Tuesday, May 05, 2009

life as a mama

i haven't written here in a long time....
but future writings about Tibetan contemporary art will make it here someday...
let me know if you want to see our blog about life with a new precious child...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Inside Out Exhibition May 20-22, Lhasa

Inside Out / phyi nang log (Tib) / FaSheng FaSheng (Chinese)
May 20 -22, 2007
Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild Gallery
Lhasa, Tibet

please also see installation and art work images in the Inside Out gallery at

By Leigh M. Sangster

A special exhibition was recently held at the Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild (GCAG) Gallery, in the Barkhor neighborhood of Lhasa, to celebrate some outstanding new works by local artists
[1]. Members of the Guild invited me to curate a show in Lhasa, and I had also been hoping for an opportunity to show works commissioned for a Beijing exhibition to Lhasa audiences before they left the city. After working closely with several members, we proposed to the GCAG Board a three day exhibition, which would include an opening reception and an artists’ talk, various publicity in the city, and professional touches such as a Works’ List and bi-lingual labels which are not always easily incorporated into the Gallery’s ever-shifting works on view. The result was a diverse exhibition of works (chosen by myself in conjunction with the members) of oil and acrylic paintings, photography, multi-media, and computer generated digital prints, which together touched on a range of themes, from the representation of Tibetan culture to questions of defining “contemporary” in Lhasa art today.

The show was titled Inside Out/FaShengFaSheng for several reasons, the connotations of just one language’s phrase being impossible to render in a tri-lingual translation. Inside Out first tells us that all of the GCAG members share a commitment to using their artworks to communicate - a conceptual idea or an emotional state or a memory – to their viewers. I wanted to acknowledge that what audiences are seeing is an inner reality made visible, a movement from inside an artist out onto canvas or other medium. As contemporary Tibetan art has been capturing international attention from galleries, collectors, dealers, the public and scholars alike, more and more art has been moving from inside Tibet to the outside world. Many of the works in this show will travel to Beijing, for the exhibition “Lhasa: New Works from Tibet,” co-curated by Tony Scott and myself, at the Red Gate Gallery in the 798 Arts District. Red Gate Gallery has been for 15 years one of the premier galleries for contemporary Chinese art, representing many artists from early in their careers who have in short time managed to become top sellers. Other moves from inside Tibet to the outside include having their work collected and on offer from Rossi & Rossi of London, Peaceful Wind Gallery of Santa Fe, and Plum Blossoms in Hong Kong. These moves from inside Tibet to the outside are then not insignificant, and represent a new phase of Tibetan self-representation to the world, and deserve the awareness and pride of their hometown. Thirdly, we all know the sudden sense of surprise experienced when something has been turned ‘inside out’ – something has changed from what we expected and so we become engaged with it. This exhibition was primarily intended as an invitation to the Lhasa community to take a look, be surprised, and engage with the visual creations and the artists emerging in their city. One of the GCAG members whose work was featured, Gade, contributed the Chinese title, FaSheng FaSheng, two words which sound identical but are written with different characters. The first means “Happening” and is a reminder that much is going on here in Lhasa’s art world. The second means “to make a sound,” and suggests artists in Lhasa are finding and using their own indigenous voices.

The opening reception welcomed about seventy people from all over the city: Tibet University Art School students, artists from the Shunnu Dameh (Incomparable Youth) group, foreign residents, NGO employees, media reporters, office workers, and friends and family of artists. The Artists’ Talk gave each participating artist the opportunity to introduce himself and his works on display for about ten minutes and to take a question or two from the audience. After each artist had finished, the floor was opened to general questions and answers, which continued for almost another hour. After the gathering was dismissed, some members of the audience clustered around works and artists, continuing the conversation yet further. When the guests had departed, the artists gathered in a tight circle on the gallery floor with a couple bottles of wine. They noted that even amongst the ‘inner circle’ of artists themselves, such in-depth conversation about art was rare, and such an event with the community unprecedented. Although one artist commented that it was clear from audience questions that they did not know much about contemporary art itself, this was an important first step towards building knowledge, appreciation, and communication.

Nortse and Shelkar commented in different ways upon the changes in the Lhasa art world since the 1980s when they began working as artists. Shelkar, with his 2007. No. 01- 08 satirically criticized the embrace of new technologies and colors simply because they seemed the most “contemporary” trends of the moment. This large (103 x 155 cm) digital print on synthetic fabric has eight startling tiles of Shelkar’s own photographic portrait, bald and shaven, in distorted shapes and unsettling hues of plum and chartreuse. At the same time, the work captures something of contemporary life, in the ways we put on different faces in different contexts. On the other hand, Nortse’s Cutting Through shows three fish (made of katag), emerging from slits in the surface as if from the lines of a net, to show the freedom artists have today, such that they would even cut their canvases! This is a liberating breakthrough in comparison to the training he received in traditional oil painting’s romantic realism and Socialist Realist cohesion of social elements. Similarly, Nortse’s other pieces in this show experiment with mediums and commentary on social issues. Memory molds katag and lace into the back of a pre-modern Western woman’s corset, the rent in the pale beige linen tight at the bottom and apparently just loosened at the top. Although the garment has never been part of Tibetan women’s couture, the first moment of deep breath after constriction is a sensation those in Lhasa can imagine relishing. Commenting on the proliferation of bars and subsequent alcoholism in Lhasa, the oil painting Endlessly Painted Bottle of Beer, shows a man’s head wrapped in white and red bandage cloths. Though his eyes, ears and even mouth are covered, he continues to imbibe, and needs the tender protection of a wounded patient or the recently consecrated Buddha statue carefully being transported to its altar.

Tsewang Tashi contributed two portraits, Untitled, No.1, 2007 and Untitled, No.2, 2007 (both 135 x 135 cm, oil). When introducing his work during the Artists’ Talk, he noted that there are so many competing perceptions of Tibet and Tibetans, in the midst of which he depicts the feeling of the environment in which individuals are presently living. A young Tibetan asked him how a portrait of one person could represent all the Tibetan culture and the diversity of its people. Tsewang replied that “contemporary art is not an introduction to a culture,” but is an expression of the artists’ thoughts and feelings. “Contemporary art cannot be created if contemporary life is ignored,” he concluded.

Two Chinese members of the Guild, Wang Shiming and Jiang Yung, brought their newest works in their ongoing series. Wang Shiming depicts Tibetan landscapes and woman in thick oil paint, affecting a somewhat quirky take on the romantic impressionist style. JiangYung has shifted from his traditionally Tibetan dressed dolls in fantastic landscapes to nudes, yet retained the title Barbie Doll for his two newest works: a young doll-faced girl with Tibetan ornaments in her hair, sitting atop a giant flower against a plain grey background. He introduces his work by explaining that the effects of globalization bring a certain degree of commonality around the world, particularly in commodities, yet each culture or location retains, and inflects, unique particularities which homogenizing market trends cannot erase.

Tsering Nyandak was a vital part of the exhibition, contributing work in three mediums! This year he has been working with female nudes in scenes just barely recognizable as part of the Tibetan landscape. In stripping people and places of easy ethnographic referents to signify Tibetan culture, he has been able to distill the core of his own emotional experience as a Tibetan individual in Lhasa today. In this show, we had his most successful woman in from water series: kneeling on pebbles in the shallow edge of a river, she clasps a translucent balloon to her chest, lips still pursed around the balloon’s opening. Although of course we usually inflate balloons, there is a feeling that perhaps she is drawing from it a breath of air. The slopping tilt of the horizon, the gathered clouds over a tiny distant chorten are too yellow-green to predict calm weather ahead, and her enlarged shoulder suggests the presence of an immense but invisible burden. Yet her face is a picture of peace, and the water a cool refreshing blue. To me and several Tibetan viewers, the ambiguities and mixed feelings of Tibetan-ness today are captured, with a brilliant mix of complexity, beauty, and discomfort. A second painting, Ladder No.1 is the first in perhaps a new series, and depicts a woman, her back to us seated on a middle rung of the ladder with her head hung low, half-heartedly reaching out an arm towards, or letting go of, the dangling string of a red balloon. The ladder is propped against a red brick wall (a building material that came to Tibet with the People’s Liberation Army) and the top of the ladder stops in mid-air. The ladder resembles the white rungs painted on the rocks of pilgrimage sites, willing beings to the higher realms of rebirth. But here, the ladder and balloon suggest an uncertain, faltering hope.
For the weekend show, Nyandak also offered an installation, constructed in the gallery hours before the opening, and all but vanishing by the end of the Sunday night talk. Stretching a long piece of black fabric on the floor, he laid upon it a traditional wooden board used by all school children in the past for practicing calligraphy (jangshing), borrowed from an older relative. He lightly sprinkled a layer of tsampa (old, no fresh tsampa was wasted) over it, then lifted the board and moved it a few inches over, and sprinkled again a slightly thicker dusting of tsampa, and so on gradually turning the other end of the fabric completely white, and leaving the board in place at the last placement. The early guests frequently inadvertently walked across it, and, as Nyandak intended, as the room filled, the footprints erased the tracings. Finally, in the need for space for the Artists’ Talk, some audience members took it upon themselves to simply roll it up in a tight bundle, a black swaddle in the middle of the floor. Nyandak’s third work was a project specific piece created in collaboration with Yak Tsetan for the Rossi & Rossi exhibition Contemporary meets Tradition
[2]. Four poster-like computer-based graphic designs feature a silhouette of the Buddha’s head, covered with small dew drops. Two include hands in potentially contemporary mudras, one grasping (or a wrathful deity’s clutch), one making the OK sign (or the turning the wheel of Dharma mudra). Three are against a deep blue field, but the fourth is a vividly contrasting red field with half a silhouette on the right side, filled in with green blue swirling that remind one of the earth from space or oil swimming in a puddle. Yak Tsetan’s own work in this show, Star, continued the theme of the Buddha head, a diversion from his usual works on paper and canvas of proud and ferocious yaks, adding a headphone set and black sunglasses, like a celebrity on stage.

Keltse is also working actively with computer based art, producing collages and hand-drawn works using CorelDraw and PhotoShop. He is turning his professional skills as a graphic designer into a new art form, in addition to already being an accomplished painter. For “Inside Out”, Keltse brought together Buddha silhouettes, each with an Om at the heart, one radiating rainbow lines, another filled with intricately spaced thin concentric lines. His second piece, Saka Dawa, features endlessly receding parading rows of Om characters in several directions around a white circle, outlined in tiny beads with a beaded Buddha shape in the center. The work cleverly evokes the feeling of the teeming circumambulating pilgrims, as well as the rows of beggars, under a full moon. In a new painting, Raining Flowers, the Potala is set against a black sky, filled with delicate pale flowers, and a menagerie of people and animals below. Keltse skillfully handles the icon of Tibet which is so frequently emptied of meaning by its overuse, rendering with lightheartedness a personal desire to remember the Potala sans traffic and street lights. But it is not nostalgic or seeking solace in tradition, for above the black hat dancer flies a jet plane!

