Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tibet: Lhasa - Jokhang, Barkhor, Potala and Sera

Lhasa is the holy city of Tibet. Prior to the Chinese coming into Tibet, it was the home of the Dalai Lamas. Central to the spiritual faith of the Tibetan Buddhist is the Jokhang Temple. Construction started in 647 AD. It commemorates the marriage of the Tang princess Wencheng to King Songtsen Gampo.

Two days a week, admission is free. It is on this day that the palace is flooded with pilgrims from across Tibet. Queued for hours, they push and jostle through the incense fills chambers of the Palace. While not for the claustrophobic soul, this is the time to truly experience the worship and faith of the Tibetan people. Outside the palace, pilgrims prostrate themselves on mats. Perhaps more enlightening is to see the faith on display from the pilgrims who prostrate themselves every step of the kora - the pilgrimage circuit of the Barkhor, a clockwise circuit around the Temple. With leather aprons, wooden blocks on their hands, and possibly pads on their knees, the prostrating pilgrims pray, clap their hands, and fall forward, sliding yards around the circuit.

Despite the free admission, there is plenty of money flying around. Whether in a small temple like those we visited in Tsetang, or in these large palaces, worshipers and pilgrims exchange larger notes for stacks of 1 jiao notes (0.1 yuan approximately worth US$0.013). The jiao notes are made in offering to the various buddha, lamas, gods, and guardians. At the largest temples, you'll come upon monks counting and sorting piles and piles of notes. It looks like a lot of money, yet when you look at maintaining 14th century buildings with all of the statues, paying for all of the utilities, and clothing and feeding the monks and support staff, it remains a hard life.

Lining the circuit are shops, stalls, and teahouses. The pilgrims include monks from various sects, Khambas who braid their hair with red yarn, and Golok women with incredible ornate braids.

Potala Palace was once the seat of the government of Tibet, and continues (despite the presence of cameras and microphones) to represent the hope of self-government. It was the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas.

The palace was built in the 7th century and extended in the 17th century to its present size. At 13 stories high (with no elevators), the stairs of the palace represent a test of acclimatization to the altitude. We were happy enough to face it at the end, rather than the beginning of our trip.

Like many things in Tibet, access to the palace is heavily controlled. Having a guide arrange for passes is the best option. Gaden was hopeful that the palace would not be too busy on the day of our arrival and we could get in early (and have more time to visit). But then waiting is the name of the game in Tibet. During high season, visits are limited to one hour, so getting in early is good if possible.

Tim can't resist the "modeling" that goes on with the attractive asian young women. Somehow the rest of us couldn't reach the same standard of pose, despite our best attempts.

Sera monastery is a must-do in the afternoons. The monastery was founded in 1419. Once housing over 5000 monks, the monastery is now home to 600. Visit in the afternoon and witness the unique style of training and education. Questions are put to the learner with an open hand. Answers pondered and given. Discussion ensues. Wrong answers get another kind of clap. Correct answers a different hand signal. The courtyard filled with listeners, questioners and watchers reverberates with clapping, learning and discussion. In listening closely to one pair, Gaden's comment was "it is hard!" With no texts on hands, what a great way to learn for both student and teacher.

Filled to the brim with monasteries, temples and palaces, we skipped Drepung, leaving that for our next Tibetan Expedition.

Link back to the beginning of the October 2007 Tibet trip at:
Planning for Tibet, Arriving in Tibet and Off to Tsetang, Tibet Day 2: Tsetang Tibet Day 2: Journey to Samye,
Tibet Day 3: Road to Gyantse - Yamdrok-Tso Lake and Tibet Day 3: Continuing on the Road to Gyantse, Day 4: Gyantse - Pelkor Choede and Kumbum Chorten, Tibet Day 4: Shigatse and Tashilhunpo, and Tibet Day 5: Enroute to Final Stop - Lhasa

Link forward to Tibet: Lhasa Experiences

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