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Holy Lakes and Mountains of Tibet. 2

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Published on Sep 1, 2010

Chukku Gompa, the first of the kora's three monasteries, was the same dusty rose-dun as the rock it seemed to spring from. The mountain it was built into was also a gigantic natural temple, the dwelling of Kangri Lhatsen, the supernatural Protector of the Kailas region. In the past he was known to manifest in the bodies of certain men 'close to his heart', in an oracular tradition passed down from father to son. Today the oracle is silent, but Kangri Lhatsen is honoured in a special small shrine of Chukku set off from the main temple. Like all such gonkhang devoted to fierce deities, its doors are shut to women; laymen enter only on special occasions.
The path to the gompa twisted uphill through a maze of multi-coloured boulders carved with mantra. At the very top waited a woman; silver coins braided into her hair identified her as a Golok, one of the nomadic tribespeople of northeast Tibet. Three children dressed in miniature chuba peered solemn-eyed from behind her skirts. We sat together on the temple steps and she talked of her long journey. It had taken her nearly a year to reach Kailas, and she listed the pilgrimage sites visited along the way: Lhasa, Tsari, Samye, Sakya . . . The litany of sacred place-names evoked a vision of an invisible net of pilgrim paths flung over Tibet, distant places linked in an unseen web of power. As we talked the children lost their shyness and began to play, pitching pebbles over the edge of the terrace and giggling as they ricocheted down the steep slope. Eventually a monk emerged from his quarters to unlock the door of the main temple, the lhakhang or 'god-house'. Inside, the dim air was heavy with the scent of incense and melted butter. Pools of light spilled over the edges of silver butter lamps into the darkness. The walls were lined with silver chorten and gilded images — all that remained of the treasures of Kailas' six monasteries, gathered together here when Chukku became the first gompa to be rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution. Niches on the back wall held the 108 brocade-wrapped volumes of the Kanjur, the records of the Buddha's speech. As the woman circled the temple the children imitated her actions, bowing their heads against the holy scriptures.
At the centre of the room on the main altar a single image sat amid ivory tusks and peacock feathers, its features nearly buried by a blizzard of prayer scarves. The squat white figure was utterly unlike the serene gilded Buddhas usually found in Tibetan shrines; with its topknot and almond eyes, it faintly resembled the Tirthankara images of Jain desert temples. Its blank-eyed stare was oddly disturbing; it seemed alien, out of place among the ritual Tibetan paraphernalia surrounding it. The Golok woman prostrated three times before the statue, then stood a long moment hesitating. Slipping off her bright necklace of polished stones she handed it to the monk, who draped it over the image in offering.
This statue is called Chukku Rinpoche after the Gompa's sixteenth-century founder, but its legend goes back even further, into the timeless realm of myth. From the cloudy waters of a Milk Lake in India's Lahoul region seven white images were magically self-born. One of these made its way to Kailas, where it was enthroned as the central treasure of Chukku Gompa. 'Outside, what is important is Kang Tise [Kailas]', an old saying has it. 'Inside, Chukku Rinpoche is the most important.'
The presence of this strange statue seems to inspire a climate ready for miracles. In addition to it, the gompa possesses a silver-inlaid conch shell magically flown from Lake Manasarovar and an immense copper vessel said to have been brought from India by the Buddhist missionary Tilopa. These three objects represent the Buddha's Body, Speech and Mind; their union is a sign that religion will flourish in Tibet. The Cultural Revolution scattered the treasures of Chukku; later the image and the conch were returned, but the copper bowl had disappeared — stolen, perhaps, or melted down for scrap metal like so many other precious artifacts. Then, in 1985, on the day of a religious festival, the vessel of the Buddha's Mind appeared in a cave beneath the gompa. 'We looked there many times before without finding it', the monk told us. 'It was Kangri Lhatsen who reunited the three treasures', he added with conviction. And like the thick ice cap crowning Kailas and the deep waters flowing in the Ganga Chu, this is taken as an auspicious omen that the Buddhist Dharma, the Way, will again flourish in Tibet.

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