily activities. Sochoe was one of those humans who knew, loved and understood dogs, and of course, all the dogs knew that. She recognized all of them and gave them names, just like owned dogs. She made sure they were fed if they hovered around the restaurant and would let one or two of the more enterprising among them follow her around. She was aware of all their politics, their status, who was senior, most respected, had the most friends and who was the worst loser, and took care of them if they were ill.
Sochoe spent most of her day in her office, where dogs were not admitted, so they waited for her to emerge at meal times. Her office door was usually surrounded with napping losers, and when she went to lunch, which was mostly outside, she would be encircled with the enterprising café dogs. This made her very difficult to approach and Daisy probably had to wait a long time before making her move to get Sochoe’s attention. Her opportunity came when Sochoe spent the whole afternoon outside doing a photo shoot. Sochoe’s current favorite, a fawn colored bitch she had named “Ginger” was in her constant company, sitting close and growling menacingly at any other approaching dog. Daisy watched Sochoe from a distance for a couple of days, getting as close as she could. Sochoe began noticing her, which brought her even closer, to Ginger’s dismay. On the third day, she made her move. She found a sheep’s horn and carried it in her mouth, right up to the place where the photo shoot was taking place. She stood there while everyone stared at her, then delicately placed the horn in front of Sochoe. This was a clever move; Sochoe knew it was a present and Daisy struck her as a very special dog indeed. Daisy felt empowered and had a scuffle with Ginger who admitted defeat and went to try her luck elsewhere.
From that day, Daisy became Sochoe’s close companion. She entered a building and discovered the world of offices. Sochoe’s office, where she dressed up dummies, painted and worked on a computer. The floor was cold, but Sochoe put a cushion there for Daisy. Gradually, Daisy entered the Director’s office, then the General Manager’s office. Those had carpets, and the Director’s office had a couch. No one seemed to mind that Daisy liked the couch. She escorted Sochoe to lunch, and if Sochoe wasn’t there, she accompanied the Director. One of them always ordered her lunch, brought in a stainless steel bowl and set on the floor or the grass by the table. Sochoe provided food for other dogs too, and they knew that they had to accept each other’s presence. There was a big yellow dog called Bolo. Daisy tried to shoo him off, but he was bigger than Daisy and Sochoe liked him too, so they learned to tolerate each other.
At lunch on the restaurant lawn, Daisy and Bolo screened the people entering the garden through the main gate. Hippies and beggars were menacingly barked at. Daisy had a special dislike for the local labor and tried to scare them away too. Sochoe figured out that she must have received her share of kicks outside the gardens and now felt in a position to strike back. The tourists filing in would be greeted and welcomed; basically, she differentiated humans through their clothes and demeanor, which earned her the title of Fashion Police. Sochoe was annoyed that Daisy still felt compelled to beg from the tourists, even after having her own bowl. But Daisy was smart; she knew she still didn’t really belong to Sochoe. For all the nice offices, soft carpets and cushy couches, she watched Sochoe and the Director leave at the end of the day. She walked ahead of them with her tail wagging, saw the car, stopped and stared. They walked ahead and Daisy watched them get in, her tail gradually dropping. Then, she turned around and was on her way. In the morning, as soon as she heard the car, she rushed over to the parking lot and greeted Sochoe jumping up and down with joy, then barking and running ahead, announcing her arrival to everyone.
Sochoe wondered where Daisy went at night. Would she find a place to sleep when it was cold and raining? She had brought her a dog’s bed and left it outside her office, but Daisy sniffed disapprovingly, detecting the smell of Sochoe’s home dog, a white Spitz called Yangchung. She shunned the bed and it was later taken over by another dog, who used it to give birth to a litter of puppies. Sochoe did discover that Daisy still had many friends, people who said: “I know that dog!” or “I fed that dog for a while!” and figured she knew how to look after herself.
Daisy didn’t think much of the Garden Dogs, a gang on large dull creatures lacking any drive or ability to improve their lot. They sat all day baking in the sun in their spots and didn’t even bother to cultivate the tourist population at the restaurant, instead eating their food from the canteen. Daisy was ambitious and sought a more direct route to happiness, which involved circulating on their turf avoiding them or their approval. She had forced her way into the garden, using her leverage with Sochoe and the Garden dogs resented her for it and she fought back. Walking around meant sticking close to Sochoe or avoiding their hang out areas altogether.
