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Lhasa: A Historic and Cultural City on the Tibetan Plateau

Lhasa, which means “Holy Land” or “Buddhist Land” in Tibetan, is an ancient cultural city situated on the north bank of the Lhasa River. This river is a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo River in Tibet. Lhasa has a history of over 1,300 years and sits at an elevation of 3650 meters. The urban area spans 49 square kilometres and has a population of approximately 130,000 people, making it the highest-altitude city in the world.

Lhasa has a sunny and pleasant climate with an average temperature of 7-8 degrees Celsius. In summer, the temperature reaches a maximum of 25 degrees Celsius, while in winter it reaches a maximum of 15 degrees Celsius. It is the centre of politics, economy, transportation, culture, and religious belief.

History of Lhasa

Lhasa, one of China’s 24 historical cities, derives its name from its origins. According to Tibetan historical records, Lhasa was occupied by Zingboje Tribangsong, the young king of Subi’s kingdom. In the 7th century AD, Namri Songtsen, the leader of the Yarlung Dynasty, overthrew Zingboje and Lhasa came under the Yarlung tribe’s jurisdiction. In 629 AD, Tsenpo Namri Songtsen died, and Songtsen Gampo became the new ruler. He promptly relocated the capital to Lhasa and constructed a palace on Potala Mountain.

Why did Songtsan Gampo move the capital to Lhasa? 

Legend has it that on a midsummer day, Songtsan Gampo bathed in the Lhasa River and discovered the Wotang area’s abundance of water and grass, perfect for farming and animal rearing. The area’s splendid scenery and pleasant climate further captivated him. Realizing that Chongal was under the control and threat of the old ministers, he saw the opportunity to free himself from their influence and moved the capital. Moreover, the northern and western parts of the plateau were being eyed by tribes like Tuyuhun and Zhangzhung, while the treacherous terrain between the Red Mountain in Lhasa and the King of Medicine made it an ideal location for both offence and defence. These factors solidified his decision to relocate the capital.

In 633 A.D., Songtsan Gampo relocated the royal capital from Shannan to Wotang. This move symbolized the establishment of the Tubo Dynasty by Songtsen Gampo. Following the capital relocation, Songtsan Gampo implemented effective internal administrative measures that facilitated the rapid development of Tubo in politics, economy, military and culture.

According to “Tibet Historical Annal”, Lhasa was known as “Kyishoe” and had beaches, lawns, and forests. During that period, the Jokhang Temple area featured a lake named “Wotangcuo,” meaning “sea of milk.”

The origin of the name of Lhasa

Lhasa’s name originated with construction of the Jokhang Temple. According to Tibetan historical records, Songtsan Gampo, influenced by Princess Wencheng and Princess Brikhuti, decided to build Buddhist temples and shrines to house statues of the immovable Vajra Buddha. Princess Chizun brought a statue known as “Mikyoe Dorje” (a Sakyamuni statue depicting him at 8 years old), while Princess Wencheng brought a statue called “Jowo Buddha” (a Sakyamuni statue depicting him at 12 years old).

It is said that a spring at the bottom of Wotang Lake can lead to the Naga Palace. Princess Brikhuti tried to choose a site to build a temple several times, but all failed. It is always just repaired during the day and demolished at night. Helpless, she went to ask Princess Wencheng for help. Princess Wencheng is familiar with astronomical phenomena and the art of surveying the five elements. She observes the terrain by day and the astronomical phenomena by night. She sees that Wotang Lake looks like a Rakshasa woman lying on her back. If you want to build a temple, you must fill the lake with white goats.

According to “Songtsan Gampo’s Legacy”, 1,000 white goats were used to fill the lake with soil. Three years later, a majestic temple miraculously appeared, and Songtsen Gampo named the temple “Rasa Trulnang Tsulakhang, referred to as “Tsulakang”, and the immovable Vajra Buddha statue is house inside the temple.

The emergence of the Jokhang Temple has attracted devout individuals worldwide. By the late 1940s, 18 inns were constructed around the temple to accommodate pilgrims. Subsequently, folk houses were built near the monastery, and a few foreigners settled in Lhasa. Consequently, the old town of Bajiao Street began to take shape around the Jokhang Temple.

