By Vijay Kranti
(Part of the ‘My journey through the Tibetan mindscape’ series)
It may sound funny if I say that my journeys through Chinese occupied Tibet have made me an admirer of Chinese communist masters of Tibet at least in one way. In their true Han style of delivering shocks of unexpected kind, Beijing rulers of Tibet have opened Tibet to the international tourists who have, so far, known Tibet either through the towering personality of Dalai Lama – who has become China’s Achilles heel, or the supporters of Tibetan freedom movement which is being run by hundreds of Tibet Support Groups all over the world. There are others also who came to know of Tibet through the ‘Shangri-la’ kind of western literature. It must go to the credit of communist leaders of China that they have been able to successfully exploit their own ‘popular’ negative image on Tibet for selling Tibet to the world tourists.
Tibet is a cash cow
This effort of promoting Tibet as a tourist destination has more than one distinct aims. One is to present the development of military oriented infrastructure in Tibet to the world as “China’s benevolent and great contribution towards development of a poor Tibet”. Another is to create new jobs for millions of new Han settlers in Tibet to help them remain settled there permanently. Yet another is to present Tibet’s freshly repaired and painted, but soul less monasteries and temples to the gullible world as a proof of China’s love for “preserving and promoting Tibetan culture”. And over and above everything else, another aim is to rake in billions of dollars from the teaming tourists from across the world. A major section of these tourists comprises of the faithful and rich Buddhists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China, Singapore, Korea and Japan etc. who leave behind heaps of Yuan and Dollars at the feet of statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and various other Buddhist deities in the Tibetan temples and monasteries. There is yet another tribe of curious tourists like me who are keen to know how Chinese are ruling over Tibet and how the Tibetan people are coping with their colonial masters.
The very first few visuals which today’s occupied Tibet presents to an outsider in a city like Lhasa or Shigatse are quite overwhelming. Wide, open, geometrically laid roads flanked by some of the most fashionable shopping arcades and multistoried buildings offer the first shock to those who expect Lhasa still to be an orthodox remote town of Dalai Lama era.
Picture post card country
Next shock comes from the crowds of Tibetans circumambulating Potala Palace, Jokhang temple and Tashi Lhunpo monastery to those tourists who believed that China’s role in Tibet during past 50 years was limited only to destroying monasteries and temples and arresting anyone who dare to hold a rosary or a ‘Mani’ prayer wheel in hand. Many among these crowds are villagers from distant places who travel to Lhasa, Shigatse and other holy cities for pilgrimage. No wonder that they come in the best of their traditional dresses along with their rosary and the traditional personal ‘Mani’. That makes a perfect picture post-card image for a western tourist’s camera.
But this is the last meeting point of those tourists who are overwhelmed by what they see in China’s Tibet and those who are keen to go beyond what is easily visible. One needs to take just a 10-Yuan ride in a taxi in any direction away from Potala to discover who are the real beneficiaries of this progress — local Tibetans or the Chinese who arrive by their thousands every month to settle in Tibet permanently? Just a peep into the multistoried houses, government offices and glittery shopping arcades will tell you that most of these houses, jobs and businesses belong to the Chinese. Tibetans get the crumbs viz. low menial jobs like street sweepers, drivers, petty shopkeepers or junior functionaries in local civic bodies.
The hybrid tourist guides
Tourist guide is a job that Tibetan boys and girls used to get easily during the opening years of Tibet just because they spoke good English. They used to be the first choice of western tourist because they hate to be accompanied by Chinese guides who talk more of communist propaganda than anything else. But soon the licenses of almost all good English speaking Tibetan guides were cancelled as the Chinese authorities realized that most of them were educated in India in schools run by Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile. The problem was solved by opening a tourist guide training school, dedicated to Tibet for Chinese youths. No surprise you frequently see Han Chinese tourist guides, dressed in Tibetan costumes and speaking pidgin English to their batches of foreign tourists in most of the tourist sites.
I was amused to notice that daily debate sessions of monks in Drepung monastery in Lhasa are well tuned with the arrival and departure of tourist buses. They present a perfect photo opportunity to all those westerners who come with the hope of seeing traditional Tibet.
But once their photo session is over, no tourist is interested in finding weather all the young men dressed in maroon robes were genuine scholars. Tourists witness a similar theatric ritual in the government run majestic Tibetan handicraft store near the main entry gate of Potala Palace. My tourist guide had almost forcibly pushed me inside the store despite my telling him that I did not want to buy any handicrafts. Chinese girls dressed in unusual golden and aggressively coloured Tibetan Chubas (gowns) take you through very orderly arranged sections of Thanka paintings, metal crafts and carpet weaving. I noticed a Chinese girl in the carpet section suddenly jumping in a hurry at her easel mounted drawing board at the sight of our tourist group. To show to the tourists that her design section of the carpet unit was a serious business, this pretty ‘Tibetan carpet designer’ girl started giving fine touches to a carpet design on her drawing board with a painting brush. Our team of tourists had a real fun when I pointed out to the enthusiastic ‘designer’ Han young lady that the brush she was running on the design had no paint in it.
