I was born beneath a rainbow.
How many times my grandmother told me the story of my birth! With a crooked finger, she would trace the line of a rainbow through the air and describe as she did so how it reached from the river to the fields, with the whole village under its arc. Then she would tell me that my birth was accompanied by many auspicious signs. “Ngodup,” she would say, “you might have been the Riwoche trulku!” It was her favourite story and she’d tell it to anyone who would listen.
It goes something like this. A few days after my birth a search party composed of high lamas arrived from Drag Riwoche monastery, which lies two days’ walk from our village. The search party announced that I was one of the candidates for the reincarnation of a high lama who had died a year ago. There were many signs to indicate that my birth might be something special. When the monks arrived, the ravens that usually perched on the roof of the monastery were all perched on our house.
And one of the chief stewards of the previous lama recalled that the lama had visited our house to carry out a religious ceremony just before he passed away. The lama had mentioned that he felt very much at home. As he was leaving the house, he came towards my mother and placed his hands on her head, saying, “I will return to this house.”
According to my grandmother, a few days before I was born my mother had dreamed that she was holding a dorje, a symbolic thunderbolt, in her left hand and sitting in deep meditation. The thunderbolt represented the indestructibility of Buddha’s teachings. All these signs were thought to be auspicious, since they usually accompany the birth of an incarnate lama.
Grandmother would describe how Chang dzo la, the chief steward of the previous lama, had dangled two rosaries in front of my eyes, and how my tiny hands had jabbed forward and snatched one. Grandmother would shake her head from side to side and make clapping gestures, and she would tell me with great excitement that the lama had smiled and confirmed that the rosary I had picked had indeed belonged to the previous lama.
My grandmother was fond of telling me this story. She was a small woman with a tiny face. She had a habit of rubbing dollops of butter on her hair, which made it glisten with grease. Her tiny face shone beneath the tightly combed hair. I loved listening to her. She told me that when the names of all the candidates were submitted to Lhasa for approval, I was not chosen. She insisted that this was because our family had no “back-door” connections with powerful people there. Although I was very young at the time, I could detect traces of disappointment in her voice when she reached the high point of the story.
I, after all, came into the world with a burst of auspicious signs and great expectations. The local astrologer drew up my horoscope and told my father that I would be of great benefit to my family and to others. He did not say how. Perhaps this was what a lowly village astrologer always trumpeted to the ears of wealthy landlords. I think this pleased my father. Later he reminded me of the pronouncement.
I was named Ngodup. In Tibet, parents do not choose names for their children; instead, they usually ask a high lama to bestow a name. I do not know which lama gave me my name, although it was probably the abbot of the nearby monastery. I was born in 1933, the year of the male water monkey, in a village called Panam which lies 125 miles east of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and forty-five miles from Shigatse in the west, Tibet’s second largest city.
Panam was a small village of no importance, situated in the plains of Tsang. The Nyangchu river meandered through the valley. Mountains reared up on both sides of the river. The wide plain was dotted with green fields of barley, peas and mustard. The river was deceptive; sometimes it was shallow and you could see only the shimmering ripples flowing gently towards Shigatse, where the Nyangchu merges with Tibet’s largest river, the Yarlung Tsangpo. When the water was low the villagers would simply wade across to the other side and take their animals to pasture. But if a shepherd failed to bring back the animals at the right time, the river became impossible to cross, and he would have to make a long detour. It might take him two to three days to find a ford.
In the spring, when the snows melted and the ripples turned into a torrent, the river became dangerous and the villagers looked at it with fear. I remember being warned not to play by the river bank; it was said that even strong beasts like yaks had been carried away by rapids. One of my first memories is of running to the river bank as a child and seeing a group of men pulling out a dead yak that had been washed up there. Along with a number of other children, I stood watching the men cut up the bloated carcass and divide the meat on to a cloth that was spread nearby. From then on I was terrified of the river. But we were dependent on the Nyangchu: the fields were fed from it and areas not reached by the water were barren and dry. The infertile, cracked land was a constant reminder of how much we relied on the river. I can’t remember a day when it rained in Panam. The areas the water reached were lush green and provided us with sustenance. From the river we fetched drinking water, and small channels were dug to lead water into the fields. All day you could see a man wandering from field to field, opening and closing the irrigation channels.
