The Way of the White Clouds

by Anāgarika Lāma Govinda | 123,888 words

The Way of the White Clouds as an eye-witness account and the description of a pilgrimage in Tibet during the last decenniums of its independence and unbroken cultural tradition, is the attempt to do justice to the above-mentioned task, as far as this is possible within the frame of personal experiences and impressions. This work is licensed under...

Chapter 45 - The Valley of the Moon Castle

A few days later, when emerging at the rock-gate of Kojomor from the lonely highlands, everybody heaved a sigh of relief at leaving the inhospitable wilds for warmer and flatter regions. We looked down upon a vast expanse of gently rolling lowlands, bordered by the snows of the Himalayas in the south, and we imagined that now we would be able to travel along the Langchen-Khambab without further obstacles. But hardly had we reached what seemed to be the floor of the vast valley when suddenly we found ourselves at the edge of a plateau, looking down into a labyrinth of canyons, thousands of feet deep. We felt that we had come to the very end of the world and that there was no other choice left but to turn back. How could our heavily loaded yaks and horses ever negotiate the sheer, almost perpendicular, walls of these canyons, which were so deep that we could not even see their bottoms? And how should we ever get out of this labyrinth, which stretched from horizon to horizon and might take days or even weeks to traverse? But before these questions could be answered the first men and pack-animals had already disappeared into a gap at the edge of the plateau, through which a narrow path led down into the nether world, into the gaping bowels of the earth. The path was only discernible to experienced caravan leaders who were familiar with the terrain -- and even these people seemed to rely on some sixth sense, especially when suddenly the faint track disappeared in the debris of disintegrating rocks and boulders or in steep sand-falls (generally at exactly forty-five degrees), on which the whole caravan, fully loaded pack-animals included, would slide down in the pious hope of being arrested in time before they reached the next perpendicular rock-face. Woe to the bold traveller who should try to cross these regions without a guide! Even if he were lucky enough to descend into one of these canyons without losing either his life or his luggage, it would be much more difficult for him to get out again.

I still remember how during our first camp at the bottom of one of these canyons we tried to guess how the caravan would proceed the next morning. After thoroughly examining the surroundings, we came to the conclusion that, since we were encircled by sheer cliffs on all sides, we could only get out by wading along in the water of the shallow but swift-flowing stream, until we reached an opening in the cliffs or an intersecting side valley. However, the next morning we climbed -- yaks and all -- over the very cliff that we had ruled out as the most inaccessible of all! How we did it is still a miracle to me. But somehow we succeeded in finding footholds here and there, pulling up the animals one by one, and finally emerging on a narrow ledge, which jutted out from an almost perpendicular rock-wall and was interrupted by occasional sand-falls that started to move as soon as one set foot on them.

Fortunately, we soon came on safer ground, but when after some hours of travelling, we reached the actual canyon of the Langchen-Khambab, we were faced by a long, swaying rope-bridge. Its main support was two steel-cables, hanging side by side, and upon them short planks and sticks were fastened with ropes and wires. There was nothing to hold on to, neither a rail nor even a single rope to steady oneself. The yaks had to be unloaded and every piece of luggage had to be carried separately over the bridge that was precariously swaying more than a hundred feet above the swirling, icy-cold waters of the river. After all the luggage had been dumped on the other side, the yaks were supposed to cross the bridge one by one, but they wisely refused to step on the shaky planks -- and we wondered how we could get out of this dilemma. But our people proved to be more resourceful than we expected. They managed to get the yaks down to the river-bank, drive them into the water and to direct them with shouts and stone-throwing to swim across the river. The current was so strong in the middle of the river that we were afraid the animals would be swept downstream, where the steep banks would have made it impossible for them to get out of the water. But thanks to the stone-throwing the yaks were prevented from turning downstream and safely reached the other bank. Finally we ourselves had to cross the bridge, and we did so with our hearts in our mouths. No wonder that innumerable prayer-flags and strips of cloth adorn all the bridges of Tibet! People rely more on the strength of their prayers than on that of the bridge. At any rate, it seems safer to commend oneself into the hands of higher powers and to be prepared for the worst.

