Death in the Palace
Slate-colored clouds scowled over Lhasa, Tibet's mysterious Forbidden City. A north-easterly wind whipped across the city and through the cobblestone streets making prayer flags flutter on the housetops and bells tinkle on the golden temple roofs. Intermittently the gods of the air hurled down fistfuls of hailstones, peppering the Potala -the thousand-room stone palace of the Dalai Lama-and the lesser buildings below it. The sun had made a few attempts to break through the overcast that day, then had wrapped itself in the blanket of clouds to keep out the chill wind.
On this blustery day, the last of the Tibetan year of the Wood Hare (1855), the Tibetans had completed plans to welcome the year of the Fire Dragon starting the next morning. Pilgrims from far-off icy plateaus and sheltered valleys in the Himalayas mingled with citizens of Lhasa in the crowded streets. Thousands of red-robed priests, spinning prayer wheels as they walked, joined with pilgrims from the provinces of Kham and Amdo to the east, and from Mongolia, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan.
Resplendent images, freshly gilded for the ceremonies now beginning, glistened in the light of myriad butter lamps on the altars. Yak-butter images larger than a man, stained with bright colors for their single day of glory, stared unseeing from their temporary thrones. Incense rose in clouds from the temples, its pleasant aroma mingling with the acrid smell of burning butter, the odors of open drains, and the scent of people never known to bathe or wash their clothes.
A pilgrim from eastern Tibet, his leathery brown face framed by shaggy black hair under a fur hat, trudged wearily along the cobblestone pavement. He clutched tightly at his sheepskin coat as a malevolent gust of wind seemed determined to tear it from him. Suddenly he shuddered, but not from the raw weather. Rather, the cold hand of a nameless dread tore at his heart and made him shiver uncontrollably.
A few moments before, he had passed through the gateway under the giant chorten, the Buddhist shrine that guarded the entrance to the city. In a state of ecstasy at having arrived at this most sacred of all places, he had stopped an aged lama to enquire where the Presence would bestow his blessing.
The lama, busy spinning his prayer wheel and chanting, looked annoyed at the interruption. "The Dalai Lama is dead," he snapped, and resumed his chanting.
The pilgrim staggered as if struck by a blow.
"Dead? Dead, did you say?" The pilgrim peered anxiously at the old monk, who seemed to be back in a state of trance. "You mean the Dalai Lama, the incarnation of the great Chenresi, has left us? Tell me, it's not true, is it?" He clutched the lama's robes. "What has happened, venerable one?"
The old monk looked up again. The pilgrim saw that his eyes were filled with tears. Momentarily he stopped the chanting but kept the prayer wheel whirling. He began to speak.
"He was so young - only eighteen years of age. Yesterday he blessed the lamas outside Norbulingka, his summer palace. Did I not pass by and get his blessing?" The lama paused as he seemed to be reliving the moment when he had felt the touch of the tassel on the end of a long pole, brushed against his head by the Dalai Lama in blessing.
"Today he was to appear before us all at the Potala to welcome the new year and bless the pilgrims. But he departed in the night to the heavenly fields. I tell you, stranger, Chenresi would never just leave us like that. He was murdered."
Choking back a sob, the monk lapsed back into a state of trance and resumed his monotonous chanting. -"Om mani padme hum. Om mant padme hum" - the age-old prayer of Tibet - "Hail, thou jewel in the lotus; hail, thou jewel in the lotus."
The pilgrim sighed deeply. Not knowing what else to do, he stood watching the old monk. But at last the monk staggered off along the sacred Lingkhor Road, leaving the pilgrim in stunned silence. Then the pilgrim noticed that a group of Khamba nomads had paused to listen to the monk's story.
"Let me get my hands on the villain!" A swarthy tribesman fingered the sword hanging from his belt. "I'll slit him from end to end and toss his remains in the Kyi Chu River! "
His companions murmured approval, adding their own imprecations upon the unknown scoundrel.
Just then an official in richly brocaded uniform paused beside them, listening to the tribesmen's threats. Seeing him, the tribesmen made a hissing sound to show their respect.
