High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser, originally written in two parts in September 2015 for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia. The second part was published on her blog on November 19, 2015.
In this post, Woeser continues to write about the families of the Dalai Lama, known in Tibetan as Yabzhi, and specifically about the official residence of the 14th Dalai Lama in Lhasa. Part One was posted earlier on High Peaks Pure Earth and can be found here.
“The Ruins of Lhasa: Yabzhi Taktser” (Part Two)
A Tibetan netizen named “Snowland Dust” wrote: Yabzhi Taktser “has never been repaired since 1959. Out of 66 million in economic revenue, the government has not spent one Yuan on repair work.” “Because the main building of the residence is severely damaged, no one has lived there since 2005.” “The entire complex is already on the verge of completely falling apart. The outer main wall has collapsed in many places and the water that has been seeping through the roof for many years has resulted in the serious erosion and damage of the interior wooden structures and walls.”
He further stated: “The reason why they never repaired the Dalai Lama’s parents’ former residence is because the government hates the politics of the Dalai Lama… nominally, the residence has already been inscribed on the municipal list of protected heritage, but in reality anything related to the Dalai Lama is regarded as a political question and so no government department or individual has dared to carry out preservation work. But perhaps, the residence will soon be redeveloped and used by some Chinese officials from the United Front Work Department.”
In summer 2007, an exceptionally intelligent businessman from Kham took me and Wang Lixiong to Yabzhi Taktser; I don’t want to talk too much about the changes, just so much: many migrant traders were surrounding the building like groups of ants, engaging in all kinds of businesses; the new buildings did not match the original style and had taken up almost the entire space. What I promised not to say back then but must say now is that this businessman from Kham who usually tried to conceal his good deeds, wanted to do everything to restore the slowly disintegrating Yabzhi, that is also known as Changseshar, as quickly as possible. But the sad truth is that this wish was destined to fail. Instead it became a fake reality in a different place.
For example, the beautiful old garden next to the Lhasa River has already been developed into the so-called “Xianzu Island” and is home to a massive “Xianzu Island Resort” made up of a row of enclosed Tibetan-style buildings that exactly resemble Changseshar; it is said that they particularly invited Tibetan architects and designers to model this complex on Changseshar and even though this was done for commercial reasons, it still gives the later generations a glimpse into the glorious appearance of the original residence.
Today, however, the once remarkable and respected white mansion is gradually disintegrating. Even when looking down from the top of the Potala Palace, one can hardly find it. There are simply too many ugly high buildings around it that have completely filled up the once lush and beautiful garden area; but if one searches carefully, one can actually still discern the building, even though one may be better off not searching for it. This is because when you do discover it, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of grievance that is difficult to put into words. According to Tibetan traditions, on a particular auspicious day in autumn, people would repaint the walls of buildings; the wall of the Potala Palace is, for instance, painted white every year. They add milk, honey and saffron to the special white-grey paint as a way to express the act of offering and blessing. But Changseshar has already been occupied by strangers for a long time; it has been neglected so that the outer walls look dirty and shabby and the interior is in a serious state of disrepair.
Yabzhi Taktser and other ruins in Lhasa such as Shideling can also be seen as scars of the violence that has been inflicted upon the city and its people – even if one day, these ruins are completely gone, their traces will live on in the veins and hearts of the people who they are connected with.
In 2013, I was lucky to have the chance to secretly enter the ruins of Yabzhi Taktser – the walls were covered in signs for Sichuan restaurants, public showers and hairdressers. Next to it was a new big department store. I had once gone up because from the side staircase of this building one had a good overview of the entire building complex of Yabzhi Taktser. In comparison to the majestic and brightly-lit Potala Palace covered in Chinese flags, this building looked impoverished and destitute. When I wanted to go back two years ago, the iron door was already locked and there was someone guarding it. I could no longer enter.