Gade crowned the show with two sets of stunning work, displaying versatility in mediums, conceptualizations, and feelings. Gade paints on both thin fabric and Tibetan handmade paper; two of each were in this show, in addition to the photographic documentation of an outdoor installation. Two works, Made in China (on paper scrolls) and Precious Items (on cloth) feature a myriad of things, mostly modern commodities, now available in Lhasa. They range from simple everyday items like cigarettes, lipstick and shoes, to the tools of various trades such as painters’ colors and brushes or workers’ hammers and wrenches, to household goods like thermoses and televisions. However, the more than 300 objects in Precious Items seem also to reflect the prevalence of certain types of objects and lifestyles and, like a sociological study, reveal most acquisitions these days seem to center on food, drink and entertainment, while those objects which were daily necessities in the past are here barely present, the tsampa bags and wooden teacups replaced by instant noodles and wine glasses. Yet, the overall arrangements of the products do fall within a Tibetan form: Made in China utilizes the grid blocks and diagonal colored squares of monastic poetry to frame the goods, Precious Items puts each shinny new thing in a small crumbling lotus base and halo backed frame, the central squares toned gold surrounded by a border in which the spaces between objects are colored dark blue, like the brocade around a gold thangka. This suggests two readings to me. Optimistically, all the influences of the market are still containable within a very distinctly Tibetan form, being shaped by Tibetan culture rather than the other way around. Or, the outer Tibet forms remain recognizable, but their inner meanings are completely re-ordered, dislocating traditional values.
In Gade’s Pecha Nagpo (Black Scripture), two long paper scrolls, innumerable tiny cut out windows form a script of Gade’s invention, combining Chinese and Tibet characters into an unreadable but beautiful black text. Red ‘Do Not…’symbols are laid on top, referencing all the ways in which one has to restrain behavior in the urban public: no parking, no smoking, etc.
Many in the audience succumbed to Gade’s exact audience expectation with his most popular painted work. From a distance, the long vertical piece resembles the faded, water damage streaked murals of the former Guge kingdom in far western Tibet. A central space in the painting features the vacated halos that remain embedded in the former temple walls where statues once stood, and is surrounded with rows and rows of identical figures, each on their own lotus-petalled throne. Our knowledge of this type of image seems to fill in miniature Buddhas before our eyes actually perceive them, for when we come closer to look – and surprised smiles and laughs spontaneously arise – we see they are in fact rows of smiling, robe-clad Mickey Mouses! Mickey Mouse Mural is light-hearted, sumptuously colored and gilded, and also contains many layers of meaning, for between the Mickey of today and the ruins of the past, the artist signals a vast distance he has trouble meaningfully bridging.
In a smaller room in the gallery, we installed a series of photographs that document a day’s outdoor temporary installation, Ice Buddha No.1 – Kyi Chu River. Gade conceptualized the event, collaborated with Jason Sangster for the photography, and enlisted the aide of a handful of other artists for the outing (a combined installation and picnic) last December. Gade worked with a sculptor friend to create a special type of mold, and invested in a waist high freezer everyone in Lhasa associates with ice cream sold in tiny shops along the streets. He gathered water from the Kyi Chu, the River of Happiness which runs along the south side of Lhasa, poured it in the mold, and after many weeks of experimentation, had produced lovely clear ice sculptures of Shakyamuni Buddha. We positioned one in the water with the Potala in the background; Gade felt without the Potala this installation could have been any place in the world, but he wanted viewers to see the location as definitively in Lhasa. Then we all observed and documented the ice Buddha melting in the bright Tibetan sunshine.
Gade explained that for him, this project was about the cycle of birth, life and death, coming from elements into form and returning to the elements. As the water from the river froze and then melted again into the stream, so is our cycle of our lives. However, Gade is also particularly interested in what thoughts, emotions, meanings or narratives will come to mind for others, and wishes this work to remain open to anyone’s interpretation. My own associations while observing the process - with decline of culture, violence done to statues and religion in the past (statues raided and destroyed in Lhasa’s temples having been dumped into the same river during the Cultural Revolution, I am told), and the loss of religious knowledge in the land of the Potala – have been shifting lately. When we installed a series of eight 30 x 20 cm photographs in the Gedun Choephel Gallery for the exhibition, I was surprised when Gade told audiences that the chronological ordering of photos could be read either from left to right (melting), or right to left (emerging from the water)! A friend of mine shared her feeling that the gleaming brilliant image conveyed the clarity and luminescence of the Buddha, and could be useful in attracting the attention and arousing the faith of those grown too accustomed to the traditional brilliance of gold and brocade, that is, a new medium for an old purpose. This effect was especially conveyed perhaps by two large prints, Ice Buddha No. 1, 2006 – Liu Bridge (approx. 60 x 80 cm) captured the glowing white ice Buddha from the side, facing the new bridge under construction to connect Lhasa’s western suburbs with the railroad station, arches and bars of steel tower into the sky and reflections in the water ripple around the still point of the Buddha. Looking at this work, I still hear the sounds of the hammers, workmen’s shouts and rhythmic clanking of trucks passing back and forth on unsecured plates of metal. The gorgeous print Ice Buddha No. 1, 2006 (approx 80 x 60 cm) is a close up of the radiant ice Buddha surrounded only by deep blue waters, reflection caught in the ripples stirred by a gust of wind.
“Inside Out” was an exhibition of strong works, showing some of the best of what artists here can produce. Local audiences enjoyed the works and guidance from the artists in learning how to look and respond to art. Lhasa artists certainly have a promising future ahead, both internationally and at home.

[Note: Gade and Jason Sangster’s Ice Buddha photographs are issued in a Limited Edition of 25, and some remain available for sale. Inquires regarding these or the works of other Lhasa artists may be directed to

[1] I cannot express enough my tremendous gratitude to all the members of the Gedun Choephel Artists’ Guild, who, exhibiting in this show or not, supported this experiment and lent helping hands to the installation process. As previous works came off the walls, a chain of artists stretched from the gallery’s main room around a corner and up the stairs to the roof storage room. They patiently drank tea while I arranged and re-arranged the space, then came down with balls of white line, scissors, stool and chair, and hung everything where I’d placed them in record time. Particular thanks are especially due to Keltse for design work and printing of the lovely exhibition poster, Nortse for taking so seriously this endeavor and driving around to post said posters, Gade for his collaborative spirit and practical assistance with frames, and especially to Tsering Nyandak for his tireless translations, errand running of all kinds, and ever-friendly conversation about art and life.
[2] Please see “Old Buddhas in New Clothes,” the catalogue essay for the Rossi & Rossi exhibition Contemporary Meets Tradition, Asia Week (March 2007) New York City, also posted on www.mechak.org.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Tradition meets Contemporary essay

This essay was written for an exhibition organized by Rossi & Rossi (London) for Asia Week (NYC, March 2008). All images are copyrighted to gallery (antiques) and Jason Sangster and the artists (contemporary) . As usual, this is intended for friends and family and not for reproduction.
I cannot figure out how to post more images here, so the collection of 17 contemporary and 5 traditional images I reference are available as a gallery at

Meeting Old Buddhas in New Clothes
Leigh Miller Sangster[1]

In the exhibition Tibetan Encounters: Contemporary meets Tradition centuries of Buddhist iconography and cosmological forces are re-envisioned as they are mapped onto the twenty-first century. This challenging exercise was borne of the Rossi & Rossi commission of seventeen of the best contemporary Tibetan artists to respond to a set of Tibetan Buddhist arts from the 13th - 18th centuries. Although they are presently working within and outside of Tibet, almost all of the artists have experienced the world of traditional Buddhist arts in monasteries, a quintessential component of the Tibetan cultural landscape. Yet this collaboration between the past and present is unique. Rather than a part of their collective acculturation, or the requisite subjects of study in the course of their art school training, the engagement here is of mature artists interrogating the relationship of their own techniques and world views with that of their artistic and cultural heritage.

In asking what continuities we, and contemporary artists, see with the arts of pre-twentieth century Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we are asking how that tradition becomes situated or is located within the 21st century. Why does the past persist into the present, and where do we look for it? Facing an explosion of options and influences unprecedented in Tibet[2] and in diaspora communities, sustaining cultural identity is difficult. It requires an evaluation of the relationship of individuals and communities in the present to their conceptualizations of their past. This collective memory is vital to cultural identity and ways of envisioning the future. For these artists, a future as Tibetans is possible, though trying to imagine such a thing inevitably comes up against threats to linguistic, religious and cultural integrity. How does tradition remain relevant in a world of rapid change? This present congregation of artists is engaged in just this pursuit, questioning through images what to keep, what has become emptied, what is even possible to transmit to future generations, what is vital.

The flood of influences from outside cultures and the marketplace of globalization may also be a cause for hope and excitement. As Rossi & Rossi’s spectacular collection of religious arts from the 13th to the 18th century, from far western to eastern Tibet, demonstrate, it was precisely Tibetan artists’ extraordinary capacity to invite, study, and master techniques from their borders, and re-fashion them within a distinctly Tibetan environment and aesthetic, that has created an art tradition world renowned. Throughout Tibetan history, the cultural spheres of philosophy, religious practice, astrology, medicine, and art have been imported and incorporated with indigenous knowledge to create unique Tibetan systems that perfected these arts and sciences. Are we perhaps witnessing the initial phase of another period of tremendous creativity in Tibetan culture, as foreign materials, techniques and styles merge with traditional ones, each to be put to novel purpose in expressing a Tibetan view of 21st century encounters of tradition and modernity? This may be too simplistic and optimistic, but certainly in the waves of Indian Buddhism that flooded Tibet twice[3] there must have been those who cautioned against the foreign ideologies and feared the loss of indigenous knowledge.

If we ask what makes these Tibetan artists, at this moment, quintessentially modern – they are after all working with traditional motifs, beliefs and icons – it is not merely that they are painting in the 21st century. Nor it is merely new styles and mediums which merit the appellation of modern. In addition to these, it is the way their art functions, and the changing conceptions of the role of the artist in society which are radically new in Tibetan culture. It is evident that they are rooted in and committed to their culture, though sensitive to its changing manifestations from the 13th through the 21st centuries and into the future.

Tibetan artists have used for this exhibition the visual language of Buddhist imagery for commentary, critique and description of their world today, as we shall see. Tibetan art has always reflected a vision of the forces in the universe, and here that function of art continues, but strikes closer to home, becoming personified, offering social critiques, and visually incorporating our media saturated era. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are brought down from the celestial abodes of the antique thangkas and situated, for better or worse, in our human realm. Perhaps those palatial realms envisioned in the past no longer feel like a realistic representation of the structure of the world, perhaps their presence in this human realm is rich enough for the imagination. In any case, we meet the Buddhas through the lens of contemporary history and life.

