About franceslk

Frances is at home in the Canadian Rockies and the Himalaya. After a degree in biology, she worked for the Canadian Parks Service for seven years. She first came to Nepal to trek, but the people and cultures of this diverse land became her reason for staying for much of the past 30 in Nepal, much of it in the Everest and Makalu areas. All of this work has utilized her skills in writing, photography, and interviewing for oral history, and her knowledge of natural history and Himalayan cultures. From 1980 to 89, Frances lived in the Khumbu to create a museum of Sherpa culture at Tengboche Monastery. She also worked with a project in the Makalu area until 1998, when she started a publishing company, Mera Publications. Frances has had several exhibitions of her photographs on Sherpa culture. The Canadian edition of her book, Gaiety of Spirit, was released in 2010. She has worked extensively for a variety of development organizations, mostly documenting the results of programs. During the work for development projects and fund-raising for various worthy causes, she started wondering how to help those left our from conventional assistance. In 2005, she co-founded a non-profit organization, CORE International to pursue this quest. www.core-international.org

What do we really want from International Women's Day?

A few lines from International Women’s Day in Nepal.

I’m seeing several images posted on social media with classic looking women pumping their biceps and lots of raving.

But, I am asking myself, is this what Women’s Day is really all about?

Is Women’s Day about using brute strength like some men (certainly not all)? Do we women really want to imitate men and how they do things?

Or is it really to celebrate the perseverance, equanimity, subtle strength, and love with which women go about their daily lives?  

Do we really want to celebrate our masculine sides or strengthen our divine feminine? Bring that feminine power and way of doing things to a chaotic world?

Do we try to fight force with more force or try to return to more harmonious ways of being?

How do we create the conditions for women to be ensured of their rights to dignity and freedom from fear and servitude? Conditions so that women can voice their concerns and aspirations and have the agency to conduct their lives and livelihoods in a dignified and happy manner?

How do we ensure that some women never have to return to bonded labour (basically slaves) or en denture their children?

I hope that International Women’s Day also reminds women to follow their dreams and aspirations – whether to be a professional, climb a mountain, or raise happy and thoughtful children.

Samayak: Walking with the Buddhas among us

Again after four years, it is time for the Samayak when all the households with special Buddhist statues in Patan bring them to the big squares in the middle of the old city. The last Samayak was in 2016, just months after the earthquake. A couple of the temples damaged then have since been rebuilt.

First each household brings their ‘deity’ out to the front of their home on the street, where they offer prayers for the journey and gathering. The statues might be any size from six inches tall to huge heads over four feet tall that are worn by a man carrying them. Needless to say, many other family members help guide him on the journey through the streets.

Then, the Buddhas assemble in Patan Durbar Square before moving over to the Nag Bahal Square where tens of thousands of people come the next day to offer their prayers and devotion. The queues to enter the the courtyard stretch for blocks along the nearby road.

Come twilight on the second day, after a procession by the elders of the community, the Buddhas head home with crowds lining the lanes and reaching out to touch the statues as they pass. After a brief rest outside the home or temple, the statues are returned to their secluded homes. Portions of the offerings are shared with community members sitting and waiting in rows

Getting out of the ‘now’

For four years since the earthquake in Nepal, I have had writer’s block like a noose halting the connection from mind to paper or computer. I would start and almost immediately stop. It has been a struggle to keep work deadlines, to get writing done without a deadline.

While writer’s block is a common challenge for most writers, it seemed to have had deeper roots within. something had shifted with the earthquake and its hundreds of aftershocks.

That afternoon as I knelt under a table and the shakes grew and grew, it was as it there was no past and no future. It was as if I was totally in the ‘now, the present moment.’ It was a moment of being glad that right then I was alive. Thoughts crossed through my mind that there must be horrendous destruction and death happening with each shake.

Over the next 48 hours especially, the ground kept on moving. We later counted on the government seismic website that there had been 108 aftershocks in 48 hours that were over 4 in magnitude, earthquakes in their own right if it had not been for the big one.

The weeks and months that followed were filled with the immediacy of connecting people and places and groups… always in the moment.

It has hung with me until tonight when I realized that to write, I needed to step outside of the now, to look at past and future and still appreciate the present.

