Amazing destinations of Lhasa- Vacationing at its most stellar

escapehimalayaFeb 29th 2024
[TOC] The mention of Tibet evokes thoughts of a mystical land shrouded in myth and rich history. A perfect destination for spending holiday time and for wonderful vacations- Lhasa offers the best vicinity to explore the natural and cultural vivacity the land is brimming with. From remote retreats to pilgrimage sights, magnificent monasteries, beautiful valleys, numerous lakes and cerulean mountains- Tibet is the best cultural center that is opulent in its endeavors. With various sites and destinations ripe for a visit, Lhasa is the epicenter of cultural, traditional and religious landmarks. From the lavish Potala Palace to Milarepa’s Cave, Lhasa is a good destination for a wonderful vacation. The administrative capital of Tibet, Lhasa is the second most populous city on the Tibetan plateau after Xining. Lying at the altitude of 3,490 meters, Lhasa is one of the highest located cities in the world. The city has been the religious and administrative capital of Tibet since the mid-17th century. It contains many culturally significant Tibetan Buddhist sites such as the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and the Norbulingka Palaces. Literal translations of the word “Lhasa” is “Place of the Gods” and with ancient documents and inscriptions demonstrating that the place was initially called “Rasa”, the city has suggestions that its site was originally a hunting preserve within the royal residence on Marpori Hill. Located on the center of the Tibetan plateau, Lhasa has surrounding mountains rising to 5,500 meters. The Lhasa River, also known as the Kyi River or the Kyichu, a tributary of the Brahmaputra River, runs through the southern part of the city. The river is also known as “merry blue waves” to local Tibetans. To the north of the city lie the marshlands. Lhasa river

(The Kyichu River)

With many sites of historic interests including the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, the Sera Monastery and the Norbulingka Palace- Lhasa is a hub of cultural cacophony. The Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and the Norbulingka are UNESCO World Heritage sites. However, many important sites were damaged or destroyed mostly, but not solely, during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Many have been restored since the 1980s. Being an important centre, Lhasa also features cabaret acts where one can experience performers singing in Chinese, Tibetan, English and Nepali, and dancers wear traditional Tibetan costumes with long flowing cloth extending from their arms.

The Potala Palace

Potala Palace, Lhasa The Potala Palace in Lhasa was the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan uprising. It is now a museum and a World Heritage Site. The palace is named after Mount Potalaka, the mythical abode of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The 5th Dalai Lama started its construction in 1645 and measures 400 meters ease-west and 350 meters north-south. The Potala palace has thirteen stories of buildings containing over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and 200,000 statues soaring 117 meters on top of the Marpori- the “Red Hill”. Traditions have it that the three main hills of Lhasa represent the “Three Protectors of Tibet”. Chokpori just to the south of the Potala is the “Soul-Mountain” of Vajrapani. Pongwari is that of Manjushree- the demi-god and Marpori, the hill on which the Potala Palace stands represents Avalokitesvara. The site on which the Potala Palace rises is built over a palace erected by the ancient ruler of Tibet- Songtsën Gampo on the Red Hill. The Potala Palace was inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. Due to concerns for the preservation of the site, the Chinese government responded by enacting a rule barring the building of any structure taller than 21 meters in the area of the Palace. The numbers of visitors to the Palace was restricted to 1,600 a day, with opening hours reduced to six hours daily to avoid over-crowding from the 1st of May, 2003. Built at an altitude of 3,700 meters on the side of the Marpori (the Red Mountain) in the centre of the Lhasa Valley, the Potala Palace, with its vast inward-sloping walls broken only by upper parts by straight rows of many windows and flat roofs at various levels, is not unlike a fortress in appurtenance. The centre building of the Potala Palace is called the “Red palace” from its crimson color, which distinguishes it from the rest. It contains principal halls and chapels and shrines of past Dalai Lamas. There are rich decorative paintings, jeweled rocks, intricate carvings and other ornamentations done on the Palace. The Leh Palace in Leh Ladahk, India is also modeled after the Potala Palace.

The Lhasa Zhöl Pillar  

The graceful stone pillar, the Lhasa Zhöl Pillar stands in the village of Shöl below the Potala palace in Lhasa. Dating as far back as circa 764 CE, the Pillar is inscribed with what may be the oldest known example of Tibetan writing. Traditionally, among the celebration of the Tibetan New Year (Losar), a team of sportsmen, usually from Shigatse, would perform daredevil feats such as sliding down a rope from the top of the highest roof of the Potala Palace to the Zhöl Pillar at the foot of the hill. However, the 13th Dalai Lama banned this performance because it was dangerous and sometimes even fatal. As of 1993, the pillar was fenced off so it could not be approached closely. The inscription on the Zhöl Pillar starts off by announcing the appointment of a great minister. It goes on to say about a coup in the royal palace. It gives the account of the King’s campaign against China and testifies to the generally tolerant attitude of Tibetan culture. This proud memorial stands after the re-establishment of Buddhism in Tibet after a difficult period and has survived until modern times.