All said and done, one cannot deny that almost all visual aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are being preserved and presented to the visitors in their best possible colours. Be it neatly painted and preserved temple and monastery buildings or the frescoes and giant Thangka paintings in the halls, everything looks colourful and attractive. But no Tibetan monk present there has the freedom to talk to the foreigner visitors. In streets and restaurants too you can’t draw any local Tibetan to a discussion. Even those who can speak little bit English won’t open mouth on anything other than normal pleasantries. Someone told me that five monks of Drepung monastery were arrested a few days before my arrival for listening to pro-independence songs on a tape recorder.
Big Brother is watching
While pot bellied Tibetan policemen dominate prominent Tibetan public places like the Barkhor street, video cameras installed inside almost each room of the temples, monasteries, house tops and on trees and lamp posts in other sensitive places keep the real vigil on every movement of Tibetans and tourists. I had a firsthand feel of this Chinese grip in the Barkhor street around the famous Jokhang temple. This street became world famous for 1987 public demonstrations and an unprecedented public uprising against the Chinese rule in Tibet. As I was walking along the circumambulation street I suddenly noticed some public commotion less than a hundred meters ahead of me. It appeared to be a physical altercation between two persons which was attracting the bystanders to stop and watch. But within a few seconds nearly twenty Chinese agents of notorious Public Security Bureau (PSB) appeared from nowhere at the scene. Before I could reach there, the fighting duo ha been already whisked away. I could only see the backs of some uniformed men who were pushing some people into a huge gate which opened and shut like an eye wink in a nearby building of the Jokhang temple. In less than a couple of minutes the street had no leftover signs of the melee. Everything appeared as normal and quiet as before the drama started.
Tibetans too speak up
But all this does not mean that Tibetans have given up or they don’t express themselves. Photos of exiled Tibetan ruler Dalai Lama and Gedhun Choeky Nyima, the incarnate Panchen Lama recognized by him, are strictly banned in today’s Tibet. In Panchen Lama’s city of Shigatse no one would dare to display their pictures. But not a single shop, restaurant, house or private vehicle I saw during all my travels in Tibet displayed the photo of Gyaltsen Norbu, the Chinese sponsored 11th Panchen Lama. As a middle way, people display big posters of the late 10th Panchen Lama who was acceptable to the Beijing regime but who also represents free Tibetan spirit because of his daring statements against the Chinese communist rulers during his life time.
In Tashi Lhunpo monastery, the supreme seat of Panchen Lama in Shigatse, one rarely sees a Tibetan bowing or offering scarves before the Chinese sponsored Panchen Lama’s photo whereas the empty seat of Dalai Lama looks outstanding because of an abnormally large heap of scarves and currency notes offered by lay Tibetans.
The huge Square in front of Potala Palace is among the most popular places for tourists getting themselves photographed with the majestic palace in the backdrop. Most of the people in this crowd are Chinese and foreigner tourists who get themselves photographed while holding a flowing Tibetan scarf in their hands and wearing rented Tibetan costumes. One can also spot a few rural Tibetans too getting photographed in front of the Potala who are, most probably, on pilgrimage to Lhasa. But you can’t miss the reluctance that is starkly visible in their body language among the crowd of Chinese tourists. The other popular place of photography is on the other end of the plaza where a tall minaret like memorial was installed last year to commemorate 50 years of ‘peaceful liberation’ of Tibet. Interestingly, I don’t see a single Tibetan posing for a photo near the massive installation showing two huge statues of some Tibetans rejoicing Tibet’s ‘liberation’ by China.
Missing and misplaced stupas
The landscape and house architecture in the Tsang region of Tibet, housing cities like Shigatse, Gyantse and Tingri, remarkably resembles Ladakh region of India. The only element that helps one in knowing whether one is in Tibet or Ladakh is the total absence of Chortens (the Stupas) from the Tibetan countryside. Though almost all stupas were destroyed during fateful days of Cultural Revolution, the two giant stupas guarding the front of Potala are among those handful ones that appear to have escaped destruction or were rebuilt later by the Chinese masters of Tibet for the benefit of tourists.
However, the strategic placing of these two Stupas is enough to explain how much respect Beijing masters hold for their Tibetan subjects and their culture. In Tibet it is considered to be sinful and inauspicious to cross a Stupa from the anti-clockwise direction. But the two holy structures have been positioned in the middle of the majestic ‘Beijing Road’ in such a manner that every vehicle must cross them the wrong way. No wonder you see old Tibetans closing their eyes and raising folded hands in prayer when their bus or rickshaw crosses each Stupa from the wrong side.
(Views expressed are his own)
The author is a senior Indian journalist, photographer and a keen Tibet watcher for over four decades. During the first decade of 2000’s he visited Tibet many times on his self assigned learning and photo-expeditions.