The complexity and variety of contemporary arts occur within a harmonious aesthetic. Here we may begin to see continuities with the past, for traditional arts valued the balance and harmony of composition, color and technique, from overall whole to the minutest detail, whether the subject be ferocious or munificent. Thangkas in the Rossi & Rossi collection of Manjushri (13th c.), Amogasiddi (Late 13th), Buddha Shakyamuni (14-15th) and the Life of the Buddha (18th) impress viewers with a central image that emerges strikingly from an intricate environment. Swirling colors and intricate details in contrast with the clarity of a single Buddha seem to have influenced the contemporary versions by Tsering Nyandrak and Tsetan (Buddha), Tenzin Rigdrol (Buddha Manifested for Ad and Change is the Eternal Law), and Gonkar Gyatso (Buddha Shakyamuni). Whereas thangkas occupied a central place in the visual culture of pre-20th century Tibet, in today’s globalized sites this position of primacy has been co-opted by advertising. Nyandrak’s billboard design and Tenzin Rigdrol’s magazine advertisements reinstate the Buddha into contemporary visual prominence, drawing upon thangka’s visual technologies. The four part poster series by Nyandak and Tsetan suggest ambiguous modern mudras, perhaps of the grasp of a wrathful deity or the human clawing at acquisitions, perhaps the turning of the wheel of dharma or an ‘OK’. The startlingly graphic quadrant, with half a Buddha’s head swirling with blue and green against a bright red field, combines precision (a hallmark of both thangka and computer technology) and the natural or random appearance of water or weather. The serial use of the black and white line silhouette suggests a form which may be filled with any content we wish.

Tenzin Rigdrol’s Change is the Eternal Law expresses one of the fundamental principles of Tibetan Buddhism: the nature of all things is impermanence. Despite this fact, we often operate as though we and our possessions and the objects of our desire are permanent and promise lasting happiness. Tenzin’s lesson in impermanence hopes to drive home this fact of reality through the use of the extremely ephemeral – hair products, glossy weekly news magazines, and snack foods. And yet the figure of the Buddha stands like the geometric structure that remains constant in a shifting kaleidoscope, reminding us that the possibility of escape from suffering and rebirth is also a perpetual feature of samsara. The Buddha’s appearance is updated, up to the latest newspaper and Oprah magazine, and in the process the Tibetan text in the background becomes equated with the English texts as no more meaningful or lasting. Yet in the external change to current fashions and lack of facial features, the inner qualities of the Buddha seem to transcend cultural or temporal bounds. The meditation posture, mudra, bowl, robes, and halo remain, just as the central events of the Buddha’s life and teachings that they mark retain relevance today. Tenzin Rigdrol’s present location outside Tibet, and the title of the piece, suggest too a paradoxical struggle: to maintain a core identity in the midst of competing influences is possible on the one hand, and yet there is the law of impermanence on the other.

With similar technique of the whole being in the details, Gonkar’s pop stickers on paper coalesce into the form of a Buddha, a shape he has said he has loved working with over the years of his career. His modern Buddha sports a halo like the Statue of Liberty’s crown, and the thangka painter’s proportion guidelines, which traditionally follow strict measurements and are subsumed beneath the paint in the final stages, remain visible and converted into New York’s grid of city blocks lined with pollution-emitting vehicles. Radiating fighter jets from the Buddha’s head connect NYC with the rest of the world at war; among the glittering stickers dwell a soldier, a suicide bomber terrorist, a helicopter and tank. For Gonkar, bringing the Buddha “from the 14th century into the 21st century” to show “contemporary times and popular culture” means to make a connection with the war raging in the Middle East, multi-culturalism, and the more light-hearted affairs of daily life. The cultural diversity of the global present illustrated in his mass of stickers also incorporates his personal experience with geo-cultural hybridity through the inclusion of Tibetan letters (which spell the auspicious greeting ‘Tashi Deleg’) and a Socialist Realist Chinese propaganda figure from the Cultural Revolution era. Gonkar introduces humorous amongst his characters, such as one who reclines and says “I wish to become a Buddhist monk so that I don’t have to go to school.” A donkey near the bottom says, “I know Mr. Shakyamuni. I met him at the Sunday market in East London.” In Gonkar’s unique vision, the serious issues of our times seamlessly co-exist with the fun and playfulness of life.

Since Duchamp, artists in the West have taken on the role of social critics, protesting the art world as much as the foibles of society at large that surround them. The traditional roles for artists in Tibetan culture have not included such fierce independent and controversial thinking, and mid-twentieth century Chinese politics radically inverted the western stereotype of artists by enlisting them in Communist revolutionary ideological battles as ‘art workers’. Charged with drawing source material from the people, they also led ‘mass art’ movements by the people with large character posters of political slogans and depictions of Mao, heroic peasants and workers. In Tibet, former thangka painters spent the Cultural Revolution either adapting their meticulous technique to the broad brush strokes of Socialist Realism’s utopian vision, or, recognizing that to paint anything else meant severe punishment, did not paint at all. One of the first art prizes awarded to a Tibetan after the Cultural Revolution went to Amdo Jampa (1914 – 2001) for a realistic painting of a simple wooden tea cup; those who had returned more swiftly to thangka were not similarly rewarded. In light of such 20th century history, when oppositional views in art went from culturally idiosyncratic to criminal activity, and approved art practices only slowly re-admitted indigenous culture and religion as suitable subjects, the confident social and global criticisms offered by Tibetan artists today is radically new. Particularly in the TAR, where criticism is not politically tolerable, creativity can become a powerful method of communication.

Similarly unprecedented, artists today are skilled in capturing and illustrating their perceptions, critical or not, of their human society. This exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity for Tibetan artists to reflect in very personal ways on the history and status of Tibetan arts and culture and its relationships to the local society and in the international arena. For most artists, the project becomes a study in objects’ changing meanings over time and in different locations.

Social commentary in these pieces works on several levels. Critique of the commercialization of Lhasa and the increasingly worldly attitudes of its residents is expressed as one side of a coin, the other side of which is a perceived degradation in religious practice and cultural knowledge. For example, Tanor finds the world of religious merit and the world that surrounds him to be at odds, with global politics and rising personal economic and material desires making it “increasingly difficult to be a religious person, or even a good person.” Tanor identifies with the monk who gazes upon a mix of religious symbolic devices – the stupefying ram wheel from a tantric manual in the Rossi collection, the wheel of life and the mandala – in all of which central elements are replaced by contemporary fallacies. A man, whose form is filled with Tibetan motifs and stands for Tibetan culture and religion at large, kneels in a pose of surrender, adapted from current wartime practices in the Middle East; this, Tanor explained, is the moment before execution. To express the past in this way seems, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.[4]” The danger is to tradition and its recipients, that its life will be co-opted by the ruling powers and dominant influences; the challenge to the person of vision is to resist the power of conformism while maintaining an unreasonable hope.

Sonam Drolma’s view from Switzerland indicates rising consumer desire and faltering spirituality is far from a uniquely Lhasan problem. Her The Gods are Victims empathizes with the deities’ reversal of fortune; from a society which devoted considerable material wealth to the veneration in temples, rituals and thangkas of enlightened beings in their celestial abodes, today material resources are first siphoned into commercial and political visions of progress. The mantras in the Rossi & Rossi Amogapasha black scripture have morphed into gold hued tire tracks, as though run over on the road to progress. The deities look to have long abandoned their niches, but where have they gone?

Other artists in this exhibition aim their critiques beyond the Tibetan world to global politics and international art practices. Kelsang Lamdrak has been working in Switzerland with multi-media and installation pieces. Recently he has been transforming ordinary beer cans into tunnel visions that amuse, and play games with our perspective. Peering into the opening in the top of the aluminum can, pinpoints of light enter from the illuminated bottom of the can to reveal miniature scenes of greater magnitude than their form or size would suggest. In these views, reproduced and enlarged as C-prints, Kelsang Lamdrak turns the 17-18th century pages from a tantric manual’s[5] instructions for the imprisonment of enemies within ‘wheels’ into contemporary satire. George W. Bush is encircled within the Maddening Wheel in the clutches of a monkey; Hu Jintao is centered in the ram’s Petrifying Wheel. After a good laugh, lest we think such spinning in negativity is reserved for today’s Presidents, Kelsang reminds us we too are subject to the mental poisons by providing an Empty Wheel “for your own problems”.

Panor (Tsering Namgyal) and Dedron offer commentary on their materials as keys to unlocking the deeper implications of their work. The main material is leather, taken from the nearly worn out soles of a pair of discarded traditional Tibetan boots. To this husband and wife team, the soles represent the footprints of many successive generations that have gradually accumulated to form their Tibetan culture, step by step. Secondly, they use the soles to demonstrate that, from a Buddhist point of view, placing the image of a Buddha on the bottom of the feet is considered very sinful, yet in this modern world changes in attitude locally and different customs abroad have enabled people to see Buddha statues and images as just another material thing which can be bought and sold. The two Buddhas in the pair are discussing (or they are reporting other people’s commentaries), just this fate, in the global language of English. One asks “Is this your first time to be here?” “Yes,” the other replies, “it is a wonderful place. Where have you been before?” The first replies, “I’ve been many many places like Tokyo, London, Sydney.” They also ask each other their age (“very old”), and the cost of each other’s ‘performance’ (“it’s a secret”)[6]. The third Buddha displayed between and higher than the other two is different. The turquoise at this Buddha’s heart is a bLa gYug, a stone that holds and protects the spirit, commonly worn by Tibetan people. This Buddha has not lost its essence and blessing power, and the mantra around it, resembling a carved mani[7] stone, indicates its physical location as within Tibet, as English connotes the rest of the world. Dedron and Panor also explained that for them, the dangling mirror[8] is one of the most important materials of the piece. It is the nature of mirrors to show, without bias or distortion, reality before it; mirrors cannot lie. The mirror hangs from the central Buddha in Tibet, as a marker of truth and honesty, while from the other two dangle mani counters. Taken off a rosary and attached to discussions of value, we have to wonder what they are counting now. Finally, the left and right pieces have stitches holding together the Buddha and the sole (generations of tradition) like an open wound that will not heal. In contrast the Buddha in Tibet is suspended in graceful equanimity.

