Legends of magic and mystery lie within the fortified walls of Sakya Monastery, off the Friendship Highway in southern Tibet. From flying scriptures that sense world events, to speaking statues and paintings that bestow khatak (silk ceremonial scarves) on pious pilgrims, to pillars that were transported from India on the backs of tigers and yaks, there have been mystical forces at work in Sakya since its foundation in 1073.
The air was heavy with incense and prayers, an atmosphere that helped ease the doubt from my group’s sceptical minds through our visit. It was hard not to trust the monk-guide as he explained the strange phenomena with such earnest passion. Belief in magic is common in Tibet, but even so there are few places that can rival Sakya for sheer number of magic events reported there. If you’re going to become a believer, this is the place.
Visitors can’t help but feel the difference in Sakya, compared to other monasteries in central Tibet. When the other large centres such as Drepung, Sera, Ganden, Tashilhunpo, and the Jokhang were being ransacked, bombed or turned into stables during the cultural revolution of the 1960s, Sakya Monastery’s main halls managed to escape intact. When others were torn down and rebuilt, Sakya remained original and authentic.
I felt minuscule as our small tour group passed through the monastery’s main gates. The fortified walls are so thick that they seem like a whole building rather than just a wall. As Sakya was the centre of power in Tibet during the 13th and 14th centuries, the monastery was designed for strength, a quality that no doubt aided its survival through history.
We crossed the bright inner courtyard to step into the main assembly hall, and leave our normal world behind. It was dimly lit by small dirty windows and butter lamps, which also supply an overpoweringly rich smell that hung like curtains across the front of each altar. The butter lamps are kept burning day and night, topped up by visiting pilgrims who pour butter out of plastic thermos flasks, or spoon it out of plastic bags.
I paused to watch the dance of incense smoke rise through the butter lamps, when a long proud tone brought all activity in the hall to a standstill. A monk, seated on the tertiary throne in the centre of the hall, blew firmly into a sacred white conch shell—a gift from Kublai Khan to the monastery in the 13th century—while a local woman wept in front of him. Whether we visitors believe in them or not, these relics stir powerful emotions in the faithful.
Even the foundations of the monastery are steeped in power and magic. The main assembly hall in which we stood is held up by 40 pillars made from whole tree trunks, four of these are integral to the early legends of the place. Our guide seemed to start with the most believable story, before testing us to stretch our imaginations and open our minds to the stories of the latter.
We’re told that the largest pillar, over two metres in diameter, was carried from China after being gifted to the monastery by Kublai Khan. We’re impressed, and easily believe this. The second pillar, we’re told, was carried from India on the back of a giant tiger. Legends say that the tiger had once been the protector of the tree, fiercely defending it against anyone who tried to cut it down, until a skilled tantric practitioner intervened. They convinced the tiger to not only allow them to cut the tree down, but also to carry it to the site of the new monastery, where it dissolved into the tree once its mission was served.
The third pillar was carried in a similar fashion by a yak, who began to cry when crossing the final pass to reach the monastery. Where his tears fell, a sacred spring appeared that reputedly cleanses the karma of a lifetime for any who drink from it. Our group were breathing scepticism, with raised eyebrows and twisted smirks as the stories mounted.
Finally, the story of the fourth pillar: the tree was once home to a naga (water spirit) who became angry when it was cut down. The tree oozed black blood for days until ceremonies could be performed to appease the spirit. To this day it’s believed that cutting into the pillar will bring forth sticky black blood, which can cure any illness. For this reason, there’s now a plastic protective layer around the lower section of the pillar, to protect it against curious pilgrims.
Murmurs around us revealed that we were no longer the only ones listening to these stories—a swelling assemblage of local pilgrims had been captured by the opportunity to hear the legends from a monk of the monastery. They tailed us as we made our way around the hall, from statue to stupa to painting and relic. With the pilgrims joining us, the balance within our group shifted, as more people were listening with receptive minds to our guide’s magical stories.
He led us to the rear corner, where there are two images of the Buddha: one painted on the wall and one statue cast in gold. One is known as the Buddha that spoke, one as the Buddha that blessed with khatak scarves. I stared up at the second one, the painted Buddha, and imagined what it must have looked like as it reached out to receive a white silk scarf from a pilgrim and then return it across his shoulders, sanctified.
Meanwhile to our right, the Buddha that spoke was damaged, lopsided across the shoulders, and was been left that way intentionally. Hundreds of years ago, while workers were constructing the ceiling above it, a beam fell and knocked the statue on its shoulder, leaving a visible dent and breaking its perfectly-proportioned symmetry. When struck, the statue cried out in pain: “Ah Rah!” The monks and workmen present knew they’d just witnessed a miracle, and refused to fix the statue, believing it to be inhabited by the Buddha’s spirit.
Our pilgrim friends were greatly impressed, and heaped spoonfuls of butter into the lamps in front of these two Buddhas.
Leaving our local tow behind, we retreated deeper into the monastery to a room that felt like midnight, lit only by simmering butter lamps. There were no windows back here, and thick curtains to keep the warmth in blocked the sparse light that tried to reach through the door.
This was the library, the treasured legacy of the Sakya sect’s dominance in Tibet over several centuries. Across hundreds of shelves the length of a football field and the height of a two-story building, hundreds of thousands of volumes are stored. Some are famous for being the only surviving copy of a text, some for being the oldest remaining version, one for being the largest handwritten sutra in Tibet, written in gold ink on a scroll made of leather.
The magic here isn’t in the magnitude of the library, but in what happens when no-one is watching. If all those films we see about museum artefacts that come alive and move in the night were real, it’d happen here. According to our monk guide, the manuscripts shuffle themselves about to reflect the state of the world. When the world is in a state of peace, the scriptures appear straight and orderly, but as bad events occur, the volumes slip or shake themselves out of their shelves.
Along the main wall of the library some scriptures stick as far as 20 centimetres from the shelf, looking like they might topple out completely if the ground shook. We’re told two of those date back to World War II, and despite efforts by the monks to re-position them, they always return to these positions.
As we walked down the library, the monk pointed out more scriptures to illustrate his point: “When the Red Army entered Tibet… Chairman Mao’s death… the bombing of Hiroshima…” The monks have long since given up trying to push them back or reorder the shelves, and now take to hanging white scarves from the protruding volumes, as a mark of respect for whatever forces propel them to move.
I looked around our group, now hushed and earnestly admiring the ancient library. Their objections seemed to have finally dissipated, allowing them to believe even just a little that these stories might be true.
At Sakya you can get lost in time if you leave your sceptical mind at the door. For a real slice of Tibetan history, enter with an open mind and see where the magic takes you.
Article by Becky Carruthers