Celebrating Tibet's Culture

Celebrating Tibet's Culture

Coliena Rentmeester and Tom Dey Tibetan pilgrims at the sacred Jokhang temple in Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama has been historically confirmed.
Coliena Rentmeester and Tom Dey Tibetan pilgrims at the sacred Jokhang temple in Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama has been historically confirmed.
On a remote plateau thousands of feet above sea level, there still exists a place whose chief attraction is the traditional virtues embodied by its culture: warmth, humility, devotion. In Tibet, Pankaj Mishra finds a country holding fast to its identity but facing an uncertain future.

In 1992 I left Delhi and began living in a small village in the Indian Himalayas. It was spring when I arrived. I got up every cloudless morning and walked out onto the balcony of my cottage to see the white mountains toward the east straining high on their plinth of air. I could gaze upon the mountains for hours on end, especially in the long evenings, when the distant snow refused to disappear beneath the encroaching darkness and continued to glow an imperious red late into the night. My landlord often joined me on the balcony. One evening he asked me if I knew what lay beyond the mountains. I shook my head. "Tibet," he said.

In Tibet earlier this year, I remembered how surprised I had been by my landlord's reply. How had I managed to lose sight of this basic geography, something so immediately obvious in all my atlases?Tibet, the broad high plateau between India and China, bigger than even Western Europe, and the source of most of the great rivers of Asia (the Indus, the Yangtze, the Tsangpo, the Sutlej). How could I not have known that the Indian Himalayas bordering Tibet, a bus ride away from my own village, were predominantly Tibetan in culture and Buddhist in religion?But then, Tibet was to me, as it has been to many others, a fantasy rather than a real place, a resonant cliché, "the roof of the world," rather than a clearly defined area on a map.

I had read how the Chinese, who first invaded Tibet in 1949, had killed hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and destroyed thousands of monasteries and temples. I had read that the traditional society and culture of Tibet were gravely threatened. But, growing up in a Hindu Brahman family in India, I had also inherited a religious, and therefore immutable, idea about Tibet: it was the sacred homeland of great seers and sages, people capable of levitation and astral travel.

Later, while reading the accounts of 19th- and early- 20th-century travelers from the West, I came across similarly romantic, if more apparently rational, notions of Tibet: it was the isolated, inaccessible country that had remained untouched by the drastic transformations imposed by railways, roads, steamships, and industries, a civilization where religion and tradition were living forces and whose peoples radiated a serenity and gentleness long extinct in the frantically modern and aggressive societies of Europe and America. While working on a book about the Buddha, I came across a slicker version of this virtual Tibet: in such Hollywood films as Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese's Kundun, the place appeared purely as the setting of a benign, medieval religiosity, threatened only by atheistic Communism.

Our modern fantasies of a simple and whole past are fragile. Perhaps that's why we hold on to them so tenaciously. After finishing my book, I finally went to Tibet, seeking, like many travelers before me, to confirm everything I had imagined about it. For the first few days, at least, I was not disappointed.

The magic began on the flight to Lhasa from Kathmandu when, defying predictions of bad weather and low visibility, Mount Everest unexpectedly emerged, all sheer rock and ice, looming well above the thick cloud cover at 25,000 feet. And then, after a long, snowbound mountain range, the Tibetan plateau revealed itself in all its purity and vastness.

Chinese military officials supervised our arrival at Gongkar airport. Their stern faces and green uniforms were the first reminder of the political status of Tibet. Outside, government-appointed tour guides with Land Cruisers waited to attach themselves to tourists, and bilingual banners—on which Chinese ideograms dwarfed the elegant Tibetan script—proclaimed Tibet as part of the rapidly progressing Chinese "motherland," according to the translation provided by my ironic Tibetan guide.

But less than a mile outside the airport, the empty countryside began: barley fields next to a broad river, whose still surface reflected with spellbinding clarity the deep blue sky, the surrounding bare hills, and, occasionally, the white massifs guarding the remote horizon.

