There are many arts that come out of Tibetan monasteries, some of which I have pictures of here. Some of my pictures are from Rekong which is actually thought of as the art capitol of Amdo (this upper region of Tibet), possibly even of all Tibet. Mostly they are famous for their thangka painting, which unfortunately I didn’t get to photograph, I only have pictures of the buildings and stupas there, but they are pretty amazing, intricately painted and carved, etc. From Labrang monastery I again have many pictures of the buildings, but I also have some pictures of cham dancing, and the butter sculptures which are both really fascinating art forms. The cham dancing is done by the monks, and it portrays stories of great events in the history of Buddhism. Sometimes it’s the lives of the great masters, or sometimes the bringing of scriptures from India, mythical tales, etc.
The butter sculptures are incredibly intricate and colorful, in this case mostly of great Buddhist masters such as Tsongkaba (founder of the Gelukpa sect), Shakyamuni Buddha, etc., also lots of flowers, and other ritual shapes. The amazing thing about these is that they really are constructed from butter (in case you couldn’t guess that from the name). They make these once a year just before Losar, then keep them throughout the year.
Speaking of butter, food in general seems to be a central theme in Tibetan culture, more so than most other places I’ve seen. The second you enter a house you are offered (practically forced) tea, and bread or whatever other food is sitting around. To refuse is not rude, but it is not really accepted. No matter how full you are, it’s near impossible to get by without at least drinking a cup of tea. This became an entire art form for me, and a very difficult one at that – the art of refusing food. But another thing that I noticed was the fact that whenever I was taking pictures, having food around was essential. If I took a picture of a single person, they usually needed to have a full cup of tea in their hand, and at least a bowl overflowing with bread in front. When I was taking pictures of Jinpa and Gonpu’s (Shedhe’s cousins) homes, they made sure that they moved the bowls of food around so that they were in the picture. After all, if I brought pictures of their homes back to India and there was no food around, they might get worried that their families didn’t have enough to eat. Food heaping is an art for them as it isn’t enough to just fill a bowl with fruit or bread, it has to be heaping so high that it looks ready to collapse if you so much as speak next to it. But alas, after years of practice, it is actually very stable.
You will notice that in the pictures, most of the women wear long strings of red beads around their necks. These are traditional for nomad women, especially in Amdo. They are made out of red coral which is becoming more and more rare in Tibet, and I was surprised to find out that each bead costs between 100-400 Chinese yuen (there are about 7.7 yuen to one US dollar right now). As there are often a hundred or two of these beads on a necklace, the price is often similar to buying a house. This is the way that women literally wear their wealth around their necks as a status symbol. Gold is also very popular, though I recently found out from one of my friends here that gold is a new thing, probably brought in by the Chinese. Apparently at least in some places 10 years ago people only had silver but now gold has become the big thing. Obviously its much more expensive, so again a status symbol. I’m not sure when this came in, as Shedhe values gold much more than silver (we argue about that often as I don’t particularly like gold, but he doesn’t like silver, he thinks it looks cheap) and he’s been here for around 7 years, but one of my friends here said that in her village (which is only a few hours from Labrang) she never even saw gold and she’s been here for around 12 years. Fashion amongst the nomads is very important, and they use it as an opportunity to display their wealth. I was also intrigued to find out that each different village, even if they are only an hour apart from each other have their own distinct fashion. To my eyes it mostly looked the same, but everywhere I went people were telling me that I looked just like a Senko nomad (Senko being the place where Shedhe’s family is from) even when they had no idea who I was staying with. Not only the style of sewing the clothes was different from village to village, but also the way that you tie the chupa/tsarer is different. I not only learned to tie mine from mother, but the ones that I wore were also hers, thus why people recognized the area I was living in. Four hours away, in the town of Rekong the chupas looked very different, even to my untrained eyes.
I was amazed just how different Tibet was from Dharamshala. Being in India I thought that I was learning a lot about Tibet, and though I was, it was nothing compared to actually being there. I could go on for hours about Dharamshala and how/why the people there have changed, but that is an entirely different paper.
The thing that I noticed most about Tibet was just how Chinese it had become, and how much it will continue to do so. In Tibet, I had to be careful to even mention the Dalai Lama, and certainly did not dare to utter the words “Free Tibet.” But while in Dharamshala, I went to many protests for Tibetan freedom, and lived in a city of people who every day fight for it with every fiber of their being and live every day of their lives for the news that they and their families are free at last. After so much of that, I started to believe that it was a possibility. How could it be possible that so many people around the world were fighting for something so noble, and have it not come to fruition? It just didn’t seem possible.
I remember walking home from teaching one day in Tibet, seeing all the Chinese signs painted on walls, the kids in Chinese clothes, all the modern technology and the food wrappers strewn on the side of the street. I started thinking about it, and realized that no matter how much I did not want to admit it, I think Tibet will never really be free from its Chinese colonizer. Though Tibetans work hard to preserve their culture, it is dying out with every new generation, becoming more and more Chinese practically by the minute. China has invested a lot into making Tibet what it is; they just built a new railroad all the way to Lhasa, have set up a huge tourist industry, recently discovered some sort of large ore or iron deposit and have made a lot of money out of the natural resources there. China is an incredibly powerful country, so powerful that nobody in the world, including the US, will stand up to them. To them, there is no reason to give up Tibet, but there is lots of reason to keep it. Upon this realization a very strong sense of grief flew through me, and as I walked into our home to see this old conservative nomad family that I loved so dearly, I nearly wept for the loss that they have to endure every day. Not only have they lost their son Shedhe to exile, but every day they have to watch the destruction of their culture and religion, and live in terrible fear of the people who have surrounded them. I’ve heard stories of the things his parents had to endure after the Chinese occupation (they were relatively young when it happened, but the brutality lasted for a long time), and I see the physical scars and deformities from it on their bodies. I see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. Though conditions there are much better now than they were for a long time after the Chinese first came in, it is still a daily struggle. Already they live in a climate which itself makes living difficult, but now they are prisoners in their own lands.