Wednesday, August 29, 2007

At Labrang Monastery.

Outside, feathers of snow were still falling. In the whitened sky the mountains left only the tracery of their stone, like stencils hung in nothing. I followed a curved track -- slushy with mud now -- between the walls of the monks' fraternities. There was no sound but the dripping of snowmelt from the eaves, and lisp of water in the open drains. Suddenly up ahead of me a cluster of pilgrims fell to their knees. Up the long avenue between the monks' cells, misted in falling snow, I saw far away -- like the backdrop to some sacred drama -- the crests of gilded temples glinting against the mountains. They rose in facades of oxblood red, then mounted to green and mustard-yellow tiles, while beyond them again the farthest shrines banked upward in a surge of golden roofs. Beneath this unreal city, the magenta and purple robes of the monks were drifting back and forth.

But as I approached them, the buildings separated into rough-built halls and fort-like gates. Their height was an illusion. The distinctive facades -- a deep oxide red -- were built of compacted twig bundles, long dry. The rooftops teemed with golden griffins, the deer of Benares, the Wheel of the Law. Dragon gargoyles leered from their eaves. All was earthy, vivid, strange.

Under the arcades of the philosophy hall -- the largest of the temples -- three hundred monks waited in casual conclave, wrapped in magenta and crested in yellow cockscomb hats. The young were innocently boisterous, thumping and tussling together. They greeted me in rough Chinese, and foraged for news of the Dalai Lama. Outside, they were snowballing one another. But a senior monk beckoned them by groups into the shrine, and from there the guttural prayers stirred like the drone of bees, or a mantra muttered in sleep.

I slipped into the sanctuary beside them, enclosed among avenues of pillars. . . . [I]t was lit only a glimmer of butter lamps and the wintry light dying through its porticoes. The monks had dwindled in its gloom, squatting round their teachers in broken semicircles. I walked here alone. The pillars were draped in cloth, as if they were alive, and faded to darkness down glades of synthetic colour. A thousand tiny, identical Buddhas covered the side walls, and across the deepest recess, perched on clouds and lotus thrones, a double rank of reincarnate saints filled the dark with their dreamy power. Their fingers held up flowers and bells, or cradled thunderbolts. Yak-butter lamps and hundreds of candles stranded each in a zone of orange fire. Here sat the multiform Bodhisattvas, blessed beings who had delayed their entry to nirvana in order to save others. Monastic founders perched gold-faced in pointed wizard's hats, and demon guardians -- the countervailing faces of death -- danced with necklaces of skulls or severed heads. Everywhere divinity branched and proliferated -- many-headed, multi-armed -- loving, death-dealing, indifferent. I stared at them in alienated bafflement, as a lama might wander a church. The air reeked of rancid butter.
Colin Thubron, Shadow Of The Silk Road 60-61 (HarperCollins, 2007).

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