Tales of old Tibet have fascinated me since childhood: the chantefable of ancient manuscripts where heroes battled brigands and gods vanquished demons.
It must have come from the textures of my own infancy – as a little boy in a trading family doing business with Tibet, like so many others, in bustling Kalimpong, where fortunes were bartered and friendships were built for life.
My prankish days were spent playing horse over mountains of wool and mounds of yak tails. We teased the mule trains that had traversed for months over the passes, and we risked whacks from the unsheathed daggers of irascible muleteers.
We saw things and we heard stories of a wondrous and perilous land of magic and mystery that was months away by foot, but felt close enough for everyday touch. One day it all vanished, and all I had was this novel by Henrich Harrer to show me a land I have always yearned to go to.
The closest I got to Lhasa and Kham is through the voice of my wife, Tseten, who was born in Lhasa but never was able to see her land. So she saw it through the eyes of her Pala.
These photos of a bygone era are from the collection of Tseten’s family, The Chamatsangs (one-time prominent trading house from Kham) and The Yuthoks (aristocrats of that old world). The picture of the ladies is from the Yuthok family’s collection and reflects how the nobility lived then in Lhasa, a distant cry from the farmers and nomads of greater Tibet.
The picture of the milkmaid is reminiscent of how women folk worked in the villages. The images of the mountains and valleys are from different regions and cast their own splendour of a place in time.
The daughter’s song (Unseen Tibet)
I still remember well
when you carried me
the magic, the music of
your legends and fables.
I’ve always sought to know -
the secrets of the unsaid
How high does the eagle soar
to be above the gilded roof,
Does the white crane rest there,
on its way from the north,
or was it to the south?
If the Stonewall hums with pilgrims,
and under the summer sun
do urchins still frolic
in the happy river,
The one you called Lhasa
Where is Khesar now?
With his sword-steed
Cleaving demons and devils
And why did the ragged minstrel
Sing rhymes of heroes and rogues?
Do young men still swagger
In their boots and braids?
Does the milkmaid still lament
of home, heart and longing,
even as her tresses flirt.
Or is this all a figment of color
much like the halo above that hill.
Does Che Potala still glint tall
with its thousand panes
against the setting day?
And when does the swallow greet
the wildflower spring in Kham ?
Does the sky float in turquoise
where your white pony roamed?
Do its meadows glide endlessly
like some unending fantasy.
And how liquid is that crystal
where the blissful hermit bathes.
How many days in the snows
and how many Koras
to where the Blue One meditates
on that centrifugal summit.
Do you think he’d be there,
or did he too leave
Like you and a million others.
Does the night still shine of diamonds,
where the wind mates with the wolf?
Was it the greenest of green,
did you really draw clouds
such ones I can only imagine?
I wonder if the ranges sing freely,
where whispers turn to echoes
for the valleys up and below.
Is the juniper still pure,
Is the brook still clear?
Can this still remain as is
in this unseen vista
just as it was when I heard you,
I cannot say for sure
It’s always been this way for me
Didn’t matter where I was,
home was always elsewhere,
here today, there yesterday.
I have listened and I have waited
to fill this unfilled space
Tell me Pala once more again,
these tales of your land.