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)

Why did some Sherpas first go on expeditions…

On this anniversary of the first ascent to the summit of Everest, let’s pause a moment to remember why men from the Sherpa ethnic group in Nepal first went off to work on expeditions.

Kancha Sherpa is the last surviving member of that 1953 expedition, perhaps because he was very young when he went off to Darjeeling in search of expedition work. Kancha told me his story in December 2009 in Namche.

“When I was a kid we were so poor, we had no mattresses just yak skins and the wooden plank for a pillow. We used to walk to Kathmandu in 8 days, carrying tsampa cause we had no money to stay in hotels.

“We carried loads to Tibet. There were three people who traded Nepali paper to Tibet to use in the prayer wheels. We earned Rs.5 to carry 30 kg loads for the 4-day trip to Kyabrak, just over the Nangpala. The Tibetans would pay us in salt – 8 pathis (30 kg) that we carried back to Khumbu in three days. Then we carried four pathis at a time to Kharikhola where we got three parts of corn for one of salt – so we could not take too much salt at once to be able to carry the corn back to Namche.

“Then we dried and ground the corn to eat. Then we started the whole circuit all again. The paper was made in Karikhola and they brought it here to sell. There was thick and thin paper for the inside of prayer wheels and pecha (religious books). At the age of 13-15, I would go 11 times a year over the pass. We were walking on snow for about an hour at the top of the pass.

“I first went to climb in 1953. Three friends and I decided to go to Darjeeling to see if we could get work on an expedition. While my mother was out with everyone dancing in a potato field, I hid some corn flour in one of her shirts. My friends each had Rs.15 and 20, but I had none so I took the corn for us to eat. We left at night and got to Chaunrikharka at day light -looking over our shoulders to see if our families were coming for us.

“It took four days of walking over the hills to get to Darjeeling. We met a woman from Thame village there, carrying a load of vegetables. We asked her where Tenzing’s house was. She took us to his little house. He asked who our fathers were and since he knew my father, he took me in to work while my friends found work elsewhere. Tenzing liked my work cleaning and getting firewood so he said he would take me to Everest in a month. I was so happy, I carried even more firewood.

“Then I worked on expeditions until 1973, when my wife asked me to stop as so many friends had been killed. I liked the expeditions cause I got clothes and money.

“During these years, 1953-73, I would also earn more money by buying western watches in Calcutta with loans, and selling them in Tibet. One time in Shakya, I was caught by the Chinese army, who took all my watches and money. We were stuck inside the jail for a week without any water. My older brother was in jail in Lhasa because they did not know who was Tibetan or Sherpa. I had a letter written and showed our Nepali passports. Eventually, we got back here.

“Afterwards, I started working trekking. Since I can only write my name, Kancha (Tenzing’s little daughter taught me in 1953), I’d keep accounts on trek with my beads and have someone who could write make notes.

“Now, we earn money here and don’t have to go away. The kids whose parents have earned well with hotels all have good educations. Now, the Tibetans all come here to trade and earn money. Now, I’m an old man doing my prayers.”

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