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Stone craftsmen find peace in changing Tibet
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sound of stone-engraving breaks the morning tranquility of Mount Chakpori, on the opposite of the Potala Palace, in Lhasa, where a group of craftsmen are working to build the largest stone sutra pagoda in Tibet.

With a small mallet in one hand and a chisel in another, nine youngsters, sitting or squatting under a large piece of broken gray cloth shelter, are engraving lines of Tibetan sutra "Kangyur" into the stone slates. Less than 20 meters ahead is the pagoda, which is not yet completed after 14 years of construction, but embodies all their piety and faith to Buddha.

Tokdan Dawa Rinpoche, the sponsor of the pagoda, is sitting, with his legs crossed, on a carpet nearby the simple workshop, chanting sutras as throngs of devotees, with prayer wheels in hand, bowed to him and passed by, heading for the pagoda to pray along a dusty path.

As a tradition for centuries, Tibetan Buddhism believers engrave the sutras and Buddha images on stones as a way to keep the classics. It is also believed that the engravers, called "duoduo" in Tibetan, are able to achieve more happiness in their next lives through the toil of inscribing.

It has been a long-cherished dream for Tokdan Dawa Rinpoche, the 60-year-old abbot of the Ahjue Norling Monastery in southwestern Sichuan Province to build a stone sutra pagoda in Tibet to "carry forward both the traditional art of Tibetan stone-engraving and the power of Buddhism."

"Stone survives from times, with the essence of Tibetan Buddhism engraved on it," said Tokdan.

The abbot traveled around to allocate the funds for the project and finally started to realize his dream on Mount Chakpori -- a traditional site for stone engraving since the reign of Songtsan Gambo, who introduced Buddhism to the plateau region more than 1,300 years ago.

"The sutras of different sects in Tibetan Buddhism share the same root of Kangyur, that's why I decided to choose it as the topic," he said.

According to Tokdan, usually a full set of Kangyur sutra includes 108 parts, each of which is written on a book of 200 to 400 pages. The engravers have finished inscribing the sutra and more than one million of stone slates piled into a 13-floor pagoda of more than 30 meters high.

The abbot is also critical with the stones to build the pagoda. Those from the Kambu County nearby Lhasa finally won his heart. The caesious stone slate, which is about one centimeter thick, should first be dyed with deep red paint before the engraving.

A wooden top for the pagoda has been finished and is expected to be in position in June, when the 50-meter-high pagoda will finally stand atop of Mount Chakpori.

The abbot has named the pagoda after the sutra inscribed on it as "Kangyur" and he also planned to invite a respected lama to write a book about the pagoda, detailing the reasons and course of the construction. However, his name and those of the engravers will not appear in the book.


More than 100 engravers -- some from sophisticated stone-engraving families and some novices -- have volunteered to help build the pagoda. Most of them have worked here for five to six years though their pay for a whole-page Kangyur sutra is only 10 yuan (1.46 U.S. dollars).

Life is simple but strict for the devout engravers -- no alcohol, no smoking and no illegal doings. Those who violate the rules will be driven out of the team, losing the qualification for "further religious cultivation," said Tokdan.

The daily work schedule for these engravers depends on the sun -- from the day break to the time when "it is too dark to see anything." Then the engravers return to rest at "home," a line of wooden bungalows at the foot of the hill.

Over the past 14 years, the houses have seen different residents. As the construction of the pagoda is coming to the end, only nine engravers still work here.

Zhoigar is one of them.

It is not difficult to tell her from the other engravers because as shy as she is, the 26-year-old woman loves to sing Tibetan songs during work and her beautiful voice penetrating the "bing-bang" noises of stone-engraving has become a great joy to her work mates.

Like the other engravers who participated in the pagoda project, Zhoigar is not a Lhasa native, but from a farming family at Rinbung County of Xigaze.

She started her days in Lhasa as a waitress at a Tibetan restaurant, but in Zhoigar's eyes, the "dazzling, colorful life" at the prosperous plateau city is not comparable to the peaceful happiness she has found in engraving.

"I know many of the people at my age long for a modern bustling city life, but I prefer this simple and peaceful life as an engraver," said Zhoigar.

"My families are also very supportive to my decision as our Tibetans are loyal Buddhists. Engraving sutras on stones is a better way to be close to Buddha," she said.

To practice her utmost piety to Buddha, Zhoigar is not willing to have her engraving life interrupted. She has only returned home to see her family four times since she joined the engraver team in the winter in 2000.

Another reason for Zhoigar to learn stone-engraving is because her husband now, Gongbo Chagxi, a young stone crafter from the Tibetan Autonomous prefecture of Yushu in the neighboring Qinghai Province, also worked here.

"He asked me to leave the restaurant to work here. He is also my first teacher of engraving," said Zhoigar, pointing at a young man sitting nearby. "Because of him, I can have such a good life now."

However, the beginning is always difficult.

As Zhoigar could not read, she just copied what she saw on the sutra book onto the stone.

"The characters were no more than some magic patterns to me at that time," recalled Zhoigar. "It also happened a lot that I had my fingers injured by the engraving tools, but the worst was that I wasted a lot of stone plates because of my mistakes, which made me cry a lot."

The tears are paid back after eight years of practicing. Zhoigar now can finish the engraving of an average of 20 stone slates every day at a speed of one Tibetan character in less than one second. She has also become a teacher for the newcomers.

"The more sutras I have engraved into the stones, the more Buddhism teachings I have engraved in my mind, which is far more important than how much money I have earned," said Zhoigar.

As the years of hard work to be paid back with the pagoda to be completed, emptiness comes to Zhoigar along with pride.

She planned to stay in Lhasa with her husband to look for other engraving businesses after the pagoda is built in June.

"It's a mixed feeling to have to say bye to here. The growth of the pagoda saw the growth of my understanding of life. Good deeds will be paid back with even better things," she said.

The birth of her daughter Gesang Como in 2003, is regarded by Zhoigar as a prize from Buddha to her piety. The little girl, who has spent most time of her at the workshop, listening to the music of chiseling, is old enough to go to the kindergarten.

However, Zhoigar has no plan to pass her craft to her daughter.

"I hope she is able to go to college and become a doctor in the future instead of being a stone engraver, because it's a too tiring job," said Zhoigar. "But if she wants to learn the craft, I will also be supportive."

(Xinhua News Agency March 17, 2009)

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