Situated in a wide, mountain-fringed valley on the north bank of the Kyichu River, LHASA (拉萨, lāsà; Ground of the Gods), at 3700m, is a sprawling modern Chinese city with a population of around 200,000. An important settlement for well over a thousand years, it was originally called Rasa, but was renamed by King Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century when he moved his capital here from the Yarlung Valley. Following the collapse of the Yarlung dynasty two centuries later, power dispersed among local chieftains, and the city lost its pre-eminence. It was not until the seventeenth century, with the installation of the Fifth Dalai Lama as ruler by the Mongolian emperor, Gushri Khan, that Lhasa once again became the seat of government. It continues now as the capital of the TAR, and while glorious sights from earlier times are spread throughout the area, it is this third period of growth, following the Chinese invasion, which has given the city its most obvious features – wide boulevards and concrete-and-glass blocks. Despite the passing of sixty years, Lhasa is still clearly a city under occupation, with armed soldiers standing sentry on street corners and rooftops, and constant patrols throughout the city.
There are plenty of sights in and around Lhasa to keep most visitors occupied for at least a week (even if most tours cram them into a few days): the Potala, Jokhang and the Barkhor district are not to be missed, and at least one trip to an outlying monastery is a must. It’s also worth taking time to see some of the smaller, less showy temples and simply to absorb the atmosphere of the “Forbidden City”, which large numbers of explorers died in vain efforts to reach just over a hundred years ago.
Offering tourists better facilities, with more choice of accommodation, restaurants and shopping than anywhere else in Tibet, Lhasa makes for a relatively pain-free introduction to the region. But, whatever its comforts, the city is just one face of Tibet – 88 percent of the population lives in the countryside.Read More
The Potala Palace
The Potala Palace
Perched 130m above Lhasa atop Marpo Ri (Red Mountain), and named after India’s Riwo Potala – holy mountain of the god Chenresi – the Potala Palace (布达拉宫, bùdálāgōng) is dazzling inside and out, an enduring landmark of the city of Lhasa. As you revel in the views from the roof, gaze at the glittering array of gold and jewels and wend your way from chapel to chapel, you’ll rub shoulders with excited and awestruck pilgrims from all over ethnic Tibet, making offerings at each of the altars. But be aware that, beyond the areas approved for tourists and pilgrims, the Potala is a shadow of its former self: most of the rooms are off limits, part of a UNESCO World Heritage grant was spent on a CCTV system and the caretaker monks are not allowed to wear their robes. And don’t tackle the Potala on your first day at altitude – the palace is a long climb, and even the Tibetans huff and puff on the way up; you’ll enjoy it more once you’ve acclimatized.
Rising thirteen dramatic storeys and consisting of over a thousand rooms, the palace complex took a workforce of at least seven thousand builders and fifteen hundred artists and craftsmen over fifty years to complete. The main mass of the Potala is the White Palace (Potrange Karpo), while the building rising from its centre is the Red Palace (Potrang Marpo). Built for several purposes, the Potala served as administrative centre, seat of government, monastery, fortress and the home of all the Dalai Lamas from the Fifth to the Fourteenth, although from the end of the eighteenth century, when the Norbulingka was built as the Summer Palace, they stayed here only in winter. It was King Songtsen Gampo who built the first palace on this site in the seventh century, though invaders later destroyed it. Today’s White Palace (1645–48) was built during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who took up residence in 1649, while the Red Palace, begun at the same time, was completed in 1693. Both survived the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed; apparently Zhou Enlai ordered their protection.
The Jokhang (大昭寺, dàzhāosì) – sometimes called Tshuglakhang (Cathedral), and the holiest temple in the Tibetan Buddhist world – can be somewhat unprepossessing from afar, but get closer and you’ll be swept up by the anticipation of the pilgrims and the almost palpable air of veneration. Inside, you’re in for one of the most unforgettable experiences in Tibet; some visitors end up returning day after day.
