Tibet 2014 - Tsaparang

Tholing, 10 September.

Last night our room was warm and we slept well. Today we go to Tsaparang; I’ve wanted to come here for several years and there’s more than just a frisson of expectation. Maybe I’m afraid it’ll be a disappointment, all I’ve read suggests we’ll see nothing but ruins but it’s history and remoteness have drawn me here. The drive to Tsaparang is only about 8 miles, I’d expected it to be further. We park short and walk to the car park, I want to arrive slowly, horseback would be better. We pass by new buildings and through an archway. Ahead of us are ruins of a vertical city built on a ridge and hill top, eroded cliffs pockmarked with meditation caves, old walls with empty window sockets, stupas and, lower down, three intact chapels. On the pinnacle of the citadel are the white painted walls of the King’s Palace.


We’re not alone, a friendly German group arrived before us. The caretaker leads us to the small Atisha chapel, I thought he said teacher chapel. But that’s appropriate, Atisha was the great teacher, invited here by the King Yeshe-O in the 11th century, who began a renaissance of Tibetan Buddhism in this region of Guge. Later I learn it is the Teacher Chapel. It contains an exquisite statue of Tara and there are faded murals of the Buddha, Atisha and Tsongkapa and a tiny gold statue of Hayagriva in a glass case.  Sadly, photos are no longer allowed in the chapels.


The White Chapel is huge, a few partly broken statues are still standing and Hayagriva and Vajrapani guard the doorway, damaged but still powerful protectors of the Dharma. Several Boddhisattva paintings on the walls have survived. The huge Sakyamuni Buddha at the far end of the room is no longer there but the plinth and the huge space it occupied is still obvious and indicate it’s size; the walls behind are pock marked with bullet holes. The walls to the side once held projections from the wall each supporting a small Buddha statue, two or three of the higher and less accesible ones have survived and can be discerned in the shadows. A modern brass statue of the Buddha has been placed at the foot of the plinth alongside a smaller statue of Padmasambhava.


Higher up the hill is the Red Chapel, almost as large, entered through a finely carved wooden door underneath a colourfully painted carved portico. A photo taken through the doorway shows the desolation and destruction within. A small plain clay head has been placed on the brick rubble of what must have been a huge plinth supporting a statue in the centre of the room. Nonetheless, many of the wonderful murals are clearly visible, one long panel illustrates the life of the Buddha and another depicts the old Shangshung empire and the bringing of tributes to the new Tsaparang; the gold detail on the clothing is brilliant. As in the White Chapel, the painted panels on the ceiling are wonderful collections of floral and geometric design that would flatter any collection of textiles or ceramics, a thousand years ago or present day.


Across from the Red Chapel is the much smaller Yamantaka chapel, also known as the Mandala Temple, entered through another beautiful carved door. The murals show many yidams including several manifestations of Manjushri and a powerful painting of Yama. I think we’d have liked to linger longer in these chapels but the caretaker has had his fill of visitors and we seem to have passed through too quickly. I wish we could have taken photos, even an iPhone would have sufficed, but without the concentration or distraction of cameras we wandered through in a state of awe and huge sadness at the impermanence of such treasures. The madness, horror and destruction of the Cultural Revolution is on display. Yet at the same time, what is no longer there, still is, along with the essential message of Buddhism. Do not attach. Everything changes.


These are the words of Lama Govinda in 1949, before the Cultual Destruction: “The frescoes were of the highest quality we had ever seen in or outside Tibet. They covered the walls from the dado (about two and three-quarter feet from the floor) right up to the high ceiling. They were lavishly encrusted with gold and minutely executed, even in the darkest corners or high up beyond the normal reach of human sight, and even behind the big statues. In spite of the minute execution of details, some of the fresco-figures were of gigantic size. Between them middle-sized and smaller ones would fill the space, while some places were covered with miniatures not bigger than a thumb-nail and yet containing figures, complete in every detail, though only discernible through a magnifying glass, it soon became clear to us that these paintings were done as an act of devotion, irrespective of whether they would be seen or not; they were more than merely decorations: they were prayers and meditations in line and colour”. (Extract from The Way of the White Clouds).


We slowly climb stone steps and pass other ruined red and white striped buildings that once were chapels. A side path leads to a small cave, illuminated by shafts of light, containing destroyed murals and fragments of statues. Paper money litters the floor. Another cave has powerful acoustic properties which resonate and amplifiy our chants of “Om”. We climb through near vertical tunnels to break out onto the plateau. A whole series of ruins show the size of the King’s Palace. The only intact building, the Demchok chapel, is locked. Our German companion has been here several times and it appears to have been locked for years. Climbing on shoulders and a dangerous ledge, he attempts to peer in through the high windows, to no avail.


Our drivers throw paper lung pa into the air and the German crew string prayer flags over an abyss. The views around over the Sutlej valley are magnificent and looking straight down we peer into ruins of even more chapels. Other tunnels, illuminated by shafts of light coming in through ‘windows’ and small balconies, lead down into a series of dusty caves and passages. The whole mountainside is a network of hundreds of meditation caves.

We look down onto a narrow green valley by the foot of the citadel which supposedly contains a cave with the decapitated bodies of the King and his familiy but there is no time to go there. Getting here has been a long time coming and the desire is to stay and linger but eventually we have to drive back to Tholing.


I’ve included some photos taken by others, include Lama Govinda’s companion, Li Gotami, from the time when you could do such things.


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