"The Oracle will soon find the truth," the official promised. "There is to be a seance tonight to find the wretch who committed the murder. Just find him, and we will do the rest! "
The official passed along the street, and the tribesmen resumed their discussion of the latest rumors.
The pilgrim had dragged his way across the towering Tibetan mountains, struggling over steep passes, invoking his gods as he came. At night he had shivered in his sheep skin robe, so inadequate in that icy waste. Before innumerable shrines he had added his meager offerings - a pinch of barley flour, a little salt, a bit of coral, or a lock of his own hair - while praying for strength to finish his pilgrimage. When weariness overcame him and the cold numbed him, thoughts of arrival in Lhasa, the Sacred City, revived him. Soon he would kneel before the Dalai Lama and receive the touch of the sacred tassel at the end of a wand. The thought brought an inner warmth to his body and inspired him to press on with his pilgrimage. Now the Dalai Lama, the supreme god of all Tibetans, was dead - murdered.
The Tibetan Council of Ministers, the Kashag, had met in session in a special room of the Potala since early morning. Before the council, with its four members - three laymen and a monk - sat the Regent, an old man of dignified bearing who had governed Tibet until the Dalai Lama came of age. His hair was coiled in a topknot and fastened with a heavy jeweled clasp. A long jade earring dangling from his left earlobe revealed him to be a noble of the highest order. Tempu Gergan, Tibet's minister of finance and one of the council members, addressed the Regent.
"Hourly the crowd grows more impatient. Soon it will take justice into its own hands. I need not remind you what that means to us. Ever since the Eleventh Presence came among us we have been responsible for his care."
Glaring at the old man, he continued, "You have acted as Regent during the years of the Dalai Lama's minority. Absolute power rested in your hands for the control of Tibet. Then the Presence ascended the throne, taking from you and us the power that was ours. Will not the mob suspect us members of the Kashag, as they did when the Tenth Dalai Lama was murdered?"
As minister of finance, Tempu Gergan held one of the most coveted positions in Tibet. As a member of a noble family he was respected for his wisdom as well as his position. His richly brocaded gown, tied with a bright sash, showed him to be a man of wealth. The long sleeves falling almost to his knees set him apart as one who need not use his hands to earn a living. But of what use now was his wealth or noble birth if the mob should accuse him or his fellow members of the Kashag of the murder of the Dalai Lama, their god?
Again the council members recited the facts, as they had a dozen times. The boy king had occupied the throne only a few months since his eighteenth birthday. With dignity he had taken up the sacred office, administering both religious and secular affairs. Only the day before, he had held an audience for the priests from the huge Sera Monastery. Then that morning his monk attendant had screamed from the sacred bedroom that the god lay dead. No doubt a visitor had slipped poison into the lama's butter tea. A physician-lama from Chapokri Monastery rushed in to minister to the boy, but too late. Even now the sound of clashing cymbals and the wailing chant of the monks echoed along the palace corridors as the death ritual began.
"We must find the Mongolian!" The Regent settled back on his deep cushions. "He was the last one to visit the Presence. The Mongolian begged for an audience with his holiness last night, and it was granted. The attendants in an outer room heard his holiness intone a blessing on his visitor. Shortly afterward the hermit rushed from the room, past the guards, and vanished. Without question he is guilty, but where is he?"
The monk member of the Kashag spoke up. "All is arranged for the Oracle to invoke the gods tonight. Then we will know the truth. I believe this hermit was the villain, but was he only a paid agent?" Turning to Tempu he glared unpleasantly. "Tempu, your name has been whispered!
Tempu felt the blood drain from his face. "But that's impossible. Why should I commit such a vile deed?" He turned to the other members for assurance, but they merely shrugged. Then they arose and left the room.
For a few moments Tempu sat numbly trying to think. "Me? A suspect? That's impossible! I had nothing to do with this at all. Yet, what would happen if the Oracle should name me?"
