Surrounded by jagged mountains and steeped in mysticism, Lhasa continues to be defined by Buddhism. Busy markets, sweet incense and flowing yellow robes all greet you as you take your first step into the city.
After spending hours gazing out of your airplane window at snow peaked mountains, the clouds finally open up to reveal a vast plain surrounded by mountains. It’ s as if you have arrived in another world of clouds, mountains and color. Lhasa is the heart of this Buddhist land hidden away in the mightiest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas.
In Lhasa you’ ll find religion blended into every aspect of life – the city is the spiritual anchor of Tibet. Lhasa literally means “holy land” and it’ s a well-deserved name. With many holy sites. Lhasa is an important place of pilgrimage for people from all over Tibet who stream into the city from far-flung villages. They’ re easily identifiable with their prayer flags and prayer wheels; the signs of devotion abound throughout the land.
It’ s easy to forget that you’ re already at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet (3,650m)as you look at the towering mountains that surround Lhasa, but that’ s why Tibet is also known as the “rooftop of the world” The 58-mile (93km) trip from the airport to the city follows the winding path of the scenic Lhasa River, past families working in fields of barley and yellow canola flowers and young monks walking along the roadside. Vivid colors are set against the mountains, surrounded by ever-changing clouds and the deep blue sky.
Lhasa itself is a noisy vibrant city, a mixture of old and modern. The city has an eclectic mix of people. Tibetans with their colorful clothes, Sichuan migrants with their spicy cuisine, as well as explorers, mountaineers and tourists from all over the world. There’ s a saying describing Tibetans, “that if a Tibetan can talk, he can sing; if he can walk, he can dance”, This aptly describes their lively and vibrant culture.
Over 1,300 years old, Lhasa dates back to the 7th century AD when the colorful Tibetan figure Songtsen Gampo built his palace in Lhasa. In 1642, the 5th Dalai Lama also made Lhasa his capital and rebuilt the architectural wonder, the Potala Palace, on top of the ruins of Songtsen’ s old abode. Today the Potala Palace continues to dominate the Lhasa skyline and is the most visible of all of the city’ s sights. It offers one of the best views of Lhasa and the surrounding area, especially in the early morning. The Potala Palace is comprised of the White Palace, which was the living quarters of the Dalai Lama and the central religious Red Palace. It’ s in the Red Palace that you can move through narrow corridors, dimly lit by many small butter lamps, to see the jewel-encrusted tomb stupas of the 5th and the 7th to 13th Dalai Lamas. The many chapels and former apartments give an insight to what life must have been like centuries ago in this theocratic sanctuary.
Some of Tibetan’ s richest treasures are held in the Potala Palace, particularly in the western part of the Red Palace. One especially dramatic sight is the jewel-encrusted tomb of Lobsang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama. His gilded 48.7-foot-tall(14.85m) tomb stupa contains 8,203 pounds (3,721kg) of gold as well as 10,000 precious pearls and stones. One of the most beautiful works of Buddhist art also here, the mandala of the Wheel of Time which contains 200,000 pearls as well as coral, turquoise and gold thread. Mandalas are a pictorial representation of the Buddhist universe; not only are they beautifully intricate, they’ re also deeply symbolic. They’ re an did in teaching young monks while older monks use them as a visualization tool for meditation.
The Norbu Lingka, built in 1751 as the summer residence of the Dalai Lama, lies 1.9miles (3km) west of the Potala Palace. As harsh winters gave way to spring, a grand procession of Lamas and officials accompanied the Dalai Lama from the Potala Palace to his summer home. Norbu Lingka, which means “jeweled garden” is a fitting title for the large compound of buildings and extensive gardens. Successive Dalai Lamas continually expanded the palace and up until 1959. Commoners weren’ t allowed within its walls. Today this once forbidden palace is ideal for quiet strolls and lazy afternoons. The palace contains some fabulous murals fusing Tibetan history and myth. Some of the finest murals are found at the back of the woods in the Golden Lingka and Chensal Potrang.
One of the best places to view modern day Lhasa and its diversity of culture is in the bustling Barkhor, a section of the old city. Here, the Barkhor Market has all manner of goods from turquoise jewelry to meditation heads, colorful traditional Tibetan clothes and yak wool sweaters. Here you can watch groups of monks draped in their maroon and saffron robes mingling with Tibetans from remote areas wearing long boots, sporting daggers and large turquoise necklaces.
