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Lhasa, Tibet


Lhasa the traditional capital of Tibet and the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region is the largest city in Tibet with an area of 544 square kilometers. Lhasa is the center of Tibet's political, economic, cultural and religious activities. Lhasa literally means "The Place of Gods". It is situated at the foot of Mount Gephel, on the north bank of River Lhasa, a tributary of the Yarlung Tsangbo River, at an altitude of 3,700 meters and counts among the one of the highest cities in the world.  With more than 3,000 hours of sunshine annually, Lhasa is famed as "the City of Sunshine" also. There are many historic sites and famous relics in the city proper and its suburbs, among which the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery and Gandan Monastery are world famous. The city is the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama and the Potala and Norbulingka palaces and in Tibetan Buddhism is regarded as the holiest centre in Tibet. Lhasa enjoys mild weather and is free of both frigid winters and unbearably hot summers. It rains mainly in July, August and September. The rainy seasons in the summer and fall are widely regarded the "best" seasons of the year, during these seasons it rains mostly at night and days are bright and sunny.



Lhasa has long interesting history. Before the mid-seventh century when Lhasa was yet to come into being, the area was known as Wotang. It was a marshy land of wildness, frequented by antelopes. On one bright summer day, Songtsan Gampo, leader of the Tubo tribe that had risen to power in the Yarlung River Valley, was struck by the perilous position of an area flanked by two steep mountains, while bathing in the Lhasa River, and decided that this was to be the home of his kingdom. This ambitious Tibetan king moved the center of his rule to Wotang and ordered the construction of his residence on the hilltop of Potala. In 641 A.D., Songtsan Gampo who by this time had conquered the whole Tibetan region wedded Princess Wencheng of the Imperial Tang Court. When the princess arrived, she became convinced that Lake Wotang was a devil's heart to be overpowered by the construction of a grand temple after filling up the lake with earth. The princess further suggested that the earth be carried by white goats. This imposing grand temple became a symbol of the kingdom. The temple, later known as Jokhang, was initially named Lhasa, "the Sacred Land" in Tibetan. Over the centuries, Lhasa became a political and religious center of Tibet. Administrative orders were issued from the myriad of imposing palaces. The great temples and monasteries were home to invincible liturgical establishment and witnessed the rise of many religious leaders and endless religious ceremonies. The faithful composed the population of the town and Lhasa became a true "Mecca" of Tibet.


Major Tourist Attractions

Lhasa has many historic sites and famous relics in the city proper and its suburbs, among which the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery and Norbulingka Palaces are world-renowned.


Jokhang Temple

This temple is one of the most sacred and important temples in Tibet. A part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace" and a spiritual centre of Lhasa, it is perhaps the most popular tourist attraction in Lhasa. It was built by King Songtsän Gampo probably in 642. It was originally called the Rasa Tulnang Tsuklakang or 'The House of Mysteries, The Magical Emanation at Rasa. Both Bhrituti and Wencheng, the Nepalese and Chinese wives of Songsten Gampo brought important Buddhist images to Tibet as part of

their dowries, which are housed here. The famous Buddhist Master, Atisha, taught here in the 11th century and it has been considered the most important temple in Lhasa ever since. This temple has remained a key center of Buddhist pilgrimage for centuries. It was sacked several times by the Mongols, but the building survived. In the past several centuries the temple complex was expanded and now covers an area of about 25,000 sq. meters. 


The Jokhang temple is a four-storey building, with roofs covered with gilded bronze tiles. Originally it was constructed on the bases of Indian vihara design, and was later extended resulting in a blend of Nepalese and Tang Dynasty styles. The rooftop statues of two golden deer flanking a Dharma wheel is iconic. The Jokhang temple complex has several decorated shrines and rooms. The main hall of the temple has the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha statue, which is perhaps the single most venerated object in Tibetan Buddhism. It also hoseas famous statues of Chenresig, Padmasambhava and King Songtsan Gambo and his two famous foreign brides, Princess Wen Cheng of China and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Many of the statues were destroyed during the "cultural revolution" but have since been remade - often including broken pieces of the original statues.


Sera Monastery

'Sera literally means 'Enclosure of Roses', is one of the 'great three' Gelukpa university monasteries of Tibet. The other two are Ganden Monastery and Drepung Monastery. The monastery is about 5 km north of the Jokang in Lhasa. It was founded in 1419, by Jamchen Chojey (Sakya Yeshe), a disciple of Tsong Khapa. Like the Drepung and Ganden monasteries, it had three colleges, namely Sera Mey Dratsang, Sera Jey Dratsang, and Ngagpa Dratsang. Sera Mey Dratsang was built in 1419 and used to give basic instruction to the monks, the largest college, Sera Jey Dratsang was constructed in 1435, and was reserved for wandering monks, especially Mongol monks. Ngagpa Dratsang, built in 1559, was a school for the teaching of the Gelukpa tantras. In 1959, Sera housed more than 5,000 monks. Although badly damaged, it is still standing and has been largely refurbished. It now houses a few hundred Buddhist monks. The Sera’s library houses some of the valuable prayer books. Prayers books in Sera's library Graduates of Sera Jey College who are known in the west  include, Lama Thubten Yeshe, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Lama Thubten

Zopa Rinpoche. Graduates of Sera Mey college who are known in the west include, Pabongka Rinpoche—Author of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hands, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche—one of the current Dalai Lama's teachers, Sermey Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tharchin—former abbot of Sera Mey university in Bylakuppe.  


