9 December 2013

The Tibetan Gompas of Old Tachienlu

Part V

“The morning of the 10th [August 1924] broke fine; and about 9 o’clock we joined the happy throng that wandered leisurely out of town and up alongside the mountain torrent to Dorje Drag. The level sward in front of the lamasery was already covered with tents, the Tibetans being quite unable to resist the idea of a picnic; and the brightly striped canvas and gaily coloured clothes of men and women made a pretty picture against the rows of sombre poplars in the background. As we made our way through the crowd, now and then one more polite than his neighbours would stand aside, bow with out-stretched hands, and protrude a tongue of monstrous size and usually healthy colour, the polite form of salutation in Tibet. […] Passing through the vestibule with its great Mani drums, revolved by devotees as they go by, and entering the courtyard, we saw stretched opposite us, concealing the entrance to the main temple, an enormous painting on cloth of Dedma Sambhava.” (G. A. Combe, H.B.M. Consul at Chengtu).

Almost 86 years to the day, on August 7th 2010, I walked through the vestibule described above into the same Gompa – Dorje Drak in དར་རྩེ་མདོ། Dartsendo (Tachienlu, or Kangding 康定 , as it is presently known in Chinese). Except I wasn’t greeted by anyone poking their tongue out at me, nor by the sight of a huge thangka painting unfurled from the roof of the main temple building to the courtyard floor, instead the Gompa was rather quiet with just a few monks and local people lolling about or sitting on the grass. It was all very calm and relaxed. I wandered round, exploring all the temple halls. The place was filled with prayer wheels, and, in the main hall in front of the image of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) I saw a man performing a full set of devotions – pressing his palms together first over his head, then in front of his forehead, then in front of his chest before kneeling, and then, leaning forward with his palms placed on two small squares of cloth which, pushing forward, he would then use to make himself lie completely flat upon the floor by sliding forward, his face then flat to the floor, forehead touching the floorboards. He’d then reverse the procedure to stand up again, before repeating the whole process. I’ve no idea how many prostrations he made in total, but it was clear that it was likely to have been many.

Visiting the Tibetan Gompas at Dartsendo/Kangding was one of the main research objectives of my trip. I’d managed to thoroughly confuse myself with a range of old and modern photographs found in Louis King’s private papers as well as those of some of his contemporaries, along with a multitude of other more up-to-date images, mostly published on the internet. It was clear that there are three main Gompas in the town, with other lesser shrines and religious buildings (Taoist and Confucian too) dotted around the surrounding hillsides. Of these three main Gompas, in Louis King’s time, there was one situated in the centre of the town – Ngachu Gompa (Anjue Si) – with two outside the south gate, Dorje Drak Gompa (Jingang Si) and Lhamotse Gompa (Nanwu Si), which have since been absorbed into the expanded town (the three town gates are now all long gone).

Ngachu Gompa (Anjue Si), which was under-going massive architectural alterations, 2010

Dorje Drak Gompa (Jingang Si), 2010

Lhamotse Gompa (Nanwu Si), 2010

These last two Gompas are both situated fairly close to one another, and have apparently been confused and conflated by commentators from the early 20th century right up to this very day. Several of the accounts of early Western travellers through the town wisely remain rather vague, whereas more modern books (even English language books by Chinese publishers), and an array of websites mix the two up with bold and confident frequency! (N.B. – Naturally, not wanting to throw stones too readily, I’d welcome any comments or corrections on anything I might have inadvertently skewed or got plain wrong in any of the posts here which make up the glass house of my own blog!)

And so, having long pored over this issue with a crossword puzzler’s determination to crack the clues and definitively complete the conundrum I’m now about to boldly venture my own theory as to how these mistakes may have arisen! … The root of the problem is possibly a photograph taken by Joseph Rock published in the National Geographic Magazine in October 1930, or rather – it’s not Rock’s fault (he gets it right), it’s someone’s misinterpretation of his photo which has gained currency and run like silent, slow burning wildfire. This is the photograph:

 Its original caption reads: Plate XVI – “Prayer flags adorn a shrine of the yellow sect.”

Joseph Rock’s description of this Gompa as belonging to the “Yellow Sect” (Gelugpa) indicates that it is most likely Lhamotse Gompa (Nanwu Si), yet Rock’s photo is frequently reproduced with the confident assertion that it is Dorje Drak Gompa (Jinggang Si), yet Dorje Drak in fact belongs to the “Red Sect” (Nyingma). A photograph of the exterior of Dorje Drak features on the same page with the caption: “Thunderbolt Monastery, a stronghold of the Red Lamas near Tatsienlu”, hence perhaps the possible origins of this misattribution.