One day, Sochoe bought her father a Chiwawa puppy called Chichi. Chichi was tiny, fawn colored and had with big eyes and large pointing ears. Sochoe brought her to work in a bag. She was afraid Daisy would be jealous, but things proved to be otherwise. We discovered Daisy liked being associated with an owned dog of high status, which she detected in Chichi’s attitude and size. She let Chichi nibble on her ears and played with her. All the Owned Garden dogs wanted to associate with Chichi, but Daisy didn’t let them. Chichi was her friend and her friend only. Sochoe, Daisy and Chichi became inseparable… except at night when Sochoe and Chichi got into the car and Daisy watched them ride away.
One day, Sochoe came down and didn’t find Daisy greeting her as she got out of the car. She wasn’t there the next day, either. Sochoe, the Director and the General Manager all became worried, wondering what could have happened to Daisy. Sochoe and her friends printed a photo of Daisy and posted it everywhere outside the Garden. The next day, the man at the Cyber Café said that he knew that dog, and that the fruit seller, who had owned her as a puppy had reclaimed her and taken her away to Palampur, a nearby town. More alarmingly, he was planning a move to Delhi with his family…and Daisy. The Cyber Café Man knew the fruit seller’s name, and also provided a phone number.
Sochoe and the General Manager drove to Palampur. They tried to call but the number was no longer valid. They asked about the fruit seller and wandered through Palampur for hours, no one seemed to know the fruit seller. They were about to give up and decided to give one more try, engaging in a narrow lane where a shoemaker pointed to a little house. They knocked on the door and a woman opened. Daisy was inside, tied to a bed. Daisy jumped and cried, pulling on her rope when she saw Sochoe. The fruit seller’s wife said that Daisy was theirs, that they were taking her to Delhi. The Fruit seller explained that he had owned her as a puppy and had found her wandering around in the evening, looking dirty and unkempt. Sochoe told them she loved Daisy and offered money. The fruit seller and his wife grew tired of arguing and took the money. Daisy was untied and followed Sochoe and the General Manager to the car. This time, she went straight to the car and climbed in. She knew her time had come.
Life continued as before, except that at the end of the day, when Sochoe walked to the car, Daisy didn’t stop and watch her leave. She hopped in behind her.
Daisy became Sochoe’s dog and moved in with her and Chichi. Daisy slept on Sochoe’s bed, with Chichi and an assortment of cushions. Every day, she jumped into Sochoe’s car to go to “work” at Norbulingka. She curled up on a chair and watched her paint or draw. Sometimes, Sochoe stayed home and worked in her studio. Daisy sat with her, or wondered off on the terrace watching the birds and the monkeys, listening to the sounds coming from the valley. Dog TV as I call it. In the evening, she wandered over to the big house, and enjoyed the big living room, dinner and couches. She accompanied Sochoe everywhere, learning to stick close to her in crowded places or when crossing areas with other, usually hostile, dogs.
There were four other dogs in the compound. Chichi, Daisy’s best friend, Traga, Pishi and Samgbo. Traga was a black dog who was picked out of a ditch as a puppy near our house around 2004. When we found him, he could neither see not walk, but nursed back to life, was able to do both. He grew into a handsome black dog that was friendly to other dogs, but never let humans touch him, with the exception of a little pat on the head by Sochoe. There was also Sangpo, a Saint Bernard Sochoe bought ‘to guard the house’ in 2013. I was furious; too big, too fragile and not very interested in doing any guard work, but Sangpo was there to stay and his imposing size kept people off our property. The last to come was Pishi, a yellow stray who looked like a dingo, picked up to reinforce the guard dog collection. Strays rarely make good guard dogs, being too close to pack politics, too involved with striving to evolve into the circles of human affection, and Pishi was no exception. Even Daisy, for all her craving for human company, was too busy keeping possible competitors away to think about figuring situations between humans. Her job was to announce the arrival of her favorites by running ahead of them, barking loudly. This made me think of my father, who told me about the ‘aboyeurs’ ,barkers in French, a prewar practice at formal gatherings of loudly announcing guests with their full titles as they arrived.
