The most sacred of all temples in Tibet is the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, and a visit there is an important pilgrimmage for Tibetan Buddhists.
I set out in the company of two tour guides, my son and his Tibetan wife, both very knowledgeable regarding the Temple and also regarding Buddhism itself. Without their guidance, I am sure I would stll be somewhere inside the labyrinth - it is not a journey for the faint hearted. Given that I am claustrophobic in closed spaces, and experience mild panic in pressed crowds, the visit could even be regarded as foolhardy.
We approach the Temple via Narkhor Square, in the old section of Lhasa. We are part of a mass of people, moving generally in the same direction. Most are Tibetan, in traditional Tibetan clothes, clutching prayer beads and spinning prayer wheels.
The Square is lined with hundreds of brightly coloured stalls, selling incense, jewellry, juniper bush and every possible trinket that can be associated with Buddhist practice. Most people clutch large bushes of juniper incense and other similar consumables.
Incongruously amongst this throng of devout pilgrims are police SWAT teams and heavily armed groups of soldiers in full combat gear, carrying automatic weapons and tear gas rifles. Casting my eyes skywards, I note with some alarm the sniper positions on the rooftops, scanning the crowd with high powered binoculars. I feel mild panic - hoping that I don't look or act like a terrorist, and I try and blend in with the crowd. This is more difficult than it sounds, as I have grey hair, I am over six feet tall, with blue grey eyes and I am wearing a Canada Goose Down Jacket rather than the obligatory dark worsted wool coat. Looking around me, I see with some relief that the crowd ignores the presence of these combatants, with the crowd smoothly and seamlessly parting and flowing around the SWAT teams like a river flowing past some rock obstruction.
Like so many things in Tibet, the image is strikingly incongruous. The laughing murmurring crowd of pilgrims seems as far removed from a threat as is possible to imagine. But the intensity of the collective firepower assembled against the enemy is overwhelming. I wonder what these young soldiers must think, as day in and day out they seek an enemy that appears invisible - and it reminds me of the armies of old, who were often arraigned against spirits and demons, constantly vigilant, opposed to an enemy that could materialise in an instant with unimaginable force.
We stroll nonchalantly to the front of the Temple, to commence the compulsory circumbulation of the Temple prior to entry. The Temple is flanked by two huge incense burners, that operate continuously and pour clouds of sweet smelling smoke into the atmosphere, with some drifting across the Square, smarting our eyes and assaulting our sense of smell.
Here the Square is lined with prostrate worshippers, who gradually make their way forward, one body length at a time, as they devoutly pray towards the Temple itself.
We join the throng moving clockwise around the Temple, a murmur of chatter and prayer incantations rises from the narrow cobbled streets and floats into the thin mountain air, hanging above us in the alleyway. Groups bustle and bump each other, my initial consternation re this gives way to an easy stroll, as I am advised that this jostling is all part of the process. We pass countless incense and artifact shops, mostly ignored by the crowd, so that it appears as if they are there for the show, to add colour and motion to the journey.
Half way through our circle, the crowd parts as a phalanx of heavily armed soldiers march purposely anti-clockwise. I look around to check, and sure enough this little entourage are the only people walking anti-clockwise. Because they can - I think to myself - it is clearly an exercise in intimidation. It works for me - I feel intimidated, but the rest of the crowd proceeds as if they do not exist.
On completing our circumbulation of the Temple, we obtain a large thermos full of molten hot yak butter, pay our entry fee, and join the pressed mass of people jostling to enter the Temple proper. My height, at over six feet tall, places me significantly above the crowd, and enables me to survey the huge conga line that is our queue. Snaking away from me I can see the pressed mass is being squeezed through a narrow entrance ahead. Suppressing a rising panic, I survey the scene around me and feel transported back centuries. Very little in front of me would be out of place in 1400 AD. I am unsure whether or not this thought is reassuring or startling.