In spite of all these dangers and troubles, we were richly rewarded by the indescribable grandeur of the canyon country which unfolded itself in all its fantastic beauty, the deeper we penetrated into this region. Here the mountain scenery is more than merely a landscape. It is architecture in the highest sense. It is of awe-inspiring monumentalitv, for which the word beautiful would be far too weak, because it is overpowering by the immensity and abstract purity of its millionfold repeated forms that integrate themselves into a vast rhythm, a symphony in stone, without beginning or end.

Ones first reaction is that this cannot be the work of nature only, the result of a mere play of blind forces, but rather the consciously composed work of a super-artist, on a scale so vast that it staggers the human mind and takes away one's breath. What is so surprising, however, is not the variety of forms but the precision and architectural regularity with which certain motifs and patterns are repeated and gradually integrated into bigger units in an ever-ascending rhythm, till the whole vast scene thunders in the upsurge of one overpowering movement.

Thus, whole mountain ranges have been transformed into rows of gigantic temples with minutely sculptured cornices, recesses, pillared galleries, bundles of bulging cones, intersected by delicate ledges, crowned with spires, domes, pinnacles, and many other architectural forms.

Some of these mountains look like the most elaborately carved Hindu temples in the styles of Khajuraho, Bhuvaneshvar, or Konarak, others like South Indian gopurams, others again like Gothic cathedrals or fairy-tale castles with innumerable spires and towers.

Due to the rarefied air of these altitudes, every detail is clearly defined and visible even from very great distances, while colours attain a brightness and purity unknown at lower levels. The shadows themselves appear in luminous colours, and the generally cloudless Tibetan sky forms a deep blue backdrop, against which the rocks stand out in fierce yellows and reds and all shades of copper and ochre, changing to all the colours of the rainbow at the magic hour of sunset.

How the wonders of this Tibetan canyon country, covering hundreds of square miles, could have remained unknown to the world is almost as surprising as seeing them with one's own eyes. And it is all the more astonishing since these Tibetan canyons offer an additional attraction to their natural beauty: the hidden treasures of a great past, which comes upon the traveller like the revelation of a magic world, in which dreams have been turned into reality under the spell of secret spiritual forces that reigned over this country for almost a millennium and still pervade it in a subtle way. Here the castles of the Holy Grail, the imaginary troglodite cities of the moon, the mountain fastnesses of medieval knights, the cave sanctuaries of secret cults, with their treasure of art and ancient manuscripts, come to life.

Indeed, they do not belong merely to the past. The lofty hermitages of pious anchorites, clinging to the rocks like swallow's nests, and the proud monasteries and temples on mountain-tops or in secluded valleys, still keep the flame of faith and ancient tradition alive.

Yet this is a dying country, a country slowly crumbling into dust, like those regions of Central Asia which a thousand years ago were flourishing centres of civilisation and which have turned into deserts, like the Gobi or the Takla Makan. Western Tibet, and especially the region of Ngari Khorsum, which even less than a thousand years ago was able to support a substantial population and a highly developed civilisation, is nowadays almost denuded of human life except for a few oasis-like settlements where irrigation permits the cultivation of barley or wheat.

The gradual desiccation of Western Tibet springs probably from the same causes that created the deserts of Central Asia. Geologists tell us that the Himalayas are steadily rising and that consequently the regions beyond their mountain bastions get less and less rain-bearing clouds. Many of the big glaciers on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas and in the interior of Tibet are, according to them, remnants of the last glacial age, since the present annual rate of snowfall does not suffice to explain their existence.

Large regions of Tibet, therefore, live on the ice reserves stored up from prehistoric times, and when these reserves are exhausted the country will turn into a perfect desert, for even now the rainfall is not sufficient for the cultivation of crops or for the growth of trees. One may wonder how erosion can be such a prominent feature in the Tibetan landscape if rain and snowfall are so insignificant. The answer is that the differences in temperature between day and night, sunlight and shadow, are so great that they can crack the hardest rocks and reduce the mightiest boulders to sand. Under these conditions even occasional showers, or the waters of melting snow, together with the fierce winds which sweep over the higher altitudes at certain seasons, are sufficient to complete the work on a grand scale.

