I’m aware that I run the risk of becoming a Tibet bore, but I can’t help it. The place and the people made such a huge impression on me that I think about it a lot, and any programme on radio or television which mentions Tibet is going to get my attention.
Last Sunday there was a fascinating programme of archival film from the 1920s to the 1950s. What staggered me most was that in front of the Potala palace there was a birch wood and open ground. It isn’t like that now. There’s a huge stone-paved square and an attractive park, and then the houses start. They are square concrete blocks, laid out on the gridlines of a modern Chinese city. Only round the Jokhang Temple in the Barkhor quarter can you see the old Tibetan houses.
The film described the feudal system of government in Tibet, where 20 or so families ran the country. That’s gone too, and I can’t regret its passing. Theocracy’s gone, replaced by the Communist version of democracy within the Tibet Autonomous Region. In a country whose culture was totally based on religion, that has led to a complete mismatch between social and political systems. There’s very little they can agree on, so there’s a lot they can disagree on. So it goes.
I enjoyed seeing the Dalai Lama watching film of himself as a child. His obvious enjoyment and pleasure in life makes him the most humane of all the world’s spiritual leaders.
Then last night BBC4 showed the first of its series on modern Tibet. Set in the rural part of southern Tibet (Jiangci, or Gyangze), the scenery of the Himalayan foothills was awesome, and the people charming. It featured a visit from the present Panchen Lama, then aged 17, to the major monastery in this part of Tibet. He was imposed on Tibet, and brought up in Beijing, but it was clear that the people have accepted him. I’m looking forward to the other programmes in the series, but I’ll miss the next – I’ll be introducing John Burnside and Penelope Shuttle at the big evening reading.