I’ve pictured in my head a thousand times what it was like for Princess Wen Cheng when she married Tibetan King, Songtsan Gampo in 641 AD. I’d kill for an opportunity to go back in time and see how the Chinese princess reacted to the strange ancient rituals and loud musical instruments that didn’t play a tune. What did she think of an army of Tibetan lamas chanting to the clashing of cymbals and drums beating to loud bass-toned trumpets? Was she terrified of the dark temple chambers lit remotely only by yak butter lamps that smelt strange?
Most of all, did she ever finish a full cup of yak butter tea? Silly question I know. But for those who have not tasted this special tea, I can only tell you it’s an acquired taste and not even a durian loving Chinese like me can handle that tea!
I visited Tibet in 2006 and sobbed from overwhelming emotion as I stood in front of the Potala Palace. It was like winning the lottery because I finally joined famous explorers who made it to the once forbidden city of Lhasa. I had the biggest goose bumps of my life when I entered the Potala. Suddenly everything felt familiar as though I had lived there before—it must have been Princess Wen Cheng reaching out to me.
I also spent an entire day watching and photographing faithful pilgrims prostrating nonstop in front of the Jokhang Temple. This temple is still the most sacred in Tibet and was built in honor of Princess Wen Cheng and the other Nepalese bride of King Songtsan Gampo. I finally had a faint taste of what Wen Cheng experienced, the ancient prayers and rituals were probably the same as what she saw back then.
Seven years later, never in my wildest dreams would I believe a fantasy would come to life. Yes, I’m talking about retracing the steps of Princess Wen Cheng’s wedding!
I don’t have royal blood and my groom is not an exotic Tibetan King. Nevertheless, my white American husband and myself were treated to an impromptu traditional wedding ceremony in Bhutan when we visited last month.
Bhutan was never a part of Tibet, but their religion shared similar features. Our local partner in Bhutan and his wife had kindly arranged the high lama from the Paro Dzong and some monks to conduct a blessing ritual for us in a small 14th century temple.
I was dressed up in a full-length silk kira, a typical Bhutanese robe for ladies, and it required two people to wrap it around me to form a full length dress. Then I was covered in a silk jacket pinned with a delicate broche. As my host laid a hand-woven silk scarf over my shoulders, she said only a princess was allowed to wear it this way. My last ornament was an exquisite necklace with precious stones. I was ecstatic beyond words, definitely feeling some blue blood rushing up my head.
Ambrose, my groom, was also wrapped in typical national costume called a gho. He had a bright yellow, knee-length robe held at the waist with a belt, then finished off with a raw silk scarf tied across. He looked really handsome with his $1 haircut by a professional Indian barber in Thimphu. It was the best haircut I had ever seen on him!
Days later in a weaving village, I learnt that it can take up to one and a half years just to weave a half silk kira, and it can cost about US$1,500. Their weaving technique was probably the most intricate ones I had ever seen.
From our changing room, we entered the temple’s main worship chamber with two monks blowing the kangling (Tibetan long style trumpets), another one on the gshang (flat bells) and two others on the drums. Sitting on a raised platform was the high Lama leading the monks in chanting. The sounds were typically Tibetan and I was feeling the same tingling sensation when I entered the Potala Palace in Lhasa.
My heartbeat quickened as I glared at the grand spectacle before me. I was finally experiencing an ancient Tibetan-style ritual and I was going through it with the most important man of my life. The scale of this ceremony was nowhere close to Princess Wen Cheng’s. But I definitely saw the moment through her eyes.
We commenced by prostrating three times to the high lama to show our respect, followed by another three to ornate statues of their deities. A Bhutanese prostration involves putting your palms together, holding them first above your forehead, followed by face and chest, then kneeling down with both palms and head touching the floor.
While I prostrated, I suddenly felt a strong bonding between me and Tibet that none of my readings or travels ever gave. I knew instantly this would never take place in Tibet and I was eternally grateful to Bhutan for granting me this special experience. Sharing that moment with Ambrose just made it even more personal and precious.
While the lama and monks continued chanting, we were seated on the floor next to them. I was so high and lost in my own thoughts by now, brought back to reality only when I tasted the butter tea and sweet rice served during break time. The acquired tastes awakened my senses instantly. Sadly, I have to admit I really can’t live on these and I bet Princess Wen Cheng couldn’t get use to them too.
We were then handed a small statue wrapped in a silk scarf which each of us had to place above our foreheads. The monk also dripped some holy water on our palms which we dapped on our lips and hair. The ceremony ended with more chanting followed by last three prostrations, each to the high lama and the deities.
Ambrose and I are very grateful to our Bhutanese hosts for this unforgettable life time experience. It tops my list of my unique travel experiences for now and I can’t wait to see what else unfolds before my life.
A week after we left Bhutan, I wore another Bhutanese kira at my Chinese wedding reception in Singapore. It was a farewell gift from my kind hosts, and I was proud to combine their beautiful culture to mine.
Who says time travel is not possible? You just have to be at the right place, at the right time, with a big open heart.