How comparatively quickly the process of desiccation and the creation of desert-like conditions takes place can be understood when one realises that only 600-700 years ago certain species of big conifers used to grow in regions where nowadays trees are as unknown as in the antarctic -- or when one comes upon the ruins of cities and mighty castles, which even 500 years ago must have been teeming with life and activity, supported by fertile districts and provinces and a flourishing population. They were the abodes of kings and scholars, feudal lords and rich traders, skilful artists and craftsmen, who could bestow their gifts and talents upon temples and monasteries, libraries and religious monuments. We read in Tibetan chronicles of images of silver and gold, and we can believe that these reports were no exaggerations when we see the amount of gold that was used in the plating of temple-roofs, in the gilding of large clay and metal images, and in the decoration of temple halls and their extensive frescoes, in which gold was lavishly employed. As in the days of the ancient Inca Empire, where gold was regarded as the exclusive property of the Sun-God, so in ancient Tibet gold was thought to be fit only for the glorification of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and their teachings, which sometimes were actually written in gold and silver, and illuminated with miniatures on a gold ground.

It is difficult to imagine the religious fervour of those times, which transformed the inaccessible wilderness of mountains and canyons into a paradise of peace and culture, in which matters of the spirit were regarded as more important than worldly power and possessions, and where half the population could dedicate itself to a life of contemplation or to the pursuit of culture for the benefit of all, without suffering from want.

When James Hilton in his famous novel, The Lost Horizon described the `Valley of the Blue Moon', he was not so far from reality as he himself or his readers might have thought. There was a time when in the far-off canyons of Western Tibet there was many a hidden `Valley of the Blue Moon' where thousands of feet below the surface of the surrounding highlands, accessible only through some narrow rock-clefts and gorges, known only to the local inhabitants, there were flower-bedecked gardens, surrounded by trees and fields of golden wheat and fertile pastures, through which, like silver veins, flowed the water of crystal-clear mountain streams. There were lofty temples, monasteries and castles, rising from the surrounding rock-pinnacles, and thousands of neatly carved cave-dwellings, in which people lived comfortably, without encroaching on the valuable, fertile soil. They lived in a climate of eternal sunshine, protected from the cold winds of the highlands and from the ambitions and the restlessness of the outer world.

On our way to Tsaparang, we had the good luck to be stranded in one such valley, aptly called the Valley of the Moon Castle (Dawa-Dzong). The caravan that had brought us was in such a hurry to return that before we could even find out whether there was a chance of further transport we were left alone in the strange valley without a living soul anywhere in sight. The caravan people did not even care to camp for the night, but simply dumped our luggage (and ourselves) near a shallow stream at the bottom of a wide canyon, surrounded by fantastic rock formations which rose before us like the bastions and towers of a primeval giant fortress.

By the time we had set up our tent, stowed away our numerous bags and boxes, unpacked our camping equipment, and prepared our evening meal, the sun had set and the world shrank to the space of our four sheets of canvas. Then darkness that enveloped us was like a protective cloak, and when we woke up next morning and looked around, the idea of being stranded here for an uncertain time did not upset us in the least; in fact we were inwardly rejoicing at having an opportunity to explore and to sketch this incredible place, which looked more like an illustration of Jules Verne's Journey to the Moon than anything seen on this earth.

It may be that others might have felt oppressed by the loneliness and strangeness of the place, but to us it was just paradise: an enchanted world of rock formations which had crystallised into huge towers, shooting up thousands of feet into the deep blue sky, like a magic fence around an oasis, kept green by the waters of springs and mountain brooks. A great number of these nature-created towers had been transformed into dwellings -- nay into veritable 'skyscrapers' -- by the people who had lived here many hundreds of years ago. They had ingeniously hollowed out these rock-towers from within, honeycombing them with caves, one above the other, connected by inner staircases and passages, and lit up by small window-like openings. Groups of smaller rocks were rounded like beehives and served as single cave apartments. A number of cubic buildings between them seemed to be the remnants of monastic settlements, of which the main buildings stood on the rest of a rocky spur, jutting out into the valley and dividing it into three arms.

