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Of tourists & politics

August 31, 2010

Tibet is a place steeped in Buddhism and
spirituality, but politics is never far behind.
By CHOW HOW BAN (hbchow@thestar.com.my)
The Star (Malaysia)
August 28, 2010

Tibetan Buddhism means everything in the high
plateau of Tibet. Sometimes, the Tibetans say,
the religion is bigger than politics and life.

Almost every Tibetan incorporates religion into his daily life.

The Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Tashilhunpo
Monastery are three of Tibet’s most important religious landmarks.

Potala Palace is the most famous of all. Located
in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa, the 1,360-year-old,
wooden and stone structure has survived a
tumultuous past -- from the Tibetan uprising
against the Chinese in 1959 to the Cultural
Revolution of 1966 when radical youths set about
destroying artefacts deemed to be politically incorrect.

 From afar, the palace perched on Marpori Hill
looks imposing and oozes a mystical aura.

Most of the buildings in the palace are about 360
years old and were built by the fifth Dalai Lama.
Only a few are from the era of King Songsten
Gampo, who made Lhasa his administrative seat and residence in 637.

After the 1959 uprising, the palace was converted into a museum.

"More than 600,000 tourists visit the palace
every year. There should be no more than 2,300
visitors daily," says the palace’s administration
department director Qiangba Gesang.

The famous Potala Palace

"We have to protect the cultural relics and
scriptures in the palace and control the number
of visitors because the palace is a very old structure and vulnerable."

Hundreds of millions of yuan have been spent on
renovations and to strengthen the palace’s weak foundation, he adds.

To witness locals performing prayers at the
square in front of the palace is to understand
how holy the palace is. The 117m-high palace is
likened to a cluster of red and white buildings
decked repeatedly, one layer after another. The
scale of the place is astounding. The former
winter palace of the Dalai Lamas has over 1,000
rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues.

It houses Arya Lokeshvara, the most venerated
statue in the palace, in the Phapka Lakhang
chapel which dates back to the 7th century. Other
relics found in the palace include tombs of eight
previous Dalai Lamas (from the fifth to the 13th
reincarnation, except for the sixth) in the form of stupas.

The tomb of the 13th Dalai Lama (1876-1933) is
one of the highlights of the palace. Built in
1933, the giant stupa is made of priceless
jewellery, a tonne of gold and offerings like
elephant tusks, porcelain and vases.

Whether it is the unique construction or its
cultural significance, the palace is bound to
leave a profound impression on visitors. The
granite walls, the wooden eaves and roofs, and
the pillars decorated with scriptures showcase
the finer aspects of ancient Tibetan art.

Another masterpiece in the main hall is a giant
mural that documents the historical development
of Tibetan Buddhism, the biography of the 5th
Dalai Lama and the journey of Princess Wen Cheng of the Tang Dynasty to Tibet.

The actual size of Potala Palace remains a
mystery even today. Qiangba says more rooms and
relics are likely to be discovered by the
cultural heritage department in future.

"We cannot tell for sure how many rooms there are
in it. The experts say the topography of the area
is very complicated and there has not been a map
left behind by the builders," he says.

Devotees walking around the three stupas next to
the main prayer hall of the Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse prefecture

March 14 riots

Not far away from Potala Palace is Jokhang
temple, considered by Tibetans to be the most
sacred place for worship. The four-storey
building with bronze tiled roofs decorated with
golden deer statues and dharma wheels is a blend
of Nepalese, Indian and Tang Dynasty architectural styles.

Unlike Potala Palace which served as residence
for the lamas, Jokhang Temple is truly a place for worship.

There is a standard ritual for pilgrims to follow
during their visit to the temple. First, they
have to circumambulate the temple, then proceed
to the main hall which houses the famous Gautama
Buddha statue as well as the statues of Chenresig
(God of Mercy in Tibetan), Padmasambhava and Songsten Gampo.

Because of its significance as Tibet’s top
tourist attraction, the temple and the busy
Barkhor Square where it is located were not
spared of trouble during the infamous March 14,
2008 riots. On that day, rioters marched onto the
streets near the temple and started setting fire
to shops and looting banks and malls.

The riots, which targeted the Han Chinese and the
Muslims, affected social order and tourism in
Tibet. Jokhang was shut down for a few days until order was restored.

The temple, whose history stretches as far back
as 647, houses 105 monks. It is said that the
temple was built by Songsten Gampo when he
married Princess Wen and Nepalese Princess
Bhrituti, both of whom were Buddhists. The Budhha
statue which Bhrituti brought along from Katmandu
was placed prominently in the temple but later
moved to Ramogia Temple. The one currently residing in Jokhang belonged to Wen.

Like the Potala, Jokhang also boasts several
relics of great value. These include a Buddha
statue said to be sculpted based on Gautama when he was 12.

Tashilhunpo

While Potala Palace is no longer the Dalai Lama’s
seat of government, Tashilhunpo Monastery built
by the first Dalai Lama in 1447, remains the
administrative seat of Panchen Lamas to this day.

Historically, the Dalai Lama reigned in Lhasa
while the Panchen Lama took care of the Shigatse
prefecture where the monastery is located.
Shigatse, about four hours’ drive from Lhasa, is Tibet’s second largest city.

The monastery covers a huge area -- 150,000sq m,
to be precise. Among the attractions within are
Maitreya Chapel with its 26.2m deity and the tomb
of the 10th Panchen Lama, said to be the most
costly mausoleum in all of China, what with its
614kg of gold, 868 precious stones and 246,000 jewels.

At the Time Wheel Palace, one can find ancient
Tibetan classics as well as the statues of the
founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsongkhapa and his
disciples. More centuries-old literature on
Panchens and Tsongkhapa are stored in the sutra publishing house.

According to the head of the monastery’s
administration committee, Nian Zha, the 4th
Panchen Lama made the monastery the residence of
the successive Panchens from 1601.

"After that, the Panchen Lama sent his disciples
to inland China to meet Emperor Shunzhi of the
Qing Dynasty. Since then, Tibet has had close
ties with the Chinese government, symbolising the
unity between Tibetans and other ethnic groups in China," he says.

Emperor Kangxi gave the 5th Panchen Lama a gold
seal to affirm his status as Tibet’s spiritual
leader, and since then, Panchens -- from the 4th
to the 11th -- have been made the abbots of the
monastery. The 11th Panchen Lama, 20, now lives
and goes to a college in Beijing. He comes back to the monastery every year.

Despite the spiritual leader’s absence from the
monastery, thousands of devotees still flock to
the place every year. Their ritual includes
walking around the three stupas next to the main
building as they chant sutras. Carrying handheld
prayer wheels, they spin prayer wheels at the stupas as they go along.

After that they proceed to the main chanting hall
where the throne of the Panchen Lama and chapels
of the Sakyamuni and Tara deities are located.

The monastery has the highest number of monks in
Tibet -- more than 900 reside here. Renovation
works are currently underway on the gold roof of
the stupa of the 4th Panchen Lama’s tomb.

o Journalists, diplomats and government officials
will need a special travel permit to enter Tibet.
Entrance tickets are priced at RM46 (Potala
Palace), RM32 (Jokhang Temple) and RM25 (Tashilhunpo Monastery).
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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