Lhasa really means ‘Land of Gods’ in the tibetan language and it has every right to this description. Everywhere you turn in every direction is a mountain, ranging from the dry desert sand-like peaks to maroon slabs of curvy mountains. The nature here reminds one of a higher might and power greater than the fragility of the human soul. Humbling indeed.
On the way to this mysterious capital city that has held curiosity in many explorers for years, Chinese dominance is everywhere. The popular slogan ‘Celebrating Tibet’s Peaceful Independence for 60 years’ is painted on white washed walls in bright red letters. Most signboards are in both Chinese and Tibetan but it is obvious that the Chinese signs are often bigger in size, dominating the Sanskrit-looking Tibetan language which lies somewhere beneath their Chinese counterparts.
The Potala Palace looms high above Lhasa like a guardian keeping watch of its people. With hundreds of steps leading left and right upwards to the towering palace which is clad in distinctive white and maroon, it is an impressive sight. Previous Dalai Lamas, Panchen Lamas (second in hierarchy to His Holiness) are mummified and enshrined in the golden stupas here.
Creaking stairways lead to welcome halls, endless shrine rooms and past and present Dalai Lama’s bedroom chambers. The atmosphere in these chambers and halls are dense and dark and the smell of ancient history, burning butter lamps hangs in the air. The famous 33rd Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo, credited for introducing Buddhism to Tibet and is a key driving force for major cultural and technological influences is buried here. So is the famous 5th Dalai Lama, revered for his religious and political influences. Pilgrims and tourists alike flock to the palace, forming hours long queues in the summer heat.
Its glorious facade is however not in tandem with its soul, now empty of the revered God-King. Now merely reduced to a tourist sight, with its spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama in exile and monastic activities greatly reduced, what remains is a mere facade, rid of its core. There are rumours that the Chinese government will be closing this wonderful Palace in 3 years’ time.
Despite of this, the faithful still circumambulate this great palace, doing their daily morning and evening kora (a walking circumambulation) Mantras are uttered, prayer wheels are spun and prayer beads are rolled continuously around the Potala.
Some even do full length postrations whilst cirumambulating the Potala. With hands clasp in prayer position, body facing the grand palace, hands are raised to the crown, throat and heart before the pilgrim then pour himself full length on the floor, with his entire body touching the ground and face down. The faithful then raises his body once more to a standing position, takes 3 steps and the postration is once again repeated. It is a practice that puts the entire body for devotional purposes. Stories abound about pilgrims postrating all the way from their homes to the Potala or Jokhang monastery which amounts to endless kilometres of postrations.
At Jokhang monastery, which is the spiritual centre of Tibet, one can see these pilgrims doing postrations right at the front gate of the monastery from day to night. Their faces determined, one postration is done one after another, only a small break is taken from time to time to relief the body. The area (Barkhor) around Jokhang has been hugely commercialised due to the influx of tourists, it is filled with endless souvenir stores selling prayer beads, incense sticks, thangkas to the popular turqoise jewellery that often adorn the Tibetans’ body. Despite of this, just escaping into a narrow alleyway or slipping into a local teahouse, the true Barkhor comes to life with the locals going about their daily business.
Military presence is everywhere here at Barkhor. Soldiers are stationed all round and they march in groups to patrol the surrounding areas.
I spent some afternoons with fellow travellers and new found friends in Tibetan teahouses where endless cups of milk tea are served. The milk tea served here is distinctively different from the more common yak butter tea which I must admit is still an acquired taste. The locals spend their time here meeting friends, chatting or spinning a prayer wheel whilst enjoying a cup of warm milk tea. It is a soothing, relaxing atmosphere where many hours can be simply spent here making new acquaintances, chatting and drinking. Nowhere in Tibet have I felt more at ease than in these teahouses.
I often left with a smile on my face, contented with the warm milk tea still swimming in me.
Thank you Lhasa :)