According to Tibetan history, the origins of Lhasa’s significance as a holy land can be traced back to the reign of Chisong Detsen, who constructed the renowned Samye Monastery in the year 779 AD as a means to ordain and educate Buddhist monks. This marked the beginning of a rapid development of Buddhism in the region of Tubo. However, it was during the time of Chizu Detsen that Buddhism reached its zenith, with its influence proliferating throughout the land. It was during this era that the name “Lhasa” was bestowed upon this sacred place, and its significance has endured till this very day.From the 9th century through to the 15th century, the city of Lhasa did not witness significant growth and development. In fact, it can be said that it was a rather stagnant period for the city. This was particularly evident after the decline and fall of the Tubo Dynasty, as the entire Tubo society experienced over four centuries of division and separation. During this tumultuous period, Lhasa found itself in a state of desolation and melancholy, its vibrancy overshadowed by the trials and tribulations of the era.However, in the 13th century, a glimmer of hope emerged for Lhasa, thanks to the support of the central government of the Yuan Dynasty. It was during this time that the local Sakya dynasty was established, bringing with it a renewed sense of purpose and progress for the city. The patronage and assistance from the Yuan Dynasty breathed new life into Lhasa, allowing it to slowly embark on a path of development and growth.As the centuries progressed, Lhasa continued its upward trajectory. During the Pazhu and Karma dynasties, the city witnessed a steady but gradual evolution, gradually transforming into a bustling hub of cultural, religious, and economic activities. The monasteries and temples in Lhasa were expanded and adorned with intricate artwork and architectural marvels, attracting pilgrims and seekers of spiritual enlightenment from far and wide.It was during this period that Lhasa began to flourish as a center of learning and religious study, drawing scholars and monks from across Tibet and beyond. The city became renowned for its intellectual and spiritual pursuits, with renowned masters and scholars gathering in its hallowed grounds to engage in profound philosophical discussions and debates. Lhasa became a beacon of knowledge and enlightenment, with its monastic institutions serving as revered seats of wisdom and guidance.The allure and charm of Lhasa only grew stronger with the passing centuries. Its unique blend of ancient traditions and contemporary influences created a distinct cultural landscape that captivated the imagination of all who set foot in the city. The streets of Lhasa teemed with vibrant markets, where traders from different regions would converge to exchange goods and ideas. The city became a melting pot of diverse cultures, fostering a spirit of inclusivity and tolerance that permeated its every corner.Today, as one wanders through the streets of Lhasa, the vestiges of its rich history and cultural heritage are still palpable. The majestic Potala Palace, once the residence of the Dalai Lama, stands as a testament to the city’s enduring legacy. The Jokhang Temple, with its intricate carvings and sacred artifacts, continues to be a revered pilgrimage site for devout Buddhists. Lhasa has truly come a long way from its humble beginnings, evolving into a vibrant and thriving city that proudly carries the mantle of being the holy land of Tibet.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Tsongkhapa and his disciples successively built Ganden Monastery, Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery around Lhasa. It was not until the 17th century that Lhasa developed on a large scale. The fifth Dalai Lama restored and expanded the Potala Palace, built the Dragon King Pool, and repaired the Jokhang Temple; the seventh Dalai Lama opened the Norbulingka. Since then, the number of private houses in Lhasa has also increased, and commercial markets such as Chongsaikang and Tepenggang have also emerged one after another, forming the current scale of Lhasa.

Lhasa not only attracts Han, Hui and other ethnic groups, but also attracts businessmen from neighboring countries such as Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and India. Many people came to Lhasa to do business, making Lhasa a small oriental international market. Some foreigners settled down, and they played a certain role in the construction and development of Lhasa.

Potala Palace, the Pearl of the Plateau

In Lhasa, there is a saying: If you have not visited the Potala Palace in Lhasa, you have not been to Lhasa. These words may sound mysterious at first glance, but I have visited the Potala Palace many times in Lhasa, but I have a deep understanding of these words. The Potala Palace is a shining pearl on the roof of the world, a treasure of the cultural heritage of the Chinese nation, and a great miracle in the history of world architecture.

The Potala Palace stands on the Red Mountain in Lhasa. It was built in the 6th century AD, was struck by lightning in the 8th century , and was destroyed by military chaos in the 9th century. Balakhang” (vphags-pa-lha-khang) . The main building has 13 floors, high117.19 meters, more than 400 meters long from east to west, and about 400 meters wide from north to south350 meters, with an area of ​​about 130,000 square meters, has a history of more than 1,300 years.