Daisy’s tense relations with Pishi reflected an insecurity that never left her. Pishi was desperate to please, always approaching Daisy in the most submissive of fashions, and Daisy could have accepted her as a secondary dog, one who would have looked up to her and done her bidding. But she saw too much of herself in Pishi; a street dog risen to the top, a constant threat to her security. This translated into extreme hostility towards Pishi who paid her back in kind, and drove her to crave Daisy’s privileged position. Since she couldn’t sway Sochoe, she used other means; while Sochoe was away, she enlisted the help of Sangpo, and waited for Daisy to come out of Sochoe’s house. She then attacked her and Sangpo, usually neutral, followed suit. They had to be separated with sticks and a water hose. Pishi couldn’t stand seeing Daisy get into a car, the ultimate sign of dog success and would attack her with Sangpo every time she tried to get past the front gate, which made very eventful entrances and exits for Sochoe and anyone else with her.
Daisy lived seven happy years sharing her life with Sochoe. Her attachment to her was extreme, and she would be depressed for several days if she ever went away. For the rest of her life, she craved any sign of her relation to humans. While Chichi always refused to wear a collar, Daily loved them in every form, the more elaborate the better, sucking in the reactions she collected from humans. She favored Princess necklaces, flower garlands or, towards the end of her life, a double row of pearls. Last year, we noticed her hearing had gone down, and though she was physically fit and still jumped up and down in excitement, she was confused and would lose Sochoe in crowded places. She spent her days going through the house, in and out, until we realized she must be senile. In mid July, she stopped eating, and began to look for strange corners in the garden, like dogs do when they know the end is near. Sochoe stuck with her until the end, carrying her in and out between her house and ours. We all knew she would be gone soon and when she was, the hard fact that we become intensely attached to creatures that live such short lives hits us hard and leaves us to reflect on the inevitable.
When I first came to live in Dharamsala 38 years ago, one didn’t buy ready-made clothes. We purchased fabric and gave the garment to sew to a tailor. I spent some time looking for a good tailor; there was Fighting Needles, who was best reputed for making salwar kameez or chowridars, First Tailor, Best Tailor, English Tailor and many more. They all were quite set in their ways and their style, none of which really worked for me, Kalsang or our children. Then I heard about Claypot, introduced by an English friend. He had a tiny store on the road that led up to the District Commissioner’s residence, more like a shack, that he occupied with his father, who crouched on one side smoking a hookah, while he sat opposite him cross legged with his brother, their antiquated German made sewing machines purring before them. I was told the buttonhole making and button sewing was all done at home by the various wives and children of his extended family. His store had no name, but the back was stacked from floor to ceiling with clay pots of all sizes, the kind used to store water, which he also sold, earning him the name “Claypot”. It turned out Claypot’s talent was to copy anything you gave him, to perfection. We started with Sochoe and Dechen’s school uniforms, then my shirts and skirts, and Kalsang’s pants. I began to get creative with shapes and fabrics, which I usually purchased in Delhi or Varanasi.
When my mother came, which at one point was twice a year, she carried half a suitcase of fabrics and buttons to give Claypot to sew. My mother was set in her ways, and liked to wear the same models in different fabrics. Being from the generation that had their clothes made by ‘couturieres’ rather than ‘pret a porter’ she delighted in good tailors. Her favorite was Ascot Chang in Hong Kong, but Claypot came next and he must have made at least 20 versions of her favorite YSL shirt with shoulder straps, in demilitarized Saint Laurent style. In the early 90’s, when Tibetans began to emigrate to the US, they also discovered Claypot and he became almost out of reach, so busy he was making clothes that they resold in their new country. One would think he would expand his business and prosper, and perhaps he did, but fifteen years later, his shop looked the same, minus his father, who had passed away. Our children grew up and no longer needed uniforms, and my mother stopped coming, so I only saw him fleetingly passing in the car. A few years ago, he moved into a bigger store, with a higher ceiling and a few days ago, I came by to say hello, introduce a friend and take a few pictures.
The first time I saw a vulture up close was in India. It was not in the woods or near a carcass, but on the side of the Pathankot-Dharamsala road, casually perched on a stump in all its height, like a hitchhiker waiting for a ride. This vulture especially impressed my mother, who, when asked what she thought of India, would talk about its amazing birds, and go on to describe the vulture. Considering India has many much more colorful and nimble birds, and reading the expressions on the faces of our Indian interlocutors, I would invariably try to steer the conversation towards the flocks of parrots that populated our garden, or the Paradise flycatchers that gracefully trailed their long white tails.
