Welcome to this guest post from my sister and one of my favourite artists and writers Anne-Marie Jean. She’s a writer in residence at the Writers Wrest this weekend and has allowed me to post this piece of writing that I love. It was printed in The Press (Main Newspaper for Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand) in April 2002 .
You can find out more about Anne-Marie Jean by clicking on her name.
I have always been in love with the mountains, whatever climate, whatever season. Scientists claim humans originated in the sea, but I came with those that were rained down on mountain tops and were delivered through streams via the icy craggy peaks, into the wide brown rivers below.
My fascination with the mountainous ‘land of the snows’ began in the summer after my second year of art school. I was working in a backpackers on the Isle of Skye, Scotland, and the object of the hugest crush of my life gave me Peter Matthiessen’s book ‘The Snow Leopard’. Passion of one sort fueled a passion of another as I read of Matthiessien’s travels through the north western mountains of Nepal to the Tibetan Inner Dolpo region. What began for Matthiessen as an expedition to study the breeding habits of the endangered Blue Sheep led to his exploration of little known mountains, lakes and monasteries. His story unfolds as a searching inventory of his own beliefs and ideals, a personal and inspiring pilgrimage. A seed was planted.
In the ensuing years I read books on Tibetan history and politics, Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. I was inspired by explorers such as Matthiessen, Hans Harrier and Alexandra David Neel. All had different reasons for trekking in those ancient, harsh and wild mountains of Tibet and all found something profound and deeply connected to the beliefs, society and spirituality of the Tibetan people. And finally last September I picked up the Tibetan Lonely Planet. It became my imperfect and indispensable bible for this short but enlightening trip.
Tibet is situated on the high plateaus of the Himalayan Mountains, quite literally on the top of the world. Its boarders have shifted and changed over the centuries. Throughout history it influenced and was influenced by the Mongols, the Nepalese, the Chinese, even the British. It remained autonomous as a country until the Chinese invaded under the banner of ‘liberation’ in 1956. A large portion of what was once the country of Tibet is now known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region [TAR], one of China’s most security conscious provinces. It was to this region that I travelled.
I was relieved to find on my arrival in Lhasa, the traditional capital of Tibet is in no way overrun with tourists. It seemed that aside from those of us in the 6-8 hotels frequented by foreigners, the majority of travellers I saw in the city were Tibetan pilgrims. I had heard that Lhasa was polluted, overpopulated with Chinese and pretty much ruined by the intensive construction undertaken since the early 1980’s, of businesses, governmental departments and residential communes. Walking around on that first day the air seemed as crisp and clear as that in any rural New Zealand town. Climbing to the top of the Jokhang Temple to view the incredible Potala Palace [traditional winter abode of the Dalai Lhama, built in the 11th century AD] the surrounding mountains seemed a hairs-breath away. Despite Chinese occupation, from this viewpoint the city’s fabric seemed indelibly woven with Tibetan culture and history. Today the Old Tibetan Quarter of Lhasa is a thriving mass of colour that flows in through all the senses, or perhaps every sensation, be it taste, touch, smell or sound, enriched and informed my experience of colour.
Personally I always want to get more out of the journey than I am told I will be by the guide book, or I may as well have read the book and stayed at home. On this trip I had come to experience the mountains and the natural environment, to trek or pilgrimage as so many Tibetans do. A few days in however, when I came down with a dire case of the runs, circumstances demanded that I change my focus. I had only enough energy to potter through the city and the monasteries. In the end the change of plans was invaluable.
My focus is always distinctly visual in a country where I do not speak the language. Without the busyness of words filling my head I cherish the time to look, notice and experience a new place through other senses. What struck me most on arrival into the baron, dramatic and mountainous ‘Land of the Snows’ was the glorious celebration of colour, line, shape and form in both secular and religious buildings.
Some monasteries like Samye, historical seat of the Buddhist Red Cap Order, were almost decimated by the Chinese occupation, emotionally as well as physically. Although reconstruction of the main temple was well under way and the monastery was again inhabited by monks [around 150 today compared to around 5000 at its peak], there is still much healing and restoration to take place.
The Samye monastery compound is built in the form of a massive Mandala. The main temple rests at its centre, and is surrounded by smaller shrines, temples and abodes in circular formation. Although many of these smaller structures were broken and abandoned, a fair number were in use for prayer and dedication by both monks and pilgrims. In contrast to the dry, dusty and messy grounds of the monastery was one small outlying temple, tended by a middling to late aged layman. His passion for gardening produced a sea of colour, scent and form that rivaled the beauty of the fabric and painting bedecked inner walls.
Samye was in fact the only monastery where rubbish was strewn in the streets and where I felt depressed by the begging. Considering the violent and tragic past that affected all of the monasteries profoundly, I was surprised I did not find more of this. It speaks well of the faith and resilience of the Tibetan people and of the changing and relaxing attitudes of the Chinese governmental policies in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Paintings swathed almost all of the temple walls in the monasteries I visited and the craft and precision with which they were executed was inspiring. In western cultures I have not found that kind of dedication to detail for what could be considered an ornament to the uninitiated.
Most of us would not have a willingness to spend funds on something that would enrich us spiritually rather than financially. Instead we colour our world with the busyness of advertising, which though at times is beautiful, most generally is not. To see art we have to go to a gallery and how often do we do that? This opportunity was incredible.
A very hopeful aspect of my trip to Tibet was my realisation that national and international tourism provides a direct and effective incentive to the Chinese government to protect and maintain Tibetan architecture and art, physically, socially and culturally. For me, their architecture, ornament and art mirror Tibetan tenacity, devotion, love and rich appreciation of life. The integral part their religion and spirituality play in everyday life is inspiring as is their sense of community, generosity, and appreciation of nature and the environment. The highlight of the trip for me was the visual contrasts of simplicity and intense detail that captured the unfathomable depths of their culture and faith.