As the enormity of the accusation dawned on him, he felt faint and dizzy. But he must think clearly. Ever since he had accused the present Oracle of being unreliable, he had been out of favour with him. The Oracle had condemned other innocent men before; yet the people still blindly believed him. Again Tempu shuddered. First there would be hideous torture for him, then he would be sewn alive into a yakskin and thrown into the river - that is, if the Khambas didn't get him first. It was too horrible to think about. He must be ready to escape if necessary.
He clapped his hands, and a servant entered the room. Crouching low, the servant poked his tongue out in respect.
"Did you call me, master?"
"Yes. I have work for you to do. Call my steward Kenchung to come here immediately. See that you talk to no one else of this business."
"Laso, laso. [Yes, yes]. I am going now."
Slowly a plan formulated in Tempu's mind. He would escape from Lhasa before the net closed. Speed was vital, and he must use all his ingenuity to bring it off.
The steward came in, looking bewildered at the hasty summons. Tempu felt it best to place the problem clearly before him. "Kenchung, I have been warned that I may be accused as the murderer of the Dalai Lama. You know what that will mean!"
"You? That's impossible! Name the scoundrel who would blame you for this crime, and I will deal with him."
In spite of his bravado, Kenchung was visibly shaken by the news. He knew that no one was more respected in Lhasa than his master, but he also knew that one of the members of the
"What can we do, master? Can you pay the Oracle sufficient to clear your name?"
"No, that won't help. You know he is no friend of mine. We must make plans to leave Lhasa in an hour."
"But that's impossible. Where will we find yaks and mules? And if we do find them, what should we take and where could we go?"
Tempu held up his hand for silence. "No one must know our real plans. Kampashung, a trader from Nepal, has just come in with a caravan. I hear he is looking for a return load. Go and hire his mules and yaks, but don't look too eager. just tell him you have an important trading mission in Bhutan and must leave in an hour. On no account reveal the real purpose of our plans. Our lives depend on your silence. You will need to prepare our most trusted servants to go with you. It is already late in the day."
"Laso, laso. I will do my best." Kenchung nodded and left quickly to arrange for the caravan.
As Tempu slipped out of the Potala a few minutes later, he felt, more than saw, the angry eyes of the mob. They pressed in threateningly around him, but a monk guard stepped up and took him by the arm. Shouldering aside the crowd, he commanded, "Down, you swine! Make way for his lordship. Must he walk over all the carrion in Lhasa to leave the palace?" With a heavy cane he cleared a way for Tempu to pass through the hostile mob. More than once Tempu winced as he heard his name spat out by nomad warriors.
"Have you found the culprit yet?" The monk guard looked anxiously at Tempu.
"Not yet, though we know it must be the Mongolian hermit."
Tempu found his home in turmoil. The servants, he learned, had chattered busily about their master in his absence. Had he gone crazy? Why would he leave on a trading trip during Losar, the ten-day feast? they wondered. Anyone knew it was not auspicious to start a trading trip until the year of the Fire Dragon had been welcomed. And if this was a trading trip, why pack so much food? The servants could make no sense out of the furtive packing going on behind locked gates. Still their job was to obey, so they worked on.
Droma, Tempu's young wife, met her husband at the door. Kenchung had simply told her that her lord was going on a trip and preparations must be made. But she was suspicious. Intuition told her this was something more urgent than a trading trip. Now as she heard the news, she collapsed onto the nearest cushions.
"What will you do, Tempu? Where will you go?"
Tempu gazed into the deep brown eyes of his lovely wife - one of the most beautiful women of Tibet. She had been reared in luxury by wealthy parents, never knowing hardship. Quick-witted and cultured, she lived in the center of Lhasa's social world. How could he take her out onto the interminable bleak plateaus and across deep gorges with churning white rivers? Yet what other choice did they have?
"Maybe we will not need to flee, but we must be ready. You will go with Kenchung and the animals west along the Kyi Chu River and press on quickly south. You must get as far as possible from the city before night falls. There must be no dallying on the way; every mile is vital. If I am named, I will try to join you later. If my name is cleared, then a servant will be dispatched to recall you to Lhasa."