Long streams of pious Tibetan pilgrims walk clockwise in Barkhor chanting prayers with their meditation beads, spinning their prayer wheels re performing full prostrations as they circle the Jokhang Temple, one of Tibet’ s holiest temples. There devout pilgrims wear yak leather gloves and aprons to protect their hands as they slide over the rocky ground, their reverent prostrations atoning for bad deeds performed in the past. Prostrating pilgrims journey from all over Tibet to worship here.
The Jokhang Temple, situated in Barkhor Square, is the noisy and colorful heart of Lhasa. It was built in the 7th century when King Songtsen Gampo wanted to build a temple to house two famous statues brought by his brides from Tang dynasty and Nepal. Being unable to decide where to build the structure, he left it up to fate and threw his ring in the air and promised to build a temple wherever it landed. It landed in a lake, striking a rock where a white stupa miraculously emerged; the lake was filled with rocks and here the Jokhang Temple was constructed. The main entrance to the Jokhang is marked by a large golden, eight-spoke Dharma wheel flanked by two deer. The spokes of the wheel represent the Buddhist eightfold path to enlightenment and the deer serve as a reminder that Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park.
Dim corridors lined with statues of fierce and benign guardians lead to the innermost shrine. This is the home of the oldest and most precious object in Tibet – the gold statue of Sakyamuni Buddha brought by Princess Wencheng of the Tang dynasty to Tibet 1,300 years ago as part of her dowry. Inside the inner chamber, mellow butter lamps create shadows that dance across his features. Also in the innermost shrine is a 19.7-foot-tall(6m) tall statue of Padmasambhava, the Buddha of compassion and the half-seated figure of Maitreya, Buddha of the future. If you find the narrow corridors stifling then head and it’ s a great spot to watch modern Lhasa life in Barkjor Square or just sit in the afternoon sun.
About 5 miles (8km) west of Lhasa, just outside the city, is the Drepung Monastery. This jumble of white buildings stands out against the majestic Mount Gambo Utse. The monastery was once the largest in Tibet and where each reincarnation of the Dalai Lama received his training. Built during the 15th century, it’ s now home to about 700 monks.
Another important temple to the north of Lhasa is the Sera Monastery. It continues as a training center set at the foot of Tatipu Hill where young monks train in the debating garden and prepare foe scholastic examinations by holding mock debates. In Lama Buddhism, the debating garden is a whetstone where the mind is sharpened. After the garden, climb the wall and walk up the hill to see the beautiful rock art, depicting life-size blue bodhisattvas. A short climb is rewarded with a landscape view of Lhasa and the expansive mountains that ring the city. Here you’ ll see the sky stretching from the tallest mountains to the heavens.
Wherever you are in Lhasa, you’ re always surrounded by colorful people, striking natural scenery, humbling mountains, flowing rivers and fields of green, gold and yellow. Although some of the main temples can be busy, just turn the corner or wander off for a few minutes and you’ ll quickly find yourself in a picturesque rural Tibetan scene out of a postcard.
FESTIVALS IN TIBET
Tibet has many colorful festivals that take place throughout the year and if your trip coincides with one of them, it shouldn’ t be missed. The festivals are fantastic opportunities to feel, see and taste living Tibetan culture-this is when all of Lhasa comes out.
One particularly impressive festival around Lhasa is the Shotun Festival, which is held from mid-August to early September depending on the Tibetan lunar calendar. During the festival, giant tapestries of Buddha hang from the mountainside and the Potala Palace. Monks from different monasteries spend an entire year constructing the tapestry as a form of meditation.
In order to see the unfurling, you’ ll have to stumble up a narrow mountain path in the pre-dawn darkness as incense lights the many small shrines along the path. Only when first light arrives does it become apparent that you’ re amongst thousands of pilgrims who are also making their way along this circuit.
Senior Lamas and monks stand a large stage on the side of the mountain chanting sutras; flanking the stage are two giant horns held by two monks. The deep piercing bellow from these horns accompanied with the low guttural chants of the monks vibrates the entire mountain and the anticipation is contagious. Once the tapestry is unfurled, thousands of brightly colored pieces of prayer paper envelop the air while taras run down the side of the tapestry launched by pilgrims hopeful for Buddha’ s blessing.