Tibet’s Most Sacred Shrine and the Fortress Palace of the Dalai Lamas
Lhasa, which in Tibetan means “the Holy City” or “Place of the Gods,” is the vortex of Tibetan spirituality, a city that mystifies and intoxicates, despite the present-day Chinese presence. The vast hilltop Potala, the empty thirteen-story fortress that was once the winter palace and seat of the god-king, the Dalai Lama, is the most recognizable of the city’s landmarks. Its white-and-red walls and golden roofs rise above the holy city, seeming to grow out of the hill on which it has stood since the 17th century.
It is now a museum, an empty shell of its former self, its central figure and his government having taken its life with them when they fled to India in 1959 following the Chinese occupation. And yet, as 20th-century Chinese-born novelist Han Suyin wrote, “No one can remain unmoved by the sheer power and beauty of the structure, with its thousand windows like a thousand eyes.”
The Dalai Lamas, each of whom is believed to be the reincarnation of Avalokitshvara, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion, ruled Tibet as spiritual and temporal overlords from 1644; the current Dalai Lama, the fourteenth reincarnation, was just sixteen when Tibet was occupied by China. His private apartments have been left untouched, and surprisingly the building, said to have as many as 1,000 rooms, has been left undamaged by the Chinese; in fact, they are restoring it – reportedly for the purpose of luring tourism.
Though the Potala will be your first sight in Lhasa, the Jokhang Temple is actually the spiritual heart of the city, as well as the busy hub of the main market district, known as the Barkhor. Founded more than 1,300 years ago, the golden-roofed Jokhang is a mixture of Tibetan, Indian, Nepalese, and Chinese architecture and is Tibet’s holiest shrine.
Tibetan Buddhists express devotion to a holy site by walking clockwise around it, and here the circumambulation, or holy path of transformation, runs right around the marketplace and goes on from dawn until dusk. At the temple’s entrance, devout worshippers repeatedly prostrate themselves to gain religious merit, while inside, a million butter candles softly illuminate the most important statue of Buddha, one of more than 200 in the temple.
You may feel as if you have stepped back in time as you listen to the chanting of holy scriptures – a sensation that may last until long after you have walked back out into the bustling jamboree of the surrounding Barkhor marketplace.