"You are not going, then?"
"Not yet. The Kashag will meet again this evening before the Oracle calls the gods. If I do not attend, they will be sure I am guilty and will send a party searching for us. We must have time for the pack animals to get well away."
"Isn't it dangerous to go back to the Palace?''
"It's dangerous whether I go or stay. I still hope the Oracle will name only the Mongolian." Wearily he turned to supervise the servants' work.
"What about money?" Droma wanted to know. "And must I leave all my furniture?"
"Don't worry about money. I have arranged ten mules with gold bars and three with silver. It is hidden in bags of salt, which have already been sent ahead. The mules are waiting just beyond the city wall. Leave the furniture as it is here, but pack plenty of skins and woollen clothing. You will take your jewelry also. You must disguise yourself so that no one will know you are a noblewoman. Go with Kenchung when you are ready. I have to leave at once for the meeting of the Kashag."
The Kashag conference dragged on for hours, but decided nothing. The Mongolian hermit must have escaped from the city; no one had so much as a clue. The decision now rested with the Oracle. Wearily the Kashag members left their council chamber late in the night and entered the temple room where the Oracle was to reveal the mystery.
Tempu stared at the Oracle's throne, where sat Nachung Choje, the religious master of Nachung Monastery and Tibet's state prophet. Two religious emblems flanked the throne: a trident bearing a clay model of a human skull, and a spear with a triangular red pennant attached. Below the spearhead a padded ring of material with three human eyes embroidered, glared at the spectators. The Oracle wore the heavy ceremonial robes of his office. On his right hand glittered the silver oracle ring; on his left wrist was the red demon-noose. An apron patterned with dragons covered the top half of the brocade gown that fell over his gold-trimmed boots. A massive helmet of silver and gold crowned his head. The helmet's circlet was embellished with five human skulls, The Oracle had his legs planted far apart, while his hands rested on his knees. His face looked tense. He breathed slowly, with eyes closed.
A high lama, an open censer in his hand, stood in front of the Oracle wafting the aromatic smoke of burning juniper branches and incense into the seer's face. Behind him rows of maroon-robed priests chanted in rising and falling cadence. A rimpoche, or living Buddha, sat facing the Oracle. He chanted an invocation, ringing a small handbell with the left hand, and with his right waving the sacred thunderbolt - dhorje. He was calling the tutelary divinity, the three-headed, six-armed Pehar to leave his celestial throne and hasten to receive the offerings laid out for him on the altar, then to take possession of his servant.
"Come hither, mighty Pehar, mighty thunderbolt. Take the tormas of meat and blood; the wooden platter with flour and butter; the human skulls with drink offerings - beer of Tibet, tea of China, sour milk, fresh milk. Accept the inner, outer, and secret offerings. Fulfill the duties imposed upon thee; reveal the future, disclose false accusations, protect the pious. But most important of all, tell us who slew Chenresi!"
Tempu's breath seemed to be choking him. Hot and cold shivers ran up and down his spine. He felt sick and faint as the tempo increased. The tempo of the chant also affected the Oracle. His head swayed this way and that as he greedily inhaled the incense. The yellow butter lamps on the altar flickered dully through the clouds of juniper smoke. Before the altar stood the figures of the priests, grotesque shadows in the dim light.
The penetrating odours and the shrill tinkle of the bell pressed in upon Tempo's ears till he wanted to scream, "Stop! Stop!" But a hypnotic spell kept his eyes on the Oracle.
Now the clashing of cymbals and the throb of the great drum began to accelerate the chant of the priestly choir. The Oracle swayed and quivered. His facial muscles twitched. He bit his lower lip in a paroxysm of pain. Several times he lifted his hands as if warding off some malevolent power. His rapid breathing, keeping time with the chanting, changed into a hectic panting. Rivulets of sweat poured down his sallow face. The movements increased to continual spasmodic jerks. Startled, Tempu noticed that the face of the Oracle had undergone a terrifying change. It was no longer the face of the priest of Nachung, but the leering face of Pehar. The whole head seemed swollen; the skin changed to a dark-red colour; the thick blue lips flecked with foam. Saliva dribbled from the corners of his mouth, now drawn down in an expression of cruel contempt.