Pewang (Penpa Wangdu) brings the materials and techniques of traditional thangka painting to his modern works, asserting that contemporary Tibetan art, for him, should be built firmly on uniquely Tibetan methods and especially pigments. In his studio is a beautiful large wooden case filled with dozens of small shallow clay bowls containing a rainbow of stone ground pigments, some moist from recent use, others caked and dry, awaiting re-mixing with water. The gold and silver he uses are made for Pewang by the one remaining family in Lhasa that still knows how to produce paints from precious substances[9]. Pewang’s commitment to preserving Tibet’s methods and materials and his deep studies of art history inform the present work in this exhibition.

Pewang’s work Title? can be read as a critique of the history of Tibetan religious arts in recent centuries, in which sections of murals, altars and statues have been stolen or bought from their original context, sites here stripped bare until only a lone perfect Buddha statues remains. This prize piece for the international antique market, though bereft of context, is already marked with the red sticker of a buyer. As figures and ornamental pieces acquire the green sticker of deliberation, the red ‘Sold’ sticker, and disappear, gold coin-like circles take their place (the silver in the last painting is intended to remind us of the sun and moon in the upper corners of thangkas). This transition illustrates the title, and viewers’ changed ways of seeing The sight of a Buddha no longer arouses faith, but thoughts of monetary value. Many citizens, not only artists, are deeply concerned by the lack of protection for their cultural and religious antiquities, many of which are still revered as sacred beyond their material value[10]. Pewang combines deep knowledge of Tibetan traditional materials, techniques and art history with a sense of humor to express this contemporary concern and critique.

In addition to the role of the critic, artists also often hold up a mirror in which society recognizes its own reflection as though for the first time. Several Tibetan artists captured and portrayed an astute perception of their environment, describing, more than critiquing, their world.

Gade has a keen ability to offer a whimsical take on the mix of Tibetan and global cultures, while also asking us to consider the implications of rapid and radical social change. Gade often uses humor by juxtaposing contexts we don’t generally think of as co-existing, but in fact are. His Black Scripture (dpecha nagpo), influenced by the gold [11] lettering on black of Rossi and Rossi’s Amogapasha scripture, lets us imagine a page from a tantric ritual manual with symbolically shaped diagrams and mantras. Upon closer inspection though, we find a star inside a circle and triangle jumbled with the names of British rock bands, a mandalic shape orienting us not to the layout of a deity’s palatial abode but to the dominant political and religious ideologies heard about or subscribed to in the PRC, and a grid resembling a stylized verse of religious poetry turns out to be Chinese language introductory phrases for learning colloquial Tibetan[12]. These details seem to displace Tibetan Buddhist prominence, while showing the pervasiveness of imported materials and creeds. The long scroll with a thick wooden dowel at the bottom, as well as the tiny cut out windows and coin shapes, refer to Chinese fine art traditions, but the shapes and texts signal Tibetan religious arts. It is not merely a mix of Chinese and Tibetan artistic traditions, but a mix of cultures, religions, and politics that ultimately, while beautiful and interesting, lacks any meaning. The words of the text are non-sense; the ancient Buddhist symbols are detached from their former meanings[13]. The forms are recognizable as traditionally Tibetan, but beneath the surface, they have been vacated of meaning. Gade’s concern isn’t to resurrect the traditional meanings, but to show the superficial level of knowledge most people, Tibetans or outsiders, have about Tibetan culture today. For me, this is also conveyed by the gap that bisects the images, which our brain works to re-assemble, yet accepts for its aesthetic power, especially from a distance.

Jhamsang’s Century of Change is a more personal analysis of the present, but envisions a future with broader social possibilities. Jhamsang explained that at present, he has no idea how to communicate with the Buddhas, through meditation or any other means. But with the future’s powerful advancements in computer technology, we may yet be able to communicate speedily and directly with them! Jhamsang was drawn to Rossi and Rossi’s Amogasiddhi thangka because it reminded him of the colors and shapes at the contemporaneous Shalu monastery[14]. For this work, he made some changes to the original, most dramatically in simplifying the color palette from greens, blues, reds, oranges and yellows to primarily high contrast dark blue and yellow. He also changed the facial expression of Amogasiddhi, reversed the hands in the mudra and added more shading. His deep respect and admiration for the tradition, and a unique period in the history of Tibetan art, shows, but so too does his belief in the need for continued innovations and development in Tibetan arts. His layering of shinny metallic silver computer chips and circuits in delicate tracing over the Buddha’s limbs and adornments, radiating out to connect with other ‘components’ in the system, far from obscures the figure of a deity, as conservatives might charge. As Jhamsang told me, it is not contemporary artists’ job to be photocopy machines replicating images from the past, but to continue to develop Tibetan arts as a tool for expression of the thoughts and feelings of today. Though these feelings include a presently unbridgeable gap between the personal and the enlightened, the conjoining here of past and future technologies comically and profoundly expresses compatibility and hope.

Tsewang Tashi firmly believes that to create contemporary art, contemporary life cannot be ignored, especially in favor of outsider’s mythic visions of Tibet. Since 2003, Tsewang has turned from drawing inspiration from the physical environment to photographic portraits of real people. He collected photographs of random college students and then manipulated them on a computer to enhance the lines of light reflections and alter their skin tones to the neon and synthetic colors which have become naturalized in Lhasa’s urban development. These portraits of youth, in everyday city dress, painted larger than life against a stark white background, create a powerful contrast to the typical image of Tibetans found in tourist souvenirs and advertisements. In fact, it is sometimes even hard to tell that they are Tibetan. Facing us with a direct gaze, absent of turquoise ornaments, yaks or other “traditional” accoutrement, we are forced to confront our own Shangri-la informed expectations, pitting our imagination of a past against present reality. Buddha No.1 2006 transfers the same techniques to a close up view of the face of a 14th century Buddha statue form the Rossi& Rossi collection, but with surprisingly different results. Tsewang met with a few challenges: metal and flesh reflect light differently, and the statue’s features are much more sharply defined than in his human subjects. Blue, “a peaceful color”, accords with the Buddha’s continence, and Tsewang saw in the roundedness of the face a wonderful Tibetan character that emerged in the arts after the various Indian influences had been subsumed. Tsewang’s versatility makes explicit artistic inversions involved in bringing the Buddha into the human realm and vice versa. Tsewang’s application of the same techniques works differently: the shock of multi-colored people disappears when confronted with a blue Buddha (Buddhas come in all colors except human ones), recognizably Tibetan identity becomes paramount rather than obscured, and color becomes more of a reflection of inner quality than an external environment.

Penpa Chungdak’s (Penchung) work was inspired by the 13th -14th century thangka of Vajravarahi in the Rossi & Rossi collection. He painted a miniature version of the thangka in the center of the left side and on the right side a much enlarged detail of the fingers of her hand which holds a skull-cup. Penchung states “the piece reflects a Buddhist approach towards the relation between the smallest particle and the universal. Our mind can have a similar approach.”
The contrast between the close-up details and colors of the right side with the open blank left side Penchung sees as an expression of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, the inherent nature of all phenomenon. He also remarks that this split, combined with the loss of sharp focus on the right side, “represents what we feel very strongly about but are unable to express.” When we act on a desire to see every detail, to get as close as we can, we often expose our inability to access a deeper knowledge. Penchung seems to capture a Tibetan yearning to deeply understand the smallest elements of tradition, but zooming in only pixelates them, and perception becomes more blurred than clarified.

Two artists were inspired, in very different ways, by the experience of viewing and responding to Rossi & Rossi’s traditional collection as a whole. Nortse (Norbu Tsering) was overpowered; confronting the stellar arts of the past is also a poignant reminder of all that has been lost. Black Sun Red Sun questions the possibilities, or impossibilities, of Tibetan culture reassembling itself in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. It is a courageously strong statement about the lived reality of that time, and its ongoing ramifications into the present. These days, common rhetoric of great suffering in all of China during the Cultural Revolution tends, when focused on Tibet, to lament the destruction of monasteries and statues. At the center of Red Sun, a headless Buddha bronze statue, subsequently purchased in the Barkhor, attests to this destruction. But Red Sun, with its red veins scattering blood in all directions and clear spherical tears surrounding the ruin of Shakyamuni, also commands memory and history to the destruction of human life and cultural life. Black Sun images the fear that Tibetan life has been forever changed and something in the collective heart shattered beyond repair. Nortse reflected on the meaning of the materials, saying the red blood spilt has dried and turned black, the Buddha shape is formed of broken glass and some barley seeds. To rebuild after a culture has been destroyed, scattered and lost is, to understate, very difficult. At this late date comes an unprecedented expression of sorrow and dread, mitigated perhaps only by the use of completely Tibetan materials and the present cultural life within which they circulate. Two tiny red feet on the handmade paper represent the path tread so far; one looks down in horror upon all that has been trampled under foot, but perhaps too has the choice of how to proceed from here. Finally, Nortse urges that inevitable movement into the future not forget the sufferings of the past.

Palden Weinreb, in contrast, seems to have been struck with the consistency, from the 13th through the 18th century (and beyond, even into Gonkar’s contemporary work), of the guide lines for the properly proportioned Buddha. In traditional scriptures, aesthetic and religious criteria establish the strictly taught forms of deities. Failure to create the proper physical support would hinder an image’s ability to host the energy emanated by an Enlightened being. Such a sin harmed the viewer, as well as condemned the artisan to a hell realm. On the contrary, the proper and beautiful image has the power to calm the mind, enhance faith, and even ‘liberate upon seeing.’ Edifice reminds one of searching for constellations in the night sky, connecting the dots to reveal some innate universal structures, as the Buddha’s proportions invisibly underlie centuries of riveting beautiful religious creation and powerfully affect our stream of consciousness over countless lifetimes.

Losang Gyatso’s vibrant electric green ‘AH’, a syllable associated with Amogasiddhi and primordial sound, is especially jarring amidst this exhibition’s many stone pigments and softer color palettes’ harmony. Gyatso explains that in the bardo, the passage of consciousness from one life to the next, the sight of “violent” shards of green light appear intimidating and threatening compared to the “womblike” warmth of softly glowing reds. Yet the spiritually advanced consciousness recognizes the paradox and fearlessly ventures outside the “comfort zone,” and into the realm of Amogasiddhi. A radical re-invention of the late 13th century thangka, in which the green Amogasiddhi sits surrounded by red toned attendants in a red palace, the intensified color also conveys heightened emotions and passions about how to die and how to live. Gyatso states “the path towards something truly new is not” necessarily easy and requires us “to step out of our comfort zones. I like this idea because choosing to be an artist is neither easy nor comfortable.”

In these contemporary works, the Buddha is used as much as a visual language as a religious symbol. So much is communicated through the shape, materials, and colors; the Buddha stands in for the diversity in Tibetan culture, and in the artists’ contemporary experiences.

