Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

First Read—From “Old Demons, New Deities”

By Pema Tsewang Shastri
Translated By Tenzin Dickie Pema Tsewang Shastri

The following story appears in Old Demons, New Deities, a collection of twenty-one short stories from Tibet, edited by Tenzin Dickie and forthcoming from OR Books.

The Flight of the Wind Horse

From very early times, among the many unique customs of Tibet, one of the most conspicuous and ubiquitous was the flying of prayer flags, or what the Tibetans called lungta. Lungta literally meant “wind horse” in English. The lungta symbolized either individual or collective luck, fortune, or positive potential. In the neighboring country of India, there was even a popular expression, “Jahan janda hain / wohan Tibati hain.” Where there are prayer flags, there are Tibetans.

The Tibetans put up yellow, green, red, white, and blue colored prayer flags, printed with the heart mantras and prayers of Avalokitshevara, Manjushri, Vajrapani, Amitabha, Tara, and Guru Padma Sambhava, in addition to many others. They first carved out the prayers on wood blocks and then printed them onto colored fabrics. Then they strung the flags together. The five colors symbolized the five outer elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space, and the inner elements of flesh, blood, warmth, breath, and consciousness. The Tibetans flew these flags on top of the trees and high mountains in order to prolong their lives and enhance their merit, wealth, health, and fortune. Sometimes drawings of the garuda, the horse, the tiger, the dragon, and the snow lion were printed on the flags as representations of space, wind, fire, water, and earth, respectively.

On a day in September a little over ten years ago, a sizable crowd of people gathered in the courtyard of Tamdin Khangsar’s house, located on the right side of Yuthok Street, in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The crowd was very boisterous and noisy. The majority of those gathered there were youngsters. The people walking on the street could hear Tibetan and Chinese songs coming from the party. The crowd was celebrating the thirteenth birthday of Tamdin’s daughter, Lhadon. In the past, common Tibetans did not celebrate their birthdays. The only birthday celebrations were grand ones like the celebrations for the Dalai Lamas’ birthdays. But these days the trend of celebrating children’s birthdays was becoming more popular in Tibetan society, both inside Tibet and in the diaspora. This was the fifth time that Lhadon had celebrated her birthday.

On that day Lhadon, who was in a playful mood, wrote a note in a beautiful Tibetan Uchen script:

“My name is Lhadon, and whoever receives this balloon may please contact me at the following address.”

She added her home address, tied the note to one of the thirteen helium-filled yellow balloons, and released them into the sky. Lhadon’s friends also wrote notes and messages on other balloons. Some wrote their own names, some scribbled various drawings, and others wrote prayers for Lhadon’s long life on the balloons. After blowing out the candles and cutting the birthday cake, they sent more balloons into the sky. All the balloons floated slowly up into the sky and after a while they disappeared from view.

Two weeks later, a yellow balloon sailed across the beautiful, cloudless sky in the Otok nomadic village of Lithang in Eastern Tibet. Dolma, the wife of Denma, was milking the dris, their female yaks. Her daughter Lhadon was helping her. While both mother and daughter were busy with their chores, the yellow balloon fell to the ground in front of Dolma. Dolma merely grabbed the balloon and put it down near her. But Lhadon became curious, picked up the balloon, and looked at it carefully. She saw the note and read the following message in Tibetan:

“My name is Lhadon, and whoever receives this balloon may please contact me at the following address.”

She saw the Lhasa address. “Mother, look at this. How strange, my name is written on this balloon!” Lhadon said, with a funny look on her face.

Dolma replied, “What are you talking about? Just do your work, Lhadon, instead of talking nonsense.” Dolma continued milking the dris.

Lhadon insisted, “Mother, I swear, I am telling the truth. Just look at this!” and showed the note on the balloon to her mother.

Her mother, still disbelieving, glanced at the note and said, “Now don’t try to be funny and childish. You must have written this yourself and you are just trying to trick me.” Her mother did not pay any more attention to the balloon and carried on with her chores.

