Potala Palace

Long before he achieved worldwide acclaim with his mega-novel A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth spent two years as a graduate student here at Nanjing University – and in between those two years (the summer of 1981), he hitchhiked home to Delhi in India via Xinjiang and Tibet. Luckily, he wrote about that experience in another award-winning book, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet.

I took a much, much easier route to Tibet…. simply hopping on a plane & flying to Lhasa! But I was able to visit many of the same sites that he did, and his travel book was an excellent companion. His depiction of the scene at Potala Palace:

The mass of people, pilgrims from everywhere in Tibet, devout and curious, chanting, praying, shoving against each other, spinning prayer-wheels, giving offerings to the Buddhas, and ladling yak butter from jars into the lamps, has reached a pitch of religious enthusiasm that is, to my exhausted senses, both exalting and disturbing. Impression blurs with impression, and later I cannot remember what any particular room was like. Everywhere there are silk brocades and banners of faded silk, dark wood on the walls, the smoke and aroma of chalice-shaped yak butter lamps, golden images of Buddhas. Lamas in maroon and saffron robes sit in alcoves intoning from the scriptures…. and the endless chant of ‘Om mani padme hum’.

Thirty-six years later, that’s still a pretty realistic description of the Potala experience – as well as that of the Drepung Monastery (at one time the largest monastery in the world) and Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa (considered by many the most sacred and important temple in Tibet).

The Sera Monastery was a bit more sedate, but here there was a fascinating ‘debate courtyard’ for young monks who were learning the precepts of Buddhism. The instructor would typically lay out a morning lesson, and the afternoon ‘debate’ session would challenge individual monks to come to terms with (and internalize) the ideas. Lots of hand clapping, arm gestures and dramatic movements were going on, although the picture suggests there is an underlying calm at work as well.

The debating courtyard at Sera Monastery

Seth spent a lot of time in his travelogue describing the various documents and permissions and approvals necessary to travel through the Tibet countryside, and the situation is still very much controlled. I could no longer travel alone like he did, for example, but had to join a group tour, and our guide similarly had a long list of oversight requirements. I wanted to take a picture of a lion statue on the roof of the Potala that Seth had included in his book – but such photography is now forbidden. The author had also hiked out to a site next to the Sera Monastery where locals performed traditional ‘sky burials’ (i.e., preparing corpses that could then be consumed by local vultures and birds); I made enquiries, but that site too is now closed to foreign visitors.

But still…. I was in Tibet!! An absolutely stunning experience, and one that I will never forget.

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