Divine importance: a pilgrimage to Tibet's remote cave temples

Tom Rhys takes to the Tibetan skies to visit some of the country’s most remote temples.

The white yak and the mountain goat aren’t going anywhere. Suspended from the temple roof so that their hooves are dangling some five feet off the floor, they’re hanging next to each other in near-darkness, horns heavy, eyes glassy and legs limp.

“They died naturally last week”, my young Tibetan guide Yonten whispers to me. “The monks found them in the hills and put them here as a kind of offering.”

I find myself wondering how monks would go about moving a dead yak. There’s no obvious answer. But up here in the dry, sharp mountains an hour north of Lhasa, imponderables are everywhere.

We’ve driven out to the remote hillside sanctuaries of Drak Yerpa hermitage, where the slopes are festooned with thick fields of sun-bleached prayer flags, and a steady trickle of pilgrims files ant-like from temple to temple. The altitude – we’re now at around 4400 metres – is already making my head throb.

Mountains wrap around the entire skyline, the most distant of them capped with snow

Drak Yerpa draws few international visitors but has an extraordinary history. As a place of divine importance for more than 1300 years, its cliffs and caves are home to some of the oldest spiritual sites in Tibet.

Songtsen Gampo, the ruler widely held to have brought Buddhism to Tibet, meditated here, as did every Dalai Lama up to and including the current 14th incarnation. Gazing down at the valley floor, you see tilled fields and a smattering of rural houses. Looking up, mountains wrap around the entire skyline, the most distant of them capped with snow.

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The nearer hills, meanwhile, are believed to represent the reclining body of Tara, a fabled bodhisattva, or enlightened being. Yonten points out where the land forms her knees, thighs and shoulders. She lies still, her form enclosing Drak Yerpa’s dozens of cave temples. Until the 1950s, some 300 monks lived here full-time.

Then came the Cultural Revolution, and the arrival in Tibet of Mao’s Red Guards. We walk past a number of buildings that were once ornate, I’m told. They now sit ransacked – grey, rubbled and weed-choked. It’s perhaps a wonder that Tara remained passive.

Thankfully, many temples were either left or overlooked by the Red Army. A set of stone steps still leads up and across the hills, connecting all the key chapels and grottos and giving pilgrims a natural route to follow.

By Tom Rhys

The high-altitude sun is strong but the day is still cold, and I find myself short of breath whenever we ascend more than ten metres at a time. Elderly Tibetans in heavy coats, striped dresses and long braids climb past me with ease.

The caves themselves – around which the small abutting temples are built – are largely similar to each other in feel and appearance. Some are cramped, others a little more spacious, but none have space for more than a handful of devotees at any one time. Their interiors are filled with smouldering yak-butter candles, votive offerings which also blacken the caves’ rough-rock ceilings.

Their altars, meanwhile, are stacked with statues and images of Buddhist manifestations and past lamas and yogis, alongside piled fruits and countless folded banknotes. In one cave, Yonten points out a bulbous crag of rock that believers see as a sacred manifestation of the Buddha.

By Tom Rhys

In another temple we meet a monk, one of only a handful remaining at Drak Yerpa. He is no more than five feet tall, and well bundled up in thick maroon robes. He says he has lived on the site for 30 years.

“And I expect to be here all my life”, he tells us, seemingly at peace with his lot. From the temple window we can see a line of local women waiting to sell prayer flags, mantra-covered cloths to be added to the tens of thousands already strung among these mountains. With each flutter of the wind, it’s said, the words on the flags are carried out to the great beyond.

For all the enigma of Tibetan Buddhism, the religion still very much seems to be the main binding force among the people.

In nearby Lhasa, where thousands throng Jokhang Temple day-in day-out, the sense of religious devotion is almost magically intense. Here at Drak Yerpa, meanwhile, the lack of crowds means it seems less extreme but in many ways just as pronounced.

Groups of pilgrims are circumambulating a stupa, spinning rows of prayer wheels. Others are stuffing leaves and herb bushels into smoke-bellowing incense kilns. One family stops Yonten to ask where I’m from. They are sharing lunch on the slopes, and insist on my taking a sealed packet of spicy chicken claws as a gift.

For all the enigma of Tibetan Buddhism, with its cryptic rites and its unknowable pantheon of different gods, the religion still very much seems to be the main binding force among the Tibetan people. And in Drak Yerpa, as elsewhere, it’s something to savour.

The author was travelling with Audley Travel. Explore more of Tibet with the Rough Guides Snapshot TibetCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.

Top image © Vladimir Zhoga/Shutterstock

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