Artists’ contemplations of the relationship of the past to the present led to expressions extremely personal and broadly felt, from the satirical to critical to inspirational; encompassing and merging pride and despair, spiritual ideals and human weakness, creation of beauty and its destruction. These images communicate to us that to be Tibetan today is to dwell where the duality of emotional experience within a single moment of feeling is not extraordinary. Yet I find their ability to reflect upon and so eloquently express this experience, of a time of rapid cultural transformation, remarkably extraordinary.

[1] Leigh Miller Sangster is a Ph.D. Candidate at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) in the Institute for Liberal Arts program in Culture, History and Theory. She is presently conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Lhasa, and spoke with many of the artists in this exhibition about their work for this article.
[2] For purposes of this essay, the place of “Tibet” refers primarily to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the artists in this exhibition living in the PRC are from Lhasa. In contrast, “Tibetan” traditional Buddhist arts and cultural identity broadly refers to the Tibetan cultural world.
[3] The First and Second Diffusions of Buddhism, in the 7th – 9th and 11-13th centuries respectively, aroused such anxieties that a King was eventually assassinated (the 42nd dynastic ruler of Yarlung, Lang Darma in the 9th century) and sectarian religious and political power battles raged.
[4] Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” section VI, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt. NY: Schocken Books, 1968.
[5] In the Rossi & Rossi collection, wylie
[6] When a Tibetan friend pointed out minor grammatical mistakes and misspellings, they were justified by Panor: “It’s ok. English is not the Buddha’s first language.”
[7] Tibetans often refer to the extremely popular mantra of Chenresig/Avalokiteshvara, Om Mani Padme Hum, as simply ‘mani’.
[8] These copper pieces, often worn on the belt to ward away hindering spirits or obstacles, present the animals of the zodiac and other Buddhist cosmological symbols on one side, and a smooth surface etched with an ‘Om’ on the other side. Before the arrival of modern mirrors in Tibet, these served to show one’s reflection.
[9] This family is Tibetan and produces paints from pure gold, silver, coral, turquoise and copper for use by thangka painters, gilding statues such as the Jowo Shakyamuni in the Jokhang, and in the past made the paints even for the ceiling and column designs for assembly halls and chapels in the Potala. This craft is difficult to learn and laborious, and the secrets of production have only been passed on via generations.
[10] Expression of this sentiment was publicly aired via a televised comedy routine by the famed and beloved comedian pair, Thubten and Migmar, and recently re-staged in an English adaptation by young adult community volunteers for an arts festival. Artists have joked with me about going for Buddhist pilgrimage to the West and doing prostrations in museums and galleries!
[11] Today the ink appears gold hued, although it is actually oxidized silver. In the past, both gold and silver and other precious materials were used for special editions of scriptures, as can still be seen in the Potala and other sites.
[12] In the mandala shape in the middle, the central symbol is the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party, the strongest ideological influence in Lhasa. In the four directions are the American dollar symbol, the Muslim star and crescent, the yung drong Bön and Buddhist symbol of auspiciousness, and the Christian cross. In the mandala’s gates, a thermos is an example of a material product that initially came from the west to China, yet is no longer used by foreigners in their homes while has become ubiquitous in Tibetan homes. This is similar to the travel of ideas, such as Buddhism which came from India, where it died out, but grew strong in Tibet. A Coke can is another ubiquitous product in modern Lhasa. The Golden Urn has come from China to be used for the selection of Tibetan lamas.
In the poetry section, Gade uses the form of religious verse in which syllables may be read horizontally and diagonally, offering profound meanings and extremely difficult to compose. Here, diamond shaped lines of Chinese phonetic characters that are pronounced like Tibetan sounds are written as if copied from a Chinese textbook for learning colloquial Tibetan. The top line says pu (boy), then gu coom tsang (greetings), then kyerang gi ming ka re red? (What is your name), chimpa ngarmo red (the urine is sweet, a humorous reference to traditional Tibetan medical analysis), then kyerang gi ka nas yin pa? (Where are you from?), and at the bottom, mo (girl).
[13] Some Buddhist arts correlate geometric shapes, elements, colors and mental states, etc.
[14] Also contemporaneous with Marco Polo’s adventures in Yuan Dynasty China, Jhamsang noted.

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Kailash and Guge

Dear family and friends,
I hope all of you are enjoying life and the change of seasons. Though I have been a horrible correspondent in the past many months, I am writing now about my most recent journey in hopes of reconnecting with some of you, and giving a fuller picture of our life in Tibet to all, despite being somewhat impersonal in this medium.
This letter is just about our adventure to far western Tibet; the few photos here are Jason's. You can see my photos of all these places at http://picasaweb.google.com/leigh.sangster

Jason and I traveled for two weeks with my amazing friend of ten years some of you know, Christy Cline, and her friends, a college friend Matt, and a fellow naturopathic student, Marit. Christy just graduated from Bastyr with her ND and specialization in acupuncture, passed her boards, and will be opening a general physician/acupuncture practice in Carefree, AZ this year. I am so honored that she chose to celebrate her accomplishments by coming to Tibet, and with felicitous aspirations to hike the kora of Mt. Kailash. We wouldn’t have done it without her initiation.

This is our story of two magnificent weeks in a 1990s Land Cruiser, during which time we had two showers (the washing kind), blew three tires, exhausted one car battery, navigated a pass in a snow storm, slept five to a room (not counting the mice) every night, tried not to spend longer in a toilet than we could hold our breath, and ate our fill of instant noodles and meal replacement bars. We saw the most incredibly remote and immensely gorgeous valleys of Tibet I have ever seen. Sparsely populated by humans, they were full of herds of wild and domesticated animals, which sometimes stood nobly and returned our gaze as we passed, and sometimes gave to hilarious darting, leaping and scrambling in front of and around our brake-grinding vehicle. (The official animal list: Yak, Dzo (a cow-yak cross breed), cows, antelope, gazelles, wild asses, donkeys/mules, ducks, eagles, ravens, lots of little birds, hares, pica (plateau marmot-type animals), sheep, goats, dogs (including mastiffs), mice, lizard, and, in the lower elevation towns, pigs and chickens.)

We drove three straight days under vast blue skies to the town of Darchen, near the holy Lake Manosarovar at the base of Mt. Kailash (Gang Rinpoche and Gang Tise or Precious Snow Peak in Tibetan; Kailasa in Sanskrit). Darchen is about 800km from Lhasa, in the far western province of Ngari, in the southwest corner of the Tibetan plateau. North lies the former Silk Route and Kashgar in Muslim Xinjiang, south is western Nepal, southwest are the Buddhist Himalayan areas of India- Himachal, Spiti, Lahual, Ladakh, and Geshe Lobsang’s hometown in Kinnaur. From an elevation slightly higher than Darchen, we saw sun rise on snow peaks in Nepal, India and Tibet.
Kailash itself, at 50 million years old, rises alone
to tremendous heights that tower over the immediate range of lower “hills” that are only 20 million years old (and 5000 m high). The shape of the mountain has been liked to a crystal and a pyramid, and the sheer walls with their distinctive snow and rock striations certainly captivated us, evidencing the pull the mountain has exerted on pilgrims for centuries. Hindus revere the mountain as the abode of Shiva, and the Indian government manages an annual lottery to limit the Indian pilgrims to a lucky several hundred quota set by China. Bon (pre-Buddhist indigenous religion of Tibet deeply connected to the local environment and spirits therein which has over time adopted Buddhist philosophies) adherents see the mountain as the site at which their founder descended to earth to teach and the place of many miracles performed by their lineage of masters. They circumambulate in an anti-clockwise direction, setting them apart from the clockwise moving Tibetan Buddhists. Four of Asia’s most important rivers also begin here. Most would know these rivers by the names they acquire as they pass through India, though they’ve traveled through Tibet, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere too: the Brahmaputra (which comes almost to Lhasa before turning south), the Indus, Sutlej, and Karnali (which becomes the Ganges sacred to Hindus). In Tibetan, near their source, these rivers carry names of animals (lion, horse, elephant and ?), which combines with the other sites named for deities, elements, and the precious stone faces of the mountain to create an overall sense of a blessed, cosmologically complete, condensed perfect universe. It did seem that the surrounding areas had a vast emptiness and even harshness that the immediate valleys that comprised the kora around the mountain did not, vibrating as they were with more animals, grass that clung on to green longer, colorful rocks and streams, and of course the residual energy and signs of centuries of pilgrimage.

We spent a day in Darchen arranging the kora hike: learning the process of hiring yaks, and mentally and physically anticipating the Drolma-La pass, the highest point of the kora at 18, 760 Ft. (5660 m). Previous record elevations for me have been memorable. There was my first big pass at 11, 500 ft. on my first Himalayan trek in 1996 to Chialsa, Nepal; second Nepali trek in Dolpo brought me to a lake at over 15,000 ft, and a previous Tibetan hike which crossed 15,500 ft. Points over 16,000 ft. I have only reached in a vehicle on roads in Tibet. Clearly, the Drolma-La was a significant gain, and we’d be walking. Despite my acclimatization to Lhasa (under 12,000 ft.), the effects of altitude gain are never predictable, and we were feeling a little trepidation. This explains the bottles of oxygen we brought, and the need for yaks to carry them, our food, and potentially us!

Since I was the only one of the group who could speak enough Tibetan to communicate about yaks and packs, I got to be an honorary male and join the other groups’ guides and drivers in the yak men’s “office”. Prices, meeting point and time, payment for sending off of a messenger on a motorcycle to summon a yak man and three of his beasts, and so forth were all negotiated. I asked if the man I was dealing with would be coming with us, which brought all kinds of scoffing and laughter: wasn’t it obvious to me that he was the Leader? We latter learned he was pocketing quite a bit of cash; obviously a leader. He put his red fingerprint on a ‘receipt’ which he instructed me to give to my husband, and announced we were done. I’d become female again!
We’d spent several hours the night before getting some walking exercise around the small town on a slope while looking for elusive the Om Café, rumored to have yak steaks and French fries. By night it was a lost cause, but the next day we triumphed – no steak, but we learned how long it takes to deep fry potatoes over a yak dung fire (a long time!).

