The Last Princess
Gonpo could smell the smoke before she could see what was happening. Although she was just seven years old and not well versed in the politics of the day, it confirmed a nagging feeling she’d had for weeks that something was amiss. She was on her way home with her mother, sister, an aunt, and a convoy of servants. They had been away, attending the funeral rituals for her uncle. It had been summer when they set out for her uncle’s village, but they’d been away for forty-nine days, the traditional mourning period between death and rebirth for Buddhists. Now it was early autumn, and the evening chill whispered of the snow that would soon creep down from the mountaintops. Gonpo wore a thick sheepskin robe trimmed with fur, but the wind whipped up from underneath her horse and made her shiver. Everybody was on horseback: Gonpo, like most Tibetans, was a seasoned equestrian at a young age. They followed the course of a road that had recently been laid out by Chinese military engineers, though not yet paved, heading due west, into the setting sun. Their route forked off at a stream that led north to Gonpo’s home, and as they emerged from behind a thicket of shrubbery, Gonpo could see where the smoke was coming from. From her vantage point atop the horse, she had a clear view of half a dozen bonfires and a corresponding number of tents. As they approached, she could see that these weren’t the black yak-hair tents used by Tibetans, but the small white tents of the People’s Liberation Army.
This was 1958, nine years after Mao Zedong had proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, so it was not unusual to see encampments of the Red Army around the countryside. But this was on the family property, and that was surprising. Gonpo had been fighting off sleep on the last leg of the two-day trek, but now she was jolted awake by curiosity and a touch of fear. She was one of the first to dismount, sliding off her horse without waiting for the servants to help her. She ran up to the gate, wondering why nobody had come out to greet the returning convoy. She banged hard on the gate—a slab of wood twice as high as a grown man with a massive lintel across the top. There was no response, so she shouted at the top of her lungs.
“Hello, hello. Where is everybody?”
Her mother walked up behind her and called out as well.
Eventually, Gonpo’s nanny came and unlocked the gate. Instead of a warm welcome, the maid leaned over the child as if she weren’t there, bringing her face close enough to Gonpo’s mother to whisper directly into her ear. Gonpo couldn’t hear the words, but she discerned from her mother’s reaction that it couldn’t be good. Gonpo had seen her mother crying a lot lately; the uncle who died had been her favorite brother—and Gonpo thought maybe her mother was crying again because she was still sad about his death. At least that’s what Gonpo wanted to believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary—the smoke, the tents, the stone-faced maid. Her instinct told her that this was the beginning of the end of the world as she knew it.
Gonpo was raised a princess. Her father, Palgon Rapten Tinley, a name that roughly translates as “Honorable Enlightenment Steadfast,” was the fourteenth in a line of rulers in what was known as the Mei kingdom. Its capital was Ngaba, in what is now Sichuan province. When Gonpo was born, in 1950, Ngaba was a nondescript market town where traders came to sell salt and tea and where herders came to sell their butter, skins, and wool. This entire region was a patchwork of small fiefdoms governed by various chieftains and kings, princes, khans, and warlords. The Chinese used the term tusi, often translated as “landlord,” to refer to local rulers like Gonpo’s father, but the Tibetans called him gyalpo, or king. English-language chronicles from the early twentieth century also refer to him as royalty. That was certainly how Gonpo perceived her family’s position in society.
As a child, Gonpo was dressed in the floor-length robes called chubas, cinched at the waist. Almost all Tibetans wore similar garments, the quality reflecting their status. Gonpo’s robes were trimmed with otter fur. Around her neck she wore ropes of beads, big as grapes—coral, amber, and, most precious of all, dzi, a Tibetan striped agate thought to protect against the evil eye. Otherwise she wasn’t a very girlish princess. She was cute rather than pretty, with gapped teeth and a snub nose that gave her the look of a mischievous little boy. Like many young girls in Ngaba, Gonpo had her hair cropped short—a signal that she was not of marriageable age. Her mother and other adult women in the royal family wore long braids, held in place by tassels and strands of coral, so elaborate that they might take servants two days to braid.
The family lived in an imposing manor house—technically a palace, though it looked more like a fortress, stout and sturdy, built to endure—located on the east end of Ngaba, just outside the downtown area. The house was designed in a traditional Tibetan style out of rammed earth, dun-colored so that it blended into the landscape during the dry season when the plateau was bare of grass. The massive walls—up to nine feet thick at the bottom—tapered inwards toward the top to provide stability in case of earthquakes; the narrow slits of windows were similarly trapezoidal, framed by wooden latticework. The walls were unadorned except for two protruding wooden balconies on either side—one on the east, the other on the west. The balconies looked elegant, but in fact they accommodated the toilets. Human waste dropped below, where it was mixed with ash and spread on the fields as fertilizer.
What the house lacked in modern amenities, it made up for in scale. It measured 80,000 square feet with more than 850 rooms ranging from dungeons, stables, and storerooms on the very bottom, to the rooms of increasing elegance and purpose as they rose upward. There were the bedrooms for the children and their mother, then the king’s retinue of assistants and his private officers. The rooms on the upper levels were paneled in wood that masked the dirt exterior.
The upper floor was appropriately dedicated to spiritual practice. The rooms came alive with frescos and thangkas, Tibetan wall-hangings, all in eye-popping shades of poster colors. Since Buddhist figures are reincarnated over and over again, they appear in countless manifestations, male and female, familiar and fanciful. There was the Buddha, past and future, and many more of the bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who forgo nirvana to be reborn for the benefit of others. The most prized piece was a statue of Avalokitesvara, or Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, the patron saint of Tibetans, given to the king by the 14th Dalai Lama, the centerpiece of his chapel.
The king was a dedicated bibliophile who had an extensive collection of books and scriptures. Some were printed with gold and silver. The reception room under the scripture hall was large enough to accommodate thousands of monks. On Buddhist holidays, the palace would echo with a cacophony of chanting, cymbals, horns, and conch shells. And the untranslatable mantra uttered by Tibetans to invoke their patron saint, the bodhisattva of compassion,
om mani padme hum
Daily life inside the palace was measured out by the rituals of Buddhism. The king began every morning in front of a shrine, with repeated prostrations. Standing upright with hands clasped in prayer up over his head, he’d then in one movement extend his body in full horizontal position, prone on the floor, and stand again. The ritual kept his physique lean and his mind clear.
It was impossible to distinguish that which was religion from that which was culture or habit. When Gonpo was caught in a lie, she was made to do repeated circumambulations around a nearby monastery, spinning countless prayer wheels, big vertical cylinders of metal, wood, and leather with prayers written on them. Each time you turned them on their spindles it was like reciting the prayer aloud. They were heavy for a child, and the penance forced her to reflect on her wrongdoing.
The children—Gonpo and her sister, who was six years older—lived with their mother in separate quarters on one side of the house. Upon awakening, their mother would take the girls to their father’s chambers to wish him good morning. They would repeat the visit at bedtime to wish him good night. The family ate most meals together, and their father strictly enforced their manners. Prayers were said before eating. The children waited while the elders ate first. Their father made it a point to clear his plate down to the last grain of rice, reminding his daughters of how hard farmers toiled to produce their meal. He insisted also that the staff get the same portions of food as he did, although they often ate their food later when it was cold. The king was a fastidious man who didn’t want his daughters, despite their royal bloodlines, to be spoiled. Although the house was full of servants, the king made his own bed.
Copyright © 2020 by Barbara Demick. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.