Window reflections: looking into a butter-lamp offering house and seeing a wall of Buddhas. Taken around the Lingkhor, at the Southern end of Chagpo Ri.
Some art from the terrifying tantric monastery of Nechung - the traditional home of the state oracle of old Tibet.
The oracle was said to be possessed by demons and spirits who revealed to him the secrets of the future. He doesn’t live here anymore, but several monks keep the Monastery open for pilgrims.
Nechung Monastery has a haunting feel to it - complemented by the deep rhythmic drumming that sounds like a great heartbeat coming from the inner temple. It reverberates off the walls and makes the statues shake in their niches, and unsettles the visitor greatly.
The walls of the monastery are decorated with wrathful protector deities, demons, skulls, and flayed skins of animals and people (thankfully only in painted form). The bodies are shown in intense detail - intestines falling out and eyeballs hanging from their sockets - and even the faces are twisted in anguish and pain.
Nechung showcases the ‘darker’ side of Tibetan Buddhism, the secretive and mystical tantric practices that are only known to initiates. It’s a fascinating place to explore, but not for the faint-hearted.
(Nechung Monastery is just a short walk downhill from Drepung Monastery, in Western Lhasa. It cannot be visited without an entry ticket for Drepung Monastery.)
The Lhasa river in winter - dried up and frozen over!
The water levels have dropped by at least a meter, probably because we haven’t had a drop of rain since that snow in October. As a result what’s left of the river is now so shallow that it easily freezes over at night, and in the morning the ice can be heard cracking in the sun.
To me it now looks rather like plastic wrap that’s been stretched over the muddy rocks, until it breaks in the heat of the day and once more becomes little puddles where only a few months ago it was a strong river.
Yesterday was an absolutely wonderful day. After skyping my family in the morning for a while Ali and I headed out into the lovely sunny day for a walk around the Lingkhor (the pilgrim circuit that encompasses the old town of Lhasa).
It was another (as Ali says almost every day) “perfect day in paradise” - no wind, clear blue skies, a warm sun, and we felt great. Walking around the Lingkhor took longer than expected - a couple of hours - but we made little detours to have some delicious lunch at a vegetarian restaurant along the way, and then to have tea at my favourite teahouse.
On the way home we went via the nunnery to spend my birthday money on a beautiful shawl/blanket and a bag from the nunnery shop, also stopping to chat with my friends there.
Mid-afternoon I was resting for a bit in my room when I received an odd text from Ali: “How many tattoos do you have?” I was very puzzled. I knew that Ali had organised a surprise something for me for tonight after dinner, but I had absolutely no idea what it might be. Curiouser and curiouser.
Dinner was at Lucky Vegetarian - a restaurant favoured by us foreign students that’s just outside the side gate of campus. One of the boys had called ahead to organise it all and pre-order some delicious dishes for us to share, so when we arrived there were no hassles. I was also so surprised - and very touched - to find that several people had bought me little presents! I had not expected anything, and it made me feel so loved.
Dinner was followed by a three-course dessert - first pineapple lumps (a kiwi sweet that my mum had sent me) that went down a treat, then the best cheesecake in Lhasa that Ali had ordered from Summit Cafe (knowing that cheesecake is my favourite kind of cake), and finally some freshly baked muffins from Norbu.
Now, finally, it was time for my surprise to be revealed … Ali had gone to a huge effort to organise a pub quiz for me!!! I love pub quizzes, and she’d spent the last few days creating a wonderful slide-show with all the questions and answers for the quiz. We got ourselves into teams and started with a round about living in Lhasa, followed by Tibet questions, followed by a round all about me (which I was not allowed to participate in, but finally I realised why she’d been asking about my tattoos!), and then a general round at the end. Ali did an amazing job, even if we all harassed her for having wrong answers sometimes! I can’t believe how much effort she put into it all, and she did so well to keep it all a secret from me even though everyone else knew.
The day was finished up by watching a couple of episodes of “Big Fat Quiz”, since we were on the theme of pub quizzes.
Yesterday was an absolutely wonderful day, I felt so loved and so special, and couldn’t stop smiling all night. I want to thank everyone here for being so amazingly lovely and making my birthday so great. I’ll never forget it.
Last Thursday we celebrated a wonderful American holiday - Thanksgiving. But the day was especially important to Ali because not only was it Thanksgiving, but also the first day of Chanukah, therefore the day was dubbed “Thanksgivukah” and our feast was accompanied by the lighting of candles on the menorah.
The majority of foreign students took part in the celebrations by skipping class for all or part of the morning (sorry teachers) to cook up some wonderful offerings. My contribution was roasted pumpkin and parsnip, and a banoffee (banana and toffee) pie that was a big hit even though no one had ever heard of it before. Despite turkeys being unavailable here one of the American girls did wonderfully by roasting a couple of big chickens for everyone to share. Everyone brought something - salads of all kinds, cranberry sauce, mashed potato, freshly baked bread, potato pancakes, stuffing, gravy, and plenty of sweet treats for the end. In the end we had far more food than we ever could have eaten, but it’s all part of the fun.
It was my first Thanksgiving, and a lovely social afternoon that I’m happy I was a part of. We finished off the meal with a showing of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” on the big screen while our stomachs ached and we lay about in food comas. What a feast.
Some vultures enjoying the breeze above the Tashi Choling Hermitage, in the hills north of Lhasa.
Vultures can commonly be seen around monasteries here, because of the nearby burial grounds that feed them.
Referred to frequently as “sky burial” the Tibetan custom is to allow a person’s body to be of use after their death by feeding vultures and other small animals in the mountains, and therefore supporting the life of other animals even when their own has ended.
Of course that is a very simple description of sky burial, I’ll let you google it yourselves for more information, but be warned: descriptions can be very graphic and it’s not for the easily upset.
A rather painfully slow method of repainting …
Around town lately it seems like every monastery is in the midst of repainting their exteriors - a task which may take the army of volunteers weeks to complete.
A thin white paste is made from a special type of ground earth mixed with plenty of water. Strong men churn it like butter to mix it, and then ladle it into smaller buckets to be carried out to the different locations.
Here it is thrown bowlful-by-bowlful onto the surface of the building or object that needs painting, slowly refreshing the white appearance bit by bit.
The Day of the Descent of the Buddha from the God-realm (ལྷ་བབ་དུས་ཆེན་): a holy day in Tibet
Sunday (the 22nd day of the 9th month in the Tibetan calendar) celebrated the descent of Buddha from the heavens. In Lhasa this meant that the old town - and every monastery - was buzzing with activity.
Two main activities seemed to be the focus - the repainting of ladders on rocks around town (to help the Lord Buddha to descend to our earth), and the offering of sweet smelling branches to the chortens around town (to offer the scent to the God-realms where the Buddha came down from).
At the two main chortens in front of the Jokhang temple, pilgrims were so enthusiastic about making offerings that the burners were soon overflowing, and piles of burning branches had to be made on the side like many little bonfires. Even chortens that I have never seen used until this day were puffing out smoke into the air.
The teahouses of Ani Sangkhung Nunnery, and Sera Monastery were overflowing with pilgrims stopping for a rest during their offering-rounds. The sky was pure blue as always with barely a whisper of a cloud, and the whole of Lhasa seemed to be out enjoying this beautiful day.