The Norbulingka Palace

Norbulingka Palace, Lhasa The Norbulingka, literally translated to “The Jeweled Park”, is a palace and a surrounding park in Lhasa. Built in 1755, the Norbulingka Palace served as the traditional summer residence of the successive Dalai Lamas from the 1780s up until the 14th Dalai Lama’s exile in 1959. Part of the “Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace”, the Norbulingka Palace is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built by the 7th Dalai Lama and served both as an administrative centre and a religious centre. The Norbulingka Palace is a unique representation of the Tibetan palace architecture. Situated on the west side of Lhasa, the Norbulingka Palace lies a short distance to the southwest of the Potala Palace. Norbulingka covers an area of around 36 hectares and is considered to be the largest man made garden in Tibet. During the summer and autumn months, the parks in Tibet, including the Norbulingka, becomes hubs of entertainment with dancing, singing, music and festivities. The park is also where the annual Sho Dun or “the Yogurt Festival” is held. peacocks at Norbulingka garden, Lhasa

(Peacock at the Norbulingka Palace Garden)

In Tibetan, “Norbulingka” means “Treasure Garden” or the “Treasure Park”. The word “Lingka” is commonly used in Tibet to define all horticultural parks in Lhasa and other cities. When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, Norbulingka was renamed “People’s Park” and was opened to the public. The palace, with 374 rooms, is located 3 kilometers west of the Potala palace. It lies on the western suburbs of Lhasa city, on the bank of the Kyichu River. When its construction began during the 7th Dalai Lama’s period in 1740, the site was a barren land, overgrown with weeds and scrubs and infested with wild animals. Now, the park, which is situated at an elevation of 3,650 meters, has flower gardens of roses, petunias, hollyhocks, marigolds, chrysanthemums and rows of herbs in pots and rare plants. In its heyday, the Norbulingka grounds were also a home to wildlife in the form of peacocks and brahminy ducks in the lakes. The gardens are a favorite picnic spot and provide a beautiful venue for theatre, dancing and festivals.


Barkhor Street, Lhasa The Barkhor is an area of narrow streets and a public square located around the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Popular for its devotional circumbulation for pilgrims and locals, the streets of Barkhor are about one kilometer long and encircle the entire Jokhang- the former seat of the State Oracle in Lhasa. There are four large incense burners in the four cardinal directions in Barkhor, with incenses burning constantly to please the Gods protecting the Jokhang. The Tromzikhang Market is a busy market in Barkhor and the area is a major tourist attractions. Because the Jokhang Temple has been a symbol centre of Tibetan protests since 1987, the Barkhor has also seen many demonstrations. In 1989, when the 14th Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace prize, the streets of Barkhor were crowded with people throwing Tsampa as they celebrated. Most of the old streets and buildings have been demolished in recent times and replaced with wider streets and new buildings. Some buildings in the Barkhor were also damaged in the 2008 unrest.

The Jokhang Temple

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa The Jokhang is a Buddhist temple in Barkhor Square in Lhasa. Tibetans consider this temple as the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. With an architectural style that is a mix of the Indian Vihara, Tibetan and Nepalese design, the Jokhang temple was founded during the reign of King Songtsën Gampo. According to traditions, the temple was built by the king’s two brides: Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang Dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet, which were housed here as part of their dowries. The oldest part of the temple was built in 652. Over the next 900 years, the temple was enlarged several times with the last renovation done in 1610 by the 5th Dalai Lama. Around the 14th century, the temple was associated with the Vajrasana in India. In the 18th century, the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty, following the Gorkha-Tibetan war in 1792, did not allow the Nepalese to visit this temple and it became an exclusive place of worship for the Tibetans. Renovations of the Jokhang took place from 1972 to 1980 after revolutions and in 2000, the Jokhang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an extension of the Potala Palace. Many Nepalese artists have worked on the temple’s design and construction. prayers at Jokhang, Lhasa

(Pilgrims at prayer at the Jokhang Temple)

