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Scaling a Mountain to Destroy The Holy Soul of Tibetans

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/06/02; June 2, 2001.]

(The Age - Melbourne)
Saturday 2 June 2001.

Lives can be erased in minutes, but it takes much longer to decimate human will. You have to patiently brainwash, as well as brutalise, and even then, as China is finding in Tibet, swathes of resistance remain.

Since invading in 1951, Beijing has killed more than a million Tibetans, a sixth of the population, and tortured and displaced as many again. Yet, stubborn Tibetans still risk beating and prison to carry a photo of their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama. Denuding their language, their land and their religion has not broken their spirit. Despite lies pedalled by China - most recently at last week's Canberra "celebration" of the 50th anniversary of "peaceful liberation" - Tibetans retain their distinctive identity and Buddhist belief.

This was made clear to me by a young monk, no more than 13, I found studying in Sera monastery, just outside Lhasa, the capital. Noticing the camera on my shoulder, he flipped over the scripture he was reading to reveal the message: "Free Tibet" in English. "Take my picture," he said. He knew the result would be jail or death, but like so many Tibetans I encountered, he wanted the word to get out. Such resilient, almost irrational, determination is exasperating to China, which has assumed that compliance would follow the power that Mao said came from the barrel of a gun.

As it has not, China has stepped up the oppression, adding cultural colonising touches, such as yak burgers and a Rambo bar - complete with a placard of a machine-gun-toting man - in the shadow of the Potala, the Dalai Lama's former home. It now has at least 451 political prisoners, three quarters of them monks and nuns, behind bars, along with Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 12-year-old boy recognised by the Dalai Lama as Tibet's next influential Panchen Lama. He was abducted in 1996.

Business as usual you might say, or as a report from the US State Department puts it: "Chinese Government authorities continue to commit numerous serious human rights abuses in Tibet."

What is new, and seems to have escaped the Australian Government, which agreed to participate (through the presence of diplomat Kyle Wilson) in last week's "celebration" of China's Tibetan genocide, is Beijing's plan to step up the humiliation, and desecrate the world's holiest mountain, Mount Kailas.

According to Tibet's government in exile, and Britain's Observer newspaper, China has given permission for a group of Spanish mountaineers to climb Kailas, a luminous rock pyramid sacred to a billion Hindus, millions of Buddhists, the Jain faith, and followers of Tibet's native Bon religion. The mountain - perhaps the oldest continually visited religious site of pilgrimage in the world - has not been scaled since the 11th century Tibetan mystic Milarepa rode, it is said, to the top on the rays of the sun.

Apart from the pilgrims and adventurers who walk around its base, the mountain has been left untrampled and unconquered, not because it is a particularly hard or risky climb, but out of respect for its status as home to Hindu god, Shiva; the Bon religion's founder, and the site where Buddhism's Milarepa won an historic battle.

As the isolated 6714 metre Mount Kailas is where Buddhism mythically triumphed to become Tibet's dominant religion, it could be symbolically pleasing for China to see it subdued. Maybe trampling the sacred mountain would bring Tibetan spirit, as well as soil, under Beijing's boot-heel. The Dalai Lama voiced his opposition last week. After advising the Spanish mountaineers to back off, he said: "Treating one of the world's most worshipped mountains as an item of sport will constitute a gross insensitivity to the religious sentiments of the Tibetan people and beyond."

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Canberra, Ren Xiaoping, said she had no details of the proposed climb. "We haven't received any information about the matter," she said. A press release from the embassy does not mention Kailas, but repeats Beijing's insistence that Tibet is part of China and the Dalai Lama has "no sincerity".

Canberra has defended its decision to attend last weeks' celebration of Chinese hegemony over Tibet but, according to Tibetan lobbyist, Liam Phelan, more than 600 people have faxed their disapproval to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. "Foreign Affairs say they raise human rights at such gatherings," Phelan said. "They can't be serious. A cocktail party isn't the forum to raise such abuses."

German climber Reinhold Messner, who declined a Chinese offer to ascend Mount Kailas in the mid-1980s, has condemned the proposed climb, as has Doug Scott, the first Englishman to scale Everest. "Once the sanctity is destroyed, it'll be gone forever," Scott said. "It would open Kailas to all commercial groups and it would be such a kick in the teeth to the Tibetans."

Messner agreed. "If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people's souls," he said. "I would suggest they go and climb something a little harder. Kailas is not so high and not so hard."

KAILAS, in far western Tibet, near Nepal's western border with India, is believed to be the source of the legend of Mount Meru, the mythical centre of the universe. Its unusual shape and sense of mystery has long generated interest. It is believed that Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were taken to the mountain in 1948. Kailas was first seen by a European when Father Antonio Andrade, a Jesuit missionary to the court of the Mogul emperor Akbar, arrived in the early 17th century. Its significance was finally acknowledged by the Italian scholar, Professor Giuseppe Tucci, in the 1930s. He wrote that the mountain was believed to be "the navel of the world; the ladder which links heaven and earth; and the great rock crystal palace of 360 gods".

There are signs that the message is getting through. Tibetan sources say that Jesus Martinez Novas, the leader of the Spanish expedition, may take the Dalai Lama's advice, and give up the climb. Novas has said his aim is to "broadcast a message of peace" from the summit and draw attention to environmental degradation.

This week Britain's Sunday Telegraph reported that Novas - whom it said had "sought and been given permission by the Chinese authorities to climb the mountain" - was having second thoughts, and would not go ahead. Tibetan sources said they wanted the undertaking in writing.

Tibetans can take years to journey to Kailas, making full-length prostrations with wooden boards on their arms and legs, the whole way. Once there, they make their way around a rocky 56kilometre path that climbs to 5636metres. Like most of Tibet's monuments, the 13 monasteries on the arduous circuit were destroyed by the Chinese in the 1960s. Four have now been rebuilt by Tibetans. No mortal, it is said, has ever set foot on the peak of the mountain. To do so would be a sacrilege.

Alan Tait, an astrologer and woodworker from Bruthen, outside Bairnsdale, visited the mountain in 1996, shortly after China abducted the boy Panchen Lama. He saw pilgrims on the road to Kailas, and says they were often dogged by one of the Landcruisers used by Chinese authorities to harass locals.

He remembers being woken at midnight by Chinese police bashing on a hotel door and screaming. "Somebody's travel permits were not in order," he recalls. "In Tibet, no one goes anywhere without Chinese approval for that exact location. Tibetans are imprisoned in the harshest conditions for touring their own country."

His travel permit allowed him to go further west, past Mount Kailas, to the cave monasteries at Tsaparang, the centre of the ancient Guge kingdom that once ruled Tibet.

"Tsaparang saw the greatest single destruction of art treasures in the 20th century when the Chinese destroyed every statue and mural, to make the recent destruction of statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban pale by comparison," he said.

His strongest memory is of a building site in the old Tibetan part of Lhasa where most of the Tibetan buildings had been demolished. Dozens of Tibetan workmen shovelled, while a Chinese military overseer watched. "It was the perfect symbol of Tibet today," Tait said. "I realised later that the workers were all prisoners."

Age senior writer Peter Ellingsen was China correspondent from 1988 to 1991.

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