Drepung Monastery

Literally means the 'Rice Heap' monastery', Drepung is also one of the "great three" Gelukpa university monasteries of Tibet. Drepung is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries, and indeed at its peak was the largest monastery of any religion in the world. Jamyang Chojey, who was a direct disciple of Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelukpa school, founded it in 1416. It is located on the Gambo Utse mountain, 5 kilometers from the western suburb of Lhasa.

At its largest, before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the monastery housed fifteen thousand celibate monks and was known

for the high standards of its academic study. Young monks of Drepung is divided into what are known as the seven great colleges - Gomang, Loseling, Deyang, Shagkor, Gyelwa or Tosamling, Dulwa, and Ngagpa. Routines in Drepung monastery is comprised of four parts: education, religious rites, education administration and sundry affairs. It can be a somewhat useful analogy to think of Drepung as a university along the lines of Oxford or the Sorbonne in the middle ages, the various colleges having different emphases, teaching lineages, or traditional geographical affiliations. Today the population at the monastery is much smaller with merely a few hundred monks, due to population capping enforced by the Chinese government.


Norbulingka Palace

Norbulingka literally means "The Jewelled Park" or the “Treasure Park”. It is a palace and surrounding park, which served as the traditional summer residence of the successive Dalai Lamas from the 1780s up until the PRC takeover in the late 1950s. It was first built in the forties of the eighteenth century, covering a space of 40 hectares after continuous expansion by the Dalai Lamas. The earliest building is the Gesang Pozhang Palace built by Kelzang Gyatso. Khamsum Zilnon is another eye-catching building behind the main gate. It was originally a Han style pavilion and later changed into a theater where the Dalai Lamas watched Tibetan opera. Tsokyil Potrang is a group of buildings on water.


Dalai Lamas used to read in a hall of the palace. Construction seldom stopped under the reigns of different Dalai Lamas. In 1922, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama began to build his Golden Lingka and Chensel Potrang, which is located at the back of the woods. The palace was heavily painted with murals, which bear strong Han characteristics. In 1956, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama finished his own palace - Takten Migyur Potrang, usually called New Summer Palace. Though it is called New Summer Palace, it is a very traditional architecture except for its interior modern facilities. In the palace there are many splendid murals painted by a Fourteenth Dalai Lama's painter. The topics of the murals include Tibetan officials, Sakyamuni preaching under a Bodhi tree, and Tibetan history from its founding by the Holy Monkey, the vicissitudes of Tubo Kingdom (633-844) and Tibetan Buddhism to Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama's interviews with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing. 

This palace holds beautiful gardens that are favorite picnic spots and provide a beautiful venue for theatre, dancing and festivals, particularly the Sho Dun or 'Yoghurt Festival'. It is celebrated at the beginning of August, with families camping in the grounds for days surrounded by colourful makeshift windbreaks of rugs and scarves and enjoying the height of summer weather. There is also a zoo at Norbulingka, originally to keep the animals which were given to the Dalai Lama. Heinrich Harrer helped the 14th Dalai Lama build a small movie theatre there in the 1950s. 

In 2001, UNESCO inscribed Norbulingka on its World Heritage List as part of the "Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace".

The Potala Palace

Named after Mount Potala, the abode of Chenresig or Avalokitesvara, it is one of the most popular tourist sites in Lhasa. Potala palace is located at an altitude of 3,700 m, on the side of Marpo Ri hill, the Red Mountain in the center of Lhasa Valley. It was the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to Dharamsala, India after a failed uprising in 1959. Today the Potala Palace is a state museum of China. The first palace was built by King Songtsen Gampo in 637 in order to greet his bride Princess Wen Cheng of the Tang Dynasty of China. The construction of thepresent palace began in 1645 under the fifth Dalai Lama, Lozang Gyatso.  In 1648, the Potrang Karpo known as White Palace was completed, and the Potala became the winter palace of Dalai Lama from that time.

The Potrang Marpo or the Red Palace was added to the complex between 1690 and 1694. It was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994 and was named as the "New Seven Wonders" by American media.


Famous Buildings in Potala Palace


White Palace

The White Palace is the part of the Potala Palace that makes up the living quarters of the Dalai Lama. The first White Palace was built during the lifetime of the fifth Dalai Lama in the 1650s then was extended to its size today by the thirteenth Dalai Lama in the early twentieth century. The palace was for secular uses and contained the living quarters, offices, the seminary and the printing house. A central, yellow-painted courtyard known as a Deyangshar separates the living quarters of the Lama and his monks with the Red Palace. The yellow building at the side of the White Palace in the courtyard between the main palaces houses giant banners embroidered with holy symbols which hung across the south face of the Potala during New Year festivals.


