(This is the transcript of a Travel Tape podcast. To listen to the show click here.)
Today's show has a simple frame.
In the summer of 2014, my wife and I took a trip to eastern Tibet, down near the border with Sichuan Province. This is a hybrid zone, like many border regions, and we found that the key to understanding it, or at least opening the doors to beginning to understand it, was to answer 2 questions:
Why was a Chinese princess worshiped here in Tibet?
And why had a Buddhist monastery been built over the grave of her illegitimate child?
So please stick around for the answers.
This is Travel Tape, my full pack of tales, histories, legends, interviews and curiosities from around our world. I'm Robert Kelly and this is A Princess Story.
Okay, so as I said this show is going to answer two questions. But here's a quick question I want to ask you first. It'll make sense why pretty quickly:
Have you ever read an older version of Beauty and the Beast? Did you notice that Belle did not just wander into the Beast's castle as Disney would have it. She went as a type of payment for the mistakes or debts of her bankrupt father.
This used to be pretty common. The children of the poor or lower classes could be used as collateral for loans, and then sold into slavery, or forced into bonded labor, if those loans went unpaid.
It wasn't much better for the children of notables. Princesses, they were simply treated as commodities, married away as tribute, war reparations, or as tokens of a peace offering. They were called peace weavers or diplomat brides.
In imperial China they had a variation of this called the heqin, which was not only a type of peace through a marriage alliance, but also a form of cultural ambassadorship in which Chinese culture was to be spread to the neighboring barbarian states by these princesses.
So today's story, as you might be guessing, is about one of these bridal ambassadors, a princess called Wencheng. She was given away by the Tang Dynasty Court in China, in 639 or 640AD to marry King Songtsen Gampo, ruler of Tibet.
What made Wencheng special? Well, unlike most of the diplomat brides, she actually made a difference in the cultural landscape of her new home.
But exactly what that difference was has been contested for over 1000 years in what must be one of the oldest propaganda battles in the world.
So let's take a look at this propaganda. And here's Cameron David Warner, an associate professor in anthropology at Arrhus University, in Denmark, and the author of a fantastic paper called A Miscarriage Of History; Wencheng Gongzhu and Sino-Tibetan Historiography.
Cameron David Warner
Wencheng Gongzhu, her name in Chinese, was a probably minor member of the royal family. So she is sent to tibet in the middle of the 7th century, probably around 639AD, for the purposes of marrying this particular Tibetan king named Songsten Gampo.
So she travels across the area between Tibet and China, this sort of other place, this place we can call Eastern Tibet, and when she gets to Tibet, she marries the king. And the king he creates basically this big empire. Becomes the first emperor and he has a number of brides.
And she is his Chinese foreign bride.
Beginning somewhere around the 11th or 12th century, hundreds of years after she made her trip, the Buddhist writers in Tibet start to write this history of this great story of how Tibet converted to Buddhism. And that she was an important missionary.
And what did she do to convert the country: she brought with her a statue of the Buddha. By the 12th century Tibetans recognized this as the most important Buddhiststatue they had.
And that's called the Jowo Sakyamuni. So you can imagine in Tibet they probably at one point had millions of Buddhist statues. They elevated this one as the most important one, and this was the woman who brought it.
From the Chinese POV, the main story was Tibet was this very backward undeveloped place. It was outside of civilization. It was on the hinterlands. It wasn't part of the empire. And Tibetans were these barbarian who were harassing their borders, as many barbarians did. And in order to placate the barbarians they sent someone to marry one of their kings.
Later Chinese historians then started talking about what did she did when she got there. Oh she brought books about medicine, books about architecture, books about farming.
And so by the time you get to the 20th century, and you talk about Tibet becoming part of the People's Republic of China, and being an undeveloped part, they started this narrative that the history of Tibet being dependent on China for material development goes way back.
It begins with this princess and that basically from the beginning of Tibetans and Chinese meeting each other, China has been benevolently sending people out to this hinterland region with development expertise.
This competition over a 7th century princess's legacy might strike you little absurd. It might seem the worse that could come from it these days are a few derogatory jokes. But in 1949, after the invasion of Tibet by China, it became deadly serious to both sides.
At the time when the PLA went into Tibet, in 1949, 1950, they needed to create a narrative as to why the army was going into Tibet. And they needed a narrative that obscured the idea that Tibet was being invaded or conquered. They wanted to sound as if there was a good, positive, benevolent reason the army was going there to secure Tibet as part of the empire of China.
The first thing they tried was class struggle. We're liberating the serfs in Tibet.
So Zhou En Lai, China's first premier, orders a man called Tianhan to write a Princess Wencheng play that would strike a blow against Tibetan nationalism. Tianhan was the most famous Chinese playwright at the time, and the composer of the PRC's national anthem, March of the Volunteers, which you are hearing now.
He was also a true believer in the communist revolution, and the first draft of his play put class struggle front and center.
In scene six for example a female serf flees her landlord and an oppressive patriarchal marriage and runs to Princess Wencheng for safety. But she is soon kidnapped by the landlord forcing Wencheng to launch an rescue mission. It's a bloody affair, with several of her trusted advisors killed in the process, and the servant girl herself ending up with her eyes plucked out by her landlord. Wencheng does eventually rescue the girl however and when she finally meets Songtsen Gampo she uses the servants example to teach the King that he must reform old customs and do away with the privileged class in favor of the peasants.
But pretty quickly the people in Beijing realized that this narrative was never going to sell very well to people who were unconvinced they ever had these problems in the first place.
And so they needed to created a more positive story, not a story of oppression, but a story of good feelings. And they thought, well Wencheng is this story of when a Chinese and Tibetan fell in love, and when these two civilizations first met.
And it's also a story from the perspective of the Chinese that it's a moment when China first helped out Tibet. China is the uncle and Tibet is the nephew.
So Tianhan is given this order not to make it about class struggle but to make it a love story that can be a kind of template for all kinds of imaginings about a relationship between Tibet and China.
And all the way up to today you have all these TV soap operas made about the love story of this Chinese princess and Tibetan king. And you have stage plays, Tianhan's play, but also re-imagined stage plays and operas.
So it's resulted in this whole genre in China of fiction and storytelling about how 2 people from very different backgrounds could overcome their cultural backgrounds and learn to love each other. Which is a message which some in the Chinese gov want the nation to embrace as a whole.
It's not the most successful policy as we've explored in other Borderland episodes. Many minorities are deeply uncomfortable with their position within China.
But getting back to Wencheng, there's something unexpected in the clash of the two official positions over her legacy and her meaning. And this is the fact there is another version of events. A version found not just conceptually between the 2 official narratives of Lhasa and Beijing, but also literally in the lands between them.
When you have these 2 stories what you lose in the middle of the stories is this place between Lhasa and between the former capital of China, which is a place we can call Eastern Tibet, which is now Sichuan and Qinghai provinces.
And in that in between space there are a lot of hamlets and valleys and monasteries with stories of Wenchang Gongzhu passing through their area. And in this genre of storiesyou have this sub genre which is that, when she was making this trip, it was a very long trip, it took years, and she was travelling with this Tibetan emissary, this Tibetan minister. And that because the trip became so long she fell in love with the minister, and she got pregnant and then she either miscarried or she gave birth to a baby that died shortly after.
And so in a number of places that have these local story, also have this subgenre that their place was the place where the baby was born and interred in that place.
And we'll get to one of those places shortly, but first, a little about what we are calling eastern Tibet.
Tibet is traditionally said to comprise three regions or provinces: U-Tsang, which includes Lhasa all the way west to Mt Kailash on the Indian border, Kham which was the southeastern region, and Amdo, the northeastern region. So eastern Tibet is roughly Kham and Amdo.
So when you talk to people from eastern Tibet, they are very proud of being from Eastern Tibet. Khampas are very proud obviously. There is an archetype of Khampas as people who are in the middle of Tibet, and proud of being warriors.
The people from Qinghai, call themselves Amdoas. They think of themselves as the most intellectual. The best poets the best philosophers are from Amdo. And in some parts of Amdo you'll find people are incredibly literate. You watch local TV and they'll live broadcast lectures on poetry from the local university. And you'll bump into people at a bookstore and they'll be discussing Schopenhauer in Tibetan because a translation just came out.
