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Week 66b - Prostrating Pilgrims

Lhasa - Potala Palace Photo, Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa is home to some of the most important Buddhist sites in the world. There are enough monasteries, temples and palaces to keep even the most avid of pilgrims happy, another thing Lhasa isn’t lacking. For some it’s the Potala Palace, once the seat of the Tibetan government and the spiritual home of the Dalai Lama that they come to see. For others it’s the Jokhang Temple. Wherever you go in and around the city, pilgrims are in abundance, constantly spinning their prayer wheels or prostrating.

I have to admit, I’d heard virtually nothing about prostrating before. Hearing the word out of context for the first time, I’d suspect it was something that youngsters do today in the privacy of their own bedrooms. I would be wrong. Prostrating is an act of worship. After praying with both hands to the sky, the person throws themselves flat on the ground while reaching their hands ahead of them as far as they can go, like a yoga move for beginners. After returning to their feet, the process is repeated again and again. The most devoted prostrate all the way from their homes to Lhasa, taking one or two steps between each prostration. It’s not uncommon for such a journey to take upwards of two years or even more. To see such devotion for an agnostic like me, is one of the most striking memories I’ll take from my time in Tibet.

As I darted through the spinning prayer wheels and over the prostrating pilgrims to Potala Palace, the first destination on my itinerary, I was like an excitable child knowing a trip to the funfair was imminent. As we walked around rooms full of Buddhist statues and tomb stupors containing the remains of previous Dalai Lamas, I listened intently to the guide’s dialogue. Around me, pilgrims offered money, yak butter and alcohol to the various gods. It’s hard to imagine that in a place where religious freedom is hard to come by, such devoutness can take place unhindered.

Reaching the upper levels of Potala Palace and looking out across the city, smoke from juniper branches (used as incense) covered the old town in a thick haze. Below me, pilgrims prayed, shuffled, walked and prostrated around the base of Potala Palace, an act that many do on a daily basis.

In the middle of Lhasa’s old town, next to the souvenir-filled Barkhor Street, the Jokhang Temple sees the highest number of pilgrims, most of whom continuously walk around its walls, similarly to Potala Palace. Like a sinister tornado, standing too close to the continuously moving pilgrims will see you sucked in to the vortex, swept along and spat back out further around the temple.

With so many pilgrims, Jokhang Temple sees the highest military presence. Groups of armed soldiers patrol the streets while on the surrounding roofs, snipers scan the crowds, their fingers primed to pick out any potential political trouble-makers. Scouring over the crowds, even the beggars and drunks were the epitome of peaceful.

I have nothing against temples, monasteries or palaces, but after several days of nothing but, my enthusiasm for these religious dwellings started to wane. My images began to blur in to one. Was it the Sera Monastery where the child vomited down his mother? Was it the Drepung Monastery where many pilgrims were treating themselves to ice cream? Was the religious ambience of the chanting monks in Ganden Monastery taken away by the fire-fighters and fire-engine teaching visitors the importance of fire-safety? Was I sure it was the Jokhang Temple where monks painted ill children’s noses black, like evil clowns, in the hope it would ward off future illness?

After visiting my last monastery, the Sera Monastery, I decided to take time out from trying to remember the different Buddhist gods and which Lama ruled for how long. Noticing a pool table outside a local shop, I asked my guide if he fancied a game. Accepting my offer, the pool table was soon surrounded by pilgrims, taking a breather from their prostrating activities. Only one thing has the capability of stopping a pilgrim’s devoutness to Buddhism, the opportunity to stare at a foreigner. After sealing a comprehensive victory, the pilgrims were back on the floor, prostrating slowly away.

Local interaction is always the best part of any trip and my time in Tibet finished with a stay with a Tibetan family, who lived in a tiny village, high in the hills around an hour’s drive outside of Lhasa. Along the main road out of Lhasa, regular groups of nomads could be found prostrating their way to the province’s capital. Cars, trucks and buses whizzed past them, inches from their heads. Their clothes and skin were soot black. Behind them a lawnmower powered tractor edged along, carrying their tents and rations.

Once arrived at the unheated, traditionally built Tibetan home, I was constantly plied with yak jerky and yak butter tea. At first the salty drink (made by mixing yak butter and hot water together) tasted refreshingly different. After several cups, the saltiness made me want to gag. Across the valley, perched on the side of a mountain, the Ganden Monastery glistened through the perplex window.

Part of the experience of staying with a local family was the opportunity to go horse-riding through the Tibetan hills. With only one horse between my wife and I and with the family unable to track down a yak tame enough to ride, I had no choice but to offer the mule to my wife and attempt to keep pace with her four-legged transport using my own steam. Within seconds I was a wheezing mess, my head feeling like a jackhammer was pounding against it.

Reduced to crawling pace, I was soon to regret my act of chivalry by allowing my wife to ride the horse. Crossing a frozen stream, full of jagged, protruding rocks, the horse performed a dive Christian Ronaldo would be proud of, toppling over on top of my wife, pinning her on the rocks. By the time my lungs had the capacity to inhale enough oxygen to reach her, the horse was already back on its feet as though nothing had happened. Luckily the only damage recorded was superficial.

That evening, as the horse mockingly neighed outside, we sat discussing all things Tibet around the living-room table. Home-made barley wine flowed freely, something I would regret the following morning. It was interesting to hear the resentment of Han Chinese by these Tibetans who are colonizing their land in ever-increasing numbers. Treating the Tibetans like second-class citizens they make little effort to learn the Tibetan language or adopt local cultures. On many of the most influential Tibetan buildings, the Chinese flag is now flown. Actions speak louder than words. This notion is very symbolic.

As the family elaborated on their belief of the yeti (abominable snowman) and the story of a boy in a nearby village who was attacked and killed by a bear, the conversation turned to Tibetan marriage. In the south of Tibet, one practice that’s dying out will be relief to most girls’ ears. It is common tradition for only the eldest son in a family to choose his wife. When he marries her, she becomes the wife of all his younger brothers too. When she gives birth, her child can only call the eldest brother ‘daddy‘, no matter who the real paternal father is. If I was a younger brother I would pray and prostrate every day in the hope my eldest brother had good taste in women!

With a lack of entertainment once night time falls, rural Tibetans go to bed at an early hour. Leading my wife and I by the hand to the bedroom, the owner’s elderly wife beckoned me to lie in bed. Once I had done, she placed heavy blankets attentively on top of me, before tucking me in. The weight of the blankets was so constricting, I was unable to move. The bedroom door, unable to lock, banged to and fro, as the howling wind outside made its force felt.

Night time temperatures in Tibet fall well below zero degrees Celsius, and with a head now doubling as a block of ice, I thought back on my time spent in Tibet on ‘the roof of the world.’ The only regret I had was not seeing a sky burial, the traditional method of disposing of a deceased body. Believing in the importance of a man’s relationship with nature, it is customary in Tibetan culture to allow your body to be eaten by vultures.

I’d originally expected bodies to be stripped and just left out in the open until only bones were left. Instead a designated person takes on the responsibility of a butcher and cuts the body in to smaller, more manageable pieces. These are then left in a specific place were the birds know there is a regular feed. Thinking about it, I’m happy this chance past me by!

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