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Mysticism to modernity

September 14, 2010

Lhasa is today awash with modernity, wherein
traditional values only seem to be an appendage.
Pratibha Chauhan reports on the town’s development after a recent visit
Tribune India
September 12, 2010

Shoton Festival

BOARDING the flight to Lhasa filled me with the
excited anticipation of a mystical experience in
the land of the Buddha. Particularly, for
somebody who has lived in Dharamsala and heard
from nostalgic Tibetan refugees about the
grandeur of Potala Palace and effervescence of
Tibetan spiritualism, Lhasa conjured visions of
maroon-robed, prayer wheel-rotating monks and
nuns milling around in a landscape dotted with monasteries.

I thought about thousands of Tibetan refugees
uprooted since 1959 from their native land, who
would probably never get to see their country
again and considered myself lucky to be among the
privileged few getting to see the "forbidden city".

As one drove from the Gangor airport, some 90 km
away, to enter Lhasa, the mental stereotypes
about the city began to wane. High-rise shopping
malls, ornate corporate offices of banks,
construction and telecommunication companies and
expressways seemed to strike a discordant note
with the mental visions of a theocratic polity
that Tibet had always been. The initial euphoria
dissipated quickly and the mind disconnected from
the heart to witness the present reality.

The mystical land, home to some of the greatest
Buddhist scholars and spiritual teachers, is
today awash with modernity wherein traditional
values seem only to be an appendage.

The city can today boast of one of the best
infrastructure. There is an attempt, though, to
uphold the rich history, culture, traditions and
values that the land is known for worldwide. I
was amazed at the development that had taken
place, as it appeared no different from any other
modern city with excellent roads and well-regulated traffic.

The town certainly wore a festive look with
elaborate decorations on major places, especially
outside Potala, the winter palace of the Dalai
Lama and Norbulingka, his summer abode. Since our
visit coincided with the "Shoton" or "Yoghurt"
festival, there was an air of festivity and
celebration with a one-week government holiday in the town.

Lhasa, which in Tibetan means "sacred place," is
popularly known as the "Roof of the World" at an
elevation of 3650 m and also referred to as
"Sunshine City," considering the fact that it
gets 3,000 hours of sunshine annually. Located on
the northern bank of the Lhasa river, the city
has a population of about 2.70 lakh with 31
ethnic minorities, including Tibetan, Han and Hui.

The rapid pace of development inside Tibet and
particularly in Lhasa has greatly picked up over
the last two decades. The Central Chinese
Government and officials of the State Council of
the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) claim it is the
result of the special importance accorded to
Tibet. It has been receiving preferential
treatment in policies, thus heralding a socio-economic revolution.

Given the fact that Lhasa looked like any other
modern city with excellent infrastructure,
including the best of roads, well-regulated
traffic and all the rest in place, it is at the
ancient monasteries like Drepung, Jokhala and
Potala Palace that one gets the feel of the
spiritual aura. This mystic ambience
notwithstanding, the Chinese efforts in bringing
to the Tibetan people quality education, health,
communication, etc., cannot be underestimated.

Festive fervour

The unveiling of the huge Buddha thangka (sacred
painting) is held at the over 1,000-year-old
Drepung monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa town,
atop a mountain early in the morning. It is this
ceremony which marks the start of the Shoton
festival, when people make offerings of yoghurt,
milk and curd to the monks who have been in meditation for months.

It was still dark but the entire mountain along
the monastery was flooded with people. The place
had a mystical feel as the chanting of mantras
reverberated and the smoke rising from the tiny
hillocks purified the air. Holding the white
offering khatas (sacred scarf), the people
impatiently waited for the ceremony to begin.

It was around 8 am that 20 monks from the Drepung
monastery carried the large 500-year-old
Sakyamuni thangka paintings on their shoulders to
be put on display. The Buddha painting, 30 m x 40
m was gradually unfolded amidst the echoing sound
of the bugle on the hill side, facing the
monastery. The crowd went into raptures as the
ceremony of the "Buddha basking in the sun" was completed.

People from far and wide made a beeline to the
hilltop to get a glimpse of the Buddha painting,
to seek blessings and make a wish in the most divine of surroundings.

