Darjeeling Journal My Great-Grandfather’s Saddle Rug Helps Me Remember a Tibet That’s Gone
I borrowed a bicycle and explored, in the same way my great-grandfather had gone about on his pony sixty years earlier.
In my study is a Tibetan saddle rug woven in a mandala pattern, the faded red felt border enclosing concentric squares and, at the center, a circle of geometric patterns. “S. W. L.”—the initials of my great-grandfather, Sonam Wangfel Laden La—is written in white on the blue backing. Often I wonder if this is one of the saddle rugs my great-grandfather used when riding his pony from his home in Darjeeling to Tibet. He died in 1936, and the family members who could have told me about the saddle rug are gone. But inheriting the rug feels like being given the story of his travels in Tibet; it inspires me to trace and retrace his—and my own—journeys there.
A police officer and a diplomat, my great-grandfather went to Tibet in 1912, to help negotiate the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the capital city of Lhasa. He rode up again in 1923, invited by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to establish the country’s first police force. Altogether, he made seven trips to Tibet for political and diplomatic work, recording in his diary that he left Lhasa for the last time at 5:00 p.m. on September 20, 1930. Before his departure that day, he said a final farewell to the Dalai Lama, later noting they spent the afternoon together and, “He was very kind to me and blessed me with a large scarf and blue blessed silk knots.”
Some accounts of my great-grandfather’s travels I’ve seen over the years tell me he “proceeded” from Darjeeling and “arrived” in Lhasa, straightforward language that doesn’t capture the hardships he endured as he made his way over 14,000-foot Jelep La Pass onto the Tibetan Plateau. Once, he rode up in the dead of winter, called to Lhasa to mediate a diplomatic dispute. “The road was bad,” he wrote in his diary. “My pony Tuna slipped on the ice and went down the hill and would have been killed had it not been for [my syce’s] good hold.” From his diary and stories about others traveling in Tibet at the time, I can picture him battling through chest-high snow in sub-zero temperatures, pushing forward day after day across the vast plateau as he contended with bandits and illness, wolves and leopards, winds so fierce they could blow you off your horse.
I also imagine the beauty, intrigue, and grandeur of the landscape my great-grandfather journeyed across: herds of deer, antelope, and gazelles that stretched on for miles; yaks and big-horned blue sheep; cranes, eagle owls, and lammergeiers with a wingspan that reached ten feet. He came upon caravans of traders transporting silk, spices, tea, jewels, and perfumes from China and Tibet down to Nepal and India; explorers searching for the source of the Yangtze and the Indus; pilgrims walking west to Mount Kailash, believed to be the axis mundi ; spiritual seekers looking for oracles and levitating monks; spies and soldiers carrying out clandestine missions as Britain and Russia vied for control in Central Asia. Approaching Lhasa after weeks of rough travel through some of the world’s harshest terrain, he was overjoyed at the sight of the golden-roofed Potala, the winter palace of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, rising almost one thousand feet in the middle of the ancient city.
In the 1980s, I followed my great-grandfather’s path on a trip to Tibet. I’d recently spent time with my grandmother in Darjeeling; the family stories she’d shared had awakened a desire in me to visit the land of my ancestors. From Japan, where I was working, I traveled to China, then flew to Lhasa on an overcast day from the city of Chengdu. As the small plane churned westward, my anticipation grew, a sense of making my way to the center. Soon the clouds parted, revealing the towering Himalayas below . Like a bird or a deity, I was aloft in a landscape of burning blue sky and icy peaks. Looking down at the mountains, I saw my family’s tracks winding through the snowy dreamscape, my great-grandfather riding up onto the plateau from India.