So they are very proud of who they are as a people. But they are also aware that they live in a hybrid zone. They know that their villages were not always completely Tibetan. There'd be Chinese families in the village, Monpo, Mongolian. There are lot of different languages spoken up and down this region.
So these are different kinds of people people would use written Tibetan as their way of connecting with a larger world. So their Tibetan identity would come from writing Tibetan and being Buddhist. And so in some sense, in the right conversation they are proud to be Tibetan but in another context they would talk about being Amdoa or Khampa rather than Tibetan.
And when Khampas and Amdoa talk about Wencheng they are not talking about her as a Chinese princess sent to Lhasa to marry the emperor.
They talk about this really important Buddhist goddess who came to our town, and stayed in our town, and she took care of us, and did all these miraculous stuff and we remember her ever since for the relationship we had with her.
That last bit is one of the key to the story, so I'm going to repeat it. Princess Wencheng, the Chinese princess sent from the Tang court, is, according to Tibetan historiography, and religious belief, a Buddhist deity.
So the way this happens in the official version of Tibet, and by official I mean the version being written in the capital of Lhasa, eventually the idea gels, that this guy Songtsen Gampo, this guy who started out as local king and conquered all this territory. So it's better to think of him as an emperor. The first emperor of Tibet.
He didn't do this because he was some bloodthirsty man who wanted to take over all this territory. What he was doing was creating an authentic Buddhist empirebecause he wanted to help people become Buddhist. He had compassion for them and wanted to end their suffering.
And so that leads to the idea that he must be the incarnation of Avalokiteshrva.
Avalokitesvara, known in Tibetan as Chenresig, is the Buddha of compassion, and has a very central roll both in Tibetan religious life and history. Some liken the Buddha to a kind of patron saint of Tibet.
And Avalokiteshvara has consorts. This is true across the Himalaya, across Tantric Buddhism. An important male Buddhist figure has a consort and vice versa.
So if Songtsten Gampo is going to be this Buddhist deity then some of his wives are probably Buddhist deities too. So Wencheng becomes one of the versions of the Tara goddess.
And so the answer to the first question we set out to discover that summer was relatively easy. Why was a Chinese princess worshiped in Tibet? Because she really was a Buddhist goddess, Tara, consort to Avalokiteśvara, the patron of Tibet.
The second question, why had a monastery been built over the grave of her illegitimate child, that took a little travelling to understand.
Our route through eastern Tibet went along Hwy 318, the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, from Lhasa to Rawok Lake. And then back. The highway does continue all the way to Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, but foreign travellers have not been permitted past Rawok Lake since 2009.
In addition to the language and cultural diversity Cameron mentioned earlier, the whole region is also one of the most geographically diverse in Tibet with grasslands, glaciers, alpine lakes, wide fast rivers, deep gorges, and high snowy peaks.
Leaving Lhasa, nothing much changed around us for a day or two. The landscape was hilly, and dry, and the towns were little more than restaurant clusters along side the main road.
As we entered the region formerly known as Kongpo, things began to change fast and it was difficult to make sense of it all for a while.
Kongpo is on theborder with U, the province that includes Lhasa, and it's a pretty true boundary, marking a delineation from Central Tibet in terms of vegetation, language, dress, culture, architecture, agriculture, and even religion. Bon, the ancient religion of the Himalayas is widely practiced here, which means among other things, pilgrims circumambulate counterclockwise around holy objects: Buddhists of course go clockwise.
Our guide, who was Buddhist, and from Lhasa, had a lot of biases against the region: Kongpo was a place of incest and thieving and more oddly of witches who poisoned travellers to steal their souls, which interestingly they did to inherit their karmic merit.
One of the first highlights of the region was the climbed up the Serkym-la pass, which was thick with blooming pink and white rhododendron. It was so pretty even our guide started to soften a bit on the region, and he and the driver actually got out of the car with us to take pictures.
Then we descended fast, down into the dark Lunang Forest, the biggest in Tibet, and into the Rongchu Valley, with its fields of rapeseed and barley, and stonehouse villages with slanted roofs, again, so different from Lhasa.
