They come by the thousands to one of the world’s most exotic, extreme and remote environments, in search of something intangible. For a Tibetan pilgrim, Lhasa is the ultimate mythical, political and spiritual destination, the curtain call on the journey of a lifetime. Walk with these steely men and wiry women who have come thousands of miles on foot to reach that holiest of holies, the Jokhang Temple, before proceeding to the abandoned Potala Palace, home to the absent Dalai Lama.
Lhasa is the soul of a land like no other, a place of intrigue, of soaring religious debate, reincarnation, miracles and self-discovery. Visitors sometimes say they find this otherworldly environment oddly familiar, like a fading fragment of a half-forgotten dream. Perhaps the altitude plays tricks on us all.
As you stand and contemplate this massive, beautiful yet forbidding structure, it is evident its construction was no ordinary undertaking, but one that has bequeathed to the world one of its most unique architectural treasures.
In 1645, the Fifth Dalai Lama (1645-1693), feeling confined at Drepung Monastery, ordered a construction that would accommodate his new role as both a religious and political leader. Copper was poured into the palace foundations, and it is said that so much earth was used that a lake was made from the pit created.
Tibet's "House of the Lord"; is the holiest in Tibet, the ultimate pilgrimage destination. The four-storey timber complex of the Jokhang Temple houses the Jowo Buddha, a sculpture brought as part of the dowry for the Chinese Princess Wencheng upon her arrival in Tibet. It is said that when her husband King Songtsen Gampo died, the princess hid the sculpture in the temple. The miraculous survival of this ancient Buddhist figure makes it one of Tibet's most revered images today.
Just how holy is the holiest of holies? Jowo's holiness can be measured by a series of concentric circles. Upon arrival at Lhasa, your typical pilgrim does not just jaunt across to Jowo. No, the true believer must first loop the loop around the old town of Lhasa along the Lingkor path, then the Barkhor trail, drawing closer to enlightenment. Then he or she is ready to orbit the inner Jokhang temple itself that hosts the Jowo via the Narkor trail. Then, and only then, can he or she proceed to the Jowo itself. Remember to perform prostrations along the routes in order to clock up spiritual merit.
Sera Debating Gardens
Founded in 1419, this temple’s debating gardens are the training ground and stage for some of Tibet’s most intellectually rigorous monks. At its height, the Sera monastery was residence to more than 5,000 of them and five monastic colleges. Although obviously much less active now with only a few hundred monks in residence, one of the most interesting times to visit the monastery is in the afternoon when monks, after finishing their morning scripture classes, can be seen debating in the courtyard.