This was the Yarlung Valley, the cradle of Tibetan civilization, where the first known ruler of Tibet emerged in the seventh century, and from where the Tibetan empire once spread as far as Afghanistan and Bengal. At Yumbulagang, the site of the earliest known building in Tibet, yaks with black horns and bushy white tails waited to carry us to the small but imposing hilltop temple, from which the valley with its fields and hills appeared dramatically vacant and beautiful. After the blinding light outside, the temple's chapels were dark and mysterious, crowded with gilded statues of the Buddha, the walls hectic with murals of the multiarmed demons that the Tibetans revere as protector deities. The temple had been recently renovated and opened to visitors, but the monks looked removed from time as they pored over manuscripts amid an overpowering aroma of sandalwood incense and rancid yak butter burning in lamps.


During those first few days it seemed to me that many centuries happily coexisted in Tibet. On the small ferry I took the next morning across the Tsangpo River to the eighth-century Samye monastery—the oldest in Tibet—there were two yaks and a young monk who wore blue jeans and sneakers under his habit.

The ferry wasn't meant for tourists; my guide had managed to get me on it, and I was grateful for the chance, rare on government-organized trips, to travel with ordinary Tibetans. The sun was warm, dazzling when reflected in the water and on the snowy peaks. A handsome old man in a trilby hat twirled a prayer wheel. Two young women sat silently, holding stylish parasols with one hand and rosaries with the other; they turned out to be pilgrims, like most people on the ferry. A young couple in jeans and embroidered boots sat on the floor with their red-cheeked baby.

The baby cried, and was appeased with sweets by his parents. People smiled when their glances met—not the polite half-grimaces of strangers, but quick, toothy, and guileless smiles, which momentarily lit melancholy sun-beaten faces and seemed to convey the purest goodwill.

At the ferry beach, a ramshackle bus waited to take us across sand dunes to the monastery. I spent the long afternoon walking around the circular walled compound, which was originally designed to represent the Tibetan Buddhist cosmos and was once fringed with gold-encrusted chortens, or reliquary mounds. Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan architectural styles rendered distinctive each of three floors of the central building, whose wide assembly hall was full of the guttural chants of monks sitting among colorful silk drapes and shafts of sunlight.

In one of the darker chapels, a young monk whispered to me in Hindi. In our brief, hurried conversation—Chinese spies were everywhere, he said—he explained that he had left Tibet illegally in order to spend a couple of years in Dharmsala, India, the home of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Educated at Samye, he had not taken his vows until after his visit to the Dalai Lama. And now his younger brother was planning his own risky journey to Dharmsala.

To go from Samye to Lhasa, past ruins of hillside monasteries and fortresses, was to enter a more fraught world. It was to confront again the knowledge that had shadowed me at Yumbulagang and Samye: that I was looking at ghosts of buildings almost entirely destroyed by Chinese and Tibetan fanatics before and during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976; that I was seeing traces of the extreme violence that had forced the Dalai Lama and more than 150,000 Tibetans into exile in India.

"Religion is poison," Mao Tse-tung had told the Dalai Lama in 1954, early during the Chinese occupation of Tibet. After 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled to India, the Chinese moved to undercut the power of the monasteries, which owned most of the arable land and loaned money to and educated poor villagers. At Samye, where the first Tibetans were ordained as monks, Red Guards, fired up by Mao's denunciation of religion, pounded chortens and statues into dust; some of the chortens have been rebuilt and, with their mix of concrete and gold leaf, embody well the tawdry kitsch produced by Chinese-led restoration efforts in Tibet. The destruction was most extensive in the region of Lhasa, where most of the major monasteries—Drepung, Sera, Ganden—were reduced to ruins. Lhasa's 17th-century Potala palace, the traditional home of the Dalai Lama, was one of the few sites to escape the fury of the Red Guards.

The Communist leadership in Beijing now admits, if grudgingly, to "excesses" and "mistakes" during the Cultural Revolution, when tens of thousands of Tibetans were condemned as "reactionaries" and "capitalist roaders," and imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. Ambivalence now clouds the official memory of Mao, the Great Helmsman, who steered his country into famine and chaos. This is partly because two decades ago the Chinese regime embraced the free market and decided that "to get rich," as the late Communist leader Deng Xiaoping put it, "is glorious."

