Temples and Tempests

Trip Start Sep 30, 2006
Trip End Jan 16, 2010

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Where I stayed
Ohdan Guest House

Flag of China  , Tibet,
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Today, Bernice, Hiroko, Becky, Sarah and I set off to visit the former summer palace of the 14th Dalai Lama. Norbulingka means "the jeweled garden" and is an historic estate just a taxi ride away from the center of town covering an area of about 89 acres. The estate is covered in trees, which we have not seen for what seems like a thousand miles. Tall pines and cypress pleasantly shade the cobblestone walkways leading to the three main palaces on the property. Norbulingka, also houses an unfortunate zoo in disrepair with more unfortunate tenants. Because of its relics and artwork and historical significance - this is the home the Dalai Lama fled from in 1959 - UNESCO has named this part of the Potala Palace World Heritage Site. We visited because it is a holy shrine, the last place the Dalai Lama lived in his homeland. Walking through his villa/temple, there are many of his personal effects and gifts from other world leaders. It is clear his presence still lingers. While we were horrified by the condition of the estate, we are honored to visit the former home of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, and wonder if he will ever be permitted to come back to his beloved homeland and his people. We learn that currently in Tibet it is illegal to possess a photograph of the Dalai Lama. If one is caught, there are severe penalties. It is also illegal to display the lovely Tibetan flag. We are angered by the lack of basic rights of expression for these peaceful people. Later that afternoon, we visit another holy site, the Jokhang Temple. The temple is in the very center of old Lhasa, and is one of the holiest sites in Tibetan Buddhism because of the alloy statue of Sakyamuni, or Buddha. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the third world treasure we are guests of in the holy city of Lhasa. The temple was built in 647, which given its well preserved condition is almost unbelieveable. This holy property is engulfed by worshippers. Outside, those unlucky souls who cannot gain access, prostrate themselves for hours on blanketed mats on top of the unyielding concrete. Inside, desperate people push to get behind the gated entry into the 6 acre complex. Security guards, and even monks, are surprisingly physical towards these forlorn pilgrims, pushing them back, trying to maintain some semblance of order. Once inside, the dark passageways are lined with colorful artwork, illustrating the story of the Buddha and his teachings. Rows of people, 4 and 5 deep, slowly circle past ancient relics. Many pilgrims are chanting, causing a low hum to fill the air. The rancid odor of yak butter candles penetrates our nostrils as we navigate our way through the crowded dimly lit halls to the sacred statue of Buddha. Pushed and shoved by fellow visitors, I feel a strange hand and cold piece of metal (which turns out to be a pipe) reach into my jacket pocket. Being a city dweller makes be doubly aware in close quarters, so even before entering this holy space, I had moved my wallet to a more protected spot, closer to my body. I quickly remove the hand of a pre-teen boy out of my pocket and spread the word that pickpockets were on the prowl, even in Buddha's house. After glimpsing and touching the sacred Buddha, we thankfully head upstairs to the fabric lined, painted rooms and finally out onto the open air of the blissfully uncrowded roof. We watch the sun leave Lhasa, floating pink over the Potala Palace and watch the pilgrims below us, inside and outside of this ancient temple. We are mesmerized by the scene, the neverending flow of worshippers, monks and townspeople. We marvel aloud that this exact ritual has been taking place for hundreds of years, and now we are its witnesses. We are humbled to be here, struck once again by the piety of these impoverished people. We, like many visitors before us, are in utter awe of this magical land called Tibet.
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