Dorje Drak (left) and Lhamotse (right) Gompas by Ernest Henry Wilson, 1908.

Similar view of Dorje Drak and Lhamotse Gompas, 2010.

Both Gompas have been heavily altered since Rock’s time, but a bit of time spent comparing Rock’s image with those of Ernest Henry Wilson (1908) and Louis Magrath King’s photographs (c.1920-1922) make the distinction quite clear for me (looking at the roofs of the side buildings), and even when compared to these two modern views of the same part of the Gompa in Rock’s photo which I took during my visits to each (the relative position of the slope of the hillside in the background is one key indication).

Dorje Drak Gompa

 Lhamotse Gompa

“Prayer flags adorn a shrine of the yellow sect.” (Lhamotse Gompa) by Joseph F. Rock, 1930

Lhamotse Gompa by Ernest Henry Wilson, 1908

Dorje Drak Gompa by Ernest Henry Wilson, 1908


George Combe’s description quoted at the start of this post is possibly one of the most well known descriptions of a religious dancing festival held at Dartsendo. Rinchen Lhamo, who was Louis King’s wife, calls it the ‘Ya-chiu’ or ‘Summer Prayer’ – Combe, however, euphemistically calls it ‘The Devil Dance.’ Rinchen gently takes issue with this description: “I do not know why they should call it so, for it has nothing to do with devils, but is a service of worship of Heaven, of intercession with Heaven on behalf of the whole people. It is our equivalent of your Christmas and Easter festivals.
            Everybody goes to the Ya-chiu. It is the principal fête of the whole year, and lasts three days in succession, taking four or five hours each day from morning to afternoon. It is held in the court-yard of the Gompa. Awnings are erected on each side of the entrance to the church-hall. Under them, on each side of the entrance, sit the priests clad in full sacerdotal robes, amongst them those who with trumpet, clarionette, cymbal, drum and bell, take the place with us of your organs and orchestras. The chief officiating priest, the Living Buddha if there is one in the Gompa, sits on a raised dais under a canopy. The people occupy points of vantage, such as the balconies, the flat roofs, and the courtyard itself, in which latter they form a circle linking up the rows of priests. This circle is the arena where the dancing takes place.”

Louis and Rinchen’s first daughter, who was born at Dartsendo (Kangding) in 1921, was given the Tibetan name “Sheradrema (She(s)-rab (s)Gröl-ma)” by Runtsen Chimbu, the Living Buddha of Dorje Drak. And according to a note made by Louis this name means ‘transcendent wisdom’ combined with the Tibetan name of the Goddess of Mercy – Drolma; Tara in Sanskrit, or Kuan Yin in Chinese. Rinchen was certainly a devout Buddhist, but whether this means she was a follower of Nyingma Buddhism I’m not entirely sure. I suspect she was, as there is a picture of a Tibetan priest, a “Ge-she or Doctor of Divinity”, in Rinchen’s book We Tibetans (1926), to whom she was related and whom the monks at Dorje Drak seemed to recognise when I showed them his photograph. But at present it’s hard to know for sure.

Lhamotse Gompa by Louis Magrath King - Then & Now (c.1920 & 2010)
There are a number of photographs taken by Louis of some kind of festival at Lhamotse Gompa (some look religious in nature, possibly connected to the 'Ya-Chiu', others appear to be traditional Tibetan opera). I’ve seen a similar set of photographs, presumably of the same events, taken by another of Louis’s consular colleagues several years later, taken from quite a reserved distance whereas Louis’s were for the most part taken very much in the thick of it all (... I suspect he’d have made quite an affable anthropologist had he been so inclined!). It was remarkable to wander into Lhamotse and spend some time matching his views from the 1920s with the present day. I was extremely lucky as I discovered from one of the Lamas, Lobsang Yeshe, that the building works I had encountered surrounding the Gompa were being undertaken to enlarge the monks’ living quarters – had I arrived a month later he said, the old living quarters (which feature so prominently in Louis’s old photographs) would have all been gone! Involuntarily I couldn’t help expressing my sadness at this fact, but the young Lama smiled at me and said very simply: “Nothing lasts forever, everything changes.” I have to admit I was struck by his words quite deeply, and, with a little amusement, I thought to myself that if I had climbed these mountains in search of an epiphany – this was certainly it. Perhaps the ardent pursuit of history (even if it is one’s own extended family history) is an ultimately futile exercise? … Why cling to the past?


