Suburbia around the Buddha

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A newly erected shrine in Nangchen and the transformation of a Buddhist part of China seen to be beyond the Dalai Lama’s influence

NANGCHEN, CHINA ~ Standing below a towering statue of Buddha, Nawang Chirum tries to balance his feet on the construction gravel still lying around the newly-built spiritual centre in Nangchen, located at an altitude of about 3,660 m above sea level near Tibet in the Qinghai province of southwest China. With the sun streaming in through the clouds just before noon, warming the otherwise nippy air, Chirum, a stout 32-year-old teacher, squints his eyes a little. He marvels at the crowd around him, almost everyone jostling for space and the right spot. Like him, they have all arrived at the complex this morning from villages around.

They have come to see their spiritual leader, Gyalwang Drukpa, who is due to inaugurate the centre around a 2,000 year-old Buddhist stupa believed to have been built by the Indian Emperor Ashoka. As the spiritual head of an 800-year-old Tibetan Buddhist order by the same name, Drukpa has a vast following in the region. Equally revered is the golden Buddha statue. A gift from Drukpa,  it is 35 feet high and stands in the heart of Nangchen town.

“It could easily be 50,000 people,” says Chirum, surveying the crowd. He is dressed in a thick white coat and boots—traditional Tibetan attire, perfect for the cold and wet July weather. An embroidered brown belt made of yak hide holds his coat together around his bulging belly. Though he says he is just 32, crisscrossing fine lines around his mouth and eyes on skin parched by the dry air and harsh sun of altitudes make him look older.

“The Buddha statue is supposed to bring prosperity to Nangchen. No one ever comes here, but His Holiness [Gyalwang Drukpa] has visited us often in the past two years,” says Chirum, who teaches Tibetan children Mandarin at a school set up by the Chinese government in Nangchen about two years ago. He went to college in Shanghai. “Some of our children are headed for bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai to study. The world is very different out there, and this [complex] will bring us tourists and recognition,” he says, looking at the green pastures around the complex dotted by grazing yaks and the traditional white tents of nomads.

Nangchen is remote and underdeveloped. But it is lush and green, in contrast with the dry and arid parts of western Tibet that border Ladakh in India. Located just beyond Tibet’s eastern border, Nangchen has traditionally not been under the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa order in Lhasa. This has allowed older Tibetan orders like the Drukpa to flourish in the area too, making less space for the mix of religion and politics that fuels Tibetan separatism further west. 

While stories of ‘flying yogis’ hunting for treasure across the formidable Himalayas are common in local folklore, Nangchen is also called ‘Gomde’ or ‘the abode of meditators’. Historically, Nangchen was once an important centre for trade and cultural exchange, possibly prompting Ashoka to build one of his 84,000 Buddhist stupas here. Two millennia later, locals hope to revive some of Nangchen’s lost glory.

In the presence of monks and spiritual leaders who have descended upon Nangchen from across the world, Gyalwang Drukpa performs a set of ancient Buddhist rites to the sound of the traditional sutra bugle that can be heard across the prayer area of the complex. Felix Lim ah Yeong, a Singapore businessman who funded the statue with a $6 million donation, watches the religious ceremony sitting on a wooden stool. “My wife was keen on carrying this project out,” says the 63-year-old Yeong. “My wife and I met His Holiness ten years ago in Bali. He said that he wanted to restore this stupa in Nangchen, she said ‘Okay’, and we started it.” His wife is the daughter of Aw Boon Haw, famous for a popular formulation of Tiger balm.

Yeong adds, “We hired a Bhutanese artist to study the sutras and reconstruct the face of Buddha. The statue is made of the same alloy as used for spaceships... This will last us a thousand years.” He speaks excitedly, without pausing for breath.

According to Yeong, the statue has brought him and his ailing wife peace. But rumours suggest that the shrine will also act as a catalyst for big business deals between Singaporean tycoons and the Chinese government. BK Modi, an Indian businessman now based in Singapore, has no qualms spelling out the intentions of businessmen like Yeong and himself. “We are here to do business with the Chinese government,” he says candidly, “We work with the Drukpa Order, which works in areas that do not follow the Dalai Lama—this gives us access.” Adds Yeong tactfully, “The Chinese government does not encourage or discourage [anything] if it’s religion. Buddhism is about 2,500 years old in this country and is part of this region’s culture.”

Just two days earlier, the Chinese authorities cancelled the visas of several monks who were planning to attend the ceremony after reports of two monks of the Dalai Lama Order setting themselves on fire in the Yushu region. This betrayed Beijing’s nervousness about the influence of Tibet’s main order in a region whose loyalty it considers crucial. “To avoid trouble, [the government] wanted no [disloyal] monks around,” says Lynne Chiang, an ardent follower of the Drukpa Order from Malaysia and a volunteer with the Drukpa trust.

To Beijing, the Buddhist areas in and around Eastern Tibet have been more pliable compared to the rest of Tibet, where freedom from China remains a movement that the authorities have been trying to contain. After Yushu town—also in Qinghai province—was devastated by an earthquake in 2010, the Chinese government has been frantically linking Yushu and Nangchen with tarred roads as part of the relief effort. It’s not just roads. For a region with only about 80,000 residents, the all-round development is remarkable. Drive down National Highway 214 connecting the two towns, and you see new schools, hospitals, hotels and even free residences for nomads who have lived in tents for generations. Land prices have begun to soar in the area, thanks to recent infrastructure projects and the tourist complex being built by the Drukpa trust with Beijing’s permission. “Clearly, the government has plans,” Lynne Chiang says.

Observers see a systematic effort to co-opt the people of the region. Newly established schools are switching to Mandarin, for example, raising fears of a slow death of local languages and a future of Mandarin domination. Coastal China’s economic boom is also beginning to make an impact, though in odd ways. There has been a sudden rise in the number of Tibetan dog breeders. Highway 214 is lined with their banners and hoardings. “We have a new band of millionaires in China due to the economic boom and flow of wealth,” explains Chiang, who is of Chinese descent, “Tibetan dogs are a fad, just as Hermes bags and Porsches are, and have become must-haves for these new millionaires.” The highway advertisements suggest that a Tibetan dog can fetch as much as two million yuan ($300,000).

The way the area’s women dress is slowly being transformed as well. Shedding their traditional robes and jewellery, they have started opting for Western work outfits. Pants and shirts are becoming common among women, while evening dresses appear to hold aspirational value. A boutique of Western apparel next to a tea stall about 500 metres away from the tourist site displays magazine cutouts of Hollywood actresses and other Caucasian models. “Not many women buy clothes from there, but it is quite an attraction,” says Chirum, adding his appreciation of the traditional robes that the women in the crowd are wearing. “We all dress our best and display our best to His Highness,” he says, “He should be proud of us, which is why the women wear the best of their jewellery and the men wear their traditional coats and bring their cars.”

At one point, Chirum gasps. He has sighted Gyalwang Drukpa. As he darts out of the crowd to shake hands with his spiritual leader, who is about to sit in his white Land Cruiser, an amused Chiang shakes her head in amazement. “This is the power of faith,” she remarks, “The last time, His Holiness was left without a shirt because every single follower wanted a shred of it. He is a film star.”

Gyalwang Drukpa’s hand brushes past Chirum’s arm, a gesture he takes as a personal blessing. But it’s not just him who is feeling elated after the leader’s visit. The rest of the crowd seems no less awe-struck. “Come back after two years,” says the Mandarin teacher, with the confidence of one who understands such things, “Nangchen is blessed now, it will be different.”