The Potala Palace and Buddhist school

Lhasa Travel Blog

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The most famous landmark of Tibet is the Potala Palace.  Not knowing anything other than it is an impressive building on top of a hill, soon discovered that this is the Vatican of the Buddhist religion.  Originally build in the 7th century, it was comprehensively extended to its present size by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th and housed the Dalai Lama ever since until the Chinese take over forced the existing Dalai in to exile.  It is now open as a museum.  Reportedly containing 999 rooms, we saw about 30, but I did not expect the see the volume of artifacts that represent the foundations of Buddhism.  Every room contains priceless artifacts from the throne of every Dalai and thousands of foot high gold Buddha statues, to rooms full of 30-40 foot representations.

  Protectors also prominant.  Other rooms contained artifacts that predate the Dalai Lamas that lay the prophecy behind what became Buddhism.  The most impressive rooms contined the tomb stupas of each of the Dalai Lamas, from the 5th through to the 12th (except 6th - missing, and 13th in India). The 5th tomb contains 3200kg of solid gold with hundreds of priceless gems adorning it.  Several of the others aren't too far behind.  Awe inspiring place.   Our group dwarfed by hundeds of locals, pilgrims and monks all chanting in prayer their way around the tour. Left the palace to get our group photo of it from the front.

After lunch a very tasty yak burger !) we went to the Jokhang Temple.  The holiest of all Buddhist shrines, this is the final destination of most of the pilgrimages to Lhasa.

This is where the Dalai Lama would hold audience with the people.  Even though the Dalai is in exile, many come here  to pay their respects awaiting his return. Also built in the 7th century, still the focus of 1000 daily prostrations by loyal worshippers in front of the shrine (I will let them off with using mattresses if they're going to do that many !!).  Inside there are 4 floors around a central courtyard.  Photos are allowed as long as you don't photo the snipers lying on the rooftops of the adjoining buildings pointing their guns down at the main square !  (5000 Tibetans were killed next to the Jokhang temple in a mass protest against Chinese rule in 2008).  The smell of burning yak butter that is in front of all the statues is becoming the smell of Tibet.
  Offered in vast quantities by the locals in reverance, the monks collect the re-congealed butter after melting and sell it for re-use.  Nice business.  The temple itself not as impressive for statues and stupas as previous monasteries, but the building itself displays some nice wood carving rooves in line with the Nepalese pagodas.

Avoiding the snipers, decided to risk a little bit of bartering in the local market.  Didn't break the bank so avoided getting robbed.

The whole group went out for a celebratory dinner now we had more choice of good food.  Really good evening having discovered Bobi (Tibets answer to fajitas) and Snow beer (still generic lager that is identical to Everest and Lhasa).  A few of us went on to a further late night bar where Ben (US) stated his addiction to snuff to quell the bordeom of being a firefighter in Yellowstone park when there is only enough work for 6 months.

  I've never seen it anywhere in England and only relate it to Dickensian times. Couldn't let it go without trying it - shoved in between lip and gum his menthal flavour wasn't as unpleasant as I was advised and had the effect of mild light headyness. Not keen on having to constantly spit out the saliva though. Ticked off and don't need to have again.

Last day of trip already and 2 more monasteries to visit.  The 1st - Drepung - is the biggest in Tibet.  Our guide now speaking a little more freely, it dates from the 15th century and can hold 10000 monks.  However since the Chinese take over, there are now only 500 with the remainder either in exile or prison.  Only a small fraction of the monastery is accessible to tour as most was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

  Unauthorised access is penalised by jail. The remaining monastery is devoted to the Gelupa sect, identified by yellow hats and the sect that always provides the Dalai Lama. Many statues of Buddha wearing the Gelupa hat and ancient rare silk scrolls.  It also has the largest prayer hall in Tibet that seats 1000 in a sitting.

For the last monastery, half the group were cultured out.  US x 2, NZ, Polish, Ukraine and me wanted to see the tour through and were very happy we did.  The Sera monastery is the 2nd biggest in Tibet.  However I had forgotten the name until arriving that this monastery had been featured by Michael Palin in his Himalaya series.  Sera is the only active Buddhist college in Tibet where every day trainee monks openly challenge each other on ethical, theological and practical questions.

  The visually stunning element is that the approximately 100 monks are split in to groups of 3 with one questioner bullying an answer with eyes bulging, hand clapping, stamping feet in one swift move, points at the recipient.  The persecuted recipient, sometimes on the verge of tears provides a response with a 3rd party playing adjudicator.  We watched for 45 minutes as the energy resounded around the courtyard with the aggressive hand slapping (and sometimes head slapping) reverberated around.   Not sure what OFSTED would say to the methods but I bet the monks learn quicker through peer pressure.  The rest of the monastery still containing more priceless artifacts and Buddhas, but the spectacle of the trainee monks more the uniqueness of Sera. 

Sera is one of the few places where the Tibet language is still allowed to be taught, with all public schools now only teaching Chinese, with English as a 2nd language.  Tibetan applications for passports take 3 years to process (compared to 1 week for Chinese) and tour guides get theirs confiscated as they are bringing too much independant knowledge in and out of the country that isn't controlled. It really doesn't bode well for the Tibet culture. 


Kliffy says:
great blog and very detailed writing which was very informative :)
Posted on: Mar 12, 2010
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photo by: mountaingirl