We were to stay in Lhasa 4 nights to acclimate ourselves to the high altitude and also to see the sights in Lhasa. If I had known better and had more time, I would probably had arranged to visit Tsedang and see Samye monastery like Larry and Cindy had done (see their blog) . And maybe even a few more days so we could go north to see lake Namtso. But we couldn't have everything. And 4 days/nights in Lhasa trned out to be a real good thing, we had plenty to do, and plenty of time to do it, and we were well acclimated.
This being our first full day in Lhasa, in the morning we went to Jokhang temple (70RMB per ticket), the heart of Tibet, and its holiest temple.
A young nun stood by us listening to what our guide had to say.
It was a short 5 minute walk from our hotel, and I would return many times in the next few days. The Jokhang temple was originally built in the 7th century by the king Songtsen Gampo when he moved the capital to Lhasa. Songtsen Gampo was a famous and powerful king in Tibet, and we learned his name while studying Chinese history back in school. He was important enough that the Tang dynasty provided one of her princesses to him as a bride (a good will gesture). The princess Wencheng was also very famous in Tibet, she brought with her a statue of the buddha (Jowo Sakyamuni). This statue is supposedly still in the Jokhang and is the most respected buddha image in the temple today. All the pilgrims lined up to visit this chapel in the temple. But because it's so famous and so visited by the pilgrims, we did not actually get to go inside the same chapel to see it! Druing the cultural revolution, the Jokhang temple was used as a slaugther house by the red guards to trash the place.
A view of pilgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, Tibet.
So most of the statues were damaged or destroyed then, but replaced later. So whether the Sakyamuni statue was the original, who knows? Note that the Tibetans were not the only victims of the cultural revolution, many many temples and other historical artefacts were also destroyed in all parts of China. However, supposely Chao En-Lai ordered the Potala palace to be off limits to the red guards, so it was not damaged!
The square in front of the Jokhang is a recent invention. As we walked the square toward the temple, we saw two tall poles in front of the temple. These poles were covered by numerous prayer flags and topped with yak fur. In between are two incense burners where smoke can be seen to rise. In between the incense burners was a small enclosed structure with yak butter lamps inside.
Pilgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang temple.
Pilgrims would prostrate in front of this structure, buy some juniper incense to burn in the burners. Directly in front of the entrance of the temple, a most amazing scene unfolds before our eyes - rows of pilgrims prostrated and got up and did it again and again. Mostly they ignored completely all the tourists who were staring at them, and we felt uneasy to walk in front of any prostrated pilgrims.
We have heard of and seen photos of the Tibetan pilgrims, however, being there still was quite a shock. There are buddhists in China and elsewhere in the world, but they did not express themselves the way the Tibetan buddhists do. In Taiwan or China, I had never seen a buddhist prostrate in a temple, let along outside a temple. The most obvious behavior observed here in Tibet was the repeated prostration, they just threw themselves on the ground! They were very well practiced though.
I presume it says this is the Jokhang temple!
Later outside of the Potala, we saw a kid, probably about 5 or 6 years old, just doing it as natural as other kids jump or skip. We almost felt that he thought it was a fun thing to do! The pilgrims also carry thermos or other containers with oil (used to be exclusively yak butter) to add to the numerous butter lamps or oil lamps inside every temple and monastery. Many pilgrims also carried prayer beads, which they used to keep count of how many times they have prostrated. Another instrument they use was the prayer wheel. We each got one as a gift when we arrived yesterday, and it was not easy to spin it properly, at a constant speed, and always in the clockwise direction. We would see many other prayer wheels on this trip, some were large, and lined the outside of the Potala as well as corridors or perimeters of temples and monasteries, others were "automatic", driven by wind power or water!
So we went inside the Jokang temple, in a line for tourists (vs the pilgrims).
view from interior courtyard toward the north building
The pilgrims were in a very tightly packed line inching closer to the chapels inside the temple, while we had another "inner" line slightly further away from the chapels. The chapels were not what I imagined from looking at the map in the guide book on Tibet. They were smaller, darker, and packed with pilgrims! The floor of the temple was somewhat slippery from the dripping yak butter or oil. Many times in a small chapel, the pilgrims would walk by us very closely and some butter or oil would be dripped onto our backs. Inside the middle of the temple was a small courtyard, where we could see the top of the temple, with the Dharma wheel and the two deer. In the main temple center were rows of benches (Tibetan style) covered by Tibetan rugs, and monks dressed in maroon robes would sit there later to chant the prayers or scriptures.
part of the big yak fur curtain hanging in the Jokhang temple.
