Seeing the majestic Potala Palace in person will leave you in awe. This large, white complex in Lhasa is an architectural beauty and will not disappoint. After touring other parts of Tibet (see part 1) we finally made it to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and the heart of Tibetan Buddhism.
Old Town in Lhasa is centered around Barkhor Bazaar. Pedestrian streets are lined with old Tibetan-style, flat -roofed buildings that are now used for shops and restaurants. The colourful windows and doors reminded us of other Tibetan heritage buildings we’ve seen. It’s a busy place. The sidewalks are filled with locals, many dressed in traditional attire. We enjoyed spending time in the bazaar people-watching and taking in the local culture.
At the centre of the bazaar is Jokhang Temple. It is a beautiful temple and was one of the most colourful ones we’d seen. Intricate details are painted on the ceilings and walls. Colourful tapestry hangs from pillars. Jokhang is a very important site for Buddhists since it houses the only statue of Present Buddha, Sakyamuni, that was made while he was alive.
Jokhang temple was built in the 7th century when Buddhism was just becoming popular in Tibet. Before Buddhism most people practiced Bon, a type of animism. Legend says that the temple was built over a lake where Bon locals paid taxes to the king by sacrificing animals and even children in the lake!
Because it is an important site there were many Tibetan Buddhists making a Kora around the temple. Some were prostrating themselves. Koras are the clockwise circling around a Buddhist structure, for example: a mani stone, chorten, monastery complex or even a mountain or lake.
Just outside Lhasa is Dreprung Monastery. In 1416 a lama had a dream that he would build an important monastery beside a large boulder. The result was Dreprung which is the largest monastery in Tibet. There used to be as many as 10,000 monks living in the monastery. Today that number is much smaller. In recent years the Chinese government imposed very strict entrance requirements resulting in significantly fewer new monks entering into monkhood in Tibet.
An interesting monastery to visit in Lhasa is Sera monastery. Built in 1419 it is the 2nd largest monastery in Tibet. They have a very unique teaching technique at this monastery. The daily ‘monks debates’, which sounds like an oxy-moron, is actually a fun display of teacher/student interactions. Young student monks are paired with an older student or instructor. The young ones ask the other questions about certain topics. If the younger monk disagrees, they make an over-exaggerated slap of their hands. This may go on for several minutes until they finally agree, and the young monk slaps their hands with both palms up. There were approximately 150 monks at the debate when we were there and they all looked like they were having fun.
Here’s a short video of the monk debates.
It was nearing the end of our trip, but we still had our most anticipated site to see; the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Potala Palace. What an incredible building. It’s massive and very majestic. Set on a hill, the palace can be seen from many points in Lhasa. In the past few days we had seen it from a distance, but to be in front of this majestic building is awe-inspiring.
Potala Palace was built on the grounds of an old 7th century monastery. The 5th Dalai Lama reconstructed the original buildings in the 17th century. Two shrines from the original temple were incorporated into this new monastery. Potala Palace was the residence for 5th Dalai Lama and all successive Dalai Lamas until the current one had to flee Tibet as a youth.
Potala is divided into the White and Red Palaces. The White Palace contains assembly halls and temples. It is also holds the yellow section which is where Dalai Lama had his private quarters including a small bedroom and study. As well, the yellow section is where he met with important guests.
The Red Temple has many shrines, 2 assembly halls and the tombs of the 5th to the 13th Dalai Lamas. Each tomb is a large, ornately decorated statue or chorten gilded in gold. Throughout the palace there are many old artifacts and statues of Buddha, bodhisattvas, and Guru Rinpoche. It is beautifully decorated inside with colourful banners and paintings on the walls and ceilings. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside.
After our visit inside, we did a Kora around Potala and then visited a small nunnery at the base of the palace. The nunnery is only one small room with a few statues inside. It is not nearly as decorated as the rooms in the main palace.
Across the road from the palace is a park with a small pond that provides the perfect spot for reflection, both literal and meditative. Later in the evening we returned to see Potala Palace illuminated. The view was spectacular; a highlight of our trip.
Coming up next: Sailing On BC’s Beautiful Coast – Howe Sound & Gulf Islands
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