MUSTANG – trees to temples

Dust and blowing sand

Standing in the middle of the sandy trail with the wind howling, the sun blazing, no shade not a tree or shrub in sight.

“From right here, 700 years ago, the Lo peoples (rulers) cut trees for the gompas in Lo,” says Chimi, our guide.

The only trees we’ve seen in four days of walking one those planted greys irrigated fields in village, oases at green in this rocky, barren, desolate landscape. Eroded downs of the bones of the earth. Canyons out through the centuries through layers of rocks lay down as sediments on the floor of an ancient sea. Rocks in reds, rocks of beige, a few striped rocks with the green argallite. Rocks, sand, canyons, and sky.

“For those huge pillars? ”

“Yeah this all used to be a forest at big trees. It’s in Khampo Tashi’s book.”

Those pillars, those huge pillars at least 3-4 feet in diameter and 25ft high. Many one from a single piece of wood …  That came from this desolate places. Huge timber that must have been cut from even larger trees.

Larger trees that grew until 700 years ago in this barren high desert.

A forest where it is now high altitude desert. What happened?

Mustang is an old place for the Nepal Himalaya. People have perhaps lived here for 6,000 years at first in caves  cut into the sandstone cliffs. Gradually, lo became the walled capital of the lo kings.

A walked city like none other in the Himalaya. More and more building, then with growing affluence from the salt trade, more gompas and monastery. At the pinnacles of the Lo dynasty and culture, three huge gompas are built of stone, rammed earth and wooden windows, door, some floors and pillars. Huge pillars to hold the heavy building. And they came from this desert place once a forested valley.

The speed of the speed of the change both intrigues and depresses me. I no longer find mustang a fascinating desert landscape but a denuded land.

A traumatized land where demons and saviours (Guru Rinpoche) fought over bringing Buddhism to Tibet and the Himalaya. Where the slain demons blood is believed to colour the red rocks of the region.

Later talking to the forestry professor stranded in Jomsom, I learn that when trees are cut, their roots no longer have the capacity to hold up the water table so the water drops deeper. Only those trees and shrub close to irrigation canals or streams can survive.

Why do we keep cutting so many trees?

Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places

Revering by walking, prostrating, chanting, offering…

Offerings – of objects or one’s presence –  affirms the Tibetan’s reverence of sacred places and objects.

 

jokhang threshold

Thresholds can be the shift into a physical structure or rituals for new events in a lifetime. Thresholds are the crossing into another existence whether physical, emotional, or spiritual… or as in these sacred places, the combination of all three.

Jokhang – the heart of Tibetan pilgrimage

Tibetans think of the Jokhang as the “spiritual heart of Lhasa” and it does sit in the middle of the Barkhor, the market square of old Lhasa. More importantly, it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet.

King Songtsen Gampo (traditionally the 33rd king of Tibet) began to build the temple in 652 AD to house the many Buddhist statues brought as dowry by his two brides: Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, who both helped him establish Buddhism in Tibet. The most important statue is the Jowo, an image of the twelve-year-old Buddha. The Jokhang was enlarged many times and the scene of many important events in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet.

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In the morning there were thousands of Tibetans in a long queue to visit the inside of the Jokhang while others did prostrations and circled this most important temple.

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Spiritual and social… taking a break from prostrations

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Starting young… her mom showed her how to do the prostrations

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The police managing entry to the Jokhang let tourists in by another door without the long queue. Most of the other tourists were Chinese… everywhere we went.

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The queue was long but people were patient.  Many people carried large thermoses full of melted butter to add to the huge butterlamps by the main Jowo statue.

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The murals on the walls were fantastic, but no photos were allowed past this doorway.

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This old carving on a stone block seemed old. Some of the temple is about 1,300 years old and some has been refurbished, like on the roof.

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We could not see signs of the fire on Feb 17, the day after Losar this year. But, barriers and security guards limited how far we could wander on the rooftop.

 

 

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Most tourists were Chinese. An elderly Tibetan man I knew from past visits said that recently published statistics on visitors to the Potala in the previous month were 34 Tibetans, 5,000 Chinese, and 17 foreigners.  We did not visit the Potala on this trip. While I waited for the group, a young Chinese woman started talking to me here on the Jokhang roof. I asked her what attracted her to visit here… “pure, clean land and very faithful people”  It seemed that she had not heard much else about what has happened in Tibet.

