Gyangtse is the archetypal Tibetan town. With its population of around ten thousand it used to be the country’s third largest town but has now been overtaken by ten larger cities. Largely overshadowed by its bigger neighbours, Gyangtse still retains something of the feel of old times with its traditional architecture, its stunning location and its friendly locals.
We installed ourselves in a hotel which was vast and has clearly been used to hosting official party congresses. Its large dimensions were, however, tempered by some of the most exquisite modern murals and decorations I have seen.
Next morning we took a quick look around the market of this mainly agricultural town.
We then walked along what is popularly known as ‘cow street’ because of the number of these quadrupeds tethered outside the characteristic flat-roofed (because there’s little snow that falls in Tibet) houses. The buildings were full of exquisite details.
Dominating the town was the dzong or fortress, a landmark in the infamous Francis Younghusband expedition to Tibet of 1903-4 which not only was the first time a English person entered the forbidden city of Lhasa but also turned out to be a large-scale invasion with negative consequences for Anglo-Tibetan relationships. The fact was that British Army Gatling guns were a highly unequal match against Tibetan ancient flintlocks. Statistics vary but in one encounter, reckoned to be the highest altitude battle ever fought by the British army, five thousand Tibetan army personnel (largely monks) were killed with just five British casualties.
Sir Francis Younghusband afterwards sorely regretted his aggressive approach which was frankly a political one involved in the ‘Great Game’ where the British and Russian Empires thought that each other had designs on the vast and largely unexplored expanses of central Asia and even India itself! (This story forms the background of Rudyard Kipling’s masterpiece ‘Kim’ –a must-read book and one of my favourites). From Younghusband’s early explorations, which took him to all parts of the Chinese subcontinent, through the shameful Tibetan expedition, to his last years as a spiritualist writer of such books as Life in the Stars, The Light of Experience, Dawn in India and The Living Universe we have someone who personifies both the best and worst of the British explorer-imperialist.
But does it really require an unnecessary slaughter of Tibetan monks to see the Divine Light, develop faith in cosmic rays and believe that on our earth there are extra-terrestrials with transparent flesh hailing from the planet Altair?
The highlight of Gyangtse, however, is not the fort, which is dedicated to the Tibetan and Chinese martyrs of those early twentieth century years, but the ‘Kumbum’, or one hundred thousand images – an astonishing, perhaps the most astonishing, building in Tibet. The Pelkhor Choede (to give it its proper Tibetan name) is a chorten, or shrine, housing an accretion of statues of the Buddha and his acolytes and avatars and built in the shape of a three-dimensional architectural mandala. I only wish I had a drone with me to take pictures of this wonderful building from above so that its complex intersections of circle within the square, so characteristic of Mandalas, could be seen.
The Kumbum dates back to 1427 when it was commissioned by a Gyangtse prince and was an important Buddhist centre. There are nine mandala-like levels with 108 (that auspicious Buddhist number again) chapels
Exploring the nine levels of the Kumbum is a real adventure as one climbs up towards the top (just a ladder at that stage) where the statue of the supreme Buddha (Shakyamuni) is kept. Each floor comprises little chapels with avenging and defending deities and the walls are covered with those one hundred thousand murals, probably the finest in the whole of Tibet, fortunately saved from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and best viewed with a flash light (which we stupidly forgot to bring….)
No photos, however, can capture the wonder of this building and its treasures.
The Palcho monastery where the Kumbum is placed is equally worth a visit with its lines of prayer wheels and its large assembly hall. It’s a pity that the number of monks here are just a fraction of what they used to be.
I could have spent days in Gyangtse – perhaps hiring a bike to visit the surrounding country which is delightfully rural. Certainly I had to be dragged away from the Kumbum – the magic of that building had me in raptures. For once the significance of Mandalas encapsulated me for I was actually inside one as I rose higher and higher to the top and enjoyed a wonderful view of the landscape looked over by the final statue of Shakyamuni, the Supreme Buddha.
Sadly too, the Kumbum marked the last stop of our travels in Tibet. From now on we would be homeward bound….