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Day 67: Lhasa

Lhasa, Tibet 
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Images of the gatekeepers, and other treasures, behind the altar in the Tsokchen Lhakhang.
Michael Palin - HimalayaThe Communists came close to expunging Buddhism from Tibet. Six thousand monasteries, 95 per cent of all those in the country, were destroyed. But Buddhism is 2000 years old and Chinese Communism was only 60 years old, so it was not a battle they could win. Now the Chinese, comfortably in control of the political and economic life of the country, have adopted a more pragmatic attitude to the old religion. Buddhism is seen as being good for tourism, and the revival of the monasteries has been accelerating, though possession of any image of the Dalai Lama remains a political crime in China.

At Nechung, half a mile down the hill, there is a thorough restoration going on. In a courtyard some 200 feet square a small team, mostly of women, is working away. Two of them are smoothing and shaping the plaster over an incense-burning oven, others are slowly and meticulously restoring the superb 14th-century murals on the walls of the arcades. Graphic, Hieronymus Bosch-like motifs of human torment are a recurring theme. Faces and skulls alternate, bodies hang upside down from serpents like clothes on a washing line, entrails are ripped out by wolves and naked bodies sundered by leering devils.

The work force goes about its task with quiet application. The only noise comes when they get together for an arka, a song and dance routine that they use to help them flatten the newly laid clay floors. Holding long bamboo sticks with stone pads on the end, they go into a sort of builder's line dance, rhythmically thumping the clay into place.

Someone hands me a stick and asks me to join in. Though I find myself regularly facing the other way to everyone else, I can now add Temple Restoration to my CV.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 67: Lhasa
  • Country/sea: Tibet
  • Place: Lhasa
  • Book page no: 163

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