In 641 A.D., Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty married to Tubo, and Songtsen Gampo “don’t build a palace for the princess to live in” for her. The fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, described it in the “Tibetan King and Official” as follows:

At Hongshan, three besieged cities were built. Then, during the siege, nine hundred and ninety-nine fortress-style palaces were built, and another one was built on the top of the Red Mountain to make up the thousand rooms. These palaces are equipped with golden bells, dust whisks, pearl nets, tassels, etc., which look very magnificent and are really comparable to the heavenly palaces. The palaces of the Tibetan king and princess are connected by silver bridges and copper bridges.

There are a thousand sharp spears erected on the base of the palace, and beautiful long tassels fluttering in the wind are tied to the spears. On the four sides, there are four gates that can collect all property and stolen goods, and each gate is beautifully decorated with a vaulted roof. Outside, the low-lying tunnel was used as a racecourse, two feet deep, eighteen feet wide, and three hundred feet long. Wooden boards are arranged on the tunnel, and the boards are covered with thick bricks. When a horse gallops, there is the sound of thousands of horses galloping. …It is as if the ten cities owned by the Rakshasa King Juga Mountain Lord have been moved to the snowy Tibet.

This is the early Potala Palace. Later, Buddhists compared it to the Buddhist resort of Potala, and the transliteration of Potala is “Potala” (rtse-po-ta-la) , so it is called “Potala Palace”.

Why is Potala called a palace but not a temple? According to relevant information, the fifth Dalai Lama established the Ganden Phodrang regime with the support of Gushri Khan. In order to improve his political status, Potala was rebuilt under the auspices of Diba Solang Radeng (that is, Sonam Chopel).

In 1652 , the fifth Dalai Lama went to Beijing to have an audience with Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty. He was canonized the following year, and the Qing government officially recognized him as the head of the local government in Tibet. When he returned to Lhasa, the White House was completed, and he moved from Drepung Monastery to Potala to carry out religious and political activities. Since then, Potala has become the center of theocratic rule in Tibet and the winter palace where successive Dalai Lamas lived, so it is called “Bradha Palace” instead of Potala Temple.

The Potala Palace is divided into two parts from the outside: the palace walls on both sides are white, and the palace wall in the middle is ocher red. People are used to calling them “White House” and “Red Palace”.

The White House was built during the period of the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century. In mid- March 1645 , the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso and Diba Sonam Radden, and other Tibetan local officials decided to rebuild the Potala Palace after surveying the Potala Palace . same yearMarch 25 _ _, hosted by Diba Sorang Radden, held the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the White House. It took 3 years to complete.

The Red Palace was built by Diba Sangye Gyatso. In February 1690 , Diba Sangye Gyatso started to build the Red Palace and the fifth Dalai Lama’s stupa in the eighth year after the fifth Dalai Lama passed away . The Qing court sent 114 craftsmen of the Han nationality to build the Red Palace , and Nepal sent 190 craftsmen to participate in the construction. On April 20 , 1693 , the inauguration ceremony was held, and a “monument without characters” was erected in front of the palace to commemorate it . As for why this stele has no words, no one can tell!

The cost of building the Red Palace is astonishing. Only the four items of building materials, foreman’s wages, shaping statues and instruments, and religious activities cost 2,134,136 taels of silver, which is equivalent to highland barley.537803112 kg, based on the annual average per person180 kgCalculated, it can feed 1.2 million people for 10 years; only the spiritual pagoda of the fifth Dalai Lama is composed of various scripture halls, Dalai Lama pagoda halls, Buddhist halls, and monk houses. The combination of red and white is spectacular.

The White House is in the shape of a “concave”, with a compact structure from east to west, and row upon row from low to high; the Red Palace is in the middle, with distinct layers and well-proportioned arrangements, making the entire Potala Palace look like a pagoda held in both hands; The top, shining in the sunlight, seems to show its supremacy. The fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, wrote the following poems in praise of the Potala Palace:

Pure gold into a tower of fireworks,

shining in the light of the world;

The god shy from the night platform,

Jump to Beizhou to escape the void.

Brahma on all sides sees all directions,

What Gong can compare with this?

