Created | Updated Feb 23, 2007
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Lhasa is the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China. It used to be simply the capital of Tibet. It used to be the capital city of a country the size of Western Europe, or as big as Texas and Alaska combined, the highest country in the world. It used to be a holy city. That was half a century ago.
Half a century later, it is the capital of a minority region of the most populous country on earth. Now there are as many Chinese as Tibetans, as Tibetans become a minority even in the minority region. And the holy city is rapidly becoming just another concrete jumble.
Lay of the Land
Lhasa lies in a broad, gently sloping valley, through which the Kyi-Chu River winds on its way to join the Tsangpo to the west. The Tsangpo, in turn, eventually cuts through the Himalayas, cascading to the plains far below to become the mighty Brahmaputra of the Indian subcontinent.
The Kyi-Chu is broad and shallow as it flows past the city, carving numerous sandy islands cloaked with willows. Its many side channels change from year to year with the rise and fall of periodic floods; old sand bars are erased and new ones take their place, giving birth to their own miniature willow groves.
At an elevation of 3700m, the climate of Lhasa is temperate by Tibetan standards, with temperatures ranging from nighttime lows of around -10°C in January to daytime highs of little more than 20°C in June. As the capital of 'The Land of Snows', Lhasa receives remarkably little of the white stuff, the monthly amount of precipitation peaking at about 130mm of rain in July.
Rising in dramatic fashion from the valley floor is a rocky outcrop named Marpo Ri. This natural defensive position, close to the right bank of the river, was an obvious place to locate a town. It is from this vantage point that the Potala Palace watches over the surrounding landscape, a monumental symbol linking the impermanence of everyday affairs to the eternal in a way that is unmistakable and impossible to ignore.
The Potala Palace, the winter home of the Dalai Lamas, seems less to have been built on the rock of Marpo Ri than to have grown out of it. The gleaming white walls of the lower palace, Potrang Karpo, zig-zigging up from the valley floor, and the red upper palace, Potrang Marpo, which proclaims ancient and profound wisdom as clearly as a neon sign, are, in combination, among the world's most distinctive architectural wonders.
Since ancient times, Marpo Ri has been considered the abode of Chenrezig1, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and so it is fitting that the Dalai Lamas, considered to be emanations of Chenrezig, should also make it their home. The Potala was built upon the foundations of a fort, built by the Dharma king, Songtsen Gampo, in the seventh century.
The Great Fifth Dalai Lama began construction of the Potala in 1645; and it was completed in 1694. Unfortunately, he didn't live to see its completion. Fearful that any instability resulting from His death would interrupt construction, news of His demise was kept secret until the project was completed 14 years later.
No doubt as a consequence of having been kept waiting for so long, His next incarnation, the Sixth Dalai Lama, was a young man who did not quite fit the monastic mould; he was notorious for sneaking out of the Potala at night to have a quick drink and enjoy the company of the Lhasa girls. Sadly, he was to die a young man. He is still loved and revered as a great romantic poet2.
The Potala is a massive structure, a veritable maze of temples and government offices, as well as a repository for ancient Buddhist texts and the trappings of civilization accumulated over centuries. It is 13 storeys high and has more than a thousand rooms. The Potala also houses the mortal remains of the Dalai Lamas, from the 5th to the 13th; the only one missing is 6th. Their mummified bodies are preserved in stupas (Tibetan: chorten), reliquaries sheathed in gold and silver and covered with precious stones.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976), virtually all of Tibet's 6000 temples and monasteries were ransacked by Maoist zealots. The Potala is thought to have been spared from the looting and destruction by the personal intervention of Premiere Zhou Enlai. Nevertheless, a great deal of the treasures and antiquities it contained has been removed. Despite the fact that the Potala has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, the government of the People's Republic of China continues to plunder the Potala, most recently shipping truckloads of priceless religious art to a museum in Shanghai.
Jokhang and Ramoche
The Jokhang Temple was built in the 7th Century by the Dharma King Songtsen Gampo to house a statue of the Lord Buddha as an eight-year-old boy. The statue is known as the Akshobhya Buddha; it was brought to Tibet by the king's Nepalese bride, Princess Trisun. His Chinese bride, Princess Wencheng, also brought a statue as a part of her dowery, Jowo Shakyamuni, this one depicting Buddha as an adult. It is especially revered because it is believed to have been crafted during the Buddha's life. This was housed in the Ramoche temple.