But back in 2013 I did indeed manage to enter the former home of the Dalai Lama’s family. The vast courtyard was full of weeds, along the stone path leading up to the main chamber, many bicycles and motorbikes were left as if it was one big storage. The buildings on the left and right side were two storeys high, on the ground floor they kept four or five massive Tibetan mastiffs that were barking fiercely. If the iron gates had not been locked we may have well been torn into pieces. I was trembling with fear when I took the GoPro camera and reached through the iron grid. One of the dogs jumped and snatched at the camera as if it wanted to swallow it. A Chinese trader from next door came in to feed the dogs that he clearly kept as commodities to be sold one day; what was funny was that when this guy who only spoke Sichuan dialect called a Tibetan security guard to kick us out I used Tibetan to ask “tell me, who is the actual owner of this place?” The Tibetan guard looked bewildered.
Upstairs in the main building that looked and smelled liked one big rubbish dump, there was an already subsiding corridor. The railing that had been made from metal imported from India at the time was rusty but still stable. The shadows of the foreign-looking decorations looked intriguing. I entered the dusty and dark rooms, some walls were covered with posters of Chinese celebrities from the 1980s or with “Tibet Daily” newspaper cuttings from the 1990s. I found the big red Chinese character “福” (Fu, Fortune) on some doors or portraits of the mighty Lord Guan. On other doors I saw deathly pale seals reading “Sealed on January 7, 2005”.
What shocked me the most, however, was not the Potala Palace that one could see against the backlight when looking out of a broken window; it was not the devastating and broken corridors and rooms on the third floor; what shocked me the most was that mirror attached to a pillar in the deserted main hall. I had to stay away from it or else would I perhaps have been able to catch sight of the traces of those who left their lives during that night in 1959? Would I perhaps hear the deep voice of His Holiness speaking from exile: “Your home, your friends and your country have suddenly disappeared…”? Like Joseph Brodsky wrote in one of his poems: “This is, at the road’s end, a mirror by which to enter.” And when one enters, “the world suddenly fades away” and one can also see oneself in the mirror, left alone, helpless, but also beautiful and fascinating as if one could hide oneself in there and will never be tailed, threatened or humiliated by the state apparatus again.
I took a photo of myself standing in front of that broken mirror. My expression on this photo reflects the spirit that was present around the room. That person in the mirror does and at the same time does not resemble me; it resembles some person who used to live here many years ago. This feeling of alienation paired with a feeling of attachment and intimacy almost made me cry. It was a feeling of closeness to the family of His Holiness, who knows?! In my previous life, I may have taken a photo in front of this mirror and secretly entered a different dimension and participated in one of history’s biggest upheavals.
In a different room, I picked up an old object, it was a wooden block and must have been a building part. It had colourful drawings and was delicately carved, it looked like a miniature of the old house. I took it with me.
I still vividly remember visiting Yabzhi Taktser, walking from one room to the next as if I was searching for something in particular. I took a lot of photos. One camera was not even enough, I had two or three cameras and even my mobile phone. The lenses were like eyes, looking around, searching. But what exactly did I look for? There was no single trace of life in any of the rooms, only signs that there had once been life; and this life was modern and recent, only a few years ago. What I really wanted to find were traces of that night on March 17, 1959, when His Holiness and his family left their home.
The only trace of life that I found within these ruins was already dead, a dead spider suspended in the web that it had weaved itself, hanging there in midair. It seemed to be the only master, protecting the ruins and protecting the past. So who does it want to catch in its web? And what about other spiders? Are they also protecting the ruins? I really want to know what kind of animals spiders are in our culture. Do they have any metaphorical meaning or power? Are they evil or they drive out the evil? I took a close-up shot of it hanging there; its dead body and the dilapidated environment presented a bizarre scene, as if there was a greater and deeper meaning behind it. Back then, however, there must have been more animals than just spiders living here. They definitely had cats, rats and dogs, namely the Apso, a special Lhasa dog. The animals of hosts were allowed to enter the main hall, the living room, even the bedrooms. The big dogs, like Tibetan mastiffs, would guard the entrance together with human guards, either in the courtyard or at the main gate. On photos showing the Dalai Lama in the 1960s, I saw several Apso, as if they had followed him into exile. Of course, spiders are a lot more resilient than cats or dogs; they can easily hide and thus easily survive.
In Tibetan, the word for spider sounds like “Dom”. The word for spider web sounds like “Domthag”.