After a night in a local homestay, we set out again eastward. The valley narrowed, starkly, dangerously, into a well-known foggy stretch of washouts and muddy pools which made driving slower than cycling.
After crossing a bridge over a swollen confluence, we entered another wide valley and the land become crossed and checkered by waddle fences. Fragrant pigs, and that’s really their name, at least in Chinese, xiangzhu, roamed among potato and barley fields. We felt like we were in a Tibetan rendering of the English countryside.
And then, at km1345 of the highway, we turned off the main road, crossed a narrow channel, and found ourselves on the wooded island of Bakha, home of the Bakha Monastery, once a centre of power and faith in the former independent kingdom of Powo.
Powo is an examples of one of these places that didn't thinks of itself as either Tibetan or Chinese in the sense of government. It was an independent kingdom. And there were many of these in this areas.
What happened basically is that Songtsen Gampo's family created this empire that unified this territory and then around 820-823AD the empire fell apart. And then you had a series of different kingdoms and governments across the Tibetan Plateau that ruled different pieces of territory. Powo was particularly defensive of its independence.
And then within this kingdom you had this special monastery, Bakha, and even in the name of the monastery is the idea that this baby is hidden there.
Bakha comes from Basa, which means hiding place as in the place where the child was hidden or buried.
And at some point a Buddhist master came from that place and he was understood to be a reincarnation of the illegitimate child. And then he went through a number of reincarnations all the way down the present tulku.
A tulku is a reincarnated Buddhist master who is part of a special lineage of recurring reincarnated masters. The current abbot of a monastery for example might be recognized as the latest incarnation of a being whose rebirths trace through every abbot back to the original founder of the monastery.
The Dalai Lamas are tulkus. Each successor is a reincarnation of the last, with the first of the lineage being considered a manifestation of Avalokitesvara.
So there is a sense that somehow it's not just that Wencheng stayed in this place for a while, and that she had a child there, and the baby was left there, but somehow that the soul of the child decided to make this place its place, its place of missionaryactivity.
So that means the soul of the dead baby is reborn over and over again for the purposes of supporting the religious activity of the people of Bakha.
As far as I know this one is unique. And because it's unique it's the only example of an reincarnation lineage that started with an illegitimate child. Because it's unique the metaphysics are not really worked out so to speak. There isn't a text on it. There isn't a person who is expert on it. There isn't enough of a sample size.
But what we know across the Buddhist world is that when someone dies they have something that we really shouldn't call it a soul, but maybe consciousness, that consciousness will take another form. And this will happen repeatedly unless it is born into a human body that perfects the form and leaves the system so to speak.
So the baby, when it died, it would have taken another form. It didn't immediately take a human form. It must have become other forms for generations. And then when the Bakha Tulku lineage started it must have taken human form.
And at some point in the history of that human being they must have gotten far enough in Buddhist practices to remember past lives. And have this memory that they were once this baby or fetus. Which is really quite fascinating when you think about it.
But that's basically what would have happened.
I think I might want to recap.
According to local history, Princess Wencheng travelled through the area we can call Eastern Tibet in the 7th century. Her mission might have been to marry the King of Tibet, but it was a long long trip and she fell in love with Gar Songsten, the minister charged with bringing her to his king.
Wencheng conceived a child, who was stillborn. However, the soul of the child remained in the region and went through a series of reincarnations until eventually a monk in Powo recognized this, recognized that he was the reincarnation of this child, and a lineage of tulkus began at the Bakha Monastery.
The kings and rulers of Powo actually used this special status as one argument for their independence from Lhasa after the empire had fallen apart. They were a hybrid of China and Tibet, both through both traditional hereditary claims and also karmic ones. And so they owed allegiance to neither.
That tulku lineage of Bakha continues today by the way though the present Tulku lives in New Mexico. I contacted his organization, the Zuni Mountain Stupa, and spoke with some people there. They didn't want to be part of this podcast, but they were happy to answer my questions and even let me use recordings of the Bakha Tulku for the show. That's his voice you've been hearing in prayer.