Red Palace

The Red Palace is part of the Potala palace that is completely devoted to religious study and Buddhist prayer. It consists of an intricate layout of many different halls, chapels and libraries on many different levels with a multifaceted array of smaller galleries and winding passages:


The Great West Hall

The great West Hall is the main central hall of the Red Palace, which consists of four great chapels that proclaim the glory, and power of the builder of the Potala, the Fifth Dalai Lama. The hall is illustrious for its fine murals reminiscent of Persian miniatures, depicting events in the fifth Dalai Lama's life. The famous scene of his visit to Emperor Shun Zhi in Beijing is located on the east wall outside the entrance. The numerous columns and pillars of the hall are wrapped with a special cloth from Bhutan.


The Saint's Chapel

On the north side of the great west hall is this holiest shrine of the Potala. The 19th century Tongzhi Emperor of China wrote a large blue and gold inscription over the door. It contains a small ancient jewel encrusted statue of Avalokiteshvara and two of his attendants. On the floor below, a low, dark passage leads into the Dharma Cave where Songsten Gampo is believed to have studied Buddhism. In the holy cave are images of Songsten Gampo, his wives, his chief minister and Sambhota, the scholar who developed Tibetan writing in the company of his many divinities.


The North Chapel

The North Chapel centres on a crowned Sakyamuni Buddha on the left and the Fifth Dalai Lama on the right seated on splendid gold thrones. Their equal height and shared aura entails an equal status. On the far left of the chapel is the gold stupa. This tomb belongs to the Eleventh Dalai Lama who died as a child and has rows of benign Medicine Buddhas who were the heavenly healers. On the right of the chapel are Avalokiteshvara and his historical incarnations including Songsten Gampo and the first four Dalai Lamas.


The South Chapel

The South Chapel centres on Padmasambhava, the 8th century Indian magician and saint accompanied by his two wives. His Tibetan wife, a gift from the King is by his left knee and his other wife from his native land of Swat is by his right. On his left, eight of his holy manifestations meditate with an unturned gaze. On his right, eight furious manifestations wield instruments of magic powers to subdue the demons of the Bon faith.


The East Chapel

The East chapel is devoted to Tsong Khapa the founder of the Gelug tradition. Lamas from Sakya Monastery who had briefly ruled Tibet and formed their own tradition until converted by Tsong Khapa surround his central figure. There are also some other statues on display that are made of various different materials and exhibit noble expressions.


The West Chapel    

This chapel contains the five golden stupas. The massive central stupa contains the mummified body of the Fifth Dalai Lama. This stupa is built of sandalwood and is amazingly coated in 3,727 kg of solid gold and studded with semi-precious jewels. It is almost 50 feet high and rises to three storeys. On the left is the funeral stupa for the Twelfth Dalai Lama and on the right that of the Tenth Dalai Lama.


The Galleries

The First Gallery is on the floor above the West chapel and has a number of large windows that give light and ventilation to the Great West Hall and its chapels below. The Second Gallery provides access to the central pavilion which is used for visitors to the palace for refreshments and to buy souvenirs. The Third Gallery has a number of dark rooms branching off it containing enormous collections of bronze statues and miniature figures made of copper and gold worth a fortune.


The Tomb of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama    

The tomb of the 13th Dalai Lama is located west of the Great West Hall. Built in 1933, this 14 metres high giant stupa holds priceless jewels and one ton of solid gold. Devotional offerings include elephant tusks from India, ceramic lions and vases and a pagoda made from over 200,000 pearls. The elaborated murals of stupa exhibit the traditional Tibetan style and depict many events of the life of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama during the early 20th century.


The Barkhor Street

The circular Barkhor Street is the oldest street of old Lhasa city. Found in the heart of Lhasa and circling the Jokhang Temple it is the trading as well as religious center of the city. It means 'a pilgrim's inner circuit'. It dates back to the foundation of the Jokhang Temple and is an essential pilgrim route. Buddhist pilgrims walk or progress by body-lengths along the street clockwise every day into deep night to reach Jokhang temple. This sacred pilgrim path, is also a marketplace where shaggy nomads, traders, robed monks and chanting pilgrims join together. It is also called 'the window of Tibet' as it typically reflects the Tibetan life and culture. Religious objects such as prayer flags, prayer wheels, thangkas (a kind of mounted scroll paintings ), sutras, prayer beads, etc. as well as jewelry, Tibetan knives, food, costume, and so on are easily found in this ancient street. The street also has other facilities like inns, restaurants, cafes, etc. that serve locals as well as tourists. A blend of Tibetan culture, economy, religion and arts this street combines ancient and modern, religious and everyday life in perfect harmony and is a must-see for all visitors!


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