It wasn't easy, however, to get rich in Tibet. The hard ground and extreme cold precluded extensive agriculture—most Tibetans still depend on yak meat and barley flour for subsistence—and little infrastructure for heavy industries existed outside Lhasa. The high altitude (an average elevation of 13,000 feet) and low oxygen deterred many outsiders from settling there. The only thing that Tibet seemed to possess in quantity was its religion, and an exotic past that the Chinese regime in its new mode decided to package and sell to tourists.

Since the early eighties, the Chinese authorities have promoted tourism in Tibet, despite occasional setbacks such as the anti-Chinese riots and demonstrations in Lhasa in 1987 and 1989. They remain suspicious of the growing popularity of Buddhism among young Tibetans and even Chinese: in eastern Tibet in 2001 they partly demolished a monastic encampment that had attracted thousands of Tibetan and Chinese students of Buddhism. But they also hope to attract visitors to the more famous old monasteries and temples, and have rebuilt and renovated a few of them. They have improved telecommunications, and built roads and even a new railway that in a few years will link Lhasa with China.

New government hotels aiming, not always successfully, at an international style have gone up in Lhasa and the towns of Shigatse and Gyantse. There are fewer visa and travel restrictions for foreigners. Although you often see American, European, and Japanese tour groups, it is groups of nouveau riche tourists from the cities of coastal China that appear most often in the monasteries, as they pose with monks and clamber up steep metal-lined ladders to peer eagerly at murals depicting tantric sex.

Encouraged by the government in Beijing, which wishes to open up Tibet, like the rest of China, to private enterprise, hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese—the ethnic majority of China—have moved to Tibetan cities to take advantage of tax breaks and incentives for small businesses. Han Chinese are said to outnumber the Tibetans in Lhasa by two to one.


With its wide avenues, billboards with neon ideograms, shopping malls, discotheques, Sichuan restaurants, and brothels (usually disguised as massage parlors, as I discovered to my embarrassment), Lhasa now resembles a Chinese city on the make, as fanatically devoted to consumerist excess as it once was to Communist austerity.

The Lhasa of my imagination—pilgrims with rosaries shuffling through a mist of incense, past old mud houses with painted-wood window frames in narrow alleys—existed only within a few blocks around Jokhang temple, the most sacred spot in Tibet, where the ceremony confirming the next Dalai Lama is historically held. There, the hustling that gave much of Lhasa the raw vulgarity of a frontier town was relatively absent. Tibetans made up most of the crowd of pilgrims, tourists, policemen, and trinket sellers flowing clockwise around the temple. Women from eastern Tibet, magnificently adorned with turquoise headdresses, necklaces, brooches, and bangles, mingled with young Tibetan city slickers in reversed baseball caps.

But at the monastery of Sera, tourists clicked their cameras frantically as young monks debated Buddhist philosophy in the traditional way, underscoring points by leaning forward and bringing their hands together with a loud clap. The event seemed staged; an American woman with a money belt around her waist moved slowly through the crowd of tonsured men.

The Potala palace still appears fabulous, as it abruptly rises, tier by tier, above the city on its own steep hill, and gazes equably at the mountains surrounding Lhasa. But looking directly down from the roof of the palace, I saw ugly squat blocks of concrete stretching to all four corners, and the palace, with its vast magnificent bulk, suddenly appeared marooned in the city. As I stood there one afternoon, a shampoo salesman with a megaphone harangued passersby in the huge Chinese-built square below the palace—a desert of tarmac created by razing the old quarters. The echo penetrated the melancholy empty apartments of the Dalai Lama, still touchingly preserved.

From this transplanted China that is modern-day Lhasa, I was relieved to return to Tibet. I went on the long highway to Nepal in a Land Cruiser, an essential vehicle in a place where there are hardly any paved roads. And every step of the way—trailing clouds of dust across barren white valleys; past the black tents of nomads, from which children emerged, waving, holding their happy mucus-smudged faces up to us; on the high passes where prayer flags rippled in the strong wind; bowling alongside a turquoise lake cradled by yak-encrusted hills—I felt the enchantment of Tibet's immense spaces.