The centre of the crest was crowned with temples, stūpas (chorten), monasteries, and the ruins of ancient castles, whence one could get a beautiful view into the valley, bordered by phalanxes of rock-towers rising up, row after row, like organ-pipes and perforated by hundreds and hundreds of cave-dwellings and their windows.

The greatest surprise, however, was to find the main temple not only intact but actually covered with a golden roof that gleamed in the wilderness of rocks and ruins like a forgotten jewel -- a reminder and symbol of the splendour and the faith of a past age, in which this valley was inhabited by thousands of people and ruled by wise and pious kings. The remnants of ancient frescoes showed that this temple had been built towards the end of the tenth century -- almost a thousand years ago.

Now, except for a few herdsmen, who grazed their sheep and goats on the green pastures of the valley, we seemed to be the only human beings around that deserted city of troglodytes.

What a powerful silence! What an overwhelming loneliness! A silence which was full of the voices of the past, a loneliness that was alive with the presence of countless generations of those who had built and inhabited this ancient city. A great many of the caves had served as meditation chambers and as permanent abodes of hermits and monks, so that the whole place was saturated with a spirit of religious devotion and a life of contemplation. The very rocks appeared as in an upsurge of ecstasy.

Like a magnetised piece of steel, which retains its magnetic force for a very long time, in the same way this place seemed to have retained an atmosphere of spiritual power and serenity, so that one forgot all cares and fears and was filled with a deep sense of peace and happiness.

We had been camping here already for a week, but time seemed to stand still in the valley of the Moon Castle, so that we were quite oblivious of its passage. We had been told that Dawa-Dzong was the seat of a Dzongpön, a governor of a district or a province. But his Dzong (his 'fortress' or 'castle') consisted of nothing but a little house, tucked away in a grove of willows in the main canyon at the foot of the ruined city; which was hidden in a side canyon, whose entrance was barred formerly by a strong wall, now mostly in ruins. To our disappointment the Dzongpön was on tour in his district, and nobody knew when he would return, not even his wife, who was alone in the house with one or two servants.

When we told her our transport problem, she assured us that she would gladly help, but that the yaks were grazing in the highlands and there was nobody to catch them and to bring them down, since her husband had taken his men with him. According to Tibetan custom, a Dzongpön always travels with an armed escort, not only as a matter of safety but more as a matter of prestige. So we had to resign ourselves to an indefinite delay -- though this time we did not mind it so much.

One evening, when returning from a sketching excursion, while Li was guarding the tent (we took it in turns), an old Lama emerged from one of the half-ruined buildings near the golden-roofed temple. He greeted me with a friendly smile, though probably no less surprised to meet a stranger than I was.

After a few words of greeting, we slowly circumambulated the temple, from time to time setting in motion the prayer cylinders fixed here and there into small recesses in the outer walls of the building. Behind the cylinders, pious hands had stuffed loose pages of old manuscripts, which apparently had been picked up among the debris of crumbling temple buildings or stūpas, since it is the custom never to destroy or to deface even the smallest fragment of the holy scriptures.

`You are a Lama', the old man suddenly said to me, as if thinking aloud, 'but not from this part of the country. Are you able to read our holy scriptures?'

'Certainly I am'.

`Then read what is written here' -- and he pulled out a manuscript hidden behind one of the prayer cylinders.

I read: `I will act for the good and the welfare of all living beings, whose numbers are as infinite as the expanse of the sky, so that, by following the path of love and compassion, I may attain to perfect enlightenment'.

The old Lama's face lit up and he looked straight into my eyes, saying, as he grasped both my hands, like one who has found a long-lost brother: `We are travelling on the same path!'

No more words were necessary -- and while the rocks were lit up by the sinking sun, like fiery sentinels, I hastened towards the little tent in the valley below.

Arriving there, Li told me that a messenger had come during my absence, to let us know that the yaks for which we had been waiting so long had been finally secured and would be reaching us within a day or two.

This was good news -- but with a sudden sadness we realised that never again would we see the golden roof of that ancient sanctuary, where for a thousand years pious monks had followed the path of light, and where I had found a friend -- a nameless friend and companion in the spirit -- whose smile would always be present in my memory of the profound peace and happiness we found in this enchanted valley.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: