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 46 - Arrival at Tsaparang

After the valley of the Moon Castle and the awe-inspiring canyons on the way to Tholing, we feared that Tsaparang would perhaps come as an anticlimax or at least as something that could not compete with the natural wonders through which we had passed. But when, on the last lap of our journey -- while emerging from a gorge and turning the spur of a mountain -- we suddenly beheld the lofty castles of the ancient city of Tsaparang, which seemed to be carved out of the solid rock of an isolated, monolithic mountain peak, we gasped with wonder and could hardly believe our eyes.

As if woven of light, the city stood against the evening sky, enhaloed by a rainbow, which made the scene as unbelievable as a fata morgana. We almost feared that the scene before us might disappear as suddenly as it had sprung up before our eyes, but it remained there as solid as the rock on which it was built. Even the rainbow -- in itself a rare phenomenon in an almost rainless country like Western Tibet -- remained steady for quite a long time, centred around the towering city like an emanation of its hidden treasures of golden images and luminous colours, in which the wisdom and the visions of a glorious past were enshrined.

To see our goal after two long years of pilgrimage and uncertainties, and more than ten years of painstaking preparation, and moreover to see it enhaloed and transfigured like this, appeared to us more than a mere coincidence: it was a foreboding of greater things to come, of discoveries of far-reaching importance and of a work that might well occupy us for the remainder of our lives. It was a pledge for the ultimate success of our efforts and a confirmation of our faith in the guidance of those powers that had led us here.

We reached the abandoned city in the evening and took shelter in a crude stone hut that had been built in front of a cave, in which the only permanent inhabitants of this former capital of the kingdom of Gugé were living: a shepherd with his wife and child, who served as a caretaker of the three remaining temples that had survived the ravages of time. His name was Wangdu, and since he was miserably poor, he was glad to have an opportunity to earn a little money by supplying us with water, brushwood, and milk. So we settled down in the little stone hut, whose interior was so rough and dark that it gave us the feeling of living in a half-finished cave. But the mere thought of being in Tsaparang transformed this miserable hovel for us into a most acceptable dwelling-place.

On that memorable first evening -- it was on the 2nd October 1948 -- I wrote in my diary! 'It was my dream for many long years to see Tsaparang and to save its crumbling treasures of art and religious tradition from oblivion. For ten years I have been striving towards this aim, against heavy odds and against the sound opinions of others, who thought I was chasing after castles in the air. Now the dream has come true

-- and now I begin to understand another dream I had more than thirty years ago: I dreamt of a wooden tower that stood on a mountain-top. It was an old tower, and wind and weather had peeled off its paint. I felt sad when I saw this, because I recognised the tower as that from which I had often admired the beautiful landscape, in which I spent my boyhood days. Suddenly I saw the Buddha coming towards me, carrying a pail with paint and brushes. Before I could give expression to my surprise, he handed me the pail and the brushes and said: "Continue and preserve this work of mine!" A great happiness came over me, and suddenly I understood that this tower of vision was the symbol of the Dharma, which the Buddha had erected for all those who want to see beyond the narrow horizon of their mundane world. But what I did not know at that time was that it was actually through brush and colour that I was meant to serve the Buddha-dharma and to save some of its most beautiful monuments from oblivion'.

And still less did I know that I would have a gifted and eager helper in the form of Li Gotami, who like me was devoted to the Enlightened Ones and inspired by the great works of Buddhist art, of which Ajanta and Tsaparang seemed to be the noblest and most accomplished. Only people to whom the spiritual life was more important than material comfort, to whom the teachings of the Buddha was a greater possession than worldly goods and political power, could have achieved such works which transformed barren nature into a manifestation of inner vision and crude matter into representations of transcendental reality.

We fell overwhelmed by the power of this reality when on the following day we entered the halls of the two big temples, the White and the Red Lhakhang (as they were called according to the colour of their outer walls), which had remained intact amidst all the destruction. The over-life-size golden images, gleaming amidst the warm colours of the frescoed walls, were more alive than anything we had seen before of this kind; in fact, they embodied the very spirit of this deserted city: the only thing that time had not been able to touch. Even the conquering hordes that caused the downfall of Tsaparang had shrunk from defiling the silent majesty of these images. Yet it was apparent to us that even these last remnants of former glory were doomed, as we could see from the cracks in the walls and leaks in the roofs of these two temples. Parts of the frescoes had already been obliterated by rain-water or the water of melting snow seeping here and there through the roof, and some of the images in the White Temple (which were made of hardened clay, coated with gold) were badly damaged.

