Where India, Tibet and China come together

SAMYE (TIBET), JULY 24. Buddhism is alive and kicking in Tibet. Monasteries are open, monks are learning the scriptures and Tibetans are prostrating themselves like never before in front of their Sakya Muni. All else is propaganda.

If the excellent state of the Potala Palace in Lhasa could have been projected as a showpiece of Chinese intention towards the freedom of religion, a visit to the Eighth Century AD Samye monastery, the very first in Tibet, proved that seeing is believing.

A three-and-a-half-hour drive from Lhasa and a little more than an hour from Tsetang, capital of the Shanan prefecture, Samye is the best in Indian, Tibetan and Chinese tradition put together.

Built by King Trisong Detsen with the help of Indian Buddhist masters Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita (who came from Nalanda), a sign inside Samye says the design followed was that of the Udantipura monastery in India.

New approach to culture

The ground and first floors are said to be Tibetan in design, the second floor Chinese and the third floor Indian in the original scheme of things. Evidence of this can be seen when visiting Samye.

The insides of Samye are well preserved, possibly restored after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, but some murals have disfigured sections. Today, however, the Chinese approach to both culture and religion has been transformed.

According to Renchen Tserig, President of the Administrative Bureau of Cultural Relics of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), there were a total of 1,721 sites for religious activity in TAR today. He confirmed that several sites had been rebuilt or restored since 1980.

Mr. Renchen told Indian presspersons that since the 1980s RMB (Renminbi) 300 million had been allocated by the Chinese Central Government for renovation and restoration of cultural sites in Tibet. One can always dwell on the errors of the past, but the Chinese Government, clearly, has learnt from history.

Obviously, monasteries like Samye are proof that the Himalayas, the grand rivers that flow through the Tibetan plateau and other high mountains didn't stop intercourse between Indian, Tibetan and Chinese cultures. Getting through to Samye today is difficult enough, how it was managed in the Eighth Century boggles the mind.

First of its kind

According to the Lonely Planet guide on Tibet, Samye was Tibet's first monastery; its history spans 1,200 years and was probably built between 765 and 780 AD. "Whatever the case, Samye represents the Tibetan State's first efforts to allow the Buddhist faith to set down roots in the country. The Bon majority at court, whose religion prevailed in Tibet prior to Buddhism, were not at all pleased with this development."

"Shortly after the founding of the monastery, Tibet's first seven monks [the `seven examined men'] were ordained here by the monastery's Indian abbot, Shantarakshita, and Indian and Chinese scholars were invited to assist in the translation of Buddhist texts into Tibetan," the guide said.

Situated in what is today Dranang county, north of the Yarlung Tsangpo river, in the Shanan prefecture, the drive to Samye from Tsetang is as beautiful as it is difficult. The Yarlung Tsangpo river just refuses to leave you - crossing its banks is a must to get to Samye.

Strangely enough, a short distance from the Tsangpo one can see, from time to time, huge sand dunes almost like that in a desert. When the dunes end, lush mustard fields begin. As an overview, in the high mountains that overlook the Tsangpo, peaks still have lines of snow on them.

So, on the drive to Samye, you can see it all — desert-like dunes, moonscape mountains, lush green fields and one of the biggest rivers you can see in your life. Building a road through all this mustn't have been an easy task as a couple of loose boulders almost block our route to the monastery on one occasion.

Living monastery

Streams of the Tsangpo are equally unrelenting; at one place the road has been washed away and the driver of our bus has to engage first gear to make sure that he has sufficient power to overcome the flow of the water.

Scores of foreign tourists can be seen inside and outside Samye; taking pictures of monks and of the breath-taking monastery, of course. Inside the monastery's chapels, Tibetan monks recite their scriptures. It is a living monastery.

Recommended for you