I visited India and Nepal for the first time on a Buddhist pilgrimage led by Shantum Seth in 2007. The following is from my 2008 trip to India, Nepal, and Tibet. The Jokhang Temple is located in Lhasa, the capitol of Tibet.
After lunch, Gyantzing and I met up again at the hotel lobby, and we walked to the shop a couple doors down that sold bottled water. I stocked up on four more bottles. (I just can’t get enough water.)
We then walked to the Jokhang Temple.
In front of the temple is a huge expanse of pavement, maybe stone rather than cement blocks. These form a courtyard ahead of the Jokhang Temple, quite the happening place.
Pilgrims circumambulated and prostrated before the Jokhang. Some people were out shopping. You can get both your spiritual and material needs (and wants) in the same place, the Barkhor, the walkway around the Jokhang. People wore clothing from different regions of Tibet, and a variety of prayer wheels twirling in pilgrim’s hands. In front of the temple stood a stupa-shaped stove where people burned offerings of juniper in the morning, as we had seen when we arrived at the Drepung Monastery early enough to see people pick up the green branches and place them in a stove in front of the monastery.
Inside the Jokhang I saw many photos of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and at least two were painted. East or West, people sometimes painted photos in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Of course, images of the current Dalai Lama were nowhere to be seen, since they’re illegal.
The Jokhang’s exterior primarily dates from the seventeenth century, and we had to go inside to see seventh-century woodwork, for the Jokhang dates to when Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet. It is the oldest Tibetan Buddhist temple. Originally Buddhism in Tibet involved only the Jokhang Temple and some lay practitioners, but eventually there were seven monks. That is why temples and monasteries often have carvings of seven critters, mainly snow lions, on the façade, running horizontally over doorways.
Entering the front door, we were surrounded by seventh-century woodwork in a narrow corridor. The doors and doorframes were very dark wood, and the walls were painted dark yellow and red. In an alcove were walls with old bodhisattva murals and in front of them were large-as-life papier-mâché figures that replace the originals after the so-called Cultural Revolution. Most of the sculptures were destroyed in the 1950s and ’60s. Nonetheless, the temple interior is exquisite.
Inside the large main temple, there now stands an enormous Avalokiteshvara statue in the center facing the entrance. In front of it are many long red banners, like any Tibetan prayer hall. But unlike at Drepung Monastery, which felt almost deserted, this hall was clearly still in use and alive. Many dark red capes sat in rows on the low red benches. In the center of the room were musical instruments, such as an enormous drum.
On the outer walls were small, bright murals telling stories — in particular, the story of the building of the Jokhang, complete with a stupa in the center. According to this legend, the first Buddhist king threw a ring to indicate where the temple would be built, and it landed in a lake. The illustration showed that wooden boards were cut and carried and set up across the lake.
Around the perimeters of the room are display cases full of statues and some documents of the seventeenth century made of dark wood with reliefs that have been worn down over the years. Some shrine rooms had large dark wooden double doors that are chained and padlocked; they’d be open in the morning, when a big crowd is inside. These are special shrines, labeled over the doorway, and they each contain a specific theme, such as the Tsongkhapa shrine, or the Avalokiteshvara shrine. Each shrine we entered contains large and elaborate gold Tibetan sculptures wearing brocade. Breathtaking.
I watched a slim little gray cat walking in the aisle, and it leaped onto the wooden fence or bench that encompasses the central prayer hall. The cat leaped up on a high Buddha throne. A cat can look at a Buddha. I’m delighted to see cats in Tibet; strangely, in India stray dogs are all over the place, but you rarely see a cat. Maybe that’s because dogs are on average more outgoing and needier than cats.
A particularly festive shrine is a big room with a large Avalokiteshvara. It was approximately three or four feet, and that’s while seated. This Avalokiteshvara was originally a plain sculpture but over time received donations of gold, turquoise, and coral, with the result that elaborate decoration was piled on and it now has an excessively ornate crown of gold, turquoise, and coral, with hanging earrings and a collar to match. Buddha bling.
Even in traditions other than Tibetan, bodhisattvas are often depicted wearing a great deal of jewelry and crowns and flowing silk sashes. This indicates that they’re more worldly than full-blown Buddhas, since they choose to stay in this world to help those who are unenlightened.