The mountains which make up the Himalayan range rose steeply towards the clear blue sky on each side of the valley. They soared to a sloping pasture-ground which stretched out into the sky. The walls of the mountains sheltered Panam on both sides. When the thaw began in the spring and the green shoots struggled to emerge from beneath the ice, the villagers took their animals to graze on the high pasture. But for almost three months, over winter, the sheep, goats, cows and even some yaks were kept in the house. Our houses were two-storey buildings made out of mud bricks. The stone foundations were almost three feet wide, forming a broad base on which mud bricks were piled to make a thick wall. These simple mud-brick walls kept the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
The first floor was for human habitation. On the ground floor, in the dark, the animals were kept in the winter months. I remember, as a young boy, chasing the animals out of their winter pen. They were hesitant and frightened to emerge into the open. One by one, they would stagger out on unsteady feet and blink, dazzled by the daylight. People would laugh and say that the animals were intoxicated from eating the waste from distilled alcohol: in the winter, in preparation for the Tibetan New Year, every family would brew huge quantities of chang and pour the mushy barley waste out for the cows. The animals soon adjusted to the glaring light. Then the older children would shoo them up a narrow path that led towards the high pasture-grounds. The animals and the shepherd spent the summer there, the shepherd occasionally returning to the village with cheese, butter and a donkey laden with dung, which would be used for fuel.
Panam was dependent on farming. Animals provided luxury items like meat, butter and cheese. My family kept over 600 sheep and goats, and were relatively wealthy by Tibetan standards. My father leased large tracts of land from the government and in turn leased them to other farmers. We were called “government taxpayers” (gerpa), because we paid taxes directly to the government in Lhasa, whereas other farmers, like my father’s tenants, paid taxes to their landlords or to the monastery. My father’s tax obligation was complex and I never fully understood what he paid and what duties he had to perform, though one thing I remember clearly is that my family had to supply five men to the Tibetan army. The men did not necessarily have to be family members. In fact, as far as I can remember, my father passed this obligation on to our tenants. It was up to us what arrangement we made with the tenant farmers; the government was satisfied as long as we continued to supply the five men.
My father also acted as the village headman and he was often called upon to settle disputes between villagers. He was regarded as a fair man and our tenants and the villagers called him Bari Jho la, a term that implies endearment and respect. He defended the villagers from absentee landlords who resided in Shigatse and Lhasa and extracted unfair taxes. My family name was Bari Lhopa, meaning “Bard in the South”. There was another family in the upper part of the valley called Bari Jang, or “Bard in the North”. We must have been related once, but everyone had forgotten how the family became split between the north and south.
In the eighteenth century Panam achieved some fame as the birthplace of the seventh Panchen Lama, the second most important religious figure in Tibet. It was said that when the sixth Panchen Lama died, the oracles foretold that the child would be found “in happiness and sitting in the lap of the sun”. Lamas were sent all over Tibet to search for the new incarnation of the Panchen Lama. One such search party arrived in Panam with the oracle’s pronouncement fresh in their minds.
The search party approached the first house in the village and found a woman sitting with a newborn infant in her arms. When the search party asked the mother’s name, she replied, “Nyima”, which means “sun”. They did not need to look any further. In the arms of Nyima was the seventh Panchen Lama.
The Panchen Lama was born in the house next to ours. It was the wealthiest house in the village. The family were elevated to the ranks of the Tibetan aristocracy and became rich. The villagers called this trungzhi, meaning “birth estate”. Trungzhi was held in great esteem by all the families in the locality. By the time of my birth, excitement had spread to the whole village. They said that Panam was a blessed village to have seen the birth of another lama. But their excitement did not last long.
My family, like most Tibetans, were very religious and took their religious commitment seriously. Our large house was dominated by the Kangyur lhakang, or chapel, which contained the 101 volumes of the Kangyur, the teachings of the Buddha. No one else in the village could boast such a collection. I don’t know how my family had acquired these priceless volumes, which were hundreds of years old. The lhakang was on the top floor of the house and also contained many images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and thangkas, or religious banners. Some of these were also hundreds of years old. On top of our roof there stood a large solitary brass parasol called a gyaltsen, or victory banner. The banner was a unique privilege reserved for a house which possessed a complete set of the Kangyur. Whenever other families in the village held religious ceremonies they came to borrow one of the volumes.
