Gist plates with mantras and votive offerings

SYNOPSIS:  About walking the Lingkhor.  Why am I doing this Kora?

You can’t do this!, the host of my guesthouse, Penny, exclaimed.  It’s too much.  Granted, I had been quite sick two days ago, and yesterday, I only managed 3 hours of sightseeing.  But if I could not walk 12 km on even ground at 3300 m altitude, how would I manage 25 km on uneven terrain at 5600 meters in just a few days?  I had to do it.  It would be a good test.

Kora, simply means “turning scriptures”.  There are more than 30 Koras around Lhasa,  big and small, long and short.  Tibetans love Kora.  Some people start the day with a Kora, every day.  Others walk for miles to perform one special Kora, most likely multiple times, once they reached their destination.  But every Tibetan dreams of walking the three most sacred Koras at least once in their life time; those are the three Koras in Lhasa:  There is the Nangkhor, the smallest of them all, inside the Jokhang.  It circles the most sacred shrine in this, the most sacred temples of all.  It can be done in a few minutes.  Then, there is the Barkhor, perhaps the most fun of the three, circling around the entire Jokhang temple in the old city.  It’s the one I described few days ago.  It takes 15-20 minutes unless you decide to prostrate around.  And then, there is the Lingkhor, the Kora that at one point encircled the entire city of Lhasa, in the olden days that is. 

Tenzin estimated the distance to be 16 km.  But we did it in 4 hours including breaks, and my estimate is that we did not walk more than 12 km.  And I managed without any problems.  Most tourists won’t bother with this walk.  It takes too much of their precious, short time in Lhasa. But I had to do it. 

One of the reasons I am here is that once again, I try to follow in the footsteps of my beloved university Professor Virginia Kane.  By pure coincidence I have exactly one paper photo which includes her, from the 1980’s.  She hated to be photographed and prevented it whenever possible.  What I have is a polaroid shot that shows her in huge sunglasses with a group of scholars from the States at the bottom of the Potala.  Why she ended up with the polaroid of the entire group, I don’t know.

Before she died, she destroyed everything personal in her belongings.  She overlooked this photo, I am sure. It surfaced much later in a small envelope that had come to me via her lawyer.  Buddhists do Kora to contemplate their lives, gain karma, or show respect to their deities.  Perhaps, they even just do it as a social event.  I wanted to dedicate this particular Kora to Professor Kane.  If it were not for her and what I learned from her, most likely I would not be here.

I don’t know if she ever did the Lingkhor.  But I do know that she was here at a time when the old Lhasa (or what had survived destruction), still existed in much of its ancient borders.  I am sure, would she walk this walk today, Professor Kane would have been shocked, shocked, shocked!  When she visited Lhasa, no Chinese satellite towns had sprung up yet.  No Honda dealerships, cheap Western clothing stores, no shopping malls, or nightclubs were in sight yet.  No four-lane highways full of honking buses and fast moving traffic had replaced the small alleys that once must have been lined with prayer wheels. 

Was there anything left of what she would have seen at the time?  From all I could tell, of the 12 km circuit, perhaps one km was preserved close to what it would have been way back.  Even that one km had been modernized.  A gravel walk over uneven terrain had recently been outfitted with stairs and smoothed over with concrete by the Chinese government. 

On holy days hundreds of thousands of pilgrims go on this walk.  How they manage the sidewalks obstructed with parked cars, how they stay focused in the midst of all the traffic sounds is beyond me.  For a while the path follows the river and goes parallel to the road.  Juniper ovens are placed at certain intervals, so there is at least a residue of a sacred feel.  The one old kilometer is the most fascinating of the entire trip.  A four-sided stupa plastered with votive images was crumbling.  In order to save it, the government encased it in a scaffold of metal beams.  It now looks like a monster from a sci-fi set.  A huge wall painting is now encased to protect it from the elements.  Pilgrims remain here for a long time, prostrating before the images. 

An age-old tradition is well and alive in this area:  the making of sun-baked clay votive images, which are created by stamps and painted when dry.  Some of them are remarkably fine works of art.  These images are for purchase and are left along some walls that have been built up of gist plates on which mantras have been carved. There must be millions of these plates by now, forming thick walls along the way.  And hundreds of thousands of votive offerings decorate them.

This old kilometer comes within the first 1/3 of the Kora. From then on it no longer feels like a pilgrimage path but more like a shopping trip, as the circulatory path gets absorbed in the hustles and bustles of modern street life.  I guess under the circumstances, the Tibetans are grateful that Kora can be performed at all.  If there is nothing left of the old path, then it will be performed in this new environment.  After all, it’s not the looks of the path that matter, but the thoughts one carries when one embarks on this journey.

And thoughts are free and cannot be confiscated or obstructed by any power, as one famous German folk song proclaims: 

Die Gedanken sind frei! 

5 comments so far

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  1. ET,
    Remarkable. You are remarkable as an Art Historian! You do us proud!

  2. Your remembrance of Professor Kane must have brought back many memories for you, some that you haven’t thought of in years. Maybe cherishing those memories, keeping them alive, is one reason you travel in her footsteps.
    Very nice, Elisabeth, very nice.

  3. What a wonderful tribute to Professor Kane who filled your life with inspiration as you honor her and travel in some of her footsteps. What a difference she made in your life. Wonderful!

  4. Hi Elisabeth,
    I’m back from Nepal and just now catching up on your blog. Very happy that you are feeling better and are now looking forward to your 25 km hike at 5000 m. You have all my respect!! I just wanted to share that liquids (water and tea) helped us a lot when we ran into signs of altitude headaches. “Drink a lot, pee a lot” were the magic words and it really did the trick.
    I’m absolutely enjoying your blog, as always, but especially this time since I was “around the corner” from you even though that was only for a short time.
    Good luck and enjoy!! I’m looking forward to your updates every morning.

    • So glad you are back, happy and healthy! You have to tell us how your time in Nepal went. Thanks for reading.