For a couple of days already before entering the Jokhang Temple, I had become familiar with the human traffic around it because my hotel was so close. The commercial scene, the human traffic and the security presence are all permanent fixtures. The human traffic reflects the full diversity of the local population, pilgrims, the transplanted population and the tourist population. It is constant from early until late, moving steadily and in one direction only (clockwise around the temple as is the custom everywhere) and seems more concerned with the spiritual purpose than browsing the stores. The vast majority is working their rosaries as they walk.
Yes, certainly there are Chinese tourists shopping and a smattering of other tourists more wandering than taking korra. There are shops encircling the perimeter of the temple complex, with a limited number of entry points from side streets, making it easy to regulate access to the continuous stream of people. And regulate they do, with scanners and spot body checks. But it’s mostly very relaxed.
Outside the Jokhang is a small enclosed stone monument commemorating a treaty between China and Tibet in 822. Interpreting the treaty may be a matter of opinion: one interpretation is that the treaty marked an “alliance” between the two nations; another suggests the treaty was a mutual agreement to respect each other’s borders. Both could be true. Yet only one interpretation supports the current Chinese view that Tibet has “always” been part of China. I can’t verify that the monument hasn’t been changed in the past 50 years to shade the meaning in China’s favor.
Entry to the temple itself is conditional. A guide must accompany all foreigners. Time inside part of the inner complex is limited to 20 minutes. My guide had to surrender his license for us to be granted the 20 minutes. But once inside, it is immediately evident why this place is considered the heart and soul of the Tibetan people.
According to treasure-texts discovered in the 13th century, the Jokhang was founded in 640 by King Songtsem Gampo. He had two wives, one a Nepali princess and the other, Wencheng, was the daughter of the Tang emperor of China. As a result of a series of ill-omens, Princess Wencheng used her powers of divination to determine that what was then regarded as the whole of Tibet was “like a Demoness who had fallen on her back.” The lake in the Plain of Milk in Lhasa was her blood and the three hills rising out of the plain were her breasts and mons.
It was decided that temples should be constructed in strategic locations and that the Nepali queen Bhrikuti would oversee their construction. According to a combination of Tibetan geomancy and Chinese divination, the lake was drained and the foundation of the centrally located Jokhang was laid. A series of temples describing concentric squares at increasing distances from Lhasa were then constructed whereby different body parts of the demoness were tethered and subdued and which also met Songtsem Gampo’s intention to convert Tibetans to Buddhism.
Today, the ancient beauty of Jokhang is radiant with color, detail, space and reverence. The murals must be at least 500 years old. There is no assembly hall since Jokhang did not house monks. But there are certainly monks tending it now. The inner sanctum is an open square space, an inner korra, with small sanctuaries each housing Buddhist statuary make up the periphery. On the day I visited, this space was full of Chinese tours. Indeed, this temple would be highest on the list of sites to see in Lhasa, second only, perhaps, to the Potala Palace. If you’re wondering why I’ve had nothing to say about the Potala, it’s because I never intended to go there. To be honest, I knew that if I ever set foot inside, all I would do is cry.
Entering each small chapel around the inner space of Jokhang, one is struck by the feel of its age: the deeply worn wood and brass of the sills and frames, the smooth stone of the floors having borne the temple traffic for 1000 years. The figures behind the glass enclosures, both in the chapels and around the periphery, enhance the space and its ancient character. Yes, there was damage here from the Cultural Revolution, but areas of recent renovation are hardly noticeable.
It’s regrettable that photos are not permitted. If I could take only one, it would be of the most ornate and detailed three-dimensional rendering of the Kalachakra mandala I’ve ever seen—made entirely of gold. It was about 6 ft in diameter and about 6 ft high, enclosed in glass.
It might be easy to say that once you’ve seen some of these temples, the novelty wears off. Yes, to a degree that’s true. Yet they are each devoted to slightly different historical figures. They might be more or less elaborate in their display of devotional themes. There are a certain number of figures, historical, mythic or religious forms that are common to each. But ultimately, they are not simply about artistic display. They are about refuge, promoting practice, training and education. In terms of the ambience created for those purposes, the places that stood out for me (among a very small sample of which I am now familiar) are Samye (perhaps because I witnessed it in full glorious action), the Shongsep nunnery (site of Gangri Tokar) and Tsurphu (because of the felt presence of the living Karmapa). None of the places in Amdo, though each impressive in their own way, meet this entirely subjective personal standard.
Jokhang is not really a space for practice, as it does not house monks in training. But it does represent a historical artistic, cultural and spiritual standard that stands above all the rest.