Of course my main reason was to talk to them about Princess Wencheng, and confirm the origins of the lineage, which they did, so matter-of-factly it kind of left me stumped for more questions.
It's not a secret, it's certainly nothing anyone feels ashamed of.
I think one of the things Tibetans like to talk about is that majority the very highest members of Buddhist masters come from aristocratic families. So they like to point to the few examples of their being a meritocratic system. People who have achieved enlightenment through hard work.
But the vast majority of tulkus come from very important families. And there is a handy karmic argument. If you are going to be a religious leader into it just easier to born into an important family.
So that gives the larger context that even if it is an illegitimate child, from the Tibetan POV she is from the emperor's family, and Gar Tongtsen came from an very important aristocratic family.
So that shows the baby had a lot of good karma going for him and that would carry over into future generations.
But despite the high rank of both Wencheng and Gar Tongtsen, the birth of their lovechild is not in either the Chinese or the Tibetan official version.
To the Chinese, at least, any notion of a pregnancy resulting from an illicit affair while on the road is utterly risible.
I never got the impression from any Tibetans that this bothered them at all. That they thought there was anything immoral about it. But I think the Chinese have a very different moral viewon this. Not only does it violate the ethnic harmony, but it also seems very immoral behavior and they don't want their great cultural ambassador engaged in this immoral behavior.
And this is part of the disconnect between eastern Tibetans and the Chinese. They think about her with completely different ideas about what is immorality.
I never received any indication of it being a rape or forced. Everything I heard was that Gar Tongsten and Wencheng fell in love. And that it was an authentic, outside of arranged marriage kind of love.
I wrote this article before I had ever heard of George Martin or Game and Thrones. And they do a nice job showing how it was common practice for patriarchal societies to use women as a commodity that would be exchanged in political and economic relationships, without any concern for how this affected the woman in her personal life.
And it's heartbreaking when you think about what that must have been like. To be sent thousands of miles from your home. I mean Tibet is the size of Europe. So she was literally sent across multiple barriers. You go through many different cultural zones, and you end in a zone that is completely different: different geography, and food, and air, and altitude. All to marry a man she didn't know who doesn't speak her language or dress in her style of clothes.
And imagine the intimate relations she had to perform. And it just seems so sad. And it wasn't unique. It was very common for China to practise this.
So the more I heard about Wencheng and started visiting these places and hearing these stories, the more I was moved by the way the eastern Tibetans really celebrated her as a kind of mother figure who passed through their area.
And that really grabbed me personally. And then I started thinking about her not from the point of view from her child, but from her own POV, like what was she actually experiencing. And to me, as a father, being married and having fallen in love, it just seemed as a tragic story.
And it seemed to me that it would be great if we could use our resources as historians to try to do the best we can to put the reader in her POV and get a sense of what it was like to be a woman at that time and be put through all these hardships.
My own history with the Wencheng story goes back to 2008 when I was travelling in Qinghai Province. Remember, this is the Amdo region, and there is a large pass near Lake Qinghai that reputedly commemorates the meeting place of the princess and king of Tibet.
Further south, in Yushu, on the border with Qinghai and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, so now Kham, I visited a Princess Wencheng Temple about 20km south of town. Legend had it that the princess spent a month here on her way to Lhasa and possibly had a stillborn child who was interred in the central statue.
This didn't make any sense to me. It wouldn't have taken 8-9 months to travel from Lake Qinghai to this location, assuming the princess had gotten pregnant immediately at the time she first met the king. Maybe she miscarried early. Too early of course and there simply would not have been a body to inter. No matter what, the timing was off.
The story, I wouldn't say it stuck in my mind, but it was there, somewhere. Six summerslater, as my wife and I stood on a low grassy shelf outside the Bhakha Monastery it came back to me. The head monk had come out to meet us and first had told us how the paradise of Shakyamuni lay just across the waters where the mountain descended with the profile of an elephant. We talked then about the impact a new highway being built would have on the area, and especially the wildlife. And then we were back again in the sacred and he explained the history of the monastery and how it stood over the burial site of Princess Wencheng's child.
