the ancient art of tibetan thangka painting in dharamshala

I was first introduced to the ancient Tibetan religious art form of thangkas in Gyangtse, in the heart of Tibet. It was the summer of 2004. I was travelling solo through Tibet—I had hired a 4X4, got a driver and a guide, and we drove through the majestic Himalaya mountains for seven days, stopping at monasteries, stupas, and temples on the way.

A four-day visit to Dharamshala this June, home to the 14th Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile brought all my memories of Tibet gushing back.

The street that faced the nine-tiered 15th Century octagonal Kumbum stupa in Gyangtse had been lined with stalls. The stupa, by the way, contained a staggering 77 chapels, 108 gates, 100,000 Buddhist paintings, and 1,000 sculptures of the Buddha. In the little shops in the street meanwhile, ancient Buddhist silk applique and cotton paintings, which I was told were called thangkas, were on sale along with other religious paraphernalia such as prayer wheels and prayer flags.

All the thangkas, I remember, looked more or less alike to me. They were filled with intricate mandalas or exotic gods and goddesses from the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, were framed in rich satin brocade, and had a deep yellow ruffle on the top. Many were dusty. Most looked old. The yellow ruffle, I learnt much later on, opened into a pair of “curtains” which covered the painting. I also remember they were frightfully expensive. Needless to say, I did not buy any. Strange, because even after 15 years I remember them vividly. Continue reading

tibet: travel and tibetan culture essentials

[As told to me by my guide Tenzin, and the monks I met in the monasteries.]

Facts and Figures

Known as the roof of the world, Tibet is surrounded by four of the world’s ten highest mountains and covers an area of 1.2 million square kilometers. It shares an approximately 3,500 kilometer international border with India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, and is encircled by China to the north and east. The 3rd largest virgin forest in the world with countless evergreen trees lies within the kingdom. The central area of Tibet, namely Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyangtse and Tsedang enjoy mild weather all year round. The maximum rainfall in Tibet is 290mm. It hardly ever snows in winters due to the dry weather. Sunshine is plentiful. Since most places are 3,600 meters and above sea level, heart pounding, shortness of breath, slight nose bleeding and headaches are normal responses caused by lack of oxygen and low air pressure. Acclimatization is recommended on day 1.

Tibetan cuisine is pretty basic, consisting mainly of Tsampa (roasted barley flour) and endless bowls of butter tea. Steamed meat dumplings called Momo and wind dried raw meat (yak, beef, or mutton) are popular. Drinks include Chang, a fortified barley beer, and butter tea which is a salty black tea mixed with yak butter. Continue reading

tibet 2: gyangtse, after three mountain passes and two lakes

yamdrok1
Yamdrok lake, one of the four holy lakes of Tibet

The drive from Tsedang to Gyangtse covers a distance of 350 kilometers and weaves through three mountain passes and two lakes. The first part of the journey hits one with its sheer desolation. The terrain is dry and barren to the extent cracks tear up the mountains while a river bed glitters empty in the harsh sun; the landscape a monotonous shade of gold. Through ancient dirt roads clinging to mountain edges, I drove higher and higher, my SUV twisting and turning around crags of rock on to the first pass of the journey, Kambala pass, at a height of 4,794 meters. Draped in prayer flags the pass is breathtakingly beautiful. A nomad came from nowhere and placed a one day old little black goat in my arms. I could only look around me in awe, and at that little face with love. Continue reading