Tibet, the jewel of the Himalayas, and its influence on colour in my silk scarf collection.

Read how its inspirational treasures have stayed with me all these years and continue to inspire the colours of so many of my silk designs. The rich colours and textures of the Buddhist painting and decorative temples. The colourful prayer flags that adorn the mountain slopes. The wonderful traditional dress of the thick Yak fur brocade coats and yellow and wine woolen robes of the pilgrims and monks. 

Like a gaggle of unassuming tourists, we herded ourselves onto a rickety bus from the airport, destination Lhasa. The bus ride to the city was instantly jaw-dropping. I sat watching out the dusty window, as the road carved its way through the valley. I was suddenly surrounded by majestic mountains dusted with a light sprinkling of snow set against the brightest blue cobalt sky. The journey was unexpectedly long with relatively few signs of life, just a few scattered whitewashed villages and a smattering of prayer flags adorning the nearer mountain slopes.

I stumbled off the bus with my rucksack and headed in the vague directions given for the hostel I had booked. I was greeted by a young Tibetan lady with poor English who showed me to my room. I followed her through an outdoor courtyard where she showed me the shared bathroom and finally to my bedroom. Bare with a just a mattress, pillow and a tray with a glass and a flask of hot water, this would be home for the next days and what I would come to expect of Tibet for the next weeks. 

I had no real plans and no return ticket. I wasn't even too sure how I was going to get home, but it was the start of a very interesting journey for me. 

The Chinese government opened the doors to Tibet for tourism in 1985 so it was excited to explore this relatively uncharted territory. Lhasa meaning "place of the gods" is the jewel city of the Himalayan Mountains, and one of the highest cities in the world, whose range includes Mount Everest which rises to 29,035 feet above sea level. 

The hostel was right in the heart of the ancient Barkhor market area in the oldest part of Lhasa, wonderfully traditional with whitewashed walls and white rooftops, decorated with prayer flags and wafting incense. A great place to enjoy bargaining with the local Tibetan vendors for their unique handicrafts, traditional costumes, headdresses and jewellery. Through the market you can join one of the most fascinating religious paths in the world called the Kora.

I weaved my way in amongst the crowd and was suddenly immersed into the flow, surrounded by an eclectic crowd - pilgrims, monks, purple-cheeked toddlers and their grandmothers, nomadic Golok women in miniature bowler hats and huge Khampa warriors wearing thick yak fur coats and hair embellished with red threaded turquoise and coral stones. Everyone walking in a clockwise circumnavigation, encircling the Jokhang Temple spinning prayer wheels, chanting and performing this ancient ritual.

The 1300-year-old Jokhang Temple is the spiritual heart of Tibet. For most Tibetans it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. This temple has remained centre of the Buddhist pilgrimage for centuries, praying for the long life and good health and return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

I followed the sea of pilgrims and entered the crumbling temple. I could barely make out the decor inside it was so dimly lit with flickering candles but I continued to shuffle down the dark and narrow entrance hall. Smells of butter, incense and 1300 years of aged old walls and rituals wafted through the air. I watched as people would pick up flasks of thick melted yak butter to pour into the butter lamp offerings, then join the press of people queuing, belly to back against eachother.

Claustrophobic, slightly nauseous and light headed.. all of a sudden my feelings were forgotten as I had a glimpse of the first statues and deities lining the hall. Huge statues in gold and blue, draped in thick ribbons of swirling patterns of yellow, orange, red, green, gold, and encrusted with turquoise, coral and diamonds. the colours were whirring in my head. Surrounding the statues were murals and silk banners and wildly-painted carved columns. I continued walking a little further, bending and ducking under a low wooden beam and door, following the crowd circling more tiny rooms, with Tibetans dripping butter into the larger silver lamps, huddling into corners and muttering words of prayer.

Eventutally in what seemed like an eternity I reached the outside world, sucking in the fresh cold air, nearly having to pinch myself in disbelief. The whole experience was overwhelming. I had never been so immersed in ancient tradition, the richness of the colours and textures, smells and feelings will stay with me forever. 

Tibet,  though still under China’s occupation, has tried to maintain its unique written and spoken culture, religion and political system. However, all of Tibetan land has now been divided up, renamed and incorporated into Chinese provinces. Their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama repeatedly calls for Tibet's independence, freedom, identity and protection of human rights to be reinstated , and for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet ( who has been in exile since 1959 ).

My journey there was very humbling and amidst all their troubles the people always made me feel welcome and greeted me with a curious smile. The rishness of the colours and impact of textures and patterns that I photographed there, continue to feature throughout my work and deisgns. This scarf design was inspired by a photograph I took of a ceiling in a temple we stumbled across while out hiking, hidden, nestled in the mountainous hills. I was intrigued by its pattern of small feet and tubular floral twists, 

Tibetan jungle silk classic square
Debbie Millington