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.