In vain to seek long kalpas,

Sleeping Weiyang in the middle of leaking music.

It means that the gold-plated pillar on the top of the Potala Palace shone like flames in the world, and even the sun god shyly fled to the north in the dark night. There is a 4 -headed Brahma (the god of creation in ancient Hinduism and Brahmanism) who wants to find a palace to rival the Potala Palace, but in vain, he can only fall into eternal reincarnation.

The Potala Palace described in the fifth Dalai Lama’s poem is indeed not exaggerated at all. The majestic and resplendent Potala Palace is the crystallization of the labor of the Tibetan people. It is the largest and most complete palace complex in Tibet. The pinnacle of Buddhist architectural art.

After arriving at the Potala Palace, we first climbed up the wide and steep stone steps, passed through the wide and solid Phuntsok Duorang porch, and passed through the4 metersThe wide, curved and deep alleyway leads to Deyang Building, which is said to be a place exclusively for the Dalai Lama to watch Tibetan opera, dance gods, and sing and dance for entertainment. From the escalator on the west side of Deyang Building, there is the Dasong Corridor leading to the Buddhist Hall, and then upwards is the Tsochin Hall where the Dalai Lamas of all generations held their enthronements and pro-government ceremonies. On the shrine of the main hall, the golden book and seal bestowed by Emperor Shunzhi of the Qing Dynasty to the fifth Dalai Lama are still preserved.

Up from the East Hall is the Sunshine Hall. The main hall is equipped with scripture hall, living room and scripture study room, with gorgeous furnishings and countless jewels and treasures. Only a golden pot used by the Dalai Lama has more than 100 double weights, and a cloak is worth tens of thousands of yuan. Thangkas are hung on the four walls, thick carpets are spread on the floor, a yellow satin seat is placed on the steps above, and there are crane incense burners on both sides. Its style is quite similar to the Hall of Supreme Harmony in Beijing.

After leaving the Sunlight Hall, we hold the steep handle upwards, and it is a Buddhist hall. The hall is filled with smog, and huge yellow silk prayer flags are hung on the beams; in front of several rows of butter lamps, there are countless small gold and silver Bodhisattvas wrapped in cassocks and butter flowers made of butter. In the center of the hall stood towers of spiritual pagodas, so large that even ten people could not surround them holding hands. The body of the tower is gold and studded with crystal gems.

According to Lama Doji Lunzhu, the corpses of successive Dalai Lamas are placed in the stupa. There are four types of stupas: gold, silver, copper, and clay. The golden stupa is the highest treatment, and not all Dalai Lamas can enjoy it. In the Potala Palace, there are eight stupas inlaid with gold and jade , namely the fifth Dalai Lama, the seventh Dalai Lama, the eighth Dalai Lama, the ninth Dalai Lama, the tenth Dalai Lama, the eleventh Dalai Lama, the twelve The stupa of the world Dalai Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama.

Looking at the pagoda, I thought of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama, a brilliant comet in the history of Tibetan poetry who lived here. In 1683 AD, Tshangs-dbyangs-rgya-mtsho was born in a herdsman’s family in the Menyu area of ​​southern Tibet. At the age of 15 , he was selected into the Potala Palace as the reincarnation of the fifth Dalai Lama. He was originally a shepherd boy in the mountains, but now he accompanied the Qingdeng Ancient Buddha day after day, like a deer imprisoned in a forbidden garden, so lonely that he wanted to go crazy.

He deeply misses his hometown full of mountains and flowers, and his companions grazing together. He longs for a life in the world, and longs to hear the beautiful love songs of passionate girls. Therefore, he took the risk of dishonesty and carried the key to the side door of the Brada Palace. Whenever night fell, he would secretly leave the palace in disguise, and went to Bajiao Street to have a tryst with the women under the pseudonym “Dangsang Wangbo”.

He drank and sang, romantic and suave. When the morning sun was about to cast the first ray of sunlight on the red wall of the Potala Palace, he hurried back to the hall of the god. He hates religion that stifles people’s beautiful emotions, and he pursues pure and sincere love. He wrote a large number of beautiful love songs, which are as fresh and sweet as mountain spring water and as colorful as grassland wild flowers. They are widely circulated and loved by the Tibetan people.

