Monika Urbanowicz

A Review of Princess in the Land of Snows: the Life of Jamyang Sakya in Tibet

Princess in the Land of Snows is a fascinating, autobiographical account of the life of Lady Jamyang of Tibet, who through her perseverance and determination is able to overcome great obstacles and to achieve cultural and religious freedom. Jamyang Shakya’s autobiography can be divided into three parts: her childhood, her marriage to Dagchen Rinpoche, and the abrupt changes in her life ushered in by the communist takeover of Tibet. Lady Jamyang begins her story by describing her childhood in eastern Tibet (Thanglung, Kham).

Jamyang Sakya tells of being the only girl in a monastic private school, where she was able to receive a decent education. Although faced with discrimination for being a woman, Jamyang Sakya’s account of her school days is far from bitter. She describes her respect and affection for her teacher, Tenzin, who although strict, seldom reprimanded her. Jamyang states: “on seldom occasions, Tenzin gave us gifts of sweet rice, dried fruits, and dried yak meat. A piece of candy or other sweet was rare and, when I got one for superior class work, I ran home thrilled.” (5) Jamyang’s kind description of her Tenzin thus breaks away from a stereotypical view of the Tibetan society. Even though Jamyang was the only girl in school, she was still able to succeed and to receive recognition for her successes.

An interesting factor in Jamyang’s early education was, of course, religion. Jamyang Sakya states that “religion was inseparable from much of our daily life and central to our formal learning.” Religion is an ever-present theme of Jamyang Sakya’s autobiography. It is that tremendous religiosity and tradition, and not the power or status of the Sakya family, which in the end, help Lady Jamyang overcome great obstacles. In the end, it is also religion which affirms Jamyang’s refusal to cooperate with the Chinese communists.

Jamyang describes a very strong bond with her family, especially her uncle Tulku-la. At the age of fourteen Jamyang’s bond with her family is strengthened when the family decides to participate in a year-long pilgrimage to the capital city of Lhasa and other holy places of western Tibet. The trip exposes Jamyang to the diversity of the Tibetan land. But it is also then, that Jamyang is, for the first time, exposed to injustice, poverty, and the growing influence of the Chinese. At Nakchuka, Yamyang first becomes acquainted with restaurants, but it is also there that Jamyang notices that the taxes collected by the Tibetan government were not aiding the ordinary Tibetans. Jamyang states that the tolls are “rather unfairly collected.”(47) She also mentions being “appalled” (48) as the nobleman collector strutted around pointing to specific boxes of tea that Jamyang’s family purchased while staying in Nakchuka. Following the stay in Nakchuka, the pilgrimage moved through the Ganden Monastery, home to some thirty-three hundred monks of the Yellow Hat school; Samye, Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery; and Gyantse, third largest city in Tibet. In Gyantse, Jamyang spent the first night near the Indian trade mission. It was here that Jamyang saw, for the first time, a blond blue-eyed woman. This was an interesting cultural experience for Jamyang, who found herself “staring at the British lady’s light pink skin.”(61) The pilgrimage broke up in Gyantse, with only a few volunteers traveling to Shigatse. Jamyang’s family, however, decided to make Sakya their final destination.

In Sakya, Jamyang’s childhood abrubtly came to an end. Sakya’s eldest son, Dagchen Rinpoche, became romantically interested in Jamyang. In her biography, Jamyang Sakya notes that Dagchen Rinpoche’s ancestors were the historically and religiously important Khon, who according to Tibetan tradition, were a family of three brothers who descended from heaven as representatives from Buddha. Jamyang, being only sixteen years old, was torn between her adventures, her customs and culture at home, and her growing affection for Dagchen Rinpoche. When Dagchen Rinpoche first indirectly asked Jamyang to marry him, she replied that she “liked him but she wanted to go home first.”(75) Jamyang recalls in her autobiography that Dagchen seemed both hurt and surprised. Before they parted, Dagchen offered Jamyang a gift wrapped in a cloth. Beneath the cloth, Jamyang discovered Dagchen’s earrings, made of solid gold with inlays of turquoise, emeralds, and diamonds. A few days later, Dagchen Rinpoche removed Jamyang’s ring and placed it on his finger – a sign of affection and romantic intentions in Tibetan culture. It is important to note the symbolism behind Dagchen’s and Jamyang’s relationship. When the conversations concerning marriage between the two became increasingly serious, Dagchen told Jamyang about a significant dream he had while visiting in Lhasa. Dagchen Rinpoche dreamed that he was surrounded by finely dressed and beautiful women. Among them was a girl, who handed him a small gift. He asked the girl her name; it was Sonam, which meant merit. The Trichen interpreted the dream to mean that Dagchen would have a strong connection with someone who has the names “Tshe” and “Sonam” (life and merit). Jamyang’s official name was in fact, Sonam Tshe Dzom, which meant “a gathering of life and merit.”(87)