King Songtsen Gampo built the Jokhang in the seventh century to house the dowry brought by his Nepalese bride, Princess Bhrikuti, including the statue known as the Akshobhya Buddha. This later changed places with the Jowo Sakyamuni statue from Princess Wencheng’s dowry, which was initially installed in Ramoche temple, and which is now regarded as Tibet’s most sacred object. The site of the temple was decided by Princess Wencheng after consulting astrological charts, and confirmed by the king following a vision while meditating. However, construction was fraught with problems. Another vision revealed to the king and his queens was that beneath the land of Tibet lay a huge, sleeping demoness with her head in the east, feet to the west and heart beneath Lhasa. Only by building monasteries at suitable points to pin her to the earth, could construction of the Jokhang succeed. The king embarked on a scheme to construct twelve demon-suppressing temples: four around Lhasa, which included Trandruk, to pin her at hips and shoulders; a set of four farther away, to pin her at elbows and knees; and four even more distant, to pin her hands and feet. When these were finished, construction of the Jokhang began.
The main entrance to the Jokhang is from Barkhor Square (八角街广场, bājiaŏjiēguăngchăng), which is to the west of the temple and full of stalls selling prayer flags, white scarves (katag), incense and all manner of religious souvenirs. Two bulbous incense burners in front of the temple send out juniper smoke as an offering to the gods, and the two walled enclosures here contain three ancient engraved pillars. The tallest is inscribed with the Tibetan-Chinese agreement of 821 AD and reads: “Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet. Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war or seizing of territory”.
In front of the huge temple doors, a constant crowd of pilgrims prostrate themselves – you can hear the clack of the wooden protectors on their hands and the hiss as the wood moves along the flagstones when they lie flat on the ground. Head round the southern side to the visitors’ entrance to enter the main courtyard, where ceremonies and their preparations take place. Rows of tiny butter lamps burn on shelves along the far wall, and it’s a bustling scene as monks make butter statues and dough offerings and tend the lamps. Through a corridor in the north wall, with small chapels to left and right, you pass into the inner area of the temple. The central section, Kyilkhor Thil, houses statues galore, six of them considered particularly important. The most dramatic are the 6m-high Padmasambhava on the left, which dates from 1955, and the half-seated figure of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, to the right.
Devout pilgrims turn left to move clockwise and enter each chapel in turn to pray and make offerings. They don’t hang around, though; stand still to admire the statues and you’ll get trampled in the rush. Some of the wooden door frames and columns are original – the door frame of the Chapel of Chenresi, in the north, and the columns in front of the Chapel of Jowo Sakyamuni, in the east, were created by Niwari craftsmen from Nepal during the temple’s early years. As with all temples in Tibet, it’s often difficult to know exactly what you are looking at. Some of the statues are original, others were damaged during the Cultural Revolution and have been restored either slightly or extensively, and others are replicas; in any event, all are held in deep reverence by the pilgrims.
Traditionally, pilgrims to Lhasa circled the city on two clockwise routes: an outer circuit called the Lingkhor, now vanished under two-lane highways and rebuilding, and the shorter Barkhor (八角街, bājiaŏjiē) circuit through the alleyways a short distance from the Jokhang walls. This maze of picturesque streets, a world away from the rest of Lhasa, has survived. It’s now lined with the stalls of an outdoor market selling all manner of goods – saddles and stirrups, Chinese army gear, thangkas, jewellery, blankets, DVDs, carpets, tin trunks and pictures of lamas, to mention a fraction only. The many trinkets and “antiques” are, of course, fakes, made in Nepal, but the pilgrims are an amazing sight: statuesque Khampa men with their traditional knives and red-braided hair, decorated with huge chunks of turquoise; Amdo women dripping jewels with their hair in 108 plaits; and old ladies spinning their tiny prayer wheels and intoning mantras. The Barkhor circuit is most atmospheric in the early hours of the morning, before the sun has risen and stallholders have set up. That’s when a feeling of devotion is prevalent, as the constant mumble of prayer and shuffle of prostrations emanate from the shadows cast by the lambent pre-dawn light.
The whole Barkhor area is worth exploring – with its huge wooden doors set in long, white walls and leading into hidden courtyards – but try not to miss Tromzikhang market to the north of the Jokhang; take the main alleyway into the Barkhor that leads off Beijing Dong Lu just east of Ramoche Lu and it’s just down on your left. The two-storey modern building is a bit soulless, but nowhere else in the world can you see (or smell) so much yak butter in one place.