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 6: the rest of lhasa … drepung, sera, norbulingka

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Drepung Monastery, the ‘Rice Heap’

Drepung monastery, the largest and richest monastery in Tibet, was built in 1416 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Hat sect, under the patronage of a noble family, and enlarged by the 5th Dalai Lama later. Its name means ‘Rice Heap’ in Tibetan. The monastery covers an area of more than 200,000 square meters. At its peak, it had over 10,000 monks. Continue reading

tibet 5: potala palace, the home of avalokiteshwara

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Rising above the holy city of Lhasa, the white walls and golden roofs of the Potala (BudalaGong) seem to grow out of the hill on which it stands. Now a museum, the palace is a labyrinth of rooms, interconnected with countless doors, corridors and stairways, galleries painted or draped with richly coloured silks, and filled with around 200,000 statues. The Potala served both as a monastery and government office. But above all, it was the residence of the Dalai Lamas, the god kings who ruled Tibet for more than 500 years, each one believed to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. A Mongolian phrase, Dalai Lama means ‘ocean of wisdom’. The 14th Dalai Lama was only 16 when Tibet was occupied by the Chinese in 1951, under whom he ruled in a limited capacity until 1959, after which he fled to India with 80,000 followers. Continue reading

tibet 4: jokhang temple in lhasa, the spiritual center of tibet

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In the 7th Century, Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd Yarlung king of Tibet, united the scattered tribes of Tibet and moved his capital from Tsedang to Lhasa. He was one of the first kings to be recognized as an incarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the boddhisattva of compassion. During his reign he had a group of 16 children sent to India to study Sanskrit. Only one child survived the journey and went on to live in India for seven years. His name was Tumi Sambhota. This child later became a prominent Minister in Songtsen’s court and was responsible for standardizing and forming the Tibetan script that is still in use today. He contributed immensely to the translation of the Buddhist Sanskrit scriptures as well, making them understandable to the many devout and faithful followers in the kingdom. Continue reading

tibet 3: tashilhunpo monastery, shigatse—tibet’s heap of glory

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Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama

Tashilhunpo Monastery, meaning ‘Heap of Glory’, is the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second most important spiritual leader of Tibet and was commissioned in 1447 by His Holiness the 1st Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Drup. The abbots of Tashilhunpo came to be known as Panchen, because of their scholarly reputation. The title Panchen derives from the Sanskrit word Pandita, which means ‘scholar’, and the Tibetan term Chen Po, which means ‘great’. Continue reading