When King Songtsen Gampo died in 649, Princess Wencheng, fearing an invasion from China, removed her statue from the Ramoche and hid it in a wall of the Jokhang. When it was rediscovered in 710, the Akshobhya statue was taken away and installed in the Ramoche; and each of the two images of Buddha has resided in the temple of the other ever since.
Most of the Jokhang, which includes a monastery, was built in the 17th Century by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. It is considered to be the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism, drawing pilgrims from all over Tibet and around the world. It suffered considerable damage during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976); and most of its original contents have been looted and carried off to China. The complex as a whole, including the temple, monastery, and chapels, is known as the Tsuglakhang.
The Jowo Shakyamuni is located at the centre of three concentric pilgrimage routes, koras: the outermost encircles the sacred district of the old city; the middle surrounds the Barkhor, a maze of narrow streets, much of which has been bulldozed and replaced by Barkhor Square; and the innermost is a corridor around the chapels of the temple itself. To circumambulate the Jokhang on any of them is to gain considerable merit. Many pilgrims get the maximum benefit by performing prostrations along the entire route, so that every inch of ground is covered. Circumambulations should always proceed in a clockwise direction.
A stone pillar stands in the square in front of the Jokhang. It was erected by the Dharma King Tri Ralpachen (806-841) to commemorate a peace treaty between Tibet and China in 821; a similar pillar once stood in the Chinese capital; a third stood on the border between the two countries. In addition to the names of the signatory officials, the terms of the treaty was inscribed on each:
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 nor seizing of territory. If any person incurs suspicion he shall be arrested; his business shall be inquired into and he shall be escorted back.
Norbulinka - The Norbulinka was the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas. In contrast to the stark majesty of the Potala, which the 14th Dalai Lama has said he found oppressive as a boy, the Norbulinka is a compound containing a number of palaces, temples, and other buildings.
The Norbulinka was built by the Seventh Dalai Lama, in the 18th Century. It was here that Heinrich Harrer was famously engaged in building Tibet's first cinema for the young Dalai Lama, as seen in Jean-Jacques Annaud's film, Seven Years in Tibet. And it was here that the Dalai Lama came under mortar fire by PLA troops in 1959.
The 'Jewel garden' is now known as 'The People's Pleasure Park'.
Ani Tsangkhung Nunnery - This traditional style building, surrounding a courtyard filled with pots of flowers, is an oasis of calm in the heart of Lhasa that belies the tense relationship between Tibetan nuns and the authorities.
Lhasa was for a long time inaccessible to any but the hardiest of travellers. Before the Chinese invasion, Tibet had no road system suitable for wheeled vehicles and all goods were shipped by caravans of pack animals. This made reaching Lhasa an extremely arduous adventure, involving careful preparation and weeks, months, or perhaps years invested in the journey. This contributed to Lhasa's mystique, which, not unlike the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, was based in part on the difficulty associated with getting there.
Facing south towards the Kyi-chu, the Potala once cast its gaze over the walled enclave of the Shöl, the homes and offices of the functionaries of secular Tibet, and a loose collection of scattered buildings in the immediate vicinity. Atop the nearby Chakpori outcrop to the west stood the medical school, founded in 1696, which was shelled to oblivion in 1959. Drepung and Sera monasteries3 nestled into folds of the mountains to the north, were reached by footpaths, skirting marshland and farmers' fields.
Today, much of the valley has been swallowed up by urban sprawl and Old Lhasa is almost hidden in a warren of concrete that extends from one side to the other. The banks of the Kyi-Chu have been stabilized and its whimsical, meandering nature confined by walls. Much of the outer Shöl has been bulldozed and replaced with a huge square resembling Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The number of people in Lhasa has exploded in recent years, from 30,000 residents in 1959 to over 200,000 today4, the fastest growing section of the population being Chinese immigrants. Census figures do not report the numbers of People's Liberation Army troops garrisoned around Lhasa or the numbers of People's Armed Police.
Much of the uniquely Tibetan architecture of Lhasa has been replaced by dreary concrete blocks, the ubiquitous emblem of the cheerless vision of Maoist reform; and most of the outlying areas have been claimed by factories, barracks, and prisons. Many of the ancient landmarks are now difficult to discern among the congestion of the so-called 'development' that is changing the face of Lhasa. Sadly, the pace of change can only increase with the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, now under construction.