Suhasini Haidar

Lhas-t China diary!


Everywhere I look Lhasa has changed in unimaginable ways. If it wasn’t for the majestic and imposing structure of the Potala Palace, I would have a hard time finding my bearings, despite having visited before. First, all the roads have been widened and building structures standardised. This means even the Tibetan quarter, one full of rickshaws, horse-drawn carts, and hand carts all jostling with each other, has started to look more like Rajpath than Chandni Chowk! I remember having to walk the last 100 metres to our hotel, weaving our way between yak-butter sellers, hawkers over various kinds, and even the bollywood-CDs-dubbed-in-Tibetan shops who lined the narrow lane. That’s all gone now, and there is a heavy presence of Chinese shopkeepers along neatly cobbled spotless streets instead. Another place that has undergone a transformation is Barkhor square that leads up to the famous Jokhang temple in the middle of the city. This was a bustling square with hundreds of small handicraft stores that now rivals any European piazza. One can’t help but wonder where those Tibetan shopkeepers now work, but I did also notice that many more young Tibetans have jobs in the malls, electronic stores, and in the local administration than I can recall earlier.


A national flag is a symbol of pride in any country, but it does look out of place at a place of worship. Yet the red star of china flies from the top of every monastery and temple we visit. It also adorns every house in the countryside we saw, fluttering atop even the smallest of homes in Tibet. I wonder if it’s necessary, given that you don’t see as many flags in other parts of China I have visited. Interestingly, this month, the popular Chinese scholar and novelist Yang Hengjun wrote something similar on his >blog after a visit to Tibet. “Why does Beijing want to give the impression that Tibetans appreciate the Chinese government, the party and its leaders more than anyone else in China?,” Mr. Yang writes, “Tibetans don’t need to show more patriotism than the Han people do.”


After nearly a week in Lhasa, the one thing I really miss is being able to speak the language. Our delegation of journalists, invited by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, comprises a nice semi-SAARC- with Indians, Nepalis and a Bhutanese journalist. All of us have Hindi in common, and it builds a bond during our travels through Tibet, given that no one except our guides speak anything but Chinese and Tibetan. As a result we all cheer when it turns out the Maitre’d at the hotel we are staying at (called the Grand Brahmputra Hotel) is Nepali. Tuka Gurung arrived in Lhasa in 2006 from Lamjung in Nepal, and says he doesn’t intend to leave. We ask him about reports of protests and violence, and he says simply, “no one has the time anymore.” I don't press him further.


Sometimes, guidebooks really don’t know. The ones I have, and the sites I checked online all say that we should give ‘Norbulingka’ a skip, as it is a “dull affair”. Norbulinka was the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, an estate of 36 sprawling acres. The main palace, built for the 7th Dalai Lama in 1755, has 374 rooms, while the compound includes several well laid gardens (renamed the People’s Park), and even a zoo. On one side is a more modest palace, built by the current or 14th Dalai Lama in 1954. He lived there from 1956-1959, before fleeing to India, fearing arrest. That palace underwent a major restoration about 10 years ago, but hasn’t always been open to the public. If you are ever in Lhasa, this is a must-see (regardless of the guidebooks), complete with the study room where the 21-year old Dalai Lama and his tutor Heinrich Harrer worked. It also has an amazing old radio and record player gifted by PM Nehru. There aren’t, quite obviously, any images of the Dalai Lama, as they are prohibited by the Chinese government. Even so, it is interesting to see how scrupulously the Chinese government maintains his personal effects, including a gold brocade gown he wore for ceremonial occasions that now is propped up on his throne. What’s amazing is how many Tibetans come through, performing several prostrations before this throne, leaving money and scarves for their spiritual guru who has been away more than half a century. What is equally amazing is that our official hosts chose to show us this palace, and the worshipping locals, than the more imposing, and less controversial main palace!

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 1:52:58 AM |

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