Every year the village performed one important religious ceremony. In July, when the crops began to ripen and did not need much tending, it was time for everyone to relax and celebrate what they hoped would be a bumper harvest. But it was also a time to propitiate the local spirits and invite them to protect the crops from malevolent forces. The village observed a ceremony called Choe-khor, which means, literally, “circling the teaching of Buddha”.
The monks from the local monastery would come down to our house and bring out each volume of the Kangyur, wrapped in yellow cloth and raised high above their heads. Outside the house, villagers and family members fought among themselves to carry the volumes on their backs. When all 101 volumes had found an eager back to rest upon, the monks would lead a procession, followed by the villagers, each carrying one volume of the Kangyur. The procession traced the outermost edge of the village.
The party would stop in a secluded place we called “the abode of the village spirit” (yul-lha). The malevolent village spirit resided here and our wellbeing depended on making offerings to it. It was said that harm would befall the village if the spirit were not regularly appeased. Although the crops were growing well, they still needed to be strengthened by spiritual means. An unexpected hailstorm could fall on the village and destroy all the crops. The farmers in Tibet feared hailstorms as others feared drought. Some villages even had a resident “hailstorm stopper”, believed to have magical powers. Whenever someone fell ill in the family, we also made offerings to the spirit.
The spot was marked with a high pile of stones and animal horns half hidden beneath a mesh of tangled prayer flags. The flags depicted the five elements: yellow for earth, red for fire, blue for sky, white for cloud and green for water.
Every year each family would leave a new prayer flag. I never ventured near the spot alone. The musty smell and decaying heap of prayer flags made for a haunting atmosphere. The place made me shiver. Everyone feared the yul-lha. The Choe-khor ceremony was meant to symbolise the village’s faithfulness to the spirit and demarcate the village boundary. After the ritual was completed the villagers felt safe and protected.
When the whole village had been circled, the procession would come to rest in an open meadow near the river. Here, by the river, each family would pitch a tent. For the next few days there would be dancing and singing. The older men would gamble while the young men competed in an archery contest. It was a time to rest and enjoy the summer weather. Two or three months later the crops would be ready for harvesting and each of my father’s tenants would have to send a man to work in my father’s fields. It was the busiest time in the life of the village and there were many chores to attend to. No one sat idly. When the crops had been harvested, threshing began. Then the grain was piled high and women began to winnow it to separate out the husks. As the villagers were busy winnowing, my father would invite ten monks to the house and they would, simultaneously, begin to read aloud each volume of the Kangyur. It would take five to ten days for the monks to read it from first word to last. I remember my father saying that our family had sponsored this ritual every year for hundreds of years and thus our house had been lucky and blessed with the merit of all the good deeds of our forefathers.
But I felt that this luck had not rubbed off on me. My mother died shortly after my birth, leaving my father to care for three daughters and two sons. I do not know how she died. My grandmother once said that my mother looked so healthy and contented immediately after my birth but then one evening fell ill and never recovered. Tibetans believe that when good fortune falls on a family, the same family will also experience misfortune. Perhaps this is an explanation. Since I was considered a possible reincarnation of a high lama, the misfortune fell on my mother.
I never knew my mother’s name but she was referred to as Ama la. She was only forty when she died. I have no memory of her. Nor do I have a picture of her. In old Tibet there were no photographs and no portraits were painted of a living person. The only photograph I ever saw was one of the thirteenth Dalai Lama which sat on our family altar. Once my aunt took it down and placed it on my head. I wanted to touch it and feel its texture and examine the image, but it was precious and my aunt quickly returned it to the altar. The photograph was bought from a Nepalese merchant; even then only two families in the village could afford it. I don’t think a photograph of my mother existed. I once asked one of my relatives what my mother was like and he simply replied, “She was a nice woman.” My father never spoke about her and I in turn never raised the subject with him. I think he must have felt a great loss. My father had married at the age of fourteen and my mother was a year younger than him. Like all marriages in Tibet at the time, theirs had been arranged by their families.
My sisters were also very young and could not be expected to look after me, so I was sent to live with my paternal aunt. Her name was Zangmo and she lived in a village six hours’ walk from Panam, called Gyatso Shar. She had gone there as a bride many years before. My aunt’s family were called Namling and there must have been over twenty people in my new household.
My aunt was in her late thirties when I went to live with her. She had two sons, whom I called Fho la, or older brother. They were already grown up; one was sixteen and about to be married. My aunt was a very resourceful woman and in effect the head of the household. She kept a huge bundle of keys to all the storerooms in her amba, a fold in the traditional dress which is used as a pocket. Whenever the servants wanted provisions, they had to ask her first. She had a large, round face and wore bright red corals in her ears. Her hair was long and she kept it plaited and tied around her head. I was sent to live with my aunt because a few months earlier she too had given birth, to a daughter called Wangmo. She could breast-feed the two of us.
Gyatso Shar was not much different from Panam. The houses were just the same and, like the rest of the inhabitants of the Nyangchu valley, the people in Gyatso Shar were farmers. Life revolved around farming. Everyone worked on the land. Their skills had been refined over centuries. There were no machines, so everything was done by hand. Today, when I think back, it seems strange that we had no need for the wheel. The Land of Snows had no use for that great invention.
My aunt’s family were also gerpa, paying taxes to the government. It was said that the accumulated grain from their estate would be enough to dam Tibet’s mightiest river, the Yarlung Tsangpo. I grew up thinking of my aunt as my mother. I called her Ama la and her house was home. Later, in prison, each interrogation would begin with my name, my age and my parents’ names, and I’d have to pause and think carefully to give the right answer. My aunt cared deeply for me. Sometimes she wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “The motherless child.”
Everyone in the house was equally generous and I was showered with affection. I can’t remember a time when I felt that I had another home, or that my “family” weren’t my real family. Once I heard someone refer to “the boy’s father”. I thought they were talking about my uncle, whom I also called Pa la. I’d always regarded him as my father. So when I heard “The boy’s father is coming to visit”, I was confused. Then I heard people referring to “the boy’s home”. As far as I knew, I had only one home, and that was where I was living. So I was troubled and knew that some revelation was to come.
I was happy in Gyatso Shar. Life revolved around the village and the family. Childhood was simple. The boys were left to their own devices, while the girls followed their mothers around, working with them, observing and acquiring the skills they had learned from their own mothers. If our parents were working in the fields we followed them and learned by imitation. That was our education. I carried and fetched things. I helped with the weeding. I wandered around the fields, opening and closing water channels.
But my favourite pastime was listening to stories. Tashilhunpo was one of the biggest monasteries in the region and one of my uncles was a monk there. He spent the winter at my aunt’s house. He was good with children. He summoned us to listen to his stories. He told us about Figten Chag-tsul: the creation of the world. He described, in a solemn voice, how the world had been covered by water, and how the water slowly evaporated to form the land and mountains. Then Chenresig, Buddha of Compassion, was incarnated in the form of a monkey, and his consort, Dolma, appeared in the form of an ogress. The coupling of the monkey and the ogress resulted in the first human beings. Their six children represented the six types of creatures that lived in the world: gods, demigods, human beings, ghosts, animals and fiends. They multiplied and that was how, my uncle told us, the first Tibetans came into being.
Some of this was terrifying. He told us about other worlds and about hells where people were boiled alive or lived in perpetual hunger. My uncle taught us that when we die, our good and bad actions are weighed against each other in black and white pebbles on a scale. The white pebbles were our good deeds; the black pebbles were all our negative actions. If the scales tipped towards the black then you would go to hell, but if they tipped towards the white then you would go to heaven. My uncle would lean forward, so that his face was close to the faces of the children, and say, “If you don’t want to go to hell, you must not accumulate black pebbles.”
My uncle was respected by everyone in the village and people sought his advice on all sorts of matters. Once he took me to his monastery, Tashilhunpo, in Shigatse. This was not so much a religious experience as a genial introduction to the monastic life. And I became aware for the first time of a world outside the village, beyond the mountains. I remember my uncle was sharing a room with a monk from Ladakh who gave me a piece of toffee in the shape of a fish. He told me it was from India. Later that evening I saw a torch for the first time and learned that this too was from India. I thought what a wonderful place India must be, so full of magical things. Tibetans regarded India with the same reverence with which Christians regard Jerusalem. But I was confused by stories about Buddha’s life in “the land of Pag-pa”. Pag-pa was pronounced the same as the Tibetan word for pig and I used to wonder why India should be called the Land of the Pig. I imagined thousands of pigs roaming through its jungles. When I asked why India was called the Land of the Pig, my uncle and the other monks roared with laughter. Uncle told me it was time I learned to read and write.
All I knew of the wider world was gleaned from my uncle’s stories. India was the holiest of all places on earth; everywhere else was to be feared. My uncle’s terrifying tales of the outside world, which seemed a place inhabited by people without culture or compassion, tempered my natural curiosity. He told us we were most fortunate to be born in the Land of Snows, and I had no reason to doubt it.
I think now that it was my uncle’s stories of Tibet and of the origins of the Tibetan people that first forged my understanding of the essential difference between Tibetans and the Chinese. When the Chinese arrived and told us that Tibet had always been part of China, we did not understand them. We had a different sense of history. Of course, the Communists tried to dismiss these stories as childish tales, but for us they were powerful narratives, part of what it meant to be Tibetan.
Back in the village, my cousin Wangmo was my closest companion. My aunt called us “the inseparables”. We had no special toys but just improvised with whatever we could lay our hands on. A stick became a spear and dusty ground became a battlefield on which we could wage imaginary wars. Like anywhere else, the boys wanted to play on their own, but I always tried to include Wangmo in whatever we were doing. She was pretty tough and could fend for herself against any bully in the village.
When we were about five or six, Wangmo fell ill. My aunt did everything she could and lamas were invited to perform rituals to ward off the harmful spirits that were causing the illness. One morning I saw my aunt sobbing in the kitchen and I realised what had happened. My aunt stayed in her bed for days. I could be of no comfort to her.
The grown-ups went on as if nothing had happened. I suppose they thought that I would be saddened if I heard them talking about Wangmo and that if they avoided the subject then soon all would be forgotten. Sometimes I think we Tibetans tend to avoid uncomfortable subjects in the hope that pain will vanish of its own accord. Even today, the memory of my aunt and of Wangmo brings tears to my eyes. Those were the happiest days of my life. Wangmo and I played together without a care in the world. We used to play in puddles and make figures out of mud, coming home covered in dirt. Aunt would scream at us and call one of the servants to clean us up.
It wasn’t long after Wangmo’s death that I met members of my real family. My grandmother, my sisters and my brother came to offer their condolences to my aunt. Everyone started to cry when they arrived. My father had sent new clothes and a pair of leather boots, made in India. I don’t remember meeting him until the day my aunt called me inside and wiped the dust from my clothes before taking me inside to the family prayer room. There was a man sitting on a raised seat, sipping tea. He had large, piercing eyes. He wore a long turquoise earring which hung down to his shoulder.
My aunt nudged me forward. “Meet your father,” she said. I behaved as all children do when meeting a stranger: shy and nervous, but at the same time excited at the prospect of receiving a gift. I went forward to meet him. He reached deep into his pocket and brought out what appeared to be a rock of white crystal. I cupped my hands and stretched them towards him. My father placed the rock of crystal in my cupped hands.
My father began to speak but all I could do was gaze at the gift in my hands. It was what we call shel kara, or “sweet glass”. I kept it in my pocket for days, bringing it out occasionally to have a good lick.
Despite our separation, there was still a natural bond between father and son. One day I stood up for my father when one of the older boys in the house commented that he looked like a piece of shit on account of the cloak he wore, a chuba the colour of earth. I chased the boy round the house and thumped him hard on the back.
I was summoned to meet my father whenever he came to visit my aunt. Our talks were short and to the point. “Have you been good?” he’d ask. I’d nod. “Listen to your aunt and be good.” Then he’d stuff my pockets with toffee or dried meat. I showed off his gifts to the other children, knowing that it would make them jealous. There was a sense of mystery, of importance, about my father which the other children envied. Father was entertained lavishly when he visited. He slept in the best room in the house.
My aunt never got over Wangmo’s death. She devoted herself to her work. In the summer she worked in the fields and in the winter she spent all the time weaving and spinning wool. And on top of this she took care of the household chores. She became, if anything, more devoted to me.
One day my father arrived and I knew that he had come to make plans to take me home with him. I saw my aunt sobbing. I was nine years old when my father decided the time had come for me to move back to Panam for good.