In Tibet, I see vultures all the time, some quite close up, and have learned about their habits and the relationship with man. One of the Ritoma village sky burial grounds is not far from our house, actually on the next hill, and when we see a multitude of vultures circling high up in the sky, we know someone has died. From a distance, we see a monk or two a little off from the scene, specks of red, and people busying about with the vultures crowded in a circle around them, waiting for their treat. Tibetan vultures are used to being attended to, and will not feed unless their ‘food’ has been properly prepared; this means opening up the corpse and separating the flesh from bones. Vultures are there to perform a function. They are respected for it, and monks and relatives will scan the horizon, breathing a sign of relief at their approach. An offering not taken is seen as a bad sign.
Older nomads often complain of the younger generation’s laziness for leaving their dead animals unattended. In the old days, the carcass would be opened, inviting the vultures and ridding the area of the stench of rotten flesh. When they had finished, the owner would collect the animal’s skin and process it. Nothing was left to waste. Two years ago, when hundreds of sheep died in the spring, weakened by a harsh winter and the previous year’s foot and mouth disease, the hills were strewn with carcasses. Left untouched by their owners, they were shunned by the vultures.
This year, the vulture scene was right by our house. A sheep died on the hill and its owner invited the vultures. They were enormous. Ivy, the guesthouse dog, who had given birth to her litter in a nearby marmot hole, managed to drag part of the carcass inside as well as the sheepskin to keep her little family warm.
When I first came to Drepung in Mundgod in 1978 and settled into the monastery routine, I became accustomed to seeing the large flat bread that formed the core of the monk’s diet circulating the camp around 11 am each day, piled high on the head of child monks who took turns to collect it from the kitchen for their teachers. The monks would then settle on their verandas, sitting cross legged in a circle and tear off chunks of bread dipping it into a large enamel mug filled with Tibetan tea. They were still very attached to Tibetan tea, which the local doctors said was the worst possible combination for cholesterol and high blood pressure. The monks estimated they were lucky; in Tibet, the monastery did not provide regular meals, only tea and tsampa or noodles, but mostly tea at the morning assembly. Their families usually sent them bags of tsampa, but for those monks who came for far away Kham or Amdo, life was hard.
As I watched them eat bread and Tibetan tea, and an occasional thukpa, white flour doughy chunks in an oily broth with a few pieces of meat floating here and there, I asked them why they didn’t eat vegetables. The answer was always that vegetables were expensive, vegetables had no taste. They didn’t believe in vegetables. Diabetes and stomach cancer were rampant, and the children all had boils. It was true, they had no money to eat better, and if they had, meat and chili had precedence over vegetables. Fruits? That was for children, though the children’s teachers could only rarely provide it. Papayas grew everywhere, but the taste and textures evoked a grimace of disgust. The Tibetan settlers usually fed them to pigs.
Ten years later, the bread was still there, though spinach, turnips, carrots and even pineapples and grapes now accompanied it. Papayas were accepted and even appreciated by some.
When I returned to Drepung Loseling in 2016, the bread was still the main feature of the morning meal, but vegetables were well integrated into the diet and the evening thukpa was full of them. I visited the kitchen, serviced by the monks in rotation. Vegetables were bought in bulk and piled high on metal shelves and noodles came from the College’s own noodle machines. Diabetes was still rampant among the older monks, but I found all of them watching their diets with care and lauding the benefits of exercise. Boils and ringworm were a bad memory of the past.
School in Tibet in the old days was, as described by my husband Kalsang who attended Lhasa’s Nyarongsha School in the 50’s, an institution that taught exclusively calligraphy, dispensed a wide array of punishments, and had painfully long hours. In short, it had all the elements for inducing extreme boredom tempered by fear. As Kalsang described it, returning to school after 15 days of glorious summer picnicking by the river was like going from heaven to hell.
These methods, which were the only ones known, provided the guidelines for education in the early times of the reestablished monasteries in South India. In Tibet, monks generally enrolled in the monasteries in their teens or twenties and already knew how to read and write. If they enrolled at a young age, it was their teacher’s responsibility to teach them the basics . In India, the Buxa monks, after moving from the former internment camp in Assam, their home for ten years, to the new settlements in the South, began to enroll new monks. These were inevitably very young, children of refugees and new settlers, many who sent over a son or two to lessen their burden. The monks had no choice but to set up a school of sorts to teach them collectively how to read and write, in the only way that they knew. Around fifteen, they would begin the monastic curriculum, which was highly complex and demanding, and they had to be ready.
