This story is about a Princess, but it is not going to be the story that one usually tells “about a princess”. Especially this Princess. I am talking about Wencheng Gonzu, the mythical bride of Songtsen Gampo, the king that unified Tibet, introduced Buddhism and did many other things that made Tibet be what it is today in our perception.
Actually Songtsen Gampo was also married to a Nepalese Princess and also to a Tibetan one. So if one follows the pattern of stories, where a princess meets a king, then one could think that this story is about three princesses, not only one. And yet it is not.
It would certainly be a more riotous and livelier story, true, but those other two princesses are almost disappearing in the national folklore to the advantage of Princess Wencheng. There is even a musical about her.
Princess Wencheng was from China and her hand was given to Songtsen Gampo to secure the peace between Tibet and China: at the time, Tibet was a huge empire and was bullying China (and not the other way around). In a twist of fate, it comes particularly handy to the Chinese narrative that this Princess went to Tibet, since in their eyes she legitimized the claim China has today over Tibet (yes, it seems a bit like if Italy would want claim France because at some point Caterina de Medici married some French monarch). Princess Wencheng comes out of the Chinese storytelling a bit like the heroin that is betrothed to a barbaric kingdom, to which she brings progress and enlightenment. Without commenting the righteousness of depicting Tibetans as barbarians (the country had already produced one of the longest epic in the world, but this may not count in the eyes of many), Princess Wencheng is truly beloved and venerated by the Tibetans themselves, since she firmed the presence of Buddhism in Tibet in many ways, for example she brought one of the most sacred icons (the JokyoSakyamuni) and she was fundamental in letting the Jokhang, the living heart of Lhasa Buddhism, be built. The Jokhang, to this day vibrant with pilgrims of all ages, with monks, with smells and deep sounds, could not be achieved by the Songtsen Gampo alone, despite many efforts, until Princess Wencheng divined the right place to go, a lake, and until she figured out how to drain it. This gave to the temple stable foundations and it is of course a metaphor for having Buddhism well established in Tibet over the past animist religions or the “malevolent spirits opposing the coming of Buddhism”.
From more practical points of view, it makes sense to think looking at the Newari sculptures in the Jokhang that remind vaguely of Ajanta, that probably the technique, inspiration and artisans were brought in by the Nepalese Princess.Yet, not all characters are popular in the same ways.
Princess Wencheng is so important and dear now in the heart of Tibetans that she is also believed to be an emanation of Tara, the Boddhisattva of compassion.
However this is not yet the story I wanted to tell.
To tell this story, we have to leave the Yarlung Tsampo valley, where Lhasa lies among peaks and moon landscapes of dunes, stones and sturdy houses unshakable by the winds. We have to follow the river to the East, where one of the river tributaries makes its way back to its source through deep canyons of dark green slopes, through rapids and whirls. The road is a painful mud tongue that hides holes and puddles, and rises up vertiginously and crazily close to the edge until it goes down again to cross the occasional bridge. There are plans by the government to change it into a tarmac road and of course we have to share the little strip of mud with the trucks going up and down for the road. Here and there we cross suspended bridges that connect trails across mountains shaking over rapids: many trails are very old in origin and date back to the tea-horse trade, however foreigners are not allowed anymore to trek in this area. The mountains, always majestic and ego-dwarfening are covered in lush and very old forests, they are a very different sight than the rest of Tibet.
After a large modern bridge, which, as our guide informs us, has just collapsed over past year, we get onto a better road while progressively the rivers smoothens out. Our journey is complete when we reach an idyllic island in the middle of the river framed by beautiful mountains. Yellow fields and thistles surround the thatched roof houses, so typical of this region against the magnificent backdrops of the gentle peaks. We can hardly believe our eyes, that such a place can be at the end of that road, such calmness and beauty after those bumps. We can hardly believe indeed that such beauty can come so close at hand in this world. We have almost to adjust to it.
Few hours after, we get to know the story of the place: this is where Princess Wencheng buried her illegitimate son and a small monastery has been built over the place. Now, one could make a gulp, say -what a twist of story for the official narrative- but one rather stays silent in awe: in this place, in the smallness of this island, and in this intimacy with nature, Princess Wencheng is not anymore a solemn benevolent religious figure or an instrumental political metaphor but becomes again a human being prone to the whims of luck, maybe exposed to violence during her journey or maybe falling in love and on the edge to change her fate, or maybe a pious compassionate being all along. We cannot tell and certainly it is not up to us to do so. Of course, the lore of the illegitimate son is not shared by all Tibet (other regions would say that Princess Wencheng did not even cross that area on her way to Lhasa), but it is particularly dear to the Eastern Tibet people that recognize in it a symbol of their own distinct ascendency, right from one of the most important figures of Buddhism and kingship in Tibet. The claim of this important ancestor is all the more important because the East has always claimed independency and autonomy from Lhasa, and reciprocally central Tibet has always considered this area a place of thieves, rebels and extremely dangerous people. So big must have been the mistrust from the Central government, that the legend about the Kongpo poisoners (Kongpo is a county in the East ) has not yet died out: according to this, some Eastern witches or wizards may poison and kill people with as objective of recovering the dead person’s merit (indeed ,quite a stretch from the concept of accumulating merit in Buddhism).
So this story about the Princess may be again a way to reinterpret the past in an Eastern perspective , at the end Orwell said “who owns the past owns the future”.
Yet maybe it is just another lesson how somebody can be several things to oneself and to others, like a Princess that can be a token of peace, or a generous lover, or the mother of a whole people, (or maybe to the shortsighted and dumb observer, she would look the first Chinese developer that drained a lake to build over some stuff and doing so changed the microclimate and condemned the valley to being a desert, while the malevolent spirits opposing Buddhism may actually have been the first environmentalist protesters…well that of course could never be remotely true).
After our morning visit to the monastery over which the son is buried and whose lama is an emanation of the son and Wencheng herself, we stop with a monk looking into the expanse of the river, almost as calm as a lake. One yellow and one red minivets look warily at us from a side branch, these two are a colored couple and always travel together.
The air is mixed with the burning logs and morning dew. It is still a bit chilly and we look over to the lake in front and to the side at the pristine forest, forbidden to us and apparently teeming with wildlife. The monk says he is worried: when the new road is finished, more chinese tourists will come and start to chase the wildlife away. He then looks over the river expanse and points at a hill slowly descending to the water; he says that is the abode (Paradise) of Sakyamuni, you can tell because the hill has the shape of the trunk of an elephant, bending over to drink (the white elephant is one of Buddha’s symbols). Paradise and earth are in the same physical place according to Mahayana Buddhism, it is just about recognizing the signs, about learning to look. In Tibet, shamanism and traditional closeness to nature has let Mahayana Buddhism to settle roots very stably: every corner of this world can be magic if you can look with the right eyes, every leaf reflecting sunlight, every crease on the water and in this fabled little island it all feels very real to us.