Our passage through the Temple entrance is guarded by four massive and brightly coloured statues of the four Heavenly Kings who guard each cardinal direction of the world. My guides carefully explain their names and meanings as we pass through the low entry, staring upwards into fierce or serene visages, but I confess that the names sound so unfamiliar and all my other senses are in such overload, that I would not be able to repeat them even under torture. I do recall however that they are very large, very colourful, quite fearsome, and that they accurately conveyed the impression that we were entering sacred protected ground. To a true believer I can easily comprehend that their stares would penetrate to the core of one's soul.
Passing through the gloom we wenter an inner courtyard, opening to the skies several stories above us. The pavement stones under our feet are worn silky smooth by the shuffling feet of countless millions of pilgrims before us. Everyone is pressed against each other, edging forward past a series of large glass cases. Each case encloses a large statue, some a metre or so high, and some several metres high. They illustrate, I am told, a series of interpreters of Buddhism, or represent some offshoot or major diversion in the teaching and interpretation of it.
My Tibetan daughter-in-law valiantly attempts to educate me into the apparently labyrinthian paths and pasts of Buddhism, and the role that each has played in the deep understanding that Buddhism is today. I am rapidly overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of it all. It feels like going to Rome and having all the Saints and all the Popes being presented to me at once, when I am not even a Catholic.
The crowd, meanwhile, is surging slowly forward to a narrow entrance, behind which is the most revered statue in Tibet, the Jowo Rinpoche, a dramatic life sized statue of Buddha at the age of 12. On our way we pass massive prayer wheels that are kept constantly spinning by the continuous attention of passing pilgrims and the liberal application of yak butter as grease. The general smell of burning incense, sweat and yak butter is becoming overwhelming.
After visiting the Buddha we pass onwaards into the labyrinth, stooping inside seemingly endless alcoves, grottos and caves. Inside each one are further images and statues, and the compulsory set of burning candles standing in molten yak butter. We add a splash of liquid yak butter to each receptacle, replenishing its source of never ending energy.
As we move around from dark grotto to grotto, the floor becomes increasingly slippery as small amounts of yak butter mixes in with the stones and with the soles of our shoes, creating a treacherous surface.
By now I am hopelessly lost, each grotto blending into the next, each statue to my inexperienced and low spiritual plane, appearing as a continuous variation on a theme. I am aware of a gradually rising panic in my chest. My logical mind is telling me that I am deep, deep inside a wooden labyrinth, with thousands and thousands of other souls, clutching hot molten jugs of flammable yak butter, climbing into confined spaces with burning candles, clouds of incense smoke, slippery stairs and rocks, with each room aflutter with flammable paper money that is being offered to the statues- a cataclysmic disaster looms in my mind as I imagine a fall, the yak butter mixing with paper money, a rapid inferno and a stampede.
I quell the panic by trying to focus on each image, and understand the obviously deep felt meaning that is absorbing the fervent pilgrims, who murmur prayers to each image, stuffing money notes into holes made for that purpose. Each image appears to be rising from a sea of money, and the most popular ones seem as though they could sink into this sea at any moment.
I finally gesture to my guides that I really really need some fresh air, and that I must surface very very soon...
They guide me gently to a steep staircase, which I gingerly climb, my yak butter greased soles slipping on the steel capped staircase, threatening to land me back down into the darkness below. Each step is done slowly, as we are at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, and I am acutely aware that sudden movements will shoot my beating heart into extreme overdrive.
Suddenly we burst out into the astonishlingly bright Tibetan sun that blasts down upon us as if we are on Mars. My eyes squeezed almost shut against the Martian glare, I breathe the thin air in gasps and slowly regain my composure.
I reflect on the kaleidoscope of images that I have just experienced, and wonder at the Tibetan villager pilgrim who may have walked many kilometres across mountain paths to participate in the same thing. To them the experience must be both shocking and awe inspiring. I am dimly aware that I can but glimpse into this world, and its dynamic of spirit and history, but I am moved deeply by the experience and wish to sit quietly in silence for a while.