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+44 7855 742 633

London based professional interior and architectural photographer.

Travel Blog: Tibet

Emotions run high at The Sera

james tarry

Today was a day of not taking photos, I imagined travelling here and taking memory cards full of images especially as I am keen to explore travel photography world, however visiting, interacting with the people of these temples only really makes me not want to take photos. Let me explain: 

Our first visit today was at the Drepung monastery which is one of the six largest monasteries and is located at the base of the West Valley Mountain about 10km from Lhasa. On the way up our guide stopped while no one was around and gave us a brief history, 99% of Tibetans feel the same but most will not say or fear of reprimand. Further discussions later in the week revealed that he usually has to be careful of who he is talking to and often tailors the tours. We are all keen on history and a few of our group knew a lot about the "Liberation", over the course of the trip he really opened up to us on many topics and as i will discuss later on gets visibly upset. The more he told, the more he could tell the effect it was having on us and I am sure that this is what he would've wanted, to share this land but also the hurt so that we (or now, sitting here writing this) share it to more people. This trip was beginning to effect us all. 

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The monastery itself was again, another sight to behold and we followed worshippers around room by room. Photography was available here inside in certain rooms and the monastery asks for a donation in each room (usually around 20Y or £2) but it feels somehow wrong to me, a feeling that didn't go away when a German tour group came through pointing cameras at everything and using flashes close up to the art work and exquisitely painted Buddhas, one guy even walked round filming the whole time…. How much did he really take in I wonder, if anything at all? These are religious artefacts of thousands of years old and while they are beautiful, much like art in a museum it should be left to view with the eyes, mind and heart and not through a viewfinder with a flash going off 1ft away!! I also noted a lot of those German tourists didn't pay either. Personally I took a few outside photos and one photo inside of a monk by a window with his mobile phone, I immediately paid him, thanked him, felt guilty for taking the photo so donated some money to the Buddha in the room also. I just wouldn't even consider taking photos of the holy monuments and figures just out of sheer respect for the history, the worshippers in the monastery and for preservation.....  but hey that's just me!

On a funny note, I wanted, rather needed to use the bathroom, found one and remember when i said those trains were the worst toilets imaginable….. well these beat them hands down. Between two sections, ladies and mens ran a gutter of well, everything, you split your legs and crouched over the top, of course avoiding touching any wall or surface (leave that to your imagination). I ran in, ran into a stall (which neatly covers head height when kneeling) and straight into a little dude doing his business, I don't know who was more shocked, him seeing a Western face or me seeing some dude butt naked……. still, have to laugh. 

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Next up (above picture): The Sera Monastery, one of the 'great three' Gelukpa university monasteries of Tibet, located 1.25 miles (2.01 km) north of LhasaThe Sera Monastery, as a complex of structures with the Great Assembly Hall and three colleges, was founded in 1419 by Jamchen Chojey of Sakya Yeshe of Zel Gungtang (1355–1435), a disciple of TsongkhapaDuring the 1959 revolt in Lhasa, Sera monastery suffered severe damage, with its colleges destroyed and hundreds of monks killed.

We almost didn't get in as heavy handed Chinese Government Officials took exception to us and our guide and told him we were not allowed entrance, despite having a permit and tickets. Our guide, visibly upset took them on and got us in, he was never quite the same after that for the rest of the day. 

On a Saturday the families take their children to be blessed (by a dot on the nose) wishing safe dreams, the queue was hundreds deep and our guide led us in into a temple, past the queuing Tibetans of all ages and generations. It's fair to say that we felt incredibly rude pushing in to the temple while these people had been queuing for hours but rather than hostility we found a sea of curious faces and encouragement, the parents would tell their children to look at us, wave, say hello, greet us, they would part and let us past, tell others in front we were coming through, push us forward and while we did they would pat our backs, stroke our arms, beam at us with big smiles, encourage us forward. Inside was more of the same, we shuffled past all the Buddhas, through the narrow corridors (3-4ft wide) all the while the same thing happened, pats on the back, "hello's", proud people pointing out at their history. We reached the monks blessing the children where they beamed big smiles at us and greeted us, then through a door out into a room with three walls covered with standing Buddha statues (maybe around ten of them all at least 11 ft high) looking down with smiling faces and I lost it. Emotional wreck, a trend that would happen several times to all of us over the next few days.

I could write today's events 200 times and would never be able to describe the feeling, emotion, warmth, joy and experience of that temple. I think it will take me a very long time to get over it. Not sure if it was spiritual or just the warmth of total strangers but it was too much…….I have since tried to explain it to people but I cannot. A mixture of human kindness, spiritualism and, well, honesty i don't know, it was one of the most incredible moments I can remember and one where I doubt I would experience anywhere else in the world. It still hits me writing this. 

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