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Shigatse and Tashilunpo

Tashilunpo is a relatively newer monastery in Shigastse to the west of Lhasa. It was founded in 1447 and sacked by the Gorkha Kingdom of Nepal in 1791.  The Nepalis were eventually driven back almost to Kathmandu. The monastery once had over 4,000 monks but we could not find our how many are there now.

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The worn flagstones… what history has passed over them.

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The monks gathering for evening prayers

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The threshold into the main prayer hall.

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Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig in Tibetan embodies the infinite compassion of all the Buddhas and completely devoted to helping others until all being achieve liberation.

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There are four main gompas (temples) in the monastery.

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The representation of the spiritual character of a previous lama.

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We were visiting in Saka Dawa, the sacred month commemorating the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment. Local people filled the area around the three stupas at Tashilungpo as they walked the kora, rested, ate, and visited.

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The kora path was like a river of devotion.

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Toddler sleeping on a bench.

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Many of the entry ways just before the thresholds at Tashlungpo had diagrams of inset turpqoise and other stones perhaps as extra symbols of one’s entry into sacred spaces.

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This is an ancient symbol represents continuity and good fortune. Unfortunately, its reverse was stolen for use by the Nazis in the 1930s.

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Photos on the roof of the Jokhang 1990s

Arriving in ultra modern Lhasa

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Arriving in Lhasa, May 2018, I’ve not been here since 1998 … new airport, three security counters, meet our guide, out into the parking lot, and a glimpse of the reality here.

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The old road meant a three hour trip, but one of the highlights was this beautiful Buddha seen along the way.  This photo is from my last trip in 1998.

 

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There is now a long, long tunnel that takes about two hours off the trip from the airport to the western edge of Lhasa. The tourist van is equipped with a camera (purple ball to right of centre) to record all that goes on inside and the speed of the van is monitored remotely. If a driver is going too fast, he is likely to get a phone call to say to slow down. The speed limit is 80 km/hr.

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The first glimpse of Lhasa is now of high rise buildings at the west end of the city. Next is a security check stop then driving past more mostly empty high rise apartment buildings where Tibetans working in remote areas buy flats as an investment and for their retirement. If they are working and living in a remote area, as our guide said, “everyone wants to live in Lhasa”  (this is just like all Nepalis wanting to live in Kathmandu and 50% of all Georgians now living in Tbilisi) Eventually we got to our hotel in an area of … wide streets, new modern buildings. This photo is actually in Shigastse as I was too flabbergasted to take photos of the journey into Lhasa.

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From the hotel, we walked along the wide sidewalks of the main street and then into the narrow lanes in the old city around the Barkor and Jokhang (main temple). Many of the buildings have been rebuilt but this area seemed to have mostly Tibetans going about their daily lives.

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As we approached the Barkor, the wide walking street to circumambulate the Jokhang, we were blocked by a booth with an electronic reader for all Chinese ID cards and an x-ray machine. Everyone had to put our bags through the x-ray to continue on to the Barkor.

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In late May it was Saka Dawa, the sacred month commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana (death) of the Buddha. Thousands of Tibetans were circumambulating the Jokhang and hundreds were doing so by prostrating, measuring the length of their body with each prostration.

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Most prostraters began their circuit with prostrations to the four directions in the large square in front of the Jokhang.

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There were dozens of Tibetans doing prostrations in place at the front entrance to the Jokhang on the new looking squared flagstones.

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This was a change from the 1990s, when it was still the patchwork of uncut stones. As well, we were not allowed up onto this part of the roof of the Jokhang.

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Gone were the women from Kham wearing Khampa jewelry with tables to sell souvenirs in the 1990s. Affectionately called the “lookie lookie ladies” as they chanted ‘lookie, lookie’ at the tourists. The souvenirs were all for sale in shops.

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The devotees walking the sacred route or doing prostrations were still there but the street life has changed. Gone are the street vendors selling snacks or trinkets.

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The juxtaposition continues. (1990s photo)