In Lhasa, I borrowed a bicycle from the inn where I was staying and explored, in the same way my great-grandfather had gone about on his pony sixty years earlier. At the site of the original Western Gate, which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, I saw him riding through the gate into the holy city, the wind bells suspended from the top tinkling in the breeze. At Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, I visited the lake pavilion where my great-grandfather had the honor of being received by the Dalai Lama and enjoyed long conversations with him. It seemed that at any moment, my great-grandfather and the Dalai Lama would materialize in the clear, sunny light; I’d hear them talking in low tones. I’d see my grandmother and great-grandfather crossing the stone bridge to the pavilion for an audience when she arrived in Lhasa at eighteen, to stay with her father while he set up the police force. “The Dalai Lama had a moustache, big eyes, and a very powerful voice!” she told me. Awestruck in the presence of His Holiness, she was silent as they offered white silk khada blessing scarves and presents like clocks and watches; in return, the Dalai Lama gave them khadas, tea, and the khapse pastry served on special occasions.
Contemplating the mandala design of the saddle rug draws me into my great-grandfather’s story. It helps me keep hold of him, and of a Tibet that’s vanished.
The seventh-century Jokhang is Tibet’s most revered temple, considered by Tibetans to be the heart of the spiritual universe. In my great-grandfather’s time, it was nestled among old shops and houses, but by the 1980s, the Chinese government had razed the area in front to build a plaza with globed streetlights and cement planters. Still, day and night, pilgrims walked the kora pilgrimage route around the temple, sacred juniper burning in great censers near the doors. Entering the Jokhang, I found myself in a labyrinth of chapels smoky with incense and lit by thousands of flickering butter lamps. In the central chapel was a tall, jeweled statue of Jowo Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha (Gautama Buddha), who around the fifth century B.C. renounced his princely life of luxury and set out in search of enlightenment. I felt my great-grandfather’s presence as I stood before the Buddha just like he did and gazed up at the serene, golden face; as I heard pilgrims circling the statue chant the ancient mantras my great-grandfather had heard.
After three weeks in Lhasa, I headed south for Kathmandu early one morning by Land Cruiser, eager to get a sense of the terrain my great-grandfather had traveled by pony. The driver, a slight, taciturn Chinese man in an olive army jacket, sped across the great plateau. We traversed mile after mile of gray and green landscape, broken only by the occasional town or village and almost devoid of the wildlife that existed before the Chinese takeover. Brown, windswept hills cradled the turquoise waters of Yamdrok Lake; above, towering clouds billowed higher and higher, birds spiralling in the updrafts between the white columns. Approaching the Tibet-Nepal border, we ascended to 17,000-foot Lalung La Pass. The silvery peaks of the Himalayas rose massive against the sky and all around us, prayer flags fluttered on piles of mani stones, the rocks that are inscribed with mantras and offered by travelers to the spirits of a place. I could see my great-grandfather offering mani stones as he crossed over; hear him calling out, “Kyi kyi so so lha gyal lo!” ( May the gods win! ), the traditional invocation to subdue malicious spirits and pass safely.
The mandala design of my great-grandfather’s saddle rug makes me think of an afternoon in Lhasa when I wandered up to the roof of the Jokhang Temple and came upon a monk constructing a sand mandala. Gesturing towards the god in the middle of concentric circles of deities and animals, the monk explained he was representing the god’s outlook or universe, which could be accessed through meditation on the mandala. I’d later learn the Jokhang was laid out in a mandala pattern, the intimate side chapels surrounding the statue of the Buddha; the belief is that when pilgrims complete the circular kora route outside the temple, then continue inside and circumambulate the statue, they’re coming closer and closer to the Buddha’s worldview, and to the center of themselves.
Contemplating the mandala design of the saddle rug draws me into my great-grandfather’s story in a similar way, I like to think, as meditating on a mandala opens the door to its inner geography. It helps me keep hold of him, and of a Tibet that’s vanished. He’s been gone over eighty years now, but for me he’s fully alive: talking with the Dalai Lama on a quiet afternoon at Norbulingka; praying to the Buddha in the flickering light of the Jokhang; crossing 14,000-foot Jelep La Pass on his pony Tuna and, at the highest point, throwing his arms in the air and shouting “Kyi kyi so so lha gyal lo!” as the sun blazes and the wind gusts over the mountain peaks.