He dared to speak out:

Meditate on the face of the Lama,

It cannot manifest itself in my mind;

Miss my love,

She took my heart!

He despises women who are not devoted to love:

Girl, not raised by parents,

It must have grown on a peach tree;

Otherwise, her love for others,

How can it wither faster than peach blossoms!

On a snowy morning, the guard of the Potala Palace found a series of footprints on the snow leading directly to Tsangyang Gyatso’s room. The secret of Cangyang Gyatso’s private meeting with his lover was discovered. His behavior violated religion, and the contradictions among those in power at that time were extremely sharp, so Tsangyang Gyatso, who was used as a scapegoat, was sent to Beijing soon.

In 1706 , the romantic poet died of illness by the Qinghai Lake at the age of 23 . A dazzling comet fell in the dark night of the Middle Ages. Because the sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso deviated from the orthodox tradition, he did not rest in the spiritual tower of the Potala Palace like other Dalai Lamas.

In the Spirit Pagoda Hall, I was dumbfounded. According to the lamas, the stupa of the fifth Dalai Lama is the largest, and the stupa of the 13th Dalai Lama is the most luxurious. The fifth Dalai Lama’s spiritual pagoda is called “Tibetan Forest Jingji”, which has 3 floors, and the tower itself is as high as it is14.85 meters, A total of 110,000 taels of gold was consumed. There are many cultural relics collected at the bottom of the pagoda, including the phalanx of Sakyamuni Buddha, the hat of Master Atisha, the clothes of Milarepa, a legacy of Songtsan Gampo, and the Beiye Sutra…

On the five-level pedestal is a huge tower vase, which contains the body of the fifth Dalai Lama. The tower vase is inlaid with agate, emeralds, pearls… It is so magnificent that it is known as “the first decoration in the world”. The stupa of the 13th Dalai Lama is called “Gray Dunjue”, which means “goodness and perfection”. tower height14 meters, consuming 180,000 taels of gold.

The surface of the tower is inlaid with diamonds, pearls, agate, turquoise, coral… It is majestic and majestic, and is known as “a dazzling giant pearl among the treasures”. There is a seated statue of the 13th Dalai Lama in the front hall of the Lingta Hall. In front of the statue is a pearl manza made of more than 200,000 pearls, which is luxurious and luxurious.

Leaving the pagoda hall and going up is the Qujie Zhupu Buddha Hall of Princess Wencheng and Songtsan Gampo. Buddhist disciples believe that this is an ideal place for cultivation. The statues of Songtsan Gampo, Princess Chizun, Princess Wencheng, ministers Lu Dongzan and Thonmi Sambuza are preserved in the Buddhist hall. The sculptures are simple and simple, and they are precious art treasures left over from the Tubo period.

According to Tibetan historical records, Songtsan Gampo once sat here to practice meditation, so it is also called “Dharma King Cave”. Now, there are still stoves and copper pots in the cave, which are said to be the relics of Songtsan Gampo.

The murals of the Potala Palace are lifelike and bright in color, and the brushes are finely drawn from various materials. They are an important part of the architectural art of the palace. The halls, halls, corridors, closets and Buddhist niches in the palace are decorated with colorful paintings everywhere. In Sasong Langjie Hall, there are portraits of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty and tablets in four languages: Han, Tibetan, Manchu and Mongolian.

The number of murals is astonishing. There are as many as 698 in the gallery on the second floor of Xipingcuo, the fifth Dalai Lama’s Xiangdian. The main contents of the murals are historical stories, myths and legends, Buddha statues and immortals, animals, flowers and plants…the colors are gorgeous and the lines are smooth, harmonious and beautiful.

In addition, the sculptures of the Potala Palace are also unique. There are 200,000 to 300,000 Buddha statues in the palace. The big ones are several feet high, and the small ones are only one inch or smaller. The reason why the Potala Palace has so many precious cultural relics is inseparable from its nearly 300 -year dominance of theocracy.

The Potala Palace is still standing tall from the outside. However, due to the long years and disrepair, its interior is old and decayed. Pagoda halls and Buddhist halls have caused many buildings to collapse. After 1985 , the state has carried out comprehensive maintenance on the Potala Palace many times. Today, it has opened its broad mind to welcome scholars and guests from all over the world, making new contributions to the promotion of the motherland’s culture!

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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