But Lhadon took the balloon into their yak-felt tent and copied down the Lhasa address in her notebook. She thought the strange incident of the balloon over. She was the only person in her village called “Lhadon” but the address on the balloon was definitely a Lhasa address. How strange to believe that a balloon could fly all the way here from distant Lhasa, she thought. She reread the text written on the note. She wondered, could this be a dream or an illusion? For a week she kept thinking about the balloon, where it was from, who it was from. It was not an illusion. The balloon could be seen with the naked eye and touched. The writing on it was not hers.

She decided to write a letter to the address:

“Dear Unseen Friend Lhadon, We haven’t met each other. But I received the yellow balloon that you sent into the sky. My name is also Lhadon. I don’t know whether your address written on the balloon is a true address or not. Anyway, if you wish, you can write me back. Your unseen distant friend Lhadon.”

She sealed the envelope and wrote Norsang’s address on the back of the envelope. Norsang was a businessman who ran a grocery shop in Otok village. She had to use Norsang’s address because her own family moved every now and then to look for good pastures for their herd. About two weeks after Lhadon mailed the letter, Norsang called on their family and gave Lhadon a letter, saying, “There is a letter for you from Lhasa. It came to the shop.” Lhadon thanked Norsang and immediately opened the letter and began to read it. The letter said:

“My Dear Namesake Lhadon la, My name and the address are all true. Right now I am thirteen years old. I sent that balloon into the sky on my birthday. But I never imagined that the letter would end up with my namesake in Lithang. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but maybe there’s a karmic connection between us. Judging from your handwriting and the content of the letter, I believe that you’re also a student like me. It would be nice if we can correspond with each other and be pen pals. What do you think? Your namesake Lhadon.”

Lithang Lhadon became very excited and happy to have the opportunity to correspond with someone in Lhasa who was not only of the same age but also her namesake. So she immediately wrote back a long letter, mentioning how happy she was to have a pen friend in the holy city of Lhasa. She wrote about her life; how she helped her mother in herding the cattle, milking the dris, and selling butter, cheese, and wool in the market during her school holidays; how a variety of beautiful flowers bloomed on the turquoise-like meadow of Lithang during the summer when the popular Lithang Horse Races took place; and how a huge crowd of festive people gathered together to picnic, burning incense, singing, and dancing and taking part in the horse race.

In response, Lhasa Lhadon wrote back about her life in Lhasa, about her parents and her little brother. She also wrote about the history of the majestic Potala Palace, explaining that it was formerly built by the Dharma King Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century as the Red Palace, and later on expanded by the Fifth Dalai Lama. She mentioned the Jokhang temple and Sera, Ganden, and Drepung, the three great monasteries near Lhasa, where streams of pilgrims and tourists visited every day. She described the spectacle and the constant crowds in Lhasa Barkor, Lhasa’s main market. She also mentioned that when she told her father that she received a letter from her namesake in Lithang, her father jokingly repeated the popular Tibetan proverb, “Oh, Ba and Lithang are the places of thieves, but we dare not say that as it is the birthplace of the Dalai Lama.”

And so in this manner the two Lhadons continued to keep writing each other for a long time.

After three years of the girls’ friendship, the family of Lithang Lhadon arrived in Lhasa for a pilgrimage, and a meeting was arranged between the families of the two Lhadons. On the day of the rendezvous, when the two Lhadons met each other and came face to face for the first time, both the girls were stunned. They stood frozen and speechless for a few minutes just looking at each other’s faces. The reason was that the similarity between the two girls was so striking and unbelievable. In fact, the only difference between Lhasa Lhadon and Lithang Lhadon was that the former spoke in U-tsang dialect and the latter spoke in Kham dialect. Otherwise, in terms of their height, facial features, skin color, hair color, demeanor, and even their movements, they were exactly alike. The two girls embraced and touched each other’s hair and faces, exclaiming all the while. Their family members watched them. Tamdin, Lhasa Lhadon’s father, and Dolma, Lithang Lhadon’s mother, remained speechless for quite some time, looking at each other and remembering the past.


© 2017 Pema Tsewang Shastri and Tenzin Dickie. Excerpt by agreement with OR Books.

Published Oct 11, 2017   Copyright 2017 Pema Tsewang Shastri

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.