The Empty Palace and the Clapping Novices

I know the title of this post sounds like the title of an unreleased Harry Potter novel, but I liked the sound of it and it's an apt description for our day today. 

An early start had led us to the group entrance of the Potala Palace just before dawn, and even our moonlight arrival hadn't snagged us first place in the line. We queued patiently (as is to be expected of a group composed largely of members of the Commonwealth) behind an excitable gang of Chinese tourists, and Gun Chow entertained us with his energetic, if slightly obtuse repartee. He's certainly an interesting guy, infinitely more open than Drujal, and his accent has a bizarre, quasi-American inflection. It made me think he'd studied in the States, as opposed to Drujal's English-Indian education, but it turns out both he and Drujal went to school together but Gun Chow is fatally addicted to pirated DVDs of Hollywood films, hence the Hollywood twang. He's also picked up the kind of casual theatrics that can stereotype Americans and it makes him starkly different from the normally more reserved Tibetans. He illustrates this learned behaviour perfectly when the doors to the Palace aren't opened on schedule, and he falls to his knees, banging on the gate and wailing like he's drunk - much to the delight of the Chinese tourists, who think it's some kind of street theatre and begin taking pictures. Whilst they ready their tripods, our group subtly uses the distraction to sneak in front of them and dive through the gates as they're opened by a very confused (and very orange) security guard. 

The Potala Palace is a very strange place. I'd only really heard of it as the home of the Dalai Lama, and knew nothing of it's symbolism, aesthetics or, most prominently, it's size. Another gargantuan enterprise in a country that's been full of them, the Palace is a hulking brute of a building, awkwardly crouched on a small hill that overlooks Lhasa - in fact, it's hard to make out what's hill and what's building and the haphazard and relatively unattractive architecture makes it look out of place, like a vulture trying to perch on a bonsai tree. And the size isn't just structural mass - Drujal had told us earlier that there are so many rooms in the Palace that if a person were to start walking at dawn, they would be unable to walk through all of the rooms by sunset, even at a quick pace. 

We climb the stairs that snake sharply upwards along the outer Walls of the Palace at a fairly brisk rate, leaving a few of the group struggling by the time we reach the heart of the Palace's collection of open rooms - the Dalai Lama's quarters. Surprisingly austere and low of scale (or unsurprisingly I suppose), the Suite comprises only a handful of small rooms, mostly meeting spaces of different sizes and accompanying ornamentation. Apart from the grander reception rooms, the place is rather homely - verging on cozy - and there's a real impression that you're walking through somebody's home, rather than the 'empty showroom' feeling of some of Europe's palaces and stately homes. This feeling prevails, in spite of the plastic sheeting and railings that attempt to make the place safe from the hordes of devotees that will push their foreheads against anything the Dalai Lama might have touched or even brushed against - so much so that there are dents being worn into wooden handrails that prevent visitors getting close to the altars, benches and cabinets that make up most of the furniture. 

We walk down from the Suite, through temples, chapels and libraries, mostly dark and incense rich but occasionally day lit by improbable light wells that must be tens of metres deep. Most of the rooms have the same homely feeling as the suite, although the temples and chapels blur together, in the same way churches do after visiting many in short succession. The most interesting is one of the smallest - the cave that spawned the Potala is still present in the depths of the Palace, its walls worn smooth after centuries of use as a holy place. We hurry towards the exit, rushing as visitors are only given one hour to tour the interior of the Palace - government rules, lest exposure to too much Dalai Lama lead you to form an impromptu uprising in the gift shop - and we emerge at the rear of the place to wind our way back down to street level. 

The Palace leaves an obscure and rather sombre impression on me. I'm amazed at it's mass and size, perplexed by the heirachy of the numerous chapels and touched by how cherished it all seems, both by the visitors and the previous inhabitants - it's hard to imagine that Buckingham Palace is so loved by the Queen or the people who traipse through it. But what makes the experience so uncanny isn't the size or the architecture, or even it's well-worn charm; it's how lonely it all feels. Despite the cynical attempts by the Chinese Government to obscure the fact that the Dalai Lama - perhaps the most important living Tibetan national - had to flee the Potala and now lives a life of exile in India, the place still reeks of abandonment. There are guards (dressed in orange overalls, and looking like extras from a Beastie Boys video), and you catch brief flashes of Buddhist orange as monks dart by performing perfunctory acts of maintenance, but the place has no spirit, save the remnants left over from it's previous life. The experience felt more akin to visiting Lenin's Mausoleum than touring a palace, made worse by the fact that seeing the Dalai Lama's robes laid out or books left open gives the impression that you're touring somebody's house after they've recently died. 

I'd still recommend it, as it's a deeply affecting place, but as we moved on to the Sera Monastery later that afternoon, it had made me feel a bit uneasy about what was going on in Tibet and I wanted to get onto Wikipedia as soon as possible, just to illuminate the dark spots in my knowledge of Tibet and it's politics. Anyway, upon arriving at the Monastery, one of the most prominent in Lhasa, the rather morose funk I'd gotten into began to evaporate. It was a beautiful day, hot and clear, and I wandered around the rather decrepit buildings with increasing optimism. We saw some mandalas, religiously significant and beautifully ornate arrangements of coloured sand made from crushed cereals, and helped some men carry a giant representation of the Buddha - shrouded in what seemed to be toilet paper - up some unforgivingly steep steps. We saw temples and chapels, monks living quarters wrapped around sunny courtyards and the most vile toilets I've yet come across (imagine that!) which I had the privilege of paying to use. I'll spare you they gory details, but lets just say that I wasn't worried about getting gum on my shoes in there. 

Whilst pleasant (obvious exceptions excluded), the real highlight made itself known as we stepped out of one of the temples and neared a high, dusty wall. There was the general noise of people that typically surrounds any major attraction at a tourist trap, but there was a kind of arrhythmic beat as well, sporadic and sharp, like wet clothes being slapped against a rock. As I stepped through a rough opening in the wall, I saw the source of what was now a racket of shouting and clapping. Dozens of novice monks, dressed in the crimson robes of the order, were doing what looked like a strange, one-sided dance. Some of the boys, and they were boys, sat on small, rectangular mats whilst facing them, stood up, were other monks, sometime two or three, who were performing theatrical claps - raising both hands above their heads, lifting a knee, before bringing it all crashing down in the direction of the seated novice. It was surreal, almost aggressive, but the smiles on the face of the monks implied that it was, at least in part, enjoyable.

Drujal explained that the first education an aspiring monk must obtain is in philosophy, and what I was witnessing was a kind of debate, albeit much more physical than I'd ever seen before. It seems the seated monk would put forth an hypothesis, based on his understanding of Buddhist teachings, and the standing monk (or monks) would challenge him, underlining the astuteness of their questions with a clap. It was fascinating to watch, and although it appeared to get heated (as debates can), the monks seemed to derive laughter and camaraderie from the whole affair. Once the battle was over, and a senior monk had decided whose argument was stronger, the boys would draw up cushions together and go through the finer points of the debate, joking and smiling with each other - that is my own hypothesis, based on observation, as my Tibetan is still maturing (!!) but the looks on their faces suggest they were enjoying the post-match critiques. 

That evening, after returning from the monastery, the 'Young Ones' (I said I'd be Rick and laughed at the nick name, no one else did) went out for dinner at a rooftop restaurant and we got to know each other better. Sander's great, intelligent and funny, and I feel like I got to know Ria and Jane a little better.

Tomorrow's a free day, so I'm off to plan what we can do with one day at the roof of the world. 

Night all.