The Potala, the great palace of the Dalai Lama, one of the architectural wonders of the world, seems to grow out of the hill where it is built. To get inside the Potala you need a Tibetan guide who will accompany you on the tour. Once you enter your ticket is stamped with the time and you have one hour, if you leave later than an hour your guide is fined. It is unbelievable as we enter. Room after room filed with Tibetan art, the walls and ceiling covered with murals, then tangkas hanging over the murals and then big cabinets and shrines on every wall filled with statuary. Our group has two guides; an American professor and a Tibetan named Tenzin. Inside the Potala we are in a large ceremonial chapel filled with a long row of life sized statues when Dan, our American guide, runs into a Tibetan he knows. The man is a lama but is not dressed in robes. They are delighted to find each other and Dan has gifts for him. They embrace and talk for a few minutes and then we continue on the tour route. We are moving down this long corridor with a stream of other tourists and pilgrims when all at once a door opens and the lama that Dan knows steps out and beckons for us to come through the door. I couldn’t be more surprised. Suddenly we are off the tourist track and going into the back rooms of the Potala. He takes us through several rooms where there are no tourists, deep into the interior of the building, until we end up in a room with brightly colored murals and incredibly elaborate woodwork and long beautiful tasseled umbrellas that hang from the tall ceiling for what appears to be twenty to thirty feet. This amazing room is where he works.
Tenzin, our Tibetan translator tells us that the lama’s job is putting together lost manuscripts. The Chinese had scattered many of the libraries in the Potala and he has thousands of pages of manuscripts that he is trying to put back together like a giant literary jigsaw puzzle. There are piles of texts on the floor, all of them wrapped in fabric where he has managed to reassemble the pages. We get to stand with him for a few minutes and he lets us take pictures of the room, knowing full well no photographs are allowed inside the Potala and we take group pictures of all of us together with him. It is a very large room and the walls are covered with ornate murals and the doorways all have elaborate woodwork around them with beautifully painted doors and traditional door handles. I get Dan’s attention and tell him I have a question, he nods and Tenzin agrees to translate. I feel like this guy has done us a big favor so I have Tenzin ask,
“Is there anything we can get you from America?”
“Yes, I need heart medicine.”
I am surprised and assume that he has a heart condition of some sort and needs medicines that he can’t get here in Tibet. Then he looks at us and says,
“We need medicine for a broken heart, for all the young people.”
It is courageous of him to speak with us privately at all. Here in Lhasa if a Tibetan monk talks to Westerners he can end up being interrogated by the Chinese who want a full report on everything that was said and he can even end up in jail as a result. So I understand the pressure, the fire in the belly of being under constant oppression, of going to classes every month where they are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and swear allegiance to China. It is truly heartbreaking and my sympathy goes out to him and the Tibetan people who are forced into this awful situation.