tibet: travel and tibetan culture essentials

[As told to me by my guide Tenzin, and the monks I met in the monasteries.]

Facts and Figures

Known as the roof of the world, Tibet is surrounded by four of the world’s ten highest mountains and covers an area of 1.2 million square kilometers. It shares an approximately 3,500 kilometer international border with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, and is encircled by China to the north and east. The 3rd largest virgin forest in the world with countless evergreen trees lies within the kingdom. The central area of Tibet, namely Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyangtse and Tsedang enjoy mild weather all year round. The maximum rainfall in Tibet is 290mm. It hardly ever snows in winters due to the dry weather. Sunshine is plentiful. Since most places are 3,600 meters and above sea level, heart pounding, shortness of breath, slight nose bleeding and headaches are normal responses caused by lack of oxygen and low air pressure. Acclimatization is recommended on day 1.

Tibetan cuisine is pretty basic, consisting mainly of Tsampa (roasted barley flour) and endless bowls of butter tea. Steamed meat dumplings called Momo and wind dried raw meat (yak, beef, or mutton) are popular. Drinks include Chang, a fortified barley beer, and butter tea which is a salty black tea mixed with yak butter. Continue reading

tibet 6: the rest of lhasa … drepung, sera, norbulingka

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Drepung Monastery, the ‘Rice Heap’

Drepung monastery, the largest and richest monastery in Tibet, was built in 1416 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Hat sect, under the patronage of a noble family, and enlarged by the 5th Dalai Lama later. Its name means ‘Rice Heap’ in Tibetan. The monastery covers an area of more than 200,000 square meters. At its peak, it had over 10,000 monks. Continue reading

tibet 5: potala palace, the home of avalokiteshwara

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Rising above the holy city of Lhasa, the white walls and golden roofs of the Potala (BudalaGong) seem to grow out of the hill on which it stands. Now a museum, the palace is a labyrinth of rooms, interconnected with countless doors, corridors and stairways, galleries painted or draped with richly coloured silks, and filled with around 200,000 statues. The Potala served both as a monastery and government office. But above all, it was the residence of the Dalai Lamas, the god kings who ruled Tibet for more than 500 years, each one believed to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. A Mongolian phrase, Dalai Lama means ‘ocean of wisdom’. The 14th Dalai Lama was only 16 when Tibet was occupied by the Chinese in 1951, under whom he ruled in a limited capacity until 1959, after which he fled to India with 80,000 followers. Continue reading

tibet 4: jokhang temple in lhasa, the spiritual center of tibet

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In the 7th Century, Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd Yarlung king of Tibet, united the scattered tribes of Tibet and moved his capital from Tsedang to Lhasa. He was one of the first kings to be recognized as an incarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the boddhisattva of compassion. During his reign he had a group of 16 children sent to India to study Sanskrit. Only one child survived the journey and went on to live in India for seven years. His name was Tumi Sambhota. This child later became a prominent Minister in Songtsen’s court and was responsible for standardizing and forming the Tibetan script that is still in use today. He contributed immensely to the translation of the Buddhist Sanskrit scriptures as well, making them understandable to the many devout and faithful followers in the kingdom. Continue reading

tibet 3: tashilhunpo monastery, shigatse—tibet’s heap of glory

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Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama

Tashilhunpo Monastery, meaning ‘Heap of Glory’, is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet and was commissioned in 1447 by His Holiness the 1st Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Drup. The abbots of Tashilhunpo came to be known as Panchen, because of their scholarly reputation. The title Panchen derives from the Sanskrit word Pandita, which means ‘scholar’, and the Tibetan term Chen Po, which means ‘great’. Continue reading

tibet 2: gyangtse, after three mountain passes and two lakes

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Yamdrok lake, one of the four holy lakes of Tibet

The drive from Tsedang to Gyangtse covers a distance of 350 kilometers and weaves through three mountain passes and two lakes. The first part of the journey hits one with its sheer desolation. The terrain is dry and barren to the extent cracks tear up the mountains while a river bed glitters empty in the harsh sun; the landscape a monotonous shade of gold. Through ancient dirt roads clinging to mountain edges, I drove higher and higher, my SUV twisting and turning around crags of rock on to the first pass of the journey, Kambala pass, at a height of 4,794 meters. Draped in prayer flags the pass is breathtakingly beautiful. A nomad came from nowhere and placed a one day old little black goat in my arms. I could only look around me in awe, and at that little face with love. Continue reading