Loseling School, which I visited in 1978, was a simple rectangular structure where boys between five and twelve sat cross legged on the mud floor, a large wooden tablet spread on their laps. As in Tibet, they practiced on an erasable surface, as paper was scarce and resources limited. They etched letters into the tablet, and brought the result for review to their teacher, who sat menacingly at the front of the class, an electric wire (not a live one) in hand, ready to strike at any emerging naughtiness. The atmosphere in the room was electrifying; the energy of forty feisty boys bottled up doing something very boring, constantly weighing the urge for a prank against the deterrent of the wire. The scene was beautiful, though and I never tired to walking by to photograph it.
In the years that followed, talk emerged of a better education for young monks, one that would introduce math and science, and even English. Elder monks were always afraid that the lure of the outside world would lead their young pupils astray, but in the mid 80’s monastery recruits began to pour out of Tibet, swelling the numbers. Sera Je in Bylakuppe settlement lead the way with a progressive school funded by an Italian monk, and the other Colleges followed. When I visited in 2016, all had modern style schools. Loseling still had the calligraphy class, but the teacher sat in a relaxed manner at the front of the class, reviewing his pupil’s tablets in a conciliatory and helpful manner. The room was calm; within an hour or so, the children knew they could play, jump and run outside in the school’s recess ground.
In other classrooms, English, science and math were being taught, even to older monks who had begun the monastery’s curriculum. Concepts that would have elicited suspicion and doubt thirty years back were the new normal.
Debate is in integral part of Tibetan Buddhist monastic education in many of the traditions that flourish in India and the Tibetan Plateau. Philosophical subjects are a core of monastic education and debate is designed to help assimilate the complexities they present. It is a form of mental gymnastics, to integrate concepts presented through texts and train the mind to delve deeper into their intricacies.
Debate is typically conducted on a daily basis, in a designated courtyard, tiled in flagstones and shaded by trees. The challenger, standing, throws a statement at his opponent, who is seated and is meant to refute it. A volley of exchange ensues, accompanied by clapping gestures on the part of the challengers, which can become extremely animated.
A good debater will look forward to the session like a football or basketball player to a match. He will thrive on the excitement, and other monks will watch the proceedings with great anticipation. My husband Kalsang, who was a Drepung monk for fifteen years, distinguished himself as an able debator. In the initial years in exile, which took place in the monk camp in Buxa, between 1959 and the time he left for Teacher’s Training in 1961, he thrived on the debate sessions that were recreated in the jungle of Assam, as part of the makeshift monasteries of Drepung, Sera, Ganden and Sakya. The excitement helped him forget the heat, malnutrition, rats and leeches, as well as the anxiety of being so far from home.
I first met them in 1978, the night we arrived in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod, in Northern Karnataka. After bumping around on winding roads for several hours, driving past bullocks and buffalos with extravagant horns and through thick jungle, we arrived in the Tibetan settlement of Mundgod. It was dark by then, and we emerged from our white Ambassador to be greeted by a group of monks with white scarves, then ushered into an elongated mud brick house, proudly referred to as the just finished Nyare Khamtsen House, boasting an assembly hall, two guest rooms and the Khamtsen’s first ever bathroom, a cement cubicle with a single tap and with (what we call in France) a Turkish toilet. Smaller monks lurked behind their teachers, peeking at us through the door, taking turns to gawk, especially at me. Only then did I realized how close they were to Kalsang’s world, these monks with whom he had shared the few years he had spent at Drepung in Lhasa as Nyare Chunsel, the rank his parents had insisted he have, which afforded him the privilege accorded to lamas. After three years, he had escaped with them to Buthan, then India and settled for some years to life in Buxa, Assam, a former British internment camp where the monks pulled together a semblance of monastic life, a thousand monks from among the escapees of the three Monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden. Kalsang thrived there, though many died of TB and others succumbed to madness when they realized they was no turning back.
For two months, that summer of 1978, I bathed in these monk’s warmth and hospitality. They were Kalsang’s only family, his parents having remained in Lhasa where they passed away about the time we made this first visit to Mundgod.
This year, I visited Loseling in Mundgod after a hiatus of twenty one years. The monastery’s environment had drastically changed; It had become like a small town, full of trees and flowering bushes, the monks were more health conscious, finally adapting their diet and lifestyle to the tropical climate of the Deccan Plateau. They also lived comfortably in better houses. Time had taken its toll, though, with six out of twenty five Nyare Buxa monks remaining, the others having been claimed by cancer, diabetes, or other casualties. The youngest was seventy nine, the oldest eighty five.
I made a point of photographing these old friends in a group photo, then in their monk quarters, in the transplanted universe of a Tibetan Monastery in South India.