The priest, now fully demon possessed, let out a scream. He leaped off the throne and began a slow, macabre dance. Seizing a proffered sword, he grasped both ends and twisted it as if it were a piece of paper. Blood dripped from his clenched fist, which he slowly opened to let the twisted sword crash to the floor. The watchers sat enthralled. "He has come! Pehar has come!"
The chanting died away as the Oracle wolfed down the meat offerings. With a grunt he seized a bowl made from a human skull and drained the potent drink offering. Now the rimpoche, with reverently bowed head, moved forward and placed a ceremonial scarf around the Oracle's neck. The act of veneration was not directed to the Oracle himself, but to the deity now occupying his body.
Tempu stood there cold but perspiring. His heart thumped so loudly he wondered if his companions could hear it. Yet he still hoped that Pehar would declare him innocent. He glanced around, looking for an escape route. Seeing all eyes fixed on the Oracle, he slipped toward a side door where he could watch proceedings from behind a protecting pillar.
Now the Oracle made strange gurgling sounds as if choking. The rimpoche began his ritual questioning.
"Has Pehar been well cared for?
"Have the monks been faithful in providing meat and drink offerings?
"Has the god had a safe journey from the heavenly fields?"
A monk scribe jotted down the cryptic answers from the Oracle. Many of the replies seemed unintelligible, but the scribe wrote on. At last the crucial question comes. Every ear strained to hear the rimpoche question the Oracle.
"Your Lord Chenresi has just departed his human shell to return to the abode of the gods. Tell us, why did he do this?"
The eyes of the Oracle opened for a moment and swept the room with a horrible stare. Tempu felt the ground sway around him as the eyes seemed to pause for a moment and bore into his soul. Then the eyes passed on and the lids fell over them again. The Oracle lapsed into incoherent muttering; then words began to form. "I see a golden cup with a demon dancing on the brim."
"Aii, the poison cup," someone whispered; but he was hissed into silence.
"There is a strange priest offering the cup to Chenresi. He wears a highpeaked hat and tattered garments -"
Relief flooded over Tempu as he heard the Mongolian monk described. The Oracle had paused for a moment, but now continued: "I see around the holy one bags of gold and silver. A hand offers the silver to the strange priest. The face - the face - I cannot see the face. Yes, it is coming -"
Tempu's breath seemed to be choking him, while his legs felt as if they would collapse. He knew instinctively whom the Oracle was about to name. He flung himself out the door and fled down the passage. Pausing for a moment in a small room, he discarded his rich brocades and strode on as a peasant pilgrim. But even as he started again he heard a chorus of voices rising to a crescendo: "Tempu Gergan is the man! Seize him!"
He wanted to dash away madly, but he fought the mounting panic. He must look like a poor pilgrim. Would these eternal stairs never end? Would someone recognise him? It seemed hours since he had left the seance, but in fact only a few seconds had passed. At last he was clear of the building, heading toward the city wall. Now they were taking up his name as the story spread that Tempu Gergan had hired the Mongolian to commit murder. He knew the guards in the Potala would be frantically searching the thousand rooms for him. Any moment they would find his discarded clothing and know their prey had escaped. He must hurry!
Suddenly he heard a shout behind him, "Block the stairs. No one must leave the palace!"
He had escaped just in time. He dared not go to his home. Silently he slipped over the city wall where Choni, a trusted servant, waited with two horses.
"Quick, they are coming after us!"
Tempu Gergan flung himself onto the horse's back, grasped the mane, and spurred to a fast gallop along the road leading east toward China. A backward glance showed the flames rising from his burning house, tingeing the surrounding buildings with angry red in the gray predawn darkness. In the glare of the fire he saw a group of horsemen galloping out from the city gates.
"Ride for your life," Tempu shouted, "or we are doomed!"
Glancing backward, he could see his pursuers coming on relentlessly.Next chapter Return to index