The frescoes were of the highest quality we had ever seen in or outside Tibet. They covered the walls from the dado (about two and three-quarter feet from the floor) right up to the high ceiling. They were lavishly encrusted with gold and minutely executed, even in the darkest corners or high up beyond the normal reach of human sight, and even behind the big statues. In spite of the minute execution of details, some of the fresco-figures were of gigantic size. Between them middle-sized and smaller ones would fill the space, while some places were covered with miniatures not bigger than a thumb-nail and yet containing figures, complete in every detail, though only discernible through a magnifying glass, it soon became clear to us that these paintings were done as an act of devotion, irrespective of whether they would be seen or not; they were more than merely decorations: they were prayers and meditations in line and colour.

And as we traced as many of these frescoes as time and opportunity allowed, we began to experience the magic of these times, which enshrined the heart-beat and the living devotion of the artists who had dedicated themselves to this work. Merely to trace these delicate lines accurately demanded the most intense concentration, and it was a strange sensation to relive the feelings and emotions of people who had lived almost a millennium before us. It was like entering their very bodies and personalities, their thoughts and feelings, and thus reliving their innermost life. It showed that not only inner emotion can be expressed by outer movement -- be it in the form of brush-lines or in the movements of dance gestures, mudrās and āsanas -- but that equally the faithful repetition of such outer movements could induce emotions and experiences similar to those which originally created those movements.

Thus, while becoming more and more absorbed by our work, we seemed to relinquish our own identity, taking on the personalities of those who had dedicated themselves to a similar task centuries ago. Maybe we ourselves were the rebirths of some of those artists, and this inner connection had drawn us back to the place of our former activities. Every day, for three months, before starting our work, we would perform our pūjā with light and water offerings (signifying consciousness and life) and recite the formulas of refuge and self-dedication at the feet of the golden Buddhas. And with every day their presence would become more and more powerful, until it filled us with a perpetual inspiration, so that we forgot hunger and cold and all other hardships and lived in a kind of trance that enabled us to work from sunrise to sunset almost without interruption and with a minimum of food.

As time passed the cold became more and more intense, especially inside the temples, into which the sun could not penetrate. When filling the seven altar-bowls with water from the morning pūjā, the first bowl would already be solidly frozen by the time the last one was being filled, though it took hardly five seconds to fill each bowl. The temple walls were so cold that it became almost impossible to touch them without suffering excruciating pain, so that even tracing became a torture. Li had to keep her bottle of Chinese ink inside her amphag to prevent it from freezing and had to breathe from time to time on her brush to thaw the ink which tended to get solid after a few strokes. This was particularly annoying, especially during the last days of our stay when every minute counted; and I remember once when she wept in despair on account of the excessive cold that made it almost impossible for her to hold the brush, her tears were frozen before they could reach the floor and bounced up from it as beads of ice with a thud.

As I worked on the bigger figures of Dhyāni-Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, I was able to work with pencil and conté on a less transparent and slightly more rough-surfaced paper; but I had to battle with the disadvantage that the greater part of my subjects were higher up on the walls and that I had to build a rough kind of scaffolding on pyramids of stone blocks (collected from the debris outside the temples), which had to be dismantled and rebuilt at least once or twice every day according to the progress of my work. It was a back-breaking job, and balancing precariously on top of this pyramid or on the rungs of a roughly made ladder, inserted into and kept together by the stones of the pyramid, I soon found my feet getting frozen, so that I had to climb down from time to time to get my circulation going and to warm up in the sunshine outside. We also had to thaw out our hands there, by placing them on the iron bands, with which the temple doors were fortified and which caught and intensified the warmth of the sun to a remarkable degree.

Another difficulty was the lack or rather the uneven distribution of light in the Lhakhangs. Tibetan temples are built in such a way that the light falls directly upon the main image through a window high up on the opposite side or through a kind of skylight between the lower and the raised central roof. In this way the reflection from the golden face and body of the statue fills the temple with a mild light, sufficient to admire the frescoes and the other objects in the hall but not for the drawing or painting of small details. Moreover, the light thus reflected from the central image is not stationary but highlights different parts of the temple at different times according to the position of the sun. On account of this, we had to follow the light from one place to another or to reflect it with white sheets into dark corners or places where the pillars, supporting the roof, obstructed the light.

