At the entrance to the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism, I tiptoe past pilgrims prostrating in the forecourt. Kneeling and pushing their bodies prone, using wooden blocks to protect their hands, they rub their heads along the cobblestones while murmuring sacred mantras.
The stones, I see, are worn almost smooth by centuries of devotion. These followers of Tibetan Buddhism traveled to Lhasa from the remotest regions of Tibet, spending weeks on the road in what, for some, may be the trip of a lifetime. Now they are making their final approach to Jokhang Temple face down.
Legend Surrounds Temple’s Founding
Located in the center of the oldest quarter of Lhasa, Jokhang Temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Potala Palace, former residence of the Dalai Lamas, a few miles to the west.
How the temple came to be built here is the stuff of legends. One has it that King Songtsen Gampo, who unified Tibet and moved the capital to Lhasa, chose the site when he tossed his ring in the air and it fell into a lake that was on this spot. Another legend says Wen Cheng, who would become his Chinese wife, was bringing a statue of Jowo Sakyamuni to the king as part of her dowry when her cart stuck in the mud by the lake. She proclaimed a demon lived at the bottom of the lake and to cast out the evil spirit, the lake had to be drained and filled in. The temple was built atop it, its foundation stone set in A.D. 647.
I see no evidence of a lake or a demon, just clusters of dusty buildings surrounding the four-story stone and timber temple. Its architecture reminds me of a mash-up of temples in Nepal, China and India. Though the fifth Dalai Lama reconstructed the Jokhang in the 17th century—a project that lasted some 30 years—parts of the original 7th century temple remain. The Jokhang even withstood the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when it was desecrated by Red Guards who turned part of it into a pigsty.
Venerating a Sacred Statue
Inside the Jokhang, I’m enveloped in darkness except for row upon row of yak butter lamps. I join the queue of pilgrims filing silently past. In the main room on the ground floor I take a moment to gaze up at six larger-than-life deities before heading off to the first in a series of chapels that ring the room.
The longest line forms outside the chapel showcasing the same Jowo Sakyamuni statue Queen Wen Cheng brought to the king. The most sacred off all the temple’s statues, it depicts the Buddha at age 12. Standing five feet tall, it’s been gilded and bejeweled over the centuries it has rested here. I watch as a pilgrim lays a traditional white scarf, a khata, at the base. He bows, touching his forehead to the statue’s leg.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to visit Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site
- You want to join pilgrims on their walk around a city on the roof of the world
- Good for those interested in the world’s religions and peoples
Upstairs on the first floor, I make my way around another ring of chapels, stopping at the west wall to visit the Chapel of King Songtsen Gampo. A tiny figure of a buddha protrudes from his head. On either side of the king stand statues of his two wives, Wen Cheng, and his Nepalese wife, Bhrikuti. The three are credited with instilling Buddhism into Tibetan culture.
I climb to the roof with its gilded bronze tiles and figures of deer and dharma wheel. From this vantage I see the Potala and mountains behind it in the distance. Looking down, I have a wonderful view of the Barkhor.
Pilgrims circumambulate the Barkhor clockwise, always keeping the temple to their right. I join dozens shuffling along, chanting and spinning prayer wheels, but am easily distracted by street performers and a woman dressed in deep red hawking prayer flags, her copper face splitting into a smile when she catches my eye. Soon I detour down one of the many alleys off the circuit and am engulfed in the crowd milling around market stalls. Do I really need that sheepskin vest or that T-shirt with a yak embroidered on it? I duck into a teahouse and order the traditional butter tea to think it over.
Re-emerging into the light-filled streets, I continue along the Barkhor, stopping to spin a prayer wheel, silently stating my wish that these gentle, beautiful people and their rich culture continue to survive for centuries to come.
- The Chinese government often closes the Tibetan Autonomous Region to tourists without warning due to political unrest over the struggle for Tibetan independence. Have a backup plan.
- Many visitors who come directly from low elevations to Lhasa, at roughly 12,000 feet, experience altitude sickness that can cause headaches, nausea, breathlessness and loss of appetite. Take it easy for a couple of days to acclimatize. Drink plenty of liquids and skip the alcohol.
- Out of respect for Buddhist tradition, don’t wear shorts or short skirts in the Jokhang and remove your hat indoors. Don’t touch items on an altar or remove prayer flags or stones. Photos are not allowed inside the main temple.