The growing affection between Dagchen Rinpoche and Jamyang created great anxieties for both lovers. Jamyang’s family was afraid that the Trichen and his wife would never approve the match. And in fact, Dagchen’s parents were against his engagement to Jamyang from the very start. Marriages in the Sakya family were primarily political unions. Dagchen Rinpoche was expected to marry a noble-woman. Jamyang, on the other hand, was not from a high-placed family and had no political links to power. But Dagchen was determined to win an uphill battle that often seemed hopeless to Jamyang. Jamyang’s family experienced other anxieties. Being the only child, Jamyang was expected to bring her husband to live with her in her family home in Thalung. By a marriage to the next Sakya Trichen, Jamyang notes in her biography, “she would deprive her family of what they rightfully deserved.”(82) After months of intense negotiations, however, the Sakya family finally approved the marriage.

But the married life did not prove any easier for Lady Jamyang. She continued with efforts to please her mother-in-law and her four sisters-in-law who lived with her in the Phuntsok Palace. For that reason, Jamyang disliked living in the Phuntsok Palace and often dreamed of Dagchen Rinpoche’s promise to take her to visit Kham. She noted in her autobiography that her life “was confined mainly to the palace and monastery, with social events being family affairs. No longer could she enjoy such simple pastimes as going shopping in the town’s bazaars.” With time however, Jamyang grew to like her palace life and states that “it was a blissful life, far from the world’s troubles.”(110)

The later part of Jamyang Sakya’s biography is devoted to her foreign travels with her husband and her interactions with the Chinese. While residing in the Parlhagong area, Jamyang’s son, Ani-la became sick and it was apparent that Tibetan medications were not sufficient. This was the first, but not the last time that Jamyang Sakya would allow the Chinese to treat her child’s illness. This would be the only opportunity for Jamyang to interact with the Chinese. Sometimes, however, due to the high status held by her husband, she was forced to accompany Dagchen Rinpoche to dinners and celebrations hosted by the communist officials. Jamyang described the increase in the communist propaganda which she witnessed on daily bases. Public schools teaching Chinese and the communist doctrine had been established, as well as youth groups. Lhasa had a newspaper published twice weekly that printed world news with a pro-Chinese slant. Furthermore, Jamyang Sakya notes that “Chinese officials used microphones around the city, blasting out propaganda.”(217)

In her autobiography, Jamyang Sakya stresses that neither she nor her husband ever wanted to collaborate with the Chinese. Dagchen Rinpoche was asked numerous times by the communist officials to participate in propaganda meetings and eventually accepted a salary from the communist government for teaching the communist doctrine in the monasteries. A few months following this incident, Jamyang Sakya was to receive a similar proposition. Midway through her stay in Shigatse, Jamyang Sakya was visited by some Chinese officials. Lady Sakya was asked to sign a document saying that she would head a women’s propaganda group called the Young Women’s Group of Western Tibet upon her return to Sakya. Jamyang, boldly and assertively, replied that “she is not like the women of Shigatse and Sakya. She is a Khampa, and she does not wish to lecture.”(243) The political takeover of Tibet by the Chinese communists resulted in the destruction of Tibet’s religious heritage. Jamyang Sakya, thus, as well as her husband, prove to be deeply patriotic and religiously committed individuals who were not willing to compromise their values and their beliefs for monetary compensation and privileges one could gain form one’s association with the communist Chinese.

The Life of Jamyang Sakya in Tibet is a fascinating story of a determined, outspoken woman who, in the end, overcome great obstacles (both of a personal and professional nature) in order to achieve religious freedom. The autobiography of Jamyang Sakya climaxes with the Sakya family’s harrowing walk through the Himalayas to freedom, during which they are hotly pursued by the Chinese. After a year in India, the Sakya family finally emigrates to the United States. It is fascinating to trace the life journey of a Khampa-born girl who not only became a princess, but ended up as a great mentor and a leader in the United States. Her story is a living mark of the preciousness and the fragility of Tibetan cultural and religious heritage.


Book reviewed:
Sakya, Jamyang: Princess in the Land of Snows, the Life of Jamyang Sakya in Tibet.
Shambhala Publications Inc., 1990.