Often one had to abandon the work on which one was engaged and rush to another part of the hall or even to another temple where the light was just favourable, and this process had to be repeated until all the details of each panel were traced and recorded. Photography under these circumstances was particularly difficult, and even Li, a onetime associate of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, who took all the photographs in these temples, had a hard and sometimes nerve-racking time, because we had no flashbulbs nor any other modern appliances. In those days, photographic material was very scarce, colour films were not available, and we had to be glad to get ordinary films for our good old cameras, which had served us well for one or two decades. Li's little Kodak No. I, series 3, with its old-fashioned bellows, but an excellent lens, certainly proved its value (as the results have shown), though it required exceedingly long exposures (without a light-meter!), for which Li had an unfailing 'hunch' and which brought out the plastic values of statues far better than any flashlight could have done. However, some of the frescoes were so unevenly lit that it was impossible to get good results. Even the statues could only be photographed with the help of skilfully placed reflectors and after day-long observations of the different light-effects. The photographs of these statues are, next to our fresco tracings, the most valuable records of our Tsaparang Expedition.

Among the frescoes of Tsaparang, those representing the life of Buddha Śākyamuni are the most remarkable and beautiful. They are the oldest and most complete frescoes of the Buddha's life that have come to light hitherto. Even Ajanta, which until now held the pride of place in the world of Buddhist painting, has almost only scenes from the legendary lives of the Buddha's previous incarnations and very few scenes that can be related to the life of Śākyamuni. All the more were we thrilled to find the frescoes of Tsaparang so complete and with few exceptions in such excellent condition. Even the passage of centuries had not been able to dim their rich colours or to efface their delicate line-work. The colours looked as fresh as if they had been painted in our lifetime and not eight or nine hundred years ago.

The life of the Buddha was depicted in each of the two main temples, called the White and the Red Temple (lha-khang dkar-po and lha-khang dmar-po) The White Temple (so called because its outer walls were whitewashed) was the older of the two, and contained a colossal, rather archaic-looking statue of Śākyamuni made of beaten and heavily gilt metal sheets. The apsis in which the statue was housed was decorated with finely executed frescoes, depicting the life of the Buddha. The different scenes were interwoven in such a way that various incidents would appear in one and the same composition. The space of each composition was determined by the available wall-surface on both sides of the apsis. Unfortunately half of them were washed away by rainor snow-water on account of a badly leaking roof.

In the Red Temple, however (so called because its outer walls were painted dark red), nearly all the frescoes were intact, and those that were missing or in poor condition were just the ones which had escaped destruction in the White Temple. This was extremely lucky, as it enabled us to get a complete record of the traditional pictorial representation of the life of the Buddha.

I will not go here into the details of these frescoes, since they will be the subject of a separate publication, in which Li Gotami's faithful tracings and colour-renderings will be reproduced. While she was occupied with the panels of the Life of the Buddha, I worked alternately (according to the conditions of light) on the big figures above them, as well as on the frescoes of the White Temple, which represented two sets of Dhyāni-Buddhas, each of whom was surrounded by a retinue of twelve figures, symbolising different aspects of meditation: altogether 130 figures, out of which sixtyfive were set into floral designs, while the other half was set into highly decorative architectural backgrounds.

The monumental Buddha-figures in the frescoes of the Red Temple (above the Life of the Buddha series) would have been of less interest, due to their rather stylised and conventional Forms (more or less adhering to the same pattern, so that they distinguished themselves only by their different madras and the colour of their faces), had it not been for the elaborate decoration of their thrones, which contained a wealth of Buddhist symbols, woven into charming arabesques and architectural designs. These thrones alone would justify a book on Buddhist symbology!

With all these treasures of beauty spread around us, we worked from morning to evening, obsessed with the premonition that we would probably be the last people from outside Tibet who had the privilege to see and to record these unique works of art, and that one day our tracings and photographs would be all that is left of them. We were particularly privileged, since probably never before in the history of Tibet had an official permission been given, to make tracings directly off the walls of such religiously and historically important sanctuaries. We strained to the limits of our capacity to trace every line with the utmost accuracy and to record the colours as faithfully as possible. As to the latter, we were helped by pieces of painted stucco that had fallen from damaged frescoes and which now served us as a colour-key and enabled us to reproduce the frescoes in their original colours, according to our systematic and detailed notations on each of our fresco tracings.

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