  The building works at Lhamotse Gompa, 2010

Well, maybe not entirely futile as my trip was certainly more than a mere fact-finding mission, it was in many ways also an exercise of self-fulfilment in itself. I found a lot more than just history during this trip. I think the most abiding thing I took away with me was in fact the kindness of all the people I met. There’s no denying that my stack of old black and white photos helped prompt smiles and a sense of connection. Indeed, I spent quite a bit of time over several visits at both Dorje Drak and Lhamotse, where I was very much welcomed in by the Lamas who were fascinated by the old photos I’d brought with me. Some of the Lamas spoke a little English, and, with many of the others who didn’t, we managed to converse with the aid of some well-thumbed copies of rather antiquated-looking Tibetan-English dictionaries, which I understood had originally come by way of India (and which contained some quaintly old fashioned English colloquialisms). In turn they taught me a few phrases of Tibetan. One monk, named Sonam Topden, very kindly invited me into his tiny room and introduced me to that famous Tibetan staple tsamba which I’d often read about but never before tasted. I made a marvellous mess making it! We chatted away for quite some time with the help of his old dictionary and he wrote the name of Lhamotse Gompa in Tibetan for me. He was also quite an accomplished draughtsman as I saw several beautiful drawings he’d sketched of a seated bodhisattva – much like one I’d seen carved on a mani stone in another part of the town.




By the time I left Lhamotse that evening the gates had been closed and the monks were all loudly reciting texts in the courtyard. I wondered if they were chanting sutras but was told that this was something more like ‘philosophy’ disputation (?). The monks all smiled warmly as I passed by, and, as one young monk drew nearby he grinned and whilst looking at me quietly slipped the word “Demo” (hello) in amongst his recitations.

As I’ve said, the Gompas have all been architecturally altered or elaborated and expanded over time. Looking at them it was hard to tell how old some parts were. The living quarters of Lhamotse clearly matched Louis’s old photos as did the large flagstones of the paved courtyard, yet the balcony lattice-work had been replaced and the staircases, as Lobsang Yeshe observed, were no longer quite so steep. I read in a recently published travel guide that Dorje Drak had been completely destroyed in 1959 (no reason given as to why) and so later rebuilt. A final happy discovery I made at Dorje Drak related to two old photos of the Gompa’s exterior, one taken by Louis King and the other by Joseph Rock (as well as another of Ernest Wilson’s too, if you have a very keen eye) – which was that there had once been two large chortens or stupas standing in the open fields just outside the Gompa. They are now both gone, and the Gompa is today surrounded by houses with little gardens, but when lining up a modern view of one of Louis’s old photos I noticed a number of mani stones piled along a garden wall. It was clearly evident that these had been dug up with the vegetables! They lined the top of the overgrown wall and yet more were propped alongside a nearby hut. A trace of the old chortens it seemed remains. I wondered how many of these old mani stones might have been there and witnessed Louis taking the very same photograph as me some 90 or so years before?

Dorje Drak by Louis Magrath King, c.1920

Dorje Drak, 2010

“Thunderbolt Monastery, a stronghold of the Red Lamas near Tatsienlu”
Dorje Drak, by Joseph Rock (published 1930)

  To be continued … Part VI


“The Devil Dance at Tachienlu (Dartsendo)” by G. A. Combe in ‘The Journal of the West China Border Research Society, Vol. II, 1924-1925’ a more commonly available version of this article can be found in: "A Tibetan on Tibet" by Paul Sherap & George Combe (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1926)

“We Tibetans” by Rinchen Lhamo (London: Seeley Service Co., 1926)

“The Glories of Minya Konka” by Joseph F. Rock in ‘The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, October 1930’

“Mapping the Tibetan World” edited by Gavin Allright & Atsushi Kanamaru (Tokyo: Kotan Publishing Inc., 2004)

Edge  of Empires by Tim Chamberlain in 'The British Museum Magazine, No. 66 (Spring/Summer, 2010)'

9 November 2013

Kangding - Then & Now

Part IV

In the early 20th century Kangding 康定 (or Tachienlu, as it was then more commonly known), or དར་རྩེ་མདོ། Dartsendo in Tibetan, was very much a frontier town. It was here that the tea porters from China met and traded with the yak caravans coming from Tibet. It was a melting pot of trade, culture, and religions. Alongside the Tibetans and Chinese who made their livings there either as permanent or transitory residents, there was also a sizeable foreign community too. For the most part these foreigners were missionaries (some of whom were also medical doctors), but there were also traders, consular officials, academics (anthropologists; botantists; geologists, etc.), and various other independent travellers. The missionaries were predominantly French Catholics and American Protestants, all of whom made Kangding one of their permanent bases, and from here they would travel out to their smaller mission stations scattered across the region.