Day One of the circular kora hike:
We rose early, before the sunrise (according to Beijing time, about 8 am), and had a breakfast of instant coffee and stick-to-your-ribs tsampa (roasted barley flour mixed with tea to take a form between porridge and play dough, depending on your preference). We walked out of the village to the base of a hill to the west, which we followed as the sun’s first rays hit the snow peaks across the turquoise lake. In the sublime beauty, we each summoned to mind our various motivations and hopes for the kora and walked in silence. Our first view of Kailash from the kora route was designated the First Prostration Point, marked by piles of small stones and strings of colorful prayer flags. We turned north here into a valley which narrowed as the mountain sides towered above. A few hours from Darchen, we stopped at the seasonal tea tents run by local women in the distinctive Ngari chubas of bright bold stripes of colored felt and wool. We waited here for our yak-man and three yaks to come down from the north and our driver with the jeep to come up from the guest house with all our bags (this is as far as a car can go). Though the sun had risen, we were back in chilly shadows and the wind carried glacier cooled currents, so the warm of the tent was welcome already. Though I am, after ten years, totally ‘acclimatized’ to the taste of yak butter tea, every time I taste it outdoors after a walk or in the cold weather, I fall in love again. For the less accustomed, here is rule of thumb my friends deduced: the higher the altitude and the colder the weather, the better the taste! The tea is like a broth of everything the body needs; black smoky tea concentrate, boiled water, salt and butter churned in a big wooden tube (or, in Lhasa, an electric blender). (actually the butter is from dri, the female of the species – to Tibetans, ‘yaks’ are male, so our claim to be drinking yak butter tea is humorous to them. But there’s nothing funny about butter – it is a valued staple, and copious fresh amounts are piled on honored guests – not literally! - in tea, tsampa and food.)
Our warmth, inside and out, at being in the this tent with a delightful little girl who insisted we all mime and do funny face tricks soon turned to heartache as I translated for the mother her questions for Dr. Christy. She complained of monthly swelling and pain in the lymph area under her arm and of headaches and cramps. After advising her to use alternating hot and cold compresses for the swelling, she explained to me how this condition began four years ago. Her second child had died, and complications with her third pregnancy brought her to the nearest large town’s hospital, staffed by Chinese doctors. She knew many Chinese women went there for abortions, but did not know what her “treatment” would involve until it was too late. Her pregnancy was aborted and she showed me the place inside her arm where something she didn’t understand was inserted. Since then, she had not been able to get pregnant and menstrual cycle was irregular and full of physical pains. Tibetan women have been subjected to forced sterilization and abortion for decades, but the practice, throughout China generally, is supposedly discontinued. Minorities in China, Tibetans included, and especially rural dwelling minorities, are allowed more than the One Child policy urban Han are supposed to adhere to, so even according to the rules of the practice, she should have been allowed a third child even if the second one hadn’t died. Now she only has one daughter, though many nomads, like her family, have 7-8 children these days. “Allowed” a certain number of children is such a hard concept for us; women here have asked me how many I am allowed in the US and have trouble believing my answer of as many or as few as I wish. But this kind, quick to smile, shy woman was clearly grieved, and whatever in her life might have given her a sense of justice and injustice seemed to be telling her this was a case of the latter. We had to leave then, and she refused to let us pay for the tea! I thought I managed to sneakily leave some money on their small altar, but a few minutes later, the daughter came running out with a big lump of butter in a piece of plastic for our tea making on the road! They’d be moving camp soon, but we were sincerely welcomed back to that spot next summer.
Desperately needing to pee after so much tea, I struck out ahead of the yaks for some rock cover.

We walked for approximately 5 more hours, mostly spread far enough apart to enjoy our own thoughts and the silence, but close enough to stay within site of at least a few in the party. The thin stream which we followed up the valley was frozen in many spots, creating delicately beautiful patterns of ice, rock, grass and reflections. We gradually gained elevation, and the snow peak of Kailash came in and out of view, always from startlingly different angles of rock shape and glinting sunlight. The gourmet lunch item, when compared with my stiff cold Clif/Luna/GeniSoy/Balance bar, was peanut butter and biscuit, topped off with PowerBar Shot Block (cran-razz flavor) glucose gummy thing. Yes, we stocked up for this trip months in advance at REI.

Spotting the first night’s stop, I was eager to find a way across the widened stream to Drira Phuk monastery (female yak horn cave monastery), named for the dri which led a famous religious practitioner of the past to an excellent meditation cave here. The burnt red color of the building was visible from afar, but so dwarfed by the magnificence of the landscape around it, I wondered how humans have survived there for so long, while also appreciating the humility brought by recognizing oneself to be so small.
Enjoying the warmth of tea in a monastery kitchen, we looked out across the river valley to the awesome sight of the sheer north face of Kailash, and (!) the spectacle of our yak-man unloading our bags in the tent guest houses! Forgetting his instructions when he saw some members of our group stopped there for tea and photos, he settled in for the night and we had to make a second stream crossing. Tired and a bit shaky, it’s not surprising I got both feet icy wet, but fortunately we were near a warm fire to dry out socks and shoes, and the yak portage meant I’d brought a spare pair of shoes. (In the morning, we found the bridge, of course.) Instant noodles and Snickers eaten, we turned in early with two Nalgenes of hot water to warm our sleeping bags. Trying to drink 2-4 liters of water a day meant none of us slept through the night, but we were rewarded with views of the Milky Way in the early night and rising moon in early morning. Once I caught the reflection of yak eyes in my headlamp, a huge lump of fur and low grunting was waiting for morning.

Day 2: Our yak-man however was not so attuned to the coming dawn. He told us to start packing up at 7 am, as it would be a long day over the Drolma-la and on to the next monastery. We believed him since we hadn’t yet realized that he didn’t own a watch, and probably never had. At 7 it was still completely dark and no one was up and Jason and I went back to sleep. A fellow traveler in our tent cheerfully called out “Never trust your yak man!” but for those already up and packed and eager to go (marathon Christy and Matt) it was too late. When he was still snoring at 8, they woke Yak-man and the tent tea maker. Instant coffee and tsampa, quick run down of all the important sites along the route today and map check, and Christy and Matt were off for the day.

Within twenty minutes of leaving camp, we met our steepest incline yet, supposedly only a warm up for the ascent to Drolma-la several hours ahead. I was suddenly so lightheaded and dizzy and couldn’t catch a good breath. My head hurt and I was coughing more than the night before by the smoky fire. A moment of panic swept me as I questioned how I could ever make the rest of the ascent on my own feet, and I looked down on the approaching yaks, hoping they wouldn’t pass me too fast. Jason stood by and offered encouraging words and patience. My mind cleared enough to realize I’d hardly eaten any breakfast in my excitement and nervousness about the day, on top of usual lack of early morning appetite. Remembering my friend William’s advice to take as much time as I needed, I drank and ate and soon felt much better. Continuing on, I didn’t tackle the rest of the incline with the overconfidence I had initially, but found my own rhythm of breath and step and was soon in a mental zone of movement and the sound of my own breathing alone.

The path leveled at the symbolic Cemetery, Shiwatsel. Pilgrims leave personal items here both to make a connection with the place and the enlightened beings looking over it, and to go through a visualization of their own death and leaving this body behind. They often lay down on the ground as if a corpse, pray to be reborn in Chenresig’s Pure Land, and discard the past in the form of a piece of clothing, a hat, a lock of hair, a tooth…It was a powerful place. As I lay on the ground with chilly fingers and toes, I remembered Tibetan perception of the stages of death; the early stage of the retraction of heat from the extremities was feeling a little too real! The sun was warming though, and as I asked for help and guidance, powerful waves of blessings and images of enlightened ones filled my heart. Tears came to my eyes, and I was filled gratitude, calm, confidence, dedication and enthusiasm. I left a few inches of pigtails, and Jason and I continued on together, buoyant and energetic.

Yakman paused to let his charge graze on the last grass they’d see for a few hours, acknowledging that anyway, it was impossible to get them to move once they’d started munching. His family was all nomads, but he was quite proud of his 7 years of schooling, particularly his skill in math and Tibetan script, and passable Chinese. His sister-in-laws’ family frequently crossed the Indian border in search of good pasture, but always did so at night, fearful of the military stationed all around and their notorious jails. Needless to say he was also proud of having never been caught. We asked what his family thought of government practices in the last couple years of settling nomads in homes the government largely pays for, complete with TV, in exchange for some political statements of loyalty. The nomads pay their portion, sometimes 50%, sometimes less, by selling off parts or all of their herds, without long-term planning for their future income. The only skills they posses are in animals, wool, leather, butter, etc. and these villages of former nomads don’t create any local industry or train people for other work. Instead, located near highways with cheap food and goods, they are tempted into lives of passive TV watching consumers. Families are broken up, and herds and lands kept for one generation soon can’t be inherited by kids who grow up in the town ignorant of animals, or the new model of nuclear families small homes encourage breaks up herds traditionally and sustainably managed by brothers. With all these criticisms in mind, I was surprised he was in favor of a new home, with modern appliances and perhaps plumbing, and the newfound opportunity for kids to go to a school while still being able to live with their parents. Many have said before that the current state policies aim at converting, or at least pacifying, through material and consumer seduction. It’s a complex picture, and I can’t claim to know what’s best.

But, this wasn’t on my mind as we set off again, the yaks going straight up and us taking the switchbacks through karmic tests and pilgrim spots for various things. Mumbling all the mantras I know, I was perfectly happy and eager to see every spot on the map or I’d read about. Two Tibetan women, a mother and daughter, demonstrated the first few: a pile of stones one hangs from to weigh one’s sins (presumably if you pull down the pile, that would be really bad – I wrapped my arms around the top stone and lifted my feet off the ground – whew, didn’t budge); a round flat rock on the opposite cliff is known as the Karma Mirror (if you see white, you’re virtually enlightened, red and you’ve got some work left to do, black and you better start jogging this purifying kora!); a few holes in the sandy dirt from which they extracted and sifted earth until they found what they sought, strands of hair from the heads of dakinis, celestial females who assist spiritual practitioners and periodically gather for dance parties on this spot. The ladies were, like the majority of Tibetan pilgrims, planning to complete the kora in a long 15 hour day, beginning around 4 am and finishing after dark. We couldn’t keep up with their pace, nor Tibetans we later saw virtually running down a very steep mountainside!

We came in view of the final ascent to the Drolma-la and it was far less intimidating than I was imagining, but we still decided to stop for energy bars and dried fruit. Fortuitously, we realized when two young Tibetan men came along, we’d inadvertently stopped at another karma test. Several boulders piled up (left there as a result of a supernatural competition of athletic strength between two rival meditators, Milarepa and a Bon master) created a tunnel that is interpreted as symbolic of the bardo, the journey between death and rebirth we must all navigate eventually. This continues the theme of having ‘died’ at the cemetery, and journeying towards the rebirth the summit of the Drolma-la promised. In these tests, they always say skinny people with bad karma will get stuck, fat people with good karma will go through like butter. I got down on the ground and made it through the first section only to be baffled by how to continue. The guys started shouting at me to turn over, and then burst out laughing at me on my back. Clearly, I should have made only a quarter turn onto my side, and then I found a foot hold to push myself the rest of the way out and back to crawling with my elbows. Emerging did feel like some sort of victory! (Later we heard that Christy and Matt had observed a Tibetan woman, stuck, get pulled out backwards by her ankles! For some reason this discouraged C & M from making their own attempts.) The guys asked if we had any photos of His Holiness, which we did not. They pressed further – what about protection cords from Him? Again, I was sorry to disappoint them, but was able instead to offer some tiny pills that had been blessed by Him with the mantra of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of Compassion He is regarded as an incarnation of). This lit up their faces and, salvaging an old candy wrapper from their pockets, they were thrilled to take a small number home some to their families. Seeing as how I’d have been stuck in the bardo without them, there was gratitude all around.

