When you hear “Seven Years in Tibet” what comes to mind? The movie starring Brad Pitt?
Well, I never saw the movie but I HAVE read the book by Heinrich Harrer, and I must say, it was pretty phenomenal. Harrar escaped from a British POW camp in India during World War II. Interestingly enough, POWs back then were able to keep their money and supplies, so when he escaped, he had a rucksack, some provisions, and enough money to trade with Tibetans as he made his way through the Himalayas to Lhasa.
The Tibetans were gracious hosts, providing Harrer and his traveling companion, Peter Aufschnaiter (another escaped POW) with shelter and, when they ran out of money, gifts of food. Harrer and Aufschnaiter were able to repay this kindness by generously sharing their scientific and engineering knowledge with a country that at that time was closed off to the rest of the world. In addition to helping with flood control, translating foreign news, providing agricultural advice, they also introduced the Tibetans to a new sport,”walking on knives”, what we call ice skating. Eventually, Harrer met the young Dalai Lama, becoming a trusted friend and tutor of the isolated adolescent. Harrer not only oversaw the construction of a movie theater in the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, he also created the films that were shown there, using a 50’s era movie camera to photograph Tibetan festivals.
After Charlie Carroll discovered Seven Years in Tibet in his elementary school library, he became fascinated with this remote Himalayan kingdom. It was a bit like me and the Wizard of Oz, except HE could actually visit HIS magical kingdom. And he did, in 2009. The end product of his journey is the wonderful narrative Peaks on the Horizon. Two parallel stories alternate chapters, chronicling Charlie’s travels, and that of a young Tibetan refugee he met just before leaving the country.
Seven Years in Tibet and Peaks on the Horizon are great introductions to Tibetan religion, history and culture. Although I quickly skimmed through Demystifying Tibet by Lee Feigon and Conversations with the Dalai Lama by Thomas Laird, I found them more difficult to get through and not as entertaining. I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for the personal narrative.
So, if you have been following along The Yellow Brick Road to Asia, you know that now is the time for ten very random, fun facts uncovered through reading about Tibet:
- At 13,000 feet above sea level, Tibet’s nickname, “The Roof of the World” is fitting. It is the highest inhabited area in the WORLD. Yikes. I’ve packed a supply of Diamox to make sure I don’t have a problem with the altitude.
- The first major character in its recorded history is Songtsen Gampo, who conquered and united a multitude of tribes to create the nation of Tibet. Sources claim he became king at the age of 13. I guess during the the seventh century, they dealt with adolescent angst by sending the boys off to pillage, plunder and start a new nation. Before he died in 649, he managed to acquire one wife from China, one from Nepal and four from among the local girls. There are two versions of the Chinese bride story. Songtsen Gampo ordered the king of China to send him one of his daughters and when his “request” was refused, he attacked and pillaged. Version two describes Songtsen Gampo as a lovesick warrior who became a vassal of the Chinese emperor to obtain his lovely wife. See if you can figure out which explanation belongs to which nation.
- But it wasn’t ALL fun and games. Songtsen Gampo is also credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet (and to Bhutan). He built the first Buddhist temple in Tibet, the Jokhang, to house the statue of the Buddha his Chinese wife, Wencheng, brought from China as part of her dowery. One account mentioned that the Nepali wife also brought a Buddha with her, but the Chinese one appears to be more sacred and more famous. it will be interesting to see what we are told when we are in Lhasa.
- There was a gap of almost a century until the next important emperor came on the scene. Trisong Detsen (755-797) conquered the areas along the Silk Road. But he too was more than just a warrior. He also built Tibet’s first monastery at Samye and invited Padmasambhava (Remember him from the Nepal post? Also known as Guru Rimpoche, he emerged from a Lotus in a lake) to come to Tibet to help spread the word about Buddhism.
Unfortunately, Trisong Detsen met an untimely end. Rumor has it that he was poisoned by his wife, who may also have disposed of her son in a similar manner a mere two years after he was crowned. Talk about dysfunctional families. Even Dr. Phil would have had trouble fixing THEIR problems.
- The next notable character appears in 838. Lang Darma joined with members of the Bon religion to strangle his brother, the current king. He tried to reinstitute Bon, the local religion, by suppressing Buddhism. Here’s the interesting part. Lang Darma was thought to be a devil, complete with horns on his head. After forcing girls to comb his hair, he used his horns to kill them, then ate them. Lhalung Palgyi Dorje, a monk, came to the rescue, killing Lang Darma by shooting an arrow through his heart.
- Remember Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Hoards? I sure do. I have a strong visual of him and his buddies, galloping across the steppes, flags flying in front, long hair streaming behind. So, what has that got to do with Tibet, you ask? Well, bet you didn’t know that the term “Dalai Lama” came from the Mongols. I certainly didn’t. Altan Khan, who ruled Mongolia in the 1500’s (yes, we’re skipping WAY ahead!) invited Sonam Gyatso, the abbott of Tibet’s largest monastery, to his country to spread Buddhism throughout Mongolia. Dalai Lama is the Mongol translation of Sonam Gyatso’s name, which in English means “Great Ocean”. Tibetans, however, refer to their their spiritual leader as “Kundun”, which means “the presence of Buddha”, but since I’m not Tibetan, I’m going to stick with Dalai Lama.
- Tibetans believe they are descendants of Chenrizi (also spelled Chenrezi, Chenresig and Chenrezig, depending on the source), who took the form of a monkey to seduce a demon. The demon gave birth to six “long haired children” complete with tails (the first Tibetans) that disappeared when they grew to adulthood. The Tibetan creation story explains human behavior by uniting the pure (Chenrizi is the Buddha of compassion) with the animalistic (the demon/ogress). And all we westerners get is a talking snake and an apple. I like their story better! It even has evolution going for it.
- The current Dalai Lama is believed to be the fourteenth reincarnation of Chenrizi. The THIRD Dalai Lama was the first granted the title by Altan Khan. That Dalai Lama decided to declare his two deceased predecessors as the first and second Dalai Lamas. After the third Dalai Lama’s death, Altan Khan’s grandson (surprise, surprise) was declared to be next reincarnate — the fourth Dalai Lama. He didn’t last long–he was dead before he was 28.
- The NEXT Dalai Lama was a powerhouse. The “Great Fifth” started construction of the Potala, Tibet’s iconic building. He died before the building was completed, but his death was kept a secret for 10 years to ensure that construction would continue. This huge complex is 13 stories high and contains color coded administrative (red) and religious (white) sections, which include the winter quarters for the Dalai Lama, prison cells, torture chambers and stupas where prior Dalai Lamas are entombed.
- Yaks are as important to the Tibetans as Buffalo were to the Native Americans. Yak butter is the main ingredient in yak tea, which is consumed by everyone, many times every day. Yak butter is also used for the candles that are burned throughout all three Himalayan countries. Yak dung is burned for fuel and is also used as an ink substitute. The burnt yak dung becomes soot, which was used as ink for books during Heinrich Harrer’s seven years. By the time Charlie Carroll visited a few years ago, Yaks had become endangered. What is common now is a cross between a yak and a cow, called a dzo.
How’s that for random facts?
There is so very much more to say about Tibet, but as with the posts on Bhutan and Nepal, I need to save something for when we are there, don’t I?