"I have been coming here since my childhood as it
is a very auspicious occasion and there is no way
we can give it a miss," said a monk Ang Wang
Xiao, who came from Pianbo monastery of the Gelupa sect, 70 km away.

Others like truck driver, Zhaxi, were here for
the first time as he had heard a lot about the ceremony.

As compared to the 1.90 lakh persons who had
turned up for the unveiling of the Buddha
painting, this year, the number is estimated to
have crossed 2.50 lakh, according to Tourism
Board officials. The traffic in the town came to
a standstill for three hours as devout Tibetans
made a beeline to the sacred hilltop.

Later, all assembled at the Norbulingka Square
where the official function, kickstarting the
Shoton festival, was held. The Tibetan Opera is
another big draw during the festival as shows are
held at Norbulingka and Longwangtan (Dragon King
Pond) Park opposite Potala Palace. The Tibetans
assemble with family and friends in the park and
enjoy the opera while sipping butter tea, chang and special desserts.

As such, the Lhasa Shoton has become a grand
gathering for the Tibetans, as it is a
continuation of their centuries’ old rich cultural heritage and tradition.

Seat of spirituality

The 1300-year-old Jokhang temple, meaning the
"House of the Buddha" in Tibetan, was built in
647 after Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo married
Nepalese Princess, Tritsun, and the Tang dynasty
Princess, Wencheng. It was to house the Buddha
statues, astrological, medical and other sacred
scriptures that they had brought with them that
the sprawling Jokhang monastery came into being.

Ever since, the Jokhang temple emerged as the
most important centre for the spread of Tibetan
Buddhism throughout Tibet, and successive rulers
enlarged the temple. The temple facing North
towards Nepal, has several chapels like the Greta
Prayer Festival and the Dalai Lama Sunlit Palace.
Murals illustrating Buddhist stories,
biographies, political events and local folk
tales adorn the passages and walls of the
monastery. As the local economy developed around
the temple, the street outside became a business
spot -- Barkor Street -- selling rare thangka
paintings, exquisite stone jewellery and other artifacts.

Track to technology

Considered as one of the greatest feats in modern
Chinese history, the Qinghai-Tibet railway line
has undoubtedly caused grave strategic concern to
India, but considering the fact that it has
practically become a lifeline for the inhabitants
of the rugged mountainous region, Chinese-Tibetan
singer Han Hong has tried to eulogise the
Qinghai-Tibet railway line by referring to it as
"Tianlu" or the "road to heaven".

The construction of the railway was part of the
China Western Development strategy, an attempt to
develop the western provinces in Tibet and parts
of China, which are much less developed than the
eastern part of the country. One of the most
featured rail lines in the world on television
programmes, this mode of transportation is far
more affordable and convenient to those who
earlier had the option to travel to places like
Beijing or Shanghai only by air.

The travel from Lhasa to Beijing is undoubtedly a
gruelling journey of 1956 km covered in 48 hours.
The train ferries about 4,000 passengers daily to
and fro from Lhasa, Beijing and Shanghai. The
rail line was thrown open to the public from July
2006 and has seven main railway stations but it
does not stop en-route, barring in case of
unforeseen exigencies. The rail line crosses the
Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 m (16,640 feet),
is the world's highest rail track. The 1,338
m-long Fenghuoshan tunnel is the highest rail
tunnel in the world at 4,905 m above sea level.
The 4,010-m Guanjiao tunnel is the longest tunnel
from Xining to Golmod and the 3,345-m Yangbanjing
tunnel is the longest from Golmod to Lhasa. More
than 960 km of the Golmud-Lhasa section is at an altitude of over 4,000 m.

There are 675 bridges, totalling 159.88 km in
length, and about 550 km of the railway is laid
on permafrost. Considering the high altitude
areas it passes through, there is provision for
oxygen for every passenger and several oxygen
factories had to be set along the route. The cost
as compared to air travel is very less. For a
hard bed one needs to pay 800 yuan, while a soft
bed ticket costs 400 yuan. This railway is the
first to connect the Tibet Autonomous Region to
any other province, which, due to its altitude
and terrain, is the last province level entity in
mainland China to have a conventional railway.
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