So what am I? Am I a secret, amateur hobby archaeologist, someone who is obsessed with collecting remnants of the past? Or am I someone exiled in this old town who cherishes countless memories of the past? When I was pacing back and forth in the ruins of Shideling, in the ruins of Yabzhi Taktser or in the ruins of Ganden Monastery, I was returning to the past of these places. It was like travelling on a misty road where the flickering sunlight creates an exotic and fantastic scenery; under the protection of the three treasures, I was able to once again become a true resident of these ruins; even though it was not possible to really live here again, it felt very good.
Lhasa is also like that for me. These ruins are like that for me. Even though I see the ruins of buildings, I do not see the ruins of the spirit. Just as Joseph Brodsky wrote in his essay “Less Than One”: “You cannot cover a ruin with a page of Pravda. The empty windows gaped at us like skulls’ orbits, and as little as we were, we sensed tragedy. True, we couldn’t connect ourselves to the ruins, but that wasn’t necessary: they emanated enough to interrupt laughter.”
But I am afraid that when these ruins have fully disappeared, the “curse of oblivion” will take effect. Just as the Chinese art critique Liao Wen stated: “When power is in the hands of ignorant materialists, any forms of culture and aesthetics will be completely deprived of their soul.” And the authorities have an innate power to put the “curse of oblivion” upon us.
Finally, I would like to pass on a story that was told by a retired cadre who I met when returning to Lhasa. She ridiculed herself for once being “the Dalai Lama’s slave”. She was actually a live in servant and it was the Party that labelled people like her as “slaves”; they were in fact vassals. I initially thought that this cadre would condemn the past and celebrate the present, I never thought that she would tell me this: “People always say that Tibetans lived such a harsh life in the past and are so happy today; but people like us actually experienced the past and know what happened. It’s all lies.”
“My family used to be slaves of the Dalai Lama, but we must never say that we were actually slaves. My father was one of the guards at Yabzhi Taktser.
“I grew up inside Yabzhi Taktser with Kundun’s sister, Jetsun Pema, and the daughter of his elder sister, Khando La. We used play together every day. Sometimes we went totally crazy in the big garden and then Khando La would have us hide behind trees because Kundun often used binoculars to look at us from the high up Potala Palace. We were really happy. He had never experienced this pleasure when he was young. Once,Khando La urged me to wade through a pond and when I refused she hit me – not in a serious way, you know, in a playing way – but I cried and snitched on her. Kundun’s mother told her off. Later, Khando La went to find my father to make us become friends again and play together.
“Kundun’s mother was a merciful person, giving us kids of servants fruits to eat; you have to know that fruits were extremely rare back then. Many of the rooms in the courtyard were given to outsiders, vagrants, pilgrims and so on. They would sometimes also do some work and get butter, tsampa and meat in return. Kundun’s mother would often give them food.
“I never met Kundun’s father, but heard that he had a bad temper, though he was always honest. He liked horses and spent much time in the stable.
“I once had a scar on my face that was bleeding. I was in the courtyard exposing it to the sun; Kundun’s third elder brother Losang Samten La happened to come back riding his horse and saw me. He immediately sent someone to fetch butter tea that Kundun had drunk from. I put some on my wound, stayed in the sun for a bit longer and after a few days, the wound was healed.”
“Changseshar had several servants; one of them died and his son was subsequently taken care of by Kundun’s family.”
This retired cadre was almost 70 years old, her face was wrinkled, but she looked nice when she laughed. She had been to Dharamsala and had an audience with Gyalwa Rinpoche; she cried bitterly because the Dalai Lama was living in a foreign place, not in the Potala Palace or at Norbulingka. He used to have so many precious palaces. But in the same way as many other Tibetans, she felt grateful towards India. In Dharamsala, she also met her playmate Jetsun Pema again. She expressed to me with conviction: “They were our masters in the past and they still remain our masters today, always remember that they belong to us.”
I noticed that she used the word “master” or “dagbo” in Tibetan in an intimate way, as if she were speaking of one big family.
The photos below are a collection of photos that I took over the past few years:
This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)