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Tibet Online

November 9, 2000

As the light of a crisp, September morning dances on the gilded rooftops outside, I sit in front of the computer. The screen flashes:

“Welcome to HoTMaiL. Please enter your user name and password.”

I diligently do as I am told, propelling myself instantaneously into the cyber world to begin the day’s business. After an hour of responding to business emails and photography requests, I stand to stretch and gaze at the world outside. The small, intricately carved door allows me only the slightest of views, but it is enough to see the pilgrim.

Based upon his dress and stature, I guess he is from Kham. I watch him for a bit, noting his movements. Standing, the pilgrim clasps his hands in the prayer position, gazing at his destination. Next, he moves into a full prostration, lying face down on the ground, fingertips pointing away. He stands, walks three steps, and repeats the process. How many times has he done this in his journey from Kham? Thousands. Maybe more. I pull five Yuan out of my pocket and hand it to him. Bowing and nodding, I turn and head back in to continue my business.

Then it hits me...What a crazy clash of centuries I am amidst. Here I sit, sending bundles of encrypted data that, with the click of a button, will whisk instantly to contacts on the other side of the world...I am selling images of Peru to a buyer in London from a cyber cafe in Tibet! Meanwhile, a man outside engages in a religious tradition that has endured millennia. Distracted and unable to write more, I pay for my time and walk outside into the old town of Lhasa.

The Boiling Point Cyber Cafe sits only a stone’s throw from the holiest of holy sites in Tibet, the Jokhang. Built in the 7th century by Tibetan king Songsten Gampo, it is the focal point of religious and social life in Lhasa. Outside its hallowed walls is the Barkhor, a kora, or sacred circumambulation path. The cobblestone streets of the Barkhor are filled with merchants selling everything from prayer flags and incense to radios and compact disks. Tibetans, old and young, come here to shop and to walk the kora, circumambulating the holy Jokhang, and earning good merit in the process.

I walk with an old woman spinning her prayer wheel absently, each of us smiling and thereby speaking without words. We walk slowly, watching the passersby and thinking our own thoughts. After one kora, I feel the incessant Western itch of time constraints and deadlines, and head back to the Boiling Point to continue my work...always on a schedule! I smile at the woman and get on my way.

* * *
It is now mid-October, and I am back in Kathmandu, Nepal. It is prime festival time in this nation of festivals; the world’s only Hindu monarchy is celebrating Dasain, and a Christmas-like aura pervades the ancient streets. As we drove into the city from Tibet the day before, we could see the day’s activities arriving: goats, chickens, ducks, and buffaloes were herded in from the countryside, unaware of the fate that awaited. Today they will be offered up as blood sacrifice to Shiva’s consort, Kali, the Goddess of Destruction. An ancient tradition, Dasain dates back thousands of years to the Vedic times when Hinduism was but a budding faith in the Indus River Valley. As anything that endures the tests of time, Dasain has found longevity through universality, through incorporating elements of the modern within the ideals of the ancient.

If one wants to see this in action, there is no better time than Dasain, and no better place than within the bounds of Kathmandu. As I walk the dusty streets of Asan Bazaar, preparations are underway all around me. In a small alleyway, a man diligently scrubs the Kathmandu grime off his Maruti taxi, buffing it to a crisp shine. The spare tire, jack, and other miscellaneous car tools are placed in front, and all is bedecked with garlands of marigolds. Soon enough, a ragged goat is led out, a hemp rope tied to its horns. A Brahmin priest arrives, recites Sanskrit prayers, and the ceremony begins. The goat is held in place by two men - one at each end - while a third raises a razor-sharp khukri knife. (A khukri knife resembles a machete. It has a long, curved blade and is the traditional weapon of choice for the Gurkha soldiers, Nepal’s fierce warriors and longtime mercenaries for the British Royal Army.) With a flash, the blade drops - as does the head of the goat - and the body is whisked around the shiny taxi, leaving a ring of blood on the dusty street. With a few more prayers, the ceremony is finished: Kali - and her destructive powers - has been appeased. This same process will happen all over the city today, with the devout seeking Kali’s protection through blood sacrifice for everything from rickshaws to Royal Nepal Airways’ Boeing 737’s.

Does it work? Is Kali indeed appeased? The taxi driver said he has never been in an accident; his friend, who does not perform the sacrifice, crashed his taxi two months ago.

Later in the day, I am sitting at one of the many cyber cafes that have sprung up throughout Kathmandu (this one is in the former lobby of the dirt-cheap Kunal’s Guest House, my thrifty home-away-from-home on many trips to the Kingdom), recounting the day’s activities to friends and family. Again, I am moved to contemplate the cultural implications of the budding cyber-revolution. As the cyber realm reaches further and further into the world’s proverbial backwoods, we are seeing many changes that were only in the realms of science fiction a few years ago. Today, I can sit in Shigatse, Tibet, Kathmandu, Nepal, or Colorado Springs, Colorado, and blast my news around the world instantly. What will this mean for places like the Barkhor, and for traditions like Dasain?

Only time will tell. The romantic predicts death to culture through the Internet. It is the mass marketing of Western society, and all of our evils will, through the medium of the Internet, which pervades even the farthest reaches of the world. Perhaps. We could very well be seeing the dawn of a global leveling of culture. But this communications revolution could also lead to a sharing of ideas and ideals like none we have seen.

Indeed, the Internet and all its tools can - and does - mass market Western society to the world, and there are many eager buyers. But it is a two-way street. Equally available on the web are the sights, sounds, and first-hand accounts of the world. Tibetans and Nepalis can now share their world, their cultures, their beliefs - and access those who see value in these worlds, cultures, and beliefs - more easily than ever before. And they can easily find websites that show the reality of the West: it has plenty of positive elements, but also has its substantial drawbacks. Not all the streets are lined with gold, not all is bountiful for everyone. Through the medium of the internet we can hope that a more accurate picture of the world will be made available, a picture that shows the pluses and minuses of individual societies and cultures rather than simply portraying the good and conveniently omitting the distasteful in the romantic idealist fashion.

And who knows? Maybe we have something to gain through a bit of cultural fusion provided by the tech industry. In fact, I just may gather up my marigolds and conduct a little blood sacrifice to my bug-filled laptop...

-Jake Norton
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