Culture versus development: a visit to the roof of the world


Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)


(for accompanying  pictures visit


There are two possible stories to be told about Tibet, hermit kingdom, roof of the world.


The first tale is one of amazement, a story of visual experiences that cannot possibly be described or photographed. It is the kind of experience that needs to be shared, where (I, at least, wondered, ‘what am I doing here alone? How can I possibly explain what I am seeing?’). What is it about the light at high altitudes, that seemingly shifts and changes every hour? How does the sky go from standard blue to bluer than azure in a few minutes? You can look at the same blade of grass, the same fluffy white cloud and the essence of its greenness or whiteness is somehow 'other', somehow transmuted to a completely different spectrum, a newer nuanced yellow, a more vibrant red, a menacing brown, a seductive green, one that you have never seen before? Mountains change colour with the time of day: rock faces fractured by millennia of snow, ice and wind, different depending on how close you were, varying by the angle you looked.  It broke my heart a little that my camera could not capture any of this. I suspect this has to do a little with the altitude, because I experienced much the same thing traipsing around the Andes some years back. Then, as now, I despair that mere words cannot describe this. Photographs do not either - they seem flat, characterless, lacking in the vibrancy of the original.


I was able to capture some of the vibrancy of colour in the people. Perhaps it is because summers are so short, but the dresses the clothes, the jewellery, all seem so loud so, so domineering, so clearly enlivening. As Lhasa is home to the holiest sites, it is a town of mass pilgrimage from the rest of Tibet. Tibet – for the uninitiated - is a mountainous country the size of France, but mostly above 4000m and a population of less than 3 million. Hotel rooms have oxygen machines for travellers who may experience altitude sickness. People still live in abject poverty, and – for the most part – are religious to the point of obsession. Pilgrims trek for days to get here, the most pious prostrating themselves every 3 footsteps for 40 kilometres or more, holding in hand a prayer wheel, and in some cases a statue being brought to Lhasa hoping to have it blessed. The bravest of the lot make the 27 day trek to India to visit the Dalai Lama.


Perhaps it is the exposure to the sun at such high altitudes, or it simply the harshness of such existence, but many of these country folk seem emaciated, skins tanned, leathery. old before their years, in anguish, reaching out the goddess of compassion, the Buddha of the future, offering votives, lighting pound after pound of yak butter and incense, miles of paper prayers, tearing the skin of their knees as the prostrate themselves endlessly, crying (sometimes visibly so) for escape from their miserable present existence.


The Potala Palace dominates the skyline, rather like the Acropolis overlooks Athens. This imposing structure has 1100 rooms, and the equivalent height of 15 stories, built solely to house the Dalai Lama and his retinue. The second tallest building, wouldn’t you know, is the central police station. 


Then there are the wonderful sounds and smells. Rickshaw drivers who make bird calls instead of ringing their bicycle bells, cyclists who have wonderful new-fangled bells that sound like mobile phones, mobile phones that have ring tones that recite prayers instead of hip-hop music. I would sit every evening at a rooftop (Nepalese) restaurant, sipping (Chinese) tea, watching the sunset, hearing the sounds of a 100 street hawkers and pilgrims haggling, spinning the prayer wheels, answering the mobiles, whistling, electric sewing machines whirring, all accompanied by Bollywood or Tibetan music. Despite what might otherwise have been cacophony, I still would feel completely serene (if a bit lonely). It truly felt as if I was sitting on the roof of the roof of the world. 


The one experience I do not remember fondly is Tibetan Yak tea. For those of you who wish to duplicate the experience, take a cup of tepid tea, stir in 2 or 3 tablespoons on butter that has gone slightly rancid and add a teaspoon of salt. Remember to stir vigorously (I did not) otherwise the butter settles on top, and your first sip will essentially be warm melted salty butter. I kept sipping through several cups of this horrific experience, wishing desperately not to insult my hosts.


But Lhasa (and here I slide into the second story) is now as much Chinese as it is Tibetan. 70% of the city’s 100,000 population is Chinese. It is laid out along a grid system with avenues with 4 lanes (plus two more for bicycles), street lights, and overpasses, underground sewage system, medical schools, but most of the commerce is ruin by Chinese. Chinese inhabitants do not have to study Tibetan, although the Tibetans are required to learn Chinese. Young Tibetans text each other in Chinese, but speak in Tibetan. It is said that 50 years ago, Lhasa was home to 30,000 monks, the same number of peasants, and not a single soldier. Today, there are 30,000 soldiers, and less than 5000 monks


I ask myself, though (for I am an economist) how can a society expect to live in the 10th century indefinitely. For it remained – until the Chinese takeover – stuck in a time warp, run along feudal lines, with a strong and impervious class system. Monks who were the cream of society; educated, controlling the flow of knowledge, diverting resources from the peasants - their stronger, more intelligent male offspring as novice recruits; free labour to build their monasteries, food and other material supplied by the peasants for free. In return: a dubious possibility for reincarnation as a higher being, with no opportunity to be upwardly mobile in this life. Education (and indeed literacy) was the domain of the ruling hermit classes, and the aristocracy until the communists came. Not unlike the church during the dark ages in Europe. I can see – and understand – how the communists must have been aghast at this state of affairs. The Chinese have gone about their mission with much the same zeal, as, well, missionaries. The same earnest belief that they were on a mission of good, of saving the poor exploited working classes from a life of penury, the miserable downtrodden heathen natives from their uncivilised and miserable servitude. Much the same way as the colonising Europeans of the Victorian era who equally zealously fell over themselves to ‘save’ Africa, Latin America and Asia.  The only difference between the Communists and the Victorians was that the goal was to take away God from the equation, rather than introducing the natives to the 'right' God. It is a little hypocritical to let people to live in poverty without hope, even – as in this case – when they are still so embedded in the old ways that they cannot see the old system as exploitative.


When one sees the Potala Palace one is amazed. However, at what cost? The remains of the 5th Dalai Lama, who commissioned this palace 500 years ago, are entombed in a structure that uses 3710 Kg of gold. I'd estimate the various caskets, tombs and so forth in the palace account for 10,000 kilos of gold. His summer palace (barely 3 km from the Potala – the Dalai lamas did not like travelling apparently) – otherwise known as Wikkipedia in Beijing, yet another demonstration of ostentatious consumption that is somehow incongruent with Buddhism as I understand it. Especially here, in a country of such great poverty and natural harshness, where almost nothing grows, everything (except for yak products and minerals) has to be trucked in from China, across mountains, or flown in by air.


So while I too mourn that mass tourism (now that a railway connects Tibet with Beijing) and I am alarmed that the ethnic Chinese population is gradually taking over from the Tibetan one, I also see that this as inevitable. I suppose every traveller feels - when visiting unknown parts - that subsequent travellers are sure to ruin the experience, that in a few years time there will be nothing to see. But in this case, I feel somewhat justified in feeling a little melancholic and sad, rather like seeing an ex-lover for the last time, knowing things will never be the same again.


On the other hand, perhaps we forget that culture is a resilient beast. Witness the resurgence and reconstruction of monasteries that were decimated during the Cultural Revolution, or indeed the survival of Incan traditions in the Andes despite the efforts of the conquistadors, or the Indian subcontinent after 2000 years of occupation. Cultures need to merge, to evolve, absorb and integrate new ideas from elsewhere, expunge old, withered traditions that are no longer useful, purposeful or supportive of progress. For a culture to be self-absorbed, that defines its evolution by itself, which sees the influence of new ideas as a threat, to see new trends as a menace, cannot survive except as a glorified theme park. And that, sadly, is where Tibet is going.


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