It turned out there are many such stories and many further places where stories of Wencheng and her child take place. In all of them, the child is of course Gar Tongtsen's, the minister, not the king's though what happens to the child does vary from place to place. Most versions have the baby either dying very shortly after birth or stillborn. In one region in Yunnan they have a Moses like story where the baby is sent downstream in a basket and and is rescued and survives for a time before dying.
Bhakha was a particularly moving example of this as it results in a lineage of reincarnated masters from the child. And it's the only place that does that.
But there are lot of places that would point to a statue or shrine, and say the remains of the baby were interred here.
You get a sense that there isn't one story but that they tell themselves and the people they care about with the details they that matter to them.
It's kind of like, in European Christianity it's hard to date when a particular idea begin. But let's say that one cathedral has an idea that in their altar, when it was consecrated, a real piece of the crossis here. And they start to tell people you need to go on pilgrimage to our church because we have a real piece of the cross. and people go.
At some point, other cathedral are going to say that we have a piece of the real cross as well. And the popularity of the idea spreads. and the joke now is that if you collected all the pieces of the cross you could build a whole house.
There is no way we can peel back the layers and get an idea of what really happened. But what we can do instead is look at all the complexities and layers and see how they are meaningful to people in different time periods and see what they do with the stories available to them.
Think of it like a local pride. It's not just that people want to make money. It's because it's a way to bring people together and create community and to feel special.
This need to feel special goes a lot farther than you might imagine. Remember the Jowo statue that Princess Wencheng brought to Tibet? It's the most famous statue in the Tibetan world, a statue that is elevated above all others as it reportedly was made during the Buddha's lifetime and is said to be a true likeness.
It sits in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, in the spiritual heart of Tibet.
Or does it? Eastern Tibetans have a different version that goes "Princess Wencheng, when her entourage was carrying her and the statue across China and Tibet, she stopped in my town...
...and she left it here. The one you have in Lhasa is a copy. Sorry.
It's a way of saying we don't have to go all the way to Lhasa to see this special thing. We can just stay in our place. And our place is just as important and sacred and symbolic ofnationhood and Buddhist virtues as the big capital far off in the distance.
In Ba Lhagang, in Sichuan Province, the statue, now lost, even went by the name "The Jowo that said, I will not go to Lhasa."
Which is a pretty specific statement and takes localization to an extreme. But when you travel these kinds of stories are everywhere if you look for them. Variations on a national myth than appeal to local sensibilities, to local pride as Professor Warner said. Everyone has a tie, or the key, to something historic. Everyone has a saying that they think is theirs: red at night sailors delight, even when they live a thousand miles inland from the sea.
As I was writing the script for this show, I asked my friends to tell me stories from their areas that were in this vein. And sure enough there were plenty, from Cleveland claiming it is the birthplace of Rock & Roll, really Cleveland?, to Ethiopia declaring itself the birthplace of coffee, to the very parallel story of the Stone of Destiny.
The stone was traditionally used during the coronation of Scottish kings. In the 13th century Edward I of England invaded Scotland and carried the stone back to Westminster Abbey, where it was used for the next 6 centuries during the coronations of most English sovereigns.
Many Scots, as you can guess, claim that the English absconded with a fake and the true stone still remains in Scotland, with multiple locations posited as the hiding place.
As the Scottish friend who told me the story said, with reference to Wencheng and the Jowo statue, "It's almost identical, apart from saffron robes rather than kilts and claymores. Stories to stir the blood and the imagination. I love it."
And as with the Stone of Destiny, people in Eastern Tibet argue all manner of proof for their localized Wencheng stories. And they can get pretty complex, touching on reincarnation, identity, buried treasures, and a sort of time travel.
But let's start with the easy stuff. What proof is there that the Jowo statue was not brought to Lhasa? Well, remember when Wencheng was taken to Tibet?
From both perspectives, the Chinese and the Tibetan, it should have been a large entourage. There were probably members of the military escorting her. Members of the cavalry.
In particular the Tibetans preserve stories of the men who carried the statue and so in some version the statue is the same larger than life statue and that would have very diffiuclt to transport across such a long distance and steep valleys.
In some versions the statue is oddly very small and it sits in the lap ofone horseman as one line of Tibetan text has it and they preserved the names of these 2 strong guys who were in charge of that, like two wrestler guys.