The sculpture also wears a colorful, patchwork or appliquéd brocade robe, like those worn by many Tibetan Buddhist sculptures. Around the sides of the room are tall standing life-size bodhisattvas, of course painted gold with blue hair, and wearing patchwork brocade robes with long silk fringe.
We climbed up on the flat rooftop of the Jokhang and looked out over the crowd that is continually circling around the temple. We had an excellent view of the entire square, so we watched not only pilgrims circumambulating the temple — and often spinning prayer wheels — but we also saw the merchandise booths in two long rows on either side of the square, where many people haggled.
I noticed a little space inside a stone wall, containing an antique tombstone-like stele sticking up with a message carved into it. Gyantzing explained that it says China will never invade Tibet. I laughed and commented on the irony.
While we stood on the roof watching the crowd steadily circumambulating down below, Gyantzing said, “Many, many people circle around the temple.”
As he said this, I saw a fluffy white little dog on a leash. I said, “Not to mention the occasional dog.”
Like every other Tibetan Buddhist temple, the Jokhang has prominent tubular gold structures around the edges of the roof. They are stylized “victory banners.” The “victory” is the historic Buddha’s success in not giving in to the demon Mara’s temptations on that special night under the Bodhi Tree. Legend has it that Mara appeared under the tree and argued with Siddhartha Gautama and sent his beautiful daughters and eventually a demon army to distract the Buddha, but none of these distractions prevented the Buddha from reaching enlightenment.
We descended the treacherous ladder-like stairs and parted in front of the Jokhang, where Gyantzing said I’m welcome to circumambulate the temple. I was happy to do so, having read so much about it.
I walked slowly and steadily around the Barkhor, at the same pace as the pilgrims in front of me. It was a walking meditation. I was mindful of my steps while gawking at my fascinating surroundings. I moved like this through a vast crowd, in lanes lined with shops and merchandise stalls. I liked the energy, even in such a large gathering.
Some merchants sold mundane things like plastic toys and flashlights, which you could get just about anywhere in the world. Others sold pictures of the Panchen Lama and other religious figures, but not illegal pictures of the Dalai Lama. They also sold Tibetan Buddhist statues and ritual tools; coral, silver, and turquoise jewelry; musical instruments for rituals; ordinary clothing such as t-shirts with the message “Yak yak yak Tibet;” and ready-made traditional Tibetan clothing such as elegant black chupas. I noticed a fabric shop containing brocade and thought I might shop there sometime, but right now I simply enjoyed the walk.
Of course, I had much more to look at than merchandise. Beyond the stalls and salespeople were the tall stone Tibetan buildings with shops on the main floor and perhaps apartments up above. Some people in the crowd were red-clad monks, and others were pilgrims who in traditional dress, such as rough-looking heavy wool robes. When I reached the front of the Jokhang, its beautiful, whitewashed façade was a welcome sight, and rows of pilgrims dramatically prostrated before it.
I meant to circumambulate three times but only went around twice because halfway around the second time, I felt dizzy and nauseated again. I headed back to my hotel room. Unlike in Dharamshala, where the altitude is low compared to Lhasa, I experienced two days of altitude sickness.
I saw a total of five white people all day, and three of them were the Germans staying at this hotel. While circumambulating the Jokhang, I had just been thinking I was the only non-Asian in the whole crowd, when I briefly noticed two Brits.
10:20 pm: I’ve taken some labels off water bottles as cheap souvenirs; I think it’s sad that the labels are in a Chinese language, not Tibetan. It’s also sad that this major street is called Beijing Road, the most prominent street in Lhasa, and that it’s lined with Chinese-looking shops. It’s not until you reach this neighborhood, the Old Tibetan Neighborhood (like a historic landmark, something from the past), that the shops all have signs in Tibetan, in addition to Chinese. It’s not unusual to see Tibetan, Chinese, and English; for the shops around the Jokhang in particular, this is standard. It struck me as ironic to see a store called “Ethnic Clothing Shop” when the “ethnic” clothing is Tibetan and is basically what many Tibetan women wear, in particular chupas and striped aprons.
My travel memoir Every Day is Magical: A Buddhist Pilgrimage in India and Nepal is available on Amazon here: