Honk If You Love Yak Butter Tea
May 20, 2000
There is more to Tibet than Yeti, yaks, snow leopards and Buddhism. The history of Tibet stretches back several thousand years. My next few dispatches will deal with Tibet and Tibetans, so pour yourself a steaming cup of butter tea and read on about the "Land of Snows".
Tibet is often called "the Rooftop of the World", or the proverbial "Shangri-La". Until fairly recently Tibet was very difficult to reach for much of the rest of the world. This is because of the high mountains that surround it, called the Himalayas. These mountains are the source of some of the most famous and greatest rivers in Asia. The name Himalayas means "Abode of Snow" in Sanskrit. You have probably heard of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain of all at over 29,000 feet. These amazing mountains stretch for over 1,500 miles/ 2400 kilometers. So, Tibet is located on the world's highest plateau. It is very cold and dry there, and getting there is generally an inhospitable journey. This helped to create the isolation that enabled Tibetans to cultivate a culture not greatly influenced by outside ideas.
Tibet has high mountains, deep river valleys, and natural hill passes. People from different areas speak different dialects but more or less can understand each other since in essence they used to speak the same language. Most people make their living from animal husbandry (working with animals) or agriculture (farming). Also, many people work with their hands to make things like thick-knotted carpets, which are very popular throughout the world.
The capital city, Lhasa, is home to the famous Potala Palace, which is the winter residence of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is the religious and political leader of Tibet. You will meet him later on. Lhasa is the place to which a devout Tibetan Buddhist will make a pilgrimage. They don't just walk there, they will bow down, lay themselves completely on the ground, and stretch themselves out to full length. Then they will get up, take a step as far as their hands reached when they were stretched out on the ground, and they will bow down to the ground again. As you can imagine, this takes a very long time to cover any distance, but people do it for hundreds of miles/kilometers to show their devotion.
Mostly outside of Lhasa, people often live in a typical flat-roofed mud and brick house with earth floors. The houses always have a Buddhist altar, to which they pray each morning. These have butterlamps (a brass or copper decorated cup that is like a candle. It should never go out) which they light, and incense which they burn as they offer prayers. Life in the house is usually centered around the kitchen, where tea is made, or tukpa, a noodle soup of meat broth. Another very popular food in Tibet is tsampa, which is roast barley flour. Tsampa is mixed with yogurt or milk, rolled into little balls with the fingers and eaten, perhaps with some meat or vegetables.
There are also lots of nomads in Tibet. These people live in yak hair tents that are very big. Often more than six people will sleep in one tent. Would you like to live like that? They probably have no television in those places!
Tibetans are very religious, and they have many ways of expressing their devotion. One thing that you will see in many places is the manichorkor, or, prayer wheel. These colorful wheels are filled with cylanders that contain prayers. They are all lined up, often around a temple, and the idea is that when you spin them, the prayers and invocations will spin up to heaven. It's good for your karma to spin these wheels when you pass them. Another prayer device common in Tibetan communities is the prayer flag. These flags also are colorful, and they are hung at any high point, like a mountain pass or on top of buildings. The idea is that they will let prayers soar to the skies.
Technically, at the moment, Tibet is not its own country but a part of China, but that has just happened recently. Tibet's long history goes back to ancient times. There is a myth that the Tibetans emerged from an ogress and a monkey. The monkey was really a Buddha and the ogress was, well, a sort of monster. The children that these two had were born with the characteristics of both parents: the compassion, wisdom, and merciful nature of the Buddha father, and the mother's stubborn quality. This is how the Tibetans are known to be today: spiritual, kindhearted, and determined.
After the monkey and the ogress had their kids, the first line of Tibetan kings was started. The thirty-third of these kings, Songtsen Gampo, (he ruled from 629 to 650 CE) had three wives but also wanted to establish better contact with neighbors in China and Nepal. To that end, he married princesses from each of these countries. It so happened that these women were both Buddhists, and they persuaded their husband to support Buddhism in Tibet. The religion that was prevalent in Tibet at the time, Bon, was slowly replaced with Buddhism, which is the religion of Tibetans today.
Tibet and China often had difficulties over the centuries that ensued, but, by 821 CE they made a formal agreement that "Tibet and China shall keep the frontiers which they now hold…" As you will see in my next dispatch, this agreement did not last forever. In any case, internal strife marred Tibet for the next few centuries. As Bon religion died out, the Tibetan Empire was reduced to squabbling tribes that fought with one another.
Soon it was the thirteenth century. The Mongolians, led by everyone's favorite cannibal, Ghengis Khan, was busy taking over most of the world with his wild horseback-riding warriors. By the time the Mongolians reached Tibet, it was Ghengis' grandson, Godan, who was in charge of the massive invasion force. However, strictly speaking, the Mongolians never did invade Tibet. The Mongolian forces were offered money by the Tibetans not to destroy them. But instead of paying, when Godan and his happy campers waited outside of Lhasa, he was converted to Buddhism, his sicknesses were cured, and Tibetan scholars helped his people devise the Mongolian writing system that is still in use today. So in the end Tibet was not overrun by Mongolians, unlike the rest of Asia. Following were three centuries of independence from outside influences, as Mongolia came to protect Tibet and provide support to them in exchange for the gift of Buddhism.
The Dalai Lamas began to have power in Tibet around 1391CE with a man named Gedun Dupa. He attained Buddhahood during his lifetime, which means, he had become like a living God. This was a turning point in the history of Tibet. After he died, another Dalai Lama and another were in charge of his office, all the way to the present.
Skipping up to 1885, the British, who were busy colonizing every scrap of earth, had already established themselves in India and set their sights on the Himalayan kingdoms of Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan. Over the next few decades, the British and the Chinese would interfere with Tibet in ways that began the Chinese take-over of the Land of Snows. But more on that next time, when we move into Tibet this century.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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