On a summer’s morning my aunt woke me up with a cup of tea and a bowl of drel-sil a mixture of rice, sweet potatoes and sugar. She was using the old Chinese bowl with two dragons embracing from each side, the bowl that was usually kept on the family altar. Drel-sil is served to mark an auspicious day. My aunt handed me a white ceremonial scarf called a khata. She told me to place it on the rug on my bed, where I had been sitting. She said that this meant I would come back to the house. My cup was filled to the brim with tea and this too meant that I would return soon. She pointed to a pile of new clothes and told me to put them on. These clothes had been specially made for the occasion and my aunt fussed about me as I got dressed.
So I was finally to leave this house. I was sad and I could see the sadness in my aunt’s face too. She regarded me as her own son. Her daughter had died but I had fed at her breast and grown up before her eyes. She did her best to put on a brave face. She nudged me along and watched as I put on the new clothes, sometimes reaching forward to tuck in and to tidy the loose ends.
Outside in the courtyard the whole family was getting ready. Six or seven ponies were being saddled and loaded with wooden boxes. My father was supervising the work. I stood watching. The family came up to me one by one and draped Khatas around my neck. It wasn’t long before I felt myself disappearing beneath the heaped scarves. My aunt was the last to drape one around my neck. She came towards me with her hands wide apart carrying the finest silk khata you can imagine. When she embraced me the tears on her cheeks wetted my own cheeks. Though I was buried beneath all the scarves, I reached out and held on to my aunt and let out a loud, involuntary cry. Even the neighbours heard my cry and came into the courtyard to take part in the occasion. Some of them draped more khatas around my neck.
Someone said, “Ngodup is being sent away like a bride!” I composed myself and wiped my eyes. I was placed on a pony and the village children began to chant, “Na-ma, Na-ma!” or “Bride, Bride!” I wanted the pony to take me as far away as possible. When we set off, the chants soon faded and the children stopped following us. My father and grandmother led the procession. The khatas around my neck drifted out behind me like flags. My aunt came with us until, some distance from the village, she ordered the muleteer to stop. She rode towards me and lifted all the khatas from my neck.
Now and again my father turned to glance at me. I tried not to catch his eye. When we got home all the family and neighbours were waiting for us. I was taken down from the horse. A man approached me and gave me another khata. My aunt stayed for a few weeks before going back to Gyatso Shar. When she left she was weeping.
My new life in Panam was the beginning of my adulthood. In Tibet in those days we grew up very quickly. My father and brother had both had to take responsibility for a family when they were just fourteen. But in the house there was not much for me to do. My sisters and my brother took care of all the chores. I got bored. I stayed away from my father, who, as he grew older, became more dignified and solemn. I can remember the sound of him reciting his prayers, a low murmur that made him even more distant and unapproachable.
I think now that my father’s love for me was coloured by the instinctive sadness we feel for a motherless child. If he avoided me it was only because I brought back memories of my mother. I think he felt helpless in the knowledge that he was not able to look after me. He never spoke about my mother, never even mentioned her name. This didn’t mean that he had forgotten her, rather that he could not bring himself to face the fact that she was not there.
Father had remarried a year after my mother died. My stepmother had had two children by the time I came back to Panam and one of them was already a monk at Gadong monastery. My stepmother was not aloof like my father. She was kind and affectionate and always ready to embrace me warmly; she didn’t want to be the archetypal stepmother. When my father died and my older brother assumed the role of head of the household, he moved in with my stepmother. She was still young and my family felt that a new bride in the house would only mean quarrels. To keep family wealth intact it was quite commonplace for several brothers to share one wife, but in our case my brother moved in with our stepmother. She was young and could still bear him children.
But the greatest compensation for my move back to Panam was Gadong monastery. It was less than an hour’s walk from our house. Two of my father’s brothers were monks there. Sometimes I was taken to see them and sometimes, when I had nothing to do, I went to the monastery on my own. My grandmother noticed how much time I was spending there. She told me the story of my birth again and suggested that I should think of becoming a monk. I liked the idea. I was lonely in the village, but in the monastery I found companionship and even the adults seemed to have more time for me.
©1997 by Palden Gyatso and Tsering Shakya. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.