(We returned later this evening to observe the chanting.)
We visited some chapels and then headed back to the courtyard, and took some steps leading to the rooftop. The rooftop had a view of the Potala palace in the distance. A monk walked to a large bell shaped object on the left side of the Dharma wheel and deer, and pointed to me the Tibetan writings on it. After enjoying the view on the rooftop, we headed downstairs and left the Jokhang temple to walk the the circuit around Jokhang, past all the shops and vendors. The Barkor around the Jokang is the smallest circuit where pilgrims can walk around in clockwise direction. Most pilgrims walked pretty fast on this circuit, some circumambulated, some walked with their pet dogs. If you took a stroll like we tried to, you are likely to be run over by the fast paced pilgrims! But of course they won't be so rude.
a monk taking photo inside the courtyard of Jokhang temple.
Lining the circuits were all kinds of shops, selling everything a pilgrim could possibly need for his journey and many trinkets for tourists as well.
We took a slight detour and visited the Lhasa Tsamkung nunnery (30RMB ticket). We walked through what seemed like a small shop to enter the nunnery. There was an open courtyard inside, where visitors can have a bite to eat. We visited their kitchen. The nuns were chanting at the time in a small hall, they left their shoes outside, but we didn't have to take off our shoes. As they chanted, we sat down on some benches near the wall to listen to them. Next to me were some younger nuns, and I mimed taking a photo of them. They nodded, and I took out my polaroid camera and took a photo of one of them, then gave her the photo.
the interior courtyard of Jokhang temple, north is straight ahead.
They whispered in Chinese to me, asking me where I came from. The nuns were very friendly. After a few minutes, we left the hall to visit other parts of the nunnery, where several nuns were making wicks for butter lamps.
We finished the Barkor circuit and had lunch at the Lhasa Kitchen near the west end of the Barkor square. The food is Chinese, Tibetan, Nepalese or Indian, nothing exordinary but does its job. The English menu was quite entertaining to read, however. They seemed to have a service to burn your digital camera memory cards to CD and prints while you have your meal, after some deciphering to figure out that's the service being offered.
After lunch, we went to Sera monastery which is to the north of Lhasa near the foothills. The place was really like a campus with many buildings and dormitories for the monks.
The corridor along the courtyard leading to the inner sanctum of Jokhang temple.
Many large halls where they studied and print shop where scriptures were being printed by hand. In the afternoon, the monks would go to the debating courtyard and carried out a most lively and interesting debate among themselves. This was a major attraction for visitors because probably this was the only place where this ancient tradition can still be witnessed. The monks in their maroon robes all gathered in the courtyard in small groups. One would stand, prayer beads in hand, and say something to monks sitting around him, then he would slap his hands, raised one foot and stomped down forcefully. It almost looked like he was mad at the sitting monks for being so slow to understand the point he was making. In some groups where the monks were young, there would be an older monk acting like a teacher or mentor to the monk making the gestures.
A corner of the rooftop over the inner sanctum in Jokhang temple
The young monks were very engertic and seemed to enjoy the process. While some sitting monks looked like they were being scolded (or not, since I didn't understand what was being said!)
At 6:30pm we went back to Jokhang to view/listen to the monks chanting their evening prayers. Lots of Tibetans were still lined up to view the temple inside, the lines were moving very slowly. We watched and listened to the monks for more than half an hour. The more senior monks were sitting in the center section, and further away were the younger ones. Some of the younger monks probably haven't had the prayers memorized and had to read them from books. There were some kittens climbing up and around the elder monks in the center section. We would see many cats in the monasteries, apparently they were well liked and useful too!
After dinner, the Potala Palace photo outing was not successful because the palace was not lit, it was lit last night, maybe because it was the 15th in the Tibetan calendar, and a special day, or maybe just the lights were malfunctioned.
Close-up of a lion under the eaves.
So I suppose one should not always count on being able to take the photos at another time!