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Lost Lhasa

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/11/18; November 18, 2001.]

A sumptuous new book captures the essence of Tibetan architecture even as the country's ancient capital succumbs to the wrecking ball

Asiaweek, November 16, 2001.

The golden-roofed Potola Palace can be seen from 50 miles away and remains the heart of Lhasa.

The Chinese word for Tibet is Xizang, meaning "Western Treasure House." But a photograph in The Lhasa Atlas: Traditional Tibetan Architecture and Townscape, provides sad evidence of the architectural catastrophe that has befallen the architectural treasures of Lhasa, ancient capital of Tibet, under Chinese rule. Beneath a blazing blue Tibetan sky sits the Tromsikhang, one of the oldest buildings in Lhasa's main shopping street and location of the longest, finest facade in town. Behind the building is nothing but a rubble pile made up of razed houses, through which former inhabitants search for the last useful items. The Tromsikhang soon met with the same fate. It was demolished in 1997.

In The Lhasa Atlas (Serindia Publications, $58), authors Knud Larsen and Amund Sinding-Larsen set out to create a record of landmark buildings and the townscape of Lhasa. The men, both architects at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, were suited to the task. The book itself is the fruit of a seven-year research project, a joint academic effort between Tibet and Norway.

What started as a conservation effort turned into historical record-keeping. The structures being surveyed kept disappearing before the authors' camera lenses. Beijing has transformed a city of 30,000 inhabitants in 1950 to 382,000 in 1998. China's desire to modernize Lhasa - replacing indigenous buildings, some hundreds of years old, with inappropriate and pedestrian commercial structures - is taking a dramatic toll. At the start of fieldwork in 1995, 330 of Lhasa's old religious and secular buildings were identified. When work ended in 1999, the total had fallen to about 200.

The Lhasa Atlas is a magnificent and learned volume packed with maps, architectural sketches and wonderful photographs from the last century. It is also an indictment of Beijing's heavy hand. "A major and indisputable claim to Lhasa's authenticity may be its role in the religious and cultural life of Buddhist Tibet over more than a thousand years," the authors write. Tibet's special kind of Buddhism, after all, informs every aspect of life. If the Chinese want to destroy tenacious Tibetan nationalism, Buddhism and buildings which embody it must be the primary target. The authors complained to authorities about the rapid destruction of Lhasa, and the Norwegian government even offered to fund conservation studies, but to no avail.

What remains of the ancient city may yet be saved by the need for tourist dollars. Set high over Lhasa is the 1,000-room, golden-roofed Potala, once the residence of the Dalai Lamas and one of the world's architectural masterpieces. Authorities now realize protection of the Potola and other landmarks are key to commerce. To assure that Lhasa's monuments survive financially, the authors write, "turning them over to an aggressive form of tourism management seems to be the only solution, however unappetizing and unrealistic that may seem." Other fine buildings, however, have vanished down the memory hole so quickly that the architects could write only their obituaries.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com


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