We soon came upon a group of three pilgrims prostrating the entire way around the kora – three steps, prayer hands to forehead, throat, heart as body, speech and mind pay homage to the enlightened ones, and stretching full length on the ground, rising and repeating again. It takes about three weeks to get around the mountain this way, and with lots of stones, dust, and calluses along the way; the opposite extreme of the 15 hour version! We gave them each a small amount of money, but they were beaming before this anyway. Full prostrations and the devotion they suggest seem to be the hardest thing for foreigners to comprehend in their observations of Tibetan Buddhists. All I can offer by way of explanation is that I have observed their faces and movements to be full of confidence, determination, calm and patience, and also physical tiredness that doesn’t diminish the mental outlook. Such a means of cultivating humility, through regret of past misdeeds and motivation to be better, and reverence for those already excellent, does appear to bring results (why else would millions of people do it for generations across Asia?)
Returning to saying the mantra of Drolma, I continued. Drolma, or Tara, is the female Buddha most associated with protection from fears and aid in times of need or danger. She is also, in some forms, associated with the energy of accomplishing, that is the action side of fulfilling one’s goals and intentions. Motivation, or even wisdom, without action is not all that useful, but action unguided by wisdom and compassion is often dangerous, which is why Chenresig and Manjushri (wisdom) are the other two most popular enlightened beings in Tibetan Buddhism. The analogy is like this: a mother sees her only child fall into a deep lake. Because of genuine compassion, she has the unmediated impulse to save the child; but if she doesn’t know how to swim, her ability to help will be very limited, and if she knows but doesn’t jump, she can’t save the drowning one either. The Tara mantra comes in various lengths, but the short one is simple and easy to remember, and often when something vaguely threatening happens, like the engine of the ferry stalling while crossing a river or driving on a curvy road, you hear devout Tibetans switch from muttering Om Mani Padme Hum (Chenresig mantra) to Tara’s mantra. In this case, everyone, local or from far away, knows they need help getting up to 18,700 ft (5660 m), and there’s no doubt what’s on people’s lips. I can’t explain why or how it works, but it does. I felt I was being carried, my heart was so light. Needing to catch a breath every now and then was a delight in stopping to take in the scenery. Mantras matched steps and breaths, and before long we were at the rocky wide saddle strewn with thousands of prayer flags. In the center of the pass is the huge boulder which gives the pass its name. A virtuous practitioner was trying to discover the kora route around the mountain, and wandered astray into a side valley which would have been not only very difficult due to ice and snow, but also would have meant trespassing on the dakinis’ haunts. Twenty-one blue-green wolves appeared, and, since he was wise, he knew to follow them to the next valley and that pass. Of course, these were the 21 Taras in disguise, who revealed themselves at the pass by all transforming into their goddess shapes, merging into one Tara, which then absorbed into the boulder.
Previously in Lhasa I had been to visit a female psychic, for lack of a better word. She has had unusual, even extraordinary, powers her entire life, such as seeing and hearing deities, easily escaping prisons in the CR, and meditating alone without food in a mountain cave for several years. She looks at people and can answer their questions, and the fact that many people find her words and suggestions beneficial was evident by the long line of people streaming in and out of her home. One of her comments to me was that Jason and I could remove obstacles to our happiness and success by hanging two particular types of prayer flags on a high mountain…..What better place than the Drolma-la? Jason and I found it fun and meaningful to leave a rainbow of prayers fluttering in the wind there, and now looking back from Lhasa, it is hard to believe that 800km away, at 5660m, there remains proof we were there, wishing happiness for all beings.

We headed down, past Gauri kund, one of the highest lakes in the world, with that distinctive eerie milky blue green color of glacier melt water. The lake, as you may guess by now, has several stories behind it as well, but offering one of Jason’s photos is probably all I need to say. In the following hour, we lost all the altitude we’d gained in a day and a half, 1800 ft (600m). This is where we saw Tibetans running straight down the steep mountain side, while we looked for switchbacks amongst the stones. At the bottom, a wide river valley opened up, and it was basically flat from here out. We had 4 more hours to go though, and just because it was flat didn’t mean we weren’t tired by the end. We arrived at Dzutrul phuk monastery around 6 pm, exhilarated by the day, but ready to be out of the wind and with a cup of hot tea and water on the kettle for instant noodles. Spending the night at a rural monastery means some time chatting by the wood/dung/trash burning metal stove drinking tea usually until the smoke drives you to a cold room with several beds, suggestion of several mice, and sleeping bag. This night though, another group arrived after dark, and we were asked to give our seats to those coming in from the cold. None of us seemed dismayed by the early bedtime.

Day 3 of the kora:
The single lay religious man who tended the monastery, along with a funny chang (local beer) drinking assistant, gave us a tour (religious visit) of the monastery in the morning. In a cave at the back of the small prayer hall, the hand and head prints of Milarepa were visible. It was here that the Bon master challenged him to a competition of who could build the best shelter; when Milarepa started with the roof, there wasn’t much the Bonpo could say. There was a staff which supposedly belonged to Milarepa (11th c.) which had been damaged and broken in half during the Cultural Revolution. Their valuable collection of very old scriptures and a statue of Milarepa, supposedly constructed from the living likeness of the saint, had survived that time by the bravery of one man who hid them on his property, and returned them in the 1980s. All the monasteries at Kailash were demolished by Red Guards in the 1960s, but the main ones have been at least partially rebuilt, and maintained by a smaller number of practitioners.
We opted to stay together as a group for the four hours leisurely walk out of the mystical valleys and pilgrimage mindset and back into Darchen and the ‘everyday world’. The challenge of pilgrimage to maintain the intentions and outlook generated through the quiet walking and camaraderie once ‘back’ is a significant one. We had some nice conversation, watched some eagles soaring, and marveled at the green, black and blue rocks in the Gold Cliff Red Cliff Canyon. The river valley opened out to the wide plains we drove in on, the saw the Manasarovar lake again, a turquoise strip between us and the towering snow peaks along the national borders. At a pre-arranged site, our driver was offloading our bags from yaks and into the land cruiser. Yakman wasn’t coming into town. We took some photos and said goodbye, and then he asked for a tip. It was that moment of leaving the woods after a weekend hiking and suddenly the transition back hits you with traffic, billboards and noise. Something of the stillness and quiet and lushness of life leaves you just a little bit. We’d been told we’d already paid a good salary for the boy to the ‘leader’, but we learned that was apparently the leader’s cut and the poor yakman hadn’t been paid at all for his time, only his yak’s costs (which we never did figure out since grass is free, but I’m sure we’re just ignorant about the business of yak-ing). We felt deceived by the leader, but also that we didn’t want this kid to suffer for that, so made his three days well worth it. Some said he should use it to buy a watch!

We still had just under an hour to walk the rest of the way back to where we’d started. A few minutes before we reached the outskirts and our guest house, we five linked arms and walked in silence, full of thanks and joy, and then we each offered one word to encapsulate our experience: “breathless,” “intense,” “movement,” “gratitude”.

Back at our rooms in the early afternoon, we washed our hair in hot water basins, changed into clothes we’d left behind, relatively clean, ate some Pringles and drank beer brought from Lhasa. Back at the Om Café for great veggie stir fries, we met a few more of the kind of travelers far western Tibet seems to attract: hard core extreme tourists. Our list includes: 13K John - an English guy who’d driven from UK to Pakistan and on a whim left his car in Islamabad, hitched to Kailash and was doing 13 kora in a row because an Indian man told him it was a good idea to do; Horsehead - without visas or permits planning to ride one horse and walk his second pregnant horse over the mountains to India – does he think they’d just let him back in because he’s British?; Everest - a Canadian who pitched his tent in the coldest windiest spots so he could take photos at 4 am from his sleeping bag; an Israeli woman alone, also without any legal papers to be there; an couple who’d ridden their bikes from Italy and suffered a few too many sunburns in the last six months. Compared to the 15 hour runners and the three week prostrators and the insane Europeans, we look incredibly tame and boring!

Next day of trip, day 8
Driving out of the plains below Kailash and taking in our last views, we passed herds of animals and followed rivers for a while. Then we found ourselves in the utter desert of Guge. Most Americans would compare the landscape to Utah or the S. Dakota Badlands. A huge canyon arose before us, and would be reminiscent of the Grand Canyon but for the range of snow peaks rising above the rim. The vertical exposure of sand and rock and snow was incalculable. It is also hard to explain just how bad this road is. We had to limit the way back seat duty to one hour, and all the women were working the acupressure point near the wrist that soothes nausea. The rough day back in the car was worth it though to see the remains of Tholing and Tsaparang.