And that leads to this theory that the eastern Tibetans have that the original Buddhist statue was left in their area and a copy was made in Lhasa. Because how could they have transferred a statue larger than a human in the lap of one man on a horse.
As an outsider, I must say that's not a terribly convincing story. The argument for a love affair is a bit stronger. Tibetan operas have been reenacting that since the 11th century and their source may have been a very famous text.
When you look at the text that is like the Ur text of Tibetan history, the Vase Shaped Pillar Testament. This is a history of the Tibetan empire, and when you read the history it says this history was written down during the life of Songtsen Gampo as being kind of his autobiography, from his POV, and then it was made into 4 scrolls and the scrolls were hidden inside the Jokhang temple in Lhasa with the idea that somebody later would discover it when they needed it.
Find it a lot later. I mean hundreds of years later. The story goes, in the 11th century, a famous Indian pilgrim named Atisha came to Lhasa.
And he meets this crazy woman. I mean she is all disheveled and her hair is a mess, and she is speaking like she is crazy. Something is wrong with her. It's like she is homeless or schizophrenic.
And he realizes that she is trying to get him to go to this temple to find these scrolls. And then he goes into the temple, he goes where she told him to go, and he finds these scrolls.
And he realizes then it wasn't really a crazy woman. It was a particular kind of goddess that takes this form. Called a dikini.
And Princess Wencheng after she had been a Buddhist deity and Chinese princess she had later taken the form of a dikini. And so the story is that she, as a future manifestation of herself, leads Atisha into the temple to find these 4 scrolls that among other things, tell her story of when she was Wencheng and first came to Tibet.
And the scrolls are what are called termas.
Terma, that means it's a treasure text, a recovered text. and recovered means that at one point the text, not necessarily paper, but the words in that order, they existed in a different form in a previous time.
So it could have been written down in a book, or it could have been a song or poem or prayer that someone knew. And then it was understood that people in the future would need this for their religious practices so it needed to be preserved. But it also needs to be hidden and then recovered at the right time period.
And in the Vase Shaped Pillar Testament, a famous terma, a treasure text, an autobiography of King Songtsen Gampo, and a text revealed by Princess Wencheng hundreds of years after she existed in that form, there is one strange line.
It sounds like in Tibetan, she became sick and there was water on the road. And the water on the road kinda sounds like amniotic fluid.
And the odd thing about the line, is there are other manuscripts of that text. And those other manuscripts do not have that line. So it appears that the one version that has this line is special.
This could lead you to believe that these events didn't really happen, or the line was misspelled, that line doesn't belong there, or something. But the more important part is not what the manuscripts said but when I would meet with people in these places and I would say 'Have you read this particular story in Tibetan? And they would say oh did you see this line? And I would say yes. And they would say this line means, this is proof she definitely did have this child.'
So they were able to sort of point to this famous Tibetan text as a way of establishing authenticity to the story and then they would add local details.
Our trip through the east ended earlier than Rawok Lake, our original destination. Chinese authorities closed the lake the day before we were to arrive. We got as far as Pomi, a small one-strip town whose buildings were all being re-facaded in a colorful Tibetan-like style.
The town was a bit of a res t stop for Chinese cyclists coming up Hwy 318 from Sichuan. I chatted with a few and tried to prepare them for the muddy mess they were about to face in the Rongchu Valley.
We had lunch, potato fritters, momos and local unleavened bread served with a tangy chili paste. We watched a bit of the World Cup soccer match on the restaurant's widescreen TV, and then began the drive back.
When we returned to Lhasa we could feel we were returning to the centre of Tibetan culture. But also the centre of Chinese control over that culture.
That afternoon we saw an ad for a new musical about princess Wencheng. It was playing in the square in front of the Potala Palace.
We skipped it. It was clearly a soap opera version of history, and at best it would tell the story from the position of one of the two official narratives. So no child, no love affair.
And we'd grown to really love this third version: a real woman who was very far from home, crossing a strange land and falling in love with it and its people, and leaving such an impression on them they have worshiped her ever since, and more importantly kept her story theirs, for well over a 1000 years.