House of the Turquoise Roof
By Dorje Yudon Yuthok, edited by Michael Harlin.
Snow Lion Publications, Inc.: Ithaca, 1990,
330 pp., paper, $14.95.

book2This autobiography of a Tibetan noblewoman describes, in exhaustive detail, life in her homeland before the Chinese invasion, and the subsequent turbulence that led to flight and exile for so many thousands of her countrymen and women. The book chronicles the ancient genealogical lines of noble families and the Dalai Lamas, and the subtle complexities of family and social structure in a land where both polygamy and polyandry were legal. It is also an earthy portrait of the practical daily routines of domestic, commercial, and political-religious life at the heart of their existence.

The structure of the book is often eccentric: a narrative on childbirth religious ceremonies and the author’s own personal history is followed by a dense and fascinating chapter on Tibetan jewelry and the ways it was worn by various classes of women. At moments the effect is stupefying to an outsider-in its dogged attention to detail it is rather like rummaging through an old steamer trunk in an elderly relative’s attic: here, a random drawer full of gorgeous old brooches and gloves and fans; and here, a compartment full of faded letters, which curiosity tempts us to read, but discretion bids otherwise.

But the reader persists through the genealogical, historical, and householder’s inventories — particularly if we know anything of the tragedy which has befallen this culture — simply because, in its final effect, it conjures the soul of a people. And this is all the more poignant coming after three decades of systematic and deliberate destruction of Tibetan land, culture, and people by the Chinese.

And yet neither Dorje Yudon Yuthok, who has become a significant benefactress to her people in exile, nor His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, would call the Chinese “the enemy”; nor would they extend that epithet to the rest of us for our historical lack of support, even as Tibetans continue to sustain and survive unimaginable loss within their country and in exile.

Dorje Yudon was born in 1912 on one of her family’s many estates called Drak (Boulder), fifty “rough and twisting miles” over a mountain pass, southeast of Lhasa. Her mother had expected to bear her in the comfort of their main residence in Lhasa, but had been forced to flee with some of her family because of political disturbances between the Manchu dynasty and Tibet that finally erupted into violence in the Tibetan capital. In a somber foreshadowing of future events, her brother, who had raised a volunteer regiment of twelve hundred Tibetan soldiers, died in battle, and their great family house was seized for occupation by Chinese troops. The Surkhang house was eventually blown up by Tibetan resistance fighters and many Chinese killed; but her father survived to welcome his daughter home, and to rebuild their mansion in Lhasa when peace returned.

The story of her childhood and maturation offers an insider’s view of the highest social and government circles (both her father and husband were cabinet ministers); but her reflections on her life as a woman is even more compelling, and offers the real contribution here. As she notes, Westerners writing about political events and religious systems seldom dealt with the life and customs of the Tibetan women, and even in their own literature, little can be found about the values and experiences shared by Tibetan women.

Thus, her accounts of how her parents’ extensive households were run, how provisions were transported from various estates into their central family home in Lhasa to support a vast family and extended family, including several resident monks and holy men, offer a portrait not only of the women and their activities, but of the underlying traditions, and the deep social and spiritual values embodied there.

Simply describing preparations for the festive celebration of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, evokes the mood of Lhasa, as houses were whitewashed, special prayer flags hoisted from all the roofs, ornate offerings made, and religious ceremonies observed.

The traditional sweet fried dough called khabsey, a New Year’s speciality throughout Tibet assumed majestic proportions in the house of Surkhang: “Seven cooks … prepared six to seven hundred pounds of wheat flour, two hundred pounds of butter, smaller amounts of sugar, and, vats of oil for deep frying … ,” with the delicious dough twisted into a variety of ornamental shapes, and stacked ceiling-high in storerooms. The khabsey was not only consumed among family and close friends; it was also arranged as a ceremonial offering on altars, next to the statues of deities; and it was piled on platters along with sides of mutton and other holiday delicacies, and carried by servants to the houses of the Moslem, Chinese, and Nepali merchants the family knew in Lhasa. On the respective New Years of these foreign neighbors, they would reciprocate, with offerings of their own festive specialties; thus were friendly relations between all parties strengthened.

But it is in Mrs. Yuthok’s detailed description of her family’s religious life that we find the most poignant sense of loss, culturally and materially. Every room of a Tibetan house had its altar in a central location, with religious statues, or paintings (thangkas), with butter lamps, water bowls, and incense. “There was even an altar in the kitchen,” she recalls, “This was the case whether a family was rich or poor.”

And in each Tibetan house, the largest and most important room was the chapel, or tsomchin, used for special occasions such as weddings, Losar celebrations, and religious activities. A simple catalogue of the Surkhang chapel speaks of an irretrievable cultural treasure: a room almost fifty feet square, with great wooden pillars supporting the ceiling, and a whole wall of glass windows. “All of the rafters, door frames, pillars, and altars were painted with floral designs on a red background. The ceilings, a lapis blue or green with beams of yellow or red, were elaborately decorated with intricate designs. On all the walls hung religious paintings, thangkas, framed in brocades. The altar at one end consisted of cabinets housing five life-sized gilded-bronze statues of the deities, dressed in brocade robes and wearing full sets of our best family jewelry; their hollow interiors contained holy relics. One hundred volumes of the Kangyur or Buddhist sutras, wrapped in yellow silk were stored in the altar, along with silver and gold butter lamps, and vases of antique Chinese porcelain.”

The family sat in seats with brocade backs, and thick cushions stuffed with rare, soft deer hair, during the ceremonies. One senses the sadness of their loss when the author speaks of that chapel. Her family had been able to remove many of their valuables to India when the severity of the Chinese invasion became clear in the late 1950s. But even during their final escape, slipping out of Lhasa secretly, on foot in humble clothes, their best jewelry concealed in pouches around their waists-the thought of taking with them the priceless images, thangkas and statues, did not even enter their minds. “They were so sacred I did not dare even to touch them. I could only pray for their safety with deep sorrow in my heart.” She speaks in particular of a “very ancient statue of the goddess Tara, exquisitely fashioned of copper, bronze, and gold,” to whom she always used to pray. She would never know what happened to it, and the rest of her family’s religious treasures.

Mrs. Yuthok’s life, and her Tibet are radiantly accessible in the profuse, sometimes bewildering, and often kaleidoscopic detail of this story and at the same time intensely private. Her loss is both borne with selfless dignity and is too deep to be imagined.

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