The temple is considered the “spiritual heart” of the city and is the most sacred in Tibet. Located at the centre of an ancient network of Buddhist temples in Lhasa, the Jokhang is the focal point of commercial activities in the city, with a maze of streets radiating from it. 1,000 meters east of the Potala Palace, the Jokhang temple has a walkway for pilgrims in the Barkhor Square in central Lhasa. Tibetans viewed their country as a living entity controlled by Srin Ma, a wild demoness who opposed the propagation of Buddhism in the country. To thwart her evil intensions, King Songtsën Gampo (the first King of a unified Tibet) developed a plan to build twelve temples across the country. With temples built in three stages, the first stage of central Tibet was covered with four temples called “the four horns”. Four more temples were built in the outer areas in the second stage and the last four were built on the country’s frontier. The Jokhang temple was finally built in the heart of the demoness Srin Ma, ensuring her subjugation. Tibetan Thanka Painting, Lhasa

(Tibetan Thanka Painting)

To forge ties with Nepal, Songtsën Gampo sent envoys to King Amsuverma seeking his daughter’s hand in marriage. With the King’s acceptation, his daughter- Princess Bhrikuti, came to Tibet as the Tibetan emperor’s Nepali wife. The image of Akshobhya Buddha which was brought by the princess as part of her dowry was deified in the Jokhang Temple. It has an east-west orientation, facing Nepal to the west in honor of Princess Bhrikuti. The Jokhang has a sizeable significant collection of cultural artifacts, including the Tang-bronze sculptures and finely sculpted figures in different shapes from the Ming Dynasty. Among hundreds of Thanka paintings, two of them date to the reign of Yongle Emperor and are embroidered in silk and well-preserved. The collection also has 54 boxes of Tripitaka printed in red, 108 carved sandalwood boxes with sutras and a vase (a gift from the Qianlong Emperor) used to select the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.

The Drepung Monastery

Drepung Monastery, Lhasa The Drepung Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Gephel, is one of the “Great Three” Gelukpa university monasteries of Tibet. The other two are Ganden and Sera. Drepung is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and is located on the Gambo Utse Mountain, five kilometers from the western suburb of Lhasa. Since the 1950s, Drepung Monastery, along with its peers Ganden and Sera have lost much of their independence and spiritual credibility in the eyes of Tibetans since they operate under the close watch of the Chinese security services. It was founded in 1416 by Janyang Chong Tashi Palden and was named after the sacred abode in South India of Shridhanyaktaka. Drepung was the principal seat of the Gelukpa School and it retained the premier place among the four great Gelukpa monasteries. The Ganden Podang in Drepung was the resident of the Dalai Lamas until the 5th Dalai Lama constructed the Potala. Drepung Monastery Roof, Lhasa

(Sculptures at the Drepung Monastery roof)

Drepung was known for its high standards of academic study and was also called the Nalanda of Tibet, a reference to the great Buddhist monastic university of India. Drepung is now divided into what are known as the seven great colleges: Gomang, Loseling, Deyang, Shangkor, Gyelwa, Dulwa and Ngagpa. Drepung is like the university in the sense of how Oxford is a university; the various colleges have different emphases, teaching lineages and traditional geographical affiliations. There are about 300 monks at the monastery in Lhasa today where as the number of monks used to be over thousands before.

The Sera Monastery

Sera Monastery, Lhasa

(Large Thanka Painting of Lord Buddha at the Sera Monastery during a festival)

The Sera Monastery is one of the “Great Three” monasteries of Tibet, located 1.25 miles north of Lhasa and about 5 kilometers north of Jokhang. The origin of its name is attributed to the fact that the site where the monastery was built was surrounded by wild roses in bloom. The Sera Monastery is also called the “Wild Roses Monastery”. The original Sera Monastery is responsible for some 19 hermitages, including four nunneries, which are all located in the foothills north of Lhasa. This great complex structure of the Sera Monastery has a great hall and three colleges. Founded in 1419, the Sera Monastery in Tibet and its counterpart in Mysore, India are noted for their debate sessions. Sera Monastery debate, Lhasa

(Monks preparing for a debate at the Sera Monastery)

Debates among monks on the Buddhist doctrines are integral to the learning process in the colleges in the Sera Monastery complex. This facilitates better comprehension of the Buddhist philosophy to attain higher levels of study. This exemplary debating tradition supplemented with gestures is said to be exclusive to this monastery, among the several other monasteries of Lhasa. Visitors also attend to witness these debates that are held as per a set schedule, every day in the 'Debating Courtyard' of the monastery. The monastery also hosts an impressive festival, popularly known as the “Sera Bengqin Festival”, which is largely attended by monks and devotees. The festival is held sometime in February as per the Gregorian calendar corresponding to specific date fixed by the monastery according to the Tibetan calendar. Another popular festival witnessed by visitors and locals is the Sho Dun Festival held in the month of August in the Gregorian calendar. The festival represents the symbolic Buddha-Unfolding, where worship of the Buddha is an essential part of the festival.

escapehimalayaFeb 29th 2024

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