It was evening when we drew into the town of Gyantse, the place where Tibet had first encountered the modern world, in 1903–04, when invading British troops from India machine-gunned hundreds of Tibetan defenders equipped only with antiquated rifles and swords. Before the Chinese invasion in 1949, Gyantse had been an important town on the trading route to India, then Tibet's closest trading partner. Now cheap Chinese-made goods filled the shops and the stalls that spilled onto the dusty pavements, and in the lobby of our empty hotel, very young Chinese girls in identical red silk dresses stood smiling vacantly under a barbershop sign offering 24-HOUR MASSAGE SERVICE.

China is developing and modernizing Tibet, taking it into a glorious future: it was hard to get away from this message, which was garishly advertised on the welcome arches and billboards along the empty roads, and which my Tibetan guide always pointed to with a wry smile. But the extreme youth of the prostitutes was proof that although the future might be glorious, the present is an ordeal for many—the Tibetans as well as the large number of drifting Chinese who have sought work in what to them is a remote, strange, and inhospitable land.

I had read in several books and articles on post-Mao China about the country's "floating population," estimated to be more than 100 million, looking for work away from home. Such large-scale uprooting was said to be one of the effects of the country's economic policies. In Tibet, Chinese-led development appeared to me to have affected only the few urban areas, where most economic migrants from China live. It seemed to have left untouched the laborers repairing the roads, the farmers in the small villages, and the idle Tibetans playing pool in roadside dwellings everywhere. And it had not diminished, and may even have reinforced, the role of religion in Tibetan society.

Almost all reports about contemporary Tibet attest that despite having been under continuous assault for more than three decades, Buddhism remains central to the lives of most Tibetans. For them, the liberalization that began in the eighties primarily meant the freedom to worship rather than to play the new stock market in Lhasa. Some of the pilgrims I saw the next day at Gyantse's famous octagonal stupa had traveled hundreds of miles. Half bent under the weight of their wooden-framed rucksacks, they walked around the monastic complex, feeding the mangy dogs and reflexively doling out money to the beggars while spinning their prayer wheels. Inside the chapels, they squeezed yak butter out of yellow plastic bags into the lamps burning at altars, and with greasy hands stuck one- and five-yuan bills in the shrines, their small-denomination notes with idealized pictures of Chinese peasants easily outnumbering the big-denomination ones left by tourists from Buddhist Taiwan, Japan, and Thailand.

I felt frustrated that I couldn't talk to Tibetans freely without risking the malevolence of the men in dark glasses—plainclothes policemen—who sat conspicuously in hotel lobbies and sometimes even followed foreign tourists. But one didn't need extended conversations to understand the unqualified devotion the Dalai Lama inspires among monks and laypeople alike, more than 40 years after he fled to India. Monks and nuns had led the pro-independence demonstrations in 1987 and 1989 that provoked Chinese authorities to declare martial law in Tibet. As the veteran Chinese Tibet expert Wang Lixiong admitted recently, "virtually all Tibetans have the Dalai in their hearts."


The Chinese overlords of Tibet aren't without good intentions. It is mostly due to them that many Tibetans enjoy better education and health care. But the majority of Tibetans are still peasants and nomads, and even the educated people I spoke to seemed discontented with Chinese rule. Like all traditional people faced with modernization, their choices are drastically limited. To embrace the glittering new world of China is to become as ruthlessly materialistic and secular as the post-Communist Chinese. It is to lose what is still precious to them: their religious and cultural identity.

The fear of sinicization seemed to weigh most heavily on the Tibetan refugees I met in Dharmsala after returning from Tibet. They were convinced that Han Chinese settlers would overwhelm Tibetans with their alien ways and that soon, with the new rail connection to China, Tibetan society and culture would cease to exist.

The younger refugees stressed the need for immediate and extreme action; they complained that the Buddhist methods of dialogue and negotiation advocated by the Dalai Lama had proved futile. They pointed to the world attention given to the radical Islamists in Palestine and elsewhere after their spectacular acts of violence.

I knew that such views were popular with many of the refugees—part of their westernized general outlook. But I didn't argue with them; I didn't feel that I had earned the right to do so. My own views were as timid and mixed as those of any traveler to a beautiful country under a despotic regime.

When I thought of Tibet after coming home, I first remembered that morning on the Tsangpo: the austere landscape where small things—the water slapping against the boat, the bare hills brown against a blue sky, a man in a trilby hat twirling his prayer wheel—possessed the power to bestow happiness.

I remembered watching snow blow off the rocky summit of Mount Everest, one chilly evening on the half-collapsed mud roof of Rongbuk monastery. I remembered the peasant women in Lhasa, that garish symbol of Chinese capitalism, slowly circumambulating the Potala, measuring the miles of concrete in a series of energetic prostrations—lying on their bellies on the ground one moment, and then rising up, their bangled arms outstretched before them, ready to plunge again onto the hard ground.

These images were commonplace in the books I had read before visiting Tibet: the Tibetan landscape and people always appeared in them with a religious aura. I liked to think that I was immune to these stereotypes, which often manage to hide Tibet's harsh political reality. I didn't believe that all Tibetans were epitomes of loving-kindness and nonviolence. But it was hard not to feel that I had traveled to the heart of a unique civilization, one whose achievement lay not in imposing monuments or museums but in the refined personal culture—the humility and warmth—of its men and women.

I had become aware, too, of the great dignity and inner strength with which Tibetans have protected their traditions and identity while living amid the physical rubble of their civilization—the rubble of destroyed monasteries and temples over which a profit-driven, and still repressive, Chinese regime is building a Disneyland of Tibetan culture.

After having suffered totalitarian Communism, Tibetans now confront a dissolute capitalism, one that seeks arrogantly, and often violently, to turn all of the world's diverse humanity into middle-class consumers. But it seems wrong to think of them, as many outsiders do, as helpless victims of large, impersonal forces. It has been Tibet's fate to be the laboratory of the cruelest experiments humanity has performed upon itself in the modern era. Yet the Tibetans have survived well the shocks and pain of history that have led people elsewhere in the world into nihilistic rage and violence. This is at least partly due to their Buddhistic belief in the primacy of empathy and compassion. And, faced with an aggressively secular materialism, they may still prove, almost alone in the world, how religion, usually dismissed, and not just by Mao, as "poison," can be a source of cultural identity and moral values.


Spring, early summer, and late autumn, when the weather is mildest, are the best times to visit. Note that Chinese restrictions on travel are often tighter during March, the anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet.

A guide must accompany all visitors, and a Chinese tourist visa (relatively easy to get) and a Tibet Tourism Bureau permit (which can be difficult to obtain without assistance) are both required to enter Tibet. For these reasons it's best to use an experienced travel agent or tour operator to set up your trip. Geographic Expeditions (800/777-8183; www.geoex.com; from $300 per person per day, custom itinerary), Travcoa (800/992-2003; www.travcoa.com; from $500 per person per day, custom itinerary), and Abercrombie & Kent (800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com; from $400 per person per day, custom itinerary) all offer both prearranged group tours and custom trips. Some of the most knowledgeable travel agencies are based in Kathmandu, including Wayfarers Himalaya Adventures (977/1426-6010; www.wayfarers.com.np) and Green Hill Tours (977/1442-8326; ghill@wlink.com.np). Whether you choose an American or foreign-based operator or agency, it's worth finding out before booking if it uses Tibetan (as opposed to Chinese) guides.

Within Tibet, travel is not especially easy. Altitude sickness is common for anyone not accustomed to spending time at elevations of 10,000 feet or more. Most people require three days to acclimatize (ask your doctor about Diamox, which can speed up the process). The country's dirt roads are often in poor condition; tour operators will provide a driver and a Land Cruiser, but you should expect a bumpy ride. Hotels, although generally clean, are not especially comfortable or orderly—basic features such as shower curtains and international calling from your room are luxuries. The quality of food has improved in the last decade (with increased availability of fresh produce), and there is a growing number of acceptable restaurants serving Chinese, Tibetan, Indian, and Nepalese cuisine, but finding a good meal outside the main towns of Lhasa, Shigatse, and Gyantse can be difficult. Throughout the country, consume only bottled water, clean produce well, and beware of ice cream sold on the street (it may have melted and been refrozen).
—P.M. WITH XANDER KAPLAN

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