This is the Buddhist and art history section, skip ahead for the continuation of our travel story if you wish
The Guge kingdom was founded by sons of the last king of Tibet’s dynastic period, assassinated in the 9th century allegedly for his anti-Buddhist leanings. Tibet broke into many smaller fiefdoms, and wasn’t to be fully unified under a Lhasa leadership again until the Fifth Dalai Lama, in the seventeenth century. But in the 10th c., western Tibet was controlling major sections of the Silk Route trade, and the Guge kingdom was flourishing and supporting a population of 5,000, with thousands more coming for special occasions. Prosperity and power secured, the King Yeshe O determined to restore Buddhism in Tibet, and sent capable scholars to India to gather and translate Buddhist texts. Rinchen Zangpo is most famed among them. He spent many years in India and is credited with building 108 monasteries in the once unified area of today’s western Tibet and NW India (Ladakh, Kashmir, Kinnaur). He is probably the one who told the king of the accomplished and revered Indian Buddhist master and abbot, Atisha, and suggested inviting him to Tibet. The king sent numerous invitations, accompanied by gold offerings, to Atisha which were long refused. An invading army captured Yeshe O and demanded huge amounts of ransom money. It took his nephew some time to gather it, and when ready to turn it over, Yeshe O instead insisted that he was an old man, and the money should be used instead to bring Atisha to Tibet. Atisha may have been moved by this story, but did not reach Tibet before Yeshe O died. Another factor in Atisha’s decision was a dream he had in which he was visited by Drolma/Tara. She told him that going to Tibet would be good for the dharma, but would shorten Atisha’s own life. Atisha packed his bags and headed north along the Sutlej river valley, arriving at Tholing monastery at the base of the mountain atop which is the royal castles. He remained three years teaching at Tholing, which was then a thriving Buddhist center already of 500 monks. He then traveled to central Tibet and taught and composed texts for Tibetans until he dies in 1054, securing the Second Diffusion of Buddhism from India to Tibet. From this time, though Buddhism waned and disappeared in India, Buddhism never again declined in Tibet, until this century that is. It is hard to overestimate the historical and religious importance of this figure, who I’ve heard about since I started studying Buddhism, and thus this place. But Guge kingdom in the early 1600s courteously welcomed the first European visitor, the missionary Antonio Andrade, who obtained permission from the king to build a church. Buddhists in the region feared the king was weak and joined forces with a Ladakhi king to oust the Guge king. Unfortunately, ruling from Leh, or Lhasa, proved too difficult, and combined with the decline of the Silk Route, and perhaps climate change making the area too dry, the kingdom collapsed, never to be re-established. Because the sites of Tholing monastery and Tsaparong, the hill complex of cave homes, temples and castle, had been increasingly neglected since the 17th century, the Red Guards didn’t attack it with the same zeal the summoned during the Cultural Revolution for places of Tibetan passion and active use. Almost all the statues were destroyed, but the walls, and amazing murals, were left largely intact. The dryness and this merciful moment in history means the absolutely superior art of the 15th century wealthy kings commissioned to adorn these temples is still intact. The art here is the bulk of what we have of the “Guge style”, a very particular art, mostly mural painting, of a limited geographic and historical range, best characterized as a synthesis of Kashmiri and Newari (Kathmandu valley artisans, previously influenced by Pala period (9-11th c. NE India) art. The art and architectural influences are so clearly Indian, Nepali and perhaps slightly further West and Central Asian, and so lacking in any Chinese elements at all. The compositions feature singular deities and figures within windows or frames, made by halos and/or thrones, and the spaces between them loosely filled with decorative patterns from the natural world like flowers, leaves and vines. The bodies are long and slender, and adorned with clinging robes or clothes painted with extraordinary attention to detail of fabric textures and patterns – in some chapels with thousands of figures, each one has a unique garment. The colors are brilliant, mostly red or blue backgrounds with haloes and figures in a high contrast color. In the last chapels to be re-painted before the fall of the empire, we can see the beginning of more narrative compositions, with multiple figures in relation to each other, and landscape or scenery filling in the spaces between figures, two major developments which would become common in central Tibetan art after the 18th c.

Our story continues
Tholing is presently run by a few less than brilliant monks who seemed a little put out by having to sell some foreigners tickets and showing them around. One monk escorted us to some chapels and after unlocking a door for us, immediately commenced hurrying us back out again. He also had a drill sergeant’s adherence to the NO PHOTOS rule. After a building or two, he passed us off on another guy (who he summoned from across the courtyard via cellphone), who turned out to be a real gem. We got to chatting and he explained that people in the past who appeared as ignorant tourists took photos which antiques dealers later used to identify pieces of value that would fetch a good price if stolen. After several robberies there, including pieces of painted wooden ceiling planks, they forbade all photos and require doors be kept locked. Never mind pictures of the place are already published in books and probably all over the internet. (This also means only one guy has the key, and when I went back for a second visit, which I’d arranged in advance, the guy with the key had gone for a check up at the town ‘hospital’ and no one could let me back in until hours after we planned to be back on the road.)
This Tibetan man took us into every single chapel, and offered me quite a bit of explanation of how things used to look and what the piles of debris in each one had been. Larger than life size statues were reduced to clay, straw and dust piles; not swept out but crowned with a mostly whole surviving head from a much smaller statue. Collected in a box here and there were recognizable fragments of small statues that belonged on tiny ledges near the ceiling. The roof of one large important chapel, built as a mandala, had been completely destroyed, and the walls were caked with dust and the melting of earthen construction subjected to the elements. A foreign agency had replaced the roofs in the 1990s to prevent further damage, and upon close inspection of spots where the mud had flaked off, murals were still visible underneath. Whether money, international cooperation, art restoration technology, and will can come together to make them again visible is hard to know. I think his love of this place could see that I was moved, and he began urging me, in a whisper, to sneak some photos, then insisted that I feel in my own hands weight of a small statue’s painted heads, detached from their body. Holding devastation in my hands, without the barrier of glass or ropes or rules against photos, was only mitigated by his then holding that and other fragments to the crown of my head, the Tibetan way of receiving a holy object’s blessing. He made Tholing a place that still contained life, some secret lived attachments that could not be museumified.

Tsaparong was perhaps more like visiting a deserted set of intricate ruins anyplace – a young guide, who had graduated from the Tourism Dept. at Tibet University, was the keyholder this time, and the time it took him to recite his memorized English lines about each chapel was about all the time we had inside them. What appeared to us as a dusty, dry abandoned outcrop of stone perched over the Sutlej river valley used to be teeming with activity in three vertical levels. Ordinary people lived in caves at the bottom, monks’ cave cells and brick and wood constructed chapels banded the middle, and the royal summer and winter palaces were at the top, accessible only through tunnels and stairs deep in the mountain. Our guide took us to the famed chapels with similarly preserved murals and destroyed statues, and left us to explore the rest of the ruins on our own. The murals, as I described above, are of spectacular artistry, and I longed for Jason to have proper tripods and lights to document every square inch. I compromised by tagging on for a second tour with a group of military officials from the regional center city who were on their first sight-seeing tour, both to get a second look and to try to snap some images, hoping my camera balanced on the wooden barricades would be steady enough in the dim light. I was really torn between just absorbing what I could by being there in the moment, and knowing I had only a few minutes and might benefit from concentrating instead on strategizing some photos to mull over later. Tough. Photo results disappointing lack of focus, but still powerfully evocative.

We climbed some inner stairs to the summer palace on the ridgetop – getting winded and wondering how we’d climbed much higher only days before. There was only one original building left in good shape, and locked while under the restoration supervision of a Swiss team. But we got the gist of a complex set of storehouses, courtyard performance spaces and audience halls. The winter palace, accessed through a semi-hidden channel from the center of the summer palace complex, was more perplexing. The tunnels definitely brought out the Indiana Jones in us, as we clung to a loose metal ‘rope’ and tried not to slide all the dark way down! Once we were inside the mountain, we saw the Royal family’s allegedly warmer abode and safety hatch in times of attack and siege. There was even an escape route/ water access tunnel. But, the ‘rooms’ were tiny, low, dark and of bare stone, indistinguishable today from the commoner’s caves far below. We were trying to imagine them full of cushions, candles, tapestries on the wall, etc., but I still can’t say I’d like to have been Royalty there!

From Guge we turned back eastwards to Lhasa. Going over the pass on the way to Darchen, we hit a snow storm. Thinking we were out of it a few hours later, we turned off the main road to spend the night at Chiu Monastery on the banks of lake Manasarovar, hoping for a scenic sunset. Instead, we found ourselves in over a foot of snow and miles away as night was falling. Jeeps and tractors and trucks carrying lots of stuff and people were stuck all around us, and when we got going, we’d inevitably get stuck behind someone spinning their wheels or pulling out a shovel to dig up dirt from under the snow to throw around tires. Thankfully, we had a great driver and powerful 4 Wheel drive, and made it to the base of the monastery and stayed with a wonderful family in their guest house. Again, out of the cold and into a warm kitchen drinking butter tea, we rejoiced in our fortune and hoped the others we’d seen on the road would be turning around and coming in too. The lady of the house cooked us the best yak beef and noodle soup of the entire trip and we slept. The next morning, we were hoping the additional snowfall overnight would reduce the iciness of the road, and in fact we were fine. We were astounded though to see the same folks on truck/bus and tractor not far from where we’d left them the night before, and handed out some biscuits and crackers.
One other jeep, carrying Chinese tourists, got stuck several times in front of us, their 4x4 seemed to have ceased working, or not been switched on. Our driver assisted every time, and Jason and Matt and Christy even pushed once or twice. Hours later when we completely blew, and I mean shredded, a back tire, the driver of that car pulled up out of nowhere full of smiles, happy to return the favors. Change of tire pit time: 15 minutes 43 seconds.

Two long bumpy days in the car later, we arrived in Gyantse, a wonderful town in central Tibet I used to refer to the Wild West town, before I’d really been out west. But in Gyantse, horse drawn carts and people somewhere between town and country are the norm on the streets. The town was probably more modern in the 1930s than today, when it was central to the Tibetan-British Indian trade route, and aristocrats from Tibetan and British society were partying it up together and doing the Charleston. Invaded by Younghusband in 1904 to secure those trade concessions, British determination to make it to Lhasa and exert influence over the coming decades became part of Chinese Communist rhetoric – the PRC was established to overcome and expel foreign imperialists, from the Opium War’s battles in the east coast to Tibet in the West. That is, they still believe Tibetans willingly join and gratefully celebrate their liberation from the British and the theocratic Lhasa government, as you can see in the Anti-British Memorial Museum at the fort. However, today’s main East-West and North-South routes bypass Gyantse, and so, unlike Lhasa and Shigatse, the town’s old buildings haven’t been bulldozed for department stores. Modern consumer goods are available, but fit into the Tibetan character of the town; probably 90% of the buildings are in a well executed traditional architectural style. The jewel of the town though is the 15th c. Kumbum and adjoining monastery. The Kumbum is an immense multistory chorten, one of only two surviving in Tibet in which the pilgrim enters and ascends the floors by processing through dozens of tiny chapels. Again, I was amazed by the 15th c. murals, and Marit and I made good use of the freedom to photograph inside. Our cohort though had seen it, the adjoining monastery and one up on the hill in the same amount of time we took in the Kumbum alone. ‘Seen one 15th c. chapel, seen ‘em all’. As a somewhat historian of Tibetan culture and arts, it was a great learning experience for me though, and rewarding too since I had not visited there since my first time in Tibet 10 years ago.

We had several really good meals back in Lhasa, especially our last night together for a Tibetan feast, chang, and lots of laughs. We almost changed hotels to sleep five to a room without a toilet, just for nostalgia.

Back in Lhasa, Jason and I are more than a little happy to have our room back to ourselves, and though Jason had a nasty cough for a bit, we were just content to be in the same room alone, a luxury we hadn’t had for almost three months. If you are interested in his excellent photographs and version of this trip, and/or his experiences working for three NGOs in six counties in eight weeks, check out his blog at www.jasonsangster.com/blog

So, we are trying to remember what normal life meant in Lhasa, three months ago, before I went to London, Germany, and Beijing, and Jason to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. We’ve re-met some friends and research contacts, and settling back in. We should be here until June or July, and you are all most welcome to join us for an adventure any time.

We’re on email and skype a lot, and would love to hear from you.
All best wishes
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