The French Catholics even built a sizeable church which can clearly be seen in this photograph of the town taken by the botantist, Joseph Rock, published in one of his articles for The National Geographic Magazine (October 1930). Rock was one of several noted travellers who passed through Kangding en route to eastern Tibet. Quite a few of these independent travellers published accounts of their journeys through the region, but a great number of their fellow contemporaries did not or if they did many of these accounts now languish in obscurity – in contemporary newspapers, magazines, private diaries and photo albums. I’m fascinated by all of these travellers and their motivations for making these journeys at such a turbulent time. None of them it seems were much put off by regular skirmishes between the various factions of the Chinese and Tibetan armed forces, as well as episodes of lawlessness and banditry on the isolated roads and mountain passes. There were times when towns as substantial as Kangding itself came under direct threat and even actual attack (see here).

As one might well expect, much has changed in Kangding since those days around a century ago. The once impressive town gates are now gone, and many of the low wooden buildings with their grey tiled roofs which were typical of Tachienlu have given way to modern concrete apartment blocks, some several stories high, and the bridges which span the river that runs through the town are now more numerous and more solidly built too. But elements of old Tachienlu remain. There are still quite a few old wooden and stone or brick built buildings with tiled roofs to be seen, particularly on the hillsides and at the outer fringes of the town; and, not least, there is the traditional architecture of the three large and fully functioning Tibetan Gombas (of which I shall write about in more detail in my next post). During my visit though I found a large part of the old town centre had recently been levelled and a huge excavation was then underway as part of a new development for a large modern shopping centre. 

Kangding Town Square

Likewise, there is now no trace to be found of the old French Catholic church (which I guesstimate might have stood somewhere near the present town square?).

However, there is both a modern Catholic and a modern Protestant church, as well as a mosque still serving their respective communities in Kangding.

< Kangding Protestant Church

Kangding Mosque

Two photographs of Tachienlu (Old) Catholic Church taken by Père Francis Goré

With the help of Kris Rubesh (who runs the excellent Zhilam Hostel, where I was staying) acting as translator, I spoke to Mr and Mrs Lao, two long time residents of the town. Mr Lao had lived in Kangding for 61 years and could remember of the old French Catholic church. Mr Lao said he recalled going into the church when he was a boy. His mother was an orphan who had been raised by the French missionaries, but he couldn’t remember when the church had been demolished. Mr Lao's wife had come to Kangding around 40 years ago and she said the church was already gone by the time she arrived, so she’d never seen it herself. Although Mr Lao couldn’t recall when the church and all the surrounding buildings had been torn down, he did recall that there was a time when all the foreigners had had to leave Kangding. From my own researches I knew that the church had only narrowly escaped destruction in a great fire in 1921 which levelled a large part of the town, so if the church hadn’t been destroyed deliberately it’s quite likely that it could have succumbed to such a repeat disaster, or it could have fallen foul of one of the frequent landslides, inundations, or even earthquakes which occasionally hit the region. 

Whilst I was there I was fortunate enough to be able to take a look inside the modern Catholic church, which is curiously set atop a building that also consists of a series of ordinary shops at ground-level fronting one of the main streets beside the river. It was interesting to note that many of the missals in the pews appeared to be a lot older than the present building – although that’s no guarantee that they were transferred from the old church, they could well have come from further afield.

Kangding Catholic Church

I spent most of the week wandering around the town, mostly trying to match present day views with old ones. Often new tall buildings blocked me from taking effective “then and now” comparison photos, but these are a few which (to some extent) succeeded:

Two photos taken by Sir Eric Teichman (published in 1922):

Four views taken by Ernest Henry Wilson in 1908:

The last view is of the Princess Wencheng Bridge, which according to some foreign traveller’s accounts was the last “Chinese-style” stone bridge which one would cross when travelling west, some even went so far as to describe it as "the Gateway to Tibet" (cf. Shelton; Kendall; Stevenson; Fischer; et al). It’s now very easily missed as the expanding town has subsumed its surrounds, hemmed in it stands as a pedestrian bridge running parallel to a modern road bridge and is enclosed by buildings on each bank. I crossed it a couple of times before I realised what it was. It is presumably named after Princess Wencheng, a niece of the Emperor Taizong of the T’ang Dynasty in China, who is said to have married Songtsän Gampo, the 33rd King of the Tibetan Yarlung Dynasty around 640 AD.

To be continued … Part V