A lake at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains (XINHUA)
My first visit to China was in 1986. After that I have been to this charming country several times and during these visits heard interesting stories about Tibet—the land of intriguing contrasts—around which countless yarns of fact and fiction have been spun. However, for one reason or the other, I could not visit Tibet.
Though keen to avail myself of the earliest possible opportunity to visit Tibet I was a bit reluctant, and rather nervous, to go there because of my advanced age, especially when I heard the horrid stories about altitude sickness, leading to plateau pneumonic edema which could result in death. I jokingly told my hosts that I did not want to be a sacrificial lamb to be offered at the altar in Lhasa. However, when my hosts assured me that I would be provided with foolproof protection in Tibet I tamely surrendered and agreed to go.
After flying from Beijing to Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, and then boarding a train for Lhasa, which weaved its way through a stunning landscape of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, I finally arrived in Tibet.
Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is a city of elegant and impressive public buildings beautifully intertwined with green spaces. In Tibetan language, Lhasa means "holy." No doubt, it is a holy city, as it is home to two of the most venerated shrines in Tibet—the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple.
Perched on the top of the Red Hill, Potala was built in the seventh century and is a huge structure of 909 rooms with a big central courtyard. Priceless antiques and artifacts adorn each and every corner of the palace evoking nostalgia for the opulent lifestyles of the royal clans. From atop one has a panoramic view of the beautiful city sprawled below.
Not far from Potala is the Jokhang Temple which is considered one of the most revered temples in the region where people from all over Tibet and other places come to seek the blessings of Buddha. Jokhang symbolizes the unique spiritual heritage of Tibet. Our guide told us that because of its deep historical and religious significance the Central Government of China is taking special care of the temple's maintenance. Built by the Tubo King Songtsan Gampo in 647, the Jokhang Temple has life-size statues of Sakyamuni, or the Buddha, Songtsan Gampo and his wife, Princess Wencheng.
Life in Lhasa is quite fast paced and the city has all the comforts and luxuries of a metropolis, like star rated hotels, top-notch restaurants, fashionable shopping malls stocking the latest brands from China and across the globe. However, in spite of its meteoric evolution, Lhasa is still keeping intact its old world charm and character.
In fact, religion is visible in the everyday life of the Tibetans. On the roads one can see people turning the handheld prayer wheels and chanting holy mantras from sutras. We also saw people prostrating themselves on all the fours, for every step they take, while going on a pilgrimage. On the slopes of the hills one can see white prayer flags fluttering in the gentle breeze. In Tibet, we found that every home has its own temple and that some families still offer a child for monkhood. I have yet to see a culture so vibrant, so alive.
In fact, the Tibetans believe in the holistic development of the individual and society. They do want modern development but certainly not at the cost of their rich culture and traditions. They are in favor of maintaining a fine balance between socioeconomic development and the spiritual needs of the people. In several parts of the world the advance of modern civilization has brought ancient civilizations to extinction but nothing like that has happened in Tibet, as it is still preserving its pristine natural environment and its rich cultural traditions.
Tibet which remained isolated for centuries is now opening up to the outside world. Radical changes have taken place since the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Today, the area is undergoing significant structural changes. Within a short span of 50 years it has been transformed from a predominantly agrarian economy to a modern trading economy with an expanding regional and global network.
With this development, living standards have gone up. People are now doing away with the unnecessary shackles of the past and are brimming with hope to carve out an enviable future for their children. During our visit we could feel a new vibration and enthusiasm among the people. They have more money and more spare time—an astonishing change from the past.
The young men and women are prone to Western outfits. Their food habits have been diversified. No more are they content with only their traditional diet tsampa, the staple food of Tibetans. Spicy Sichuan delicacies and Cantonese cuisine or intercontinental food have become trappings for a generation aspiring to acquire the status of global citizens. Today, young Tibetans like to spend their evenings outdoors to savor cosmopolitan food or to enjoy theater or opera. We also had a chance to see an opera performance and were deeply touched by the rich repertoire of the traditional choir and vivacious folk dances.
On the return flight to Beijing, I was thinking of the incredible natural beauty of Tibet—its picturesque landscape, pristine snowy mountains, sparkling rivers and lakes, flower spangled meadows and, of course, its exotic wildlife which all combine to make it a veritable paradise. Was it a vision or a waking dream, I cannot describe it in words. It is said, seeing is believing, therefore, one must see Tibet personally to enjoy the beauty of this mysterious land where past and present are so intimately intertwined.
The author is an Indian who has visited China