At Peace in Thin Air

The sound of my laboured breathing fills my head as I struggle up the last step.  Lhasa’s high altitude makes a marathon out of a simple flight of stairs.  Thankfully there are not too many in the 1,300-year-old Jokhang temple.

Housed in this spectacular spiritual centre of Tibet, is a dark labyrinth of atmospheric devotion.  Prostrating pilgrims with cracked, weathered faces, hundreds of them, have patiently queued for hours to get inside. Everyone is gently thumbing prayer beads or rhythmically spinning prayer wheels coated in gold and silver. Some crawl on hands and knees, pressing their foreheads on the temple floor in prayer. Their austere faith is palpable, intensely spiritual, and completely foreign to me.

Entering a large chamber, my eyes slowly adjust to the muted light. The scene before me is overwhelming.  A myriad of stunning silk thangkas, sage-faced statues and gilded ornaments fill the space with comforting clutter. A golden effigy of the young, tranquil Buddha sits at odds with a looming portrait of Yama, the skull-toting God of death, whose stare lays bare my soul. Impossibly detailed historic sutras and images of enlightenment adorn the walls in vibrant yellow, red, green and blue. Forever the colours of Tibet.

The air is heavy with the murmured mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ and the deliciously smoky rich scent of spicy Tibetan incense.  The floor is sticky with the overflow of yak butter candles, carefully trodden into the surface by a thousand years of footprints. I try to make myself invisible as I move out of the temple in silence.  I do not want to disturb what is going on here.

Outside, the sky is filled with colourful, frayed prayer flags flapping gently in the breeze, each movement littering the oxygen-thin air with silent prayers.  Under this rainbow of faith, a procession of pilgrims moves past, drawing me into their addictive clockwise walk around the Barkhor.

Vendors, peddling their religious wares and souvenirs to ambling tourists, work the well-trodden streets as devoted gatherings weave paths towards the temple. A clash of market cries, Indian pop songs and the low rumblings of meditation music create the soundtrack of the bazaar – all set to the rhythmic slapping of timber against stone produced by pilgrims with wooden hand blocks prostrating themselves flat on the ground around the kora.

Rows of worn prayer wheels, kept in constant motion by the faithful caress of a million hands, glimmer in the mid-morning sunlight as they release their prayers into the world. Beggars line the side of the road – they have completed their pilgrimage of endurance and are collecting alms for the long journey home.

The fresh air awakens my senses to a silent breeze.  Shallow breath reminds me where I am. Lhasa’s placidity is tangible.  I close my eyes allowing its calmness to inhabit me, trying to etch it into my being, trying to capture a piece of Tibet.

*** ‘At Peace in Thin Air’ was my winning submission for the 2010 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship. For details about the scholarship and how to enter, please see the World Nomads scholarship website on the above link***

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