Each urban centre possesses its unique romantic historical lane that preserves the reminiscences of the city and narrates the tales of the region, akin to Beijing’s Chang’an Street, Chengdu’s Chunxi Road, and Chongqing’s Liberation Road… Lhasa also boasts of a comparable avenue, known as Barkhor Street. This vintage lane etches the recollections of Lhasa, encapsulating the past of the snowy highlands.
Barkhor Street is a circular street that encircles the Jokhang Temple and is known for its strong Tibetan atmosphere. It is a unique neighbourhood that transports visitors through time and space, allowing them to witness the history of Lhasa. Barkhor Street is a hub of faith, commerce, and tourism. Welcoming thousands of believers and travellers from all over the world.
Barkhor Street has a rich history, it started as a path for pilgrims to worship at the Jokhang Temple. Over time, it has become a bustling street filled with residential houses, shops, hotels, and handicraft workshops. Barkhor Street is also known as “Barkhor” in Tibetan, which means the turning path in the middle. It is the oldest turning path in Lhasa and is larger than the meridian corridor in the Jokhang Temple.
The street is less than five or six meters wide and is surrounded by ancient Tibetan courtyards, giving it a strong Tibetan life atmosphere. Barkhor Street is a cultural corridor that showcases the best of Tibetan architecture, traditional Tibetan supplies, colourful Thangka, and delicious Tibetan cuisine. It is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in experiencing the rich culture and history of Tibet.
Barkhor Street has immense importance for the followers of Buddhism. Devotees assemble to stroll along the street in a clockwise manner. Their solemn and ardent supplications, accompanied by the sound of their resolute footsteps, pervade the entire street with an aura of profound sanctity. While walking, they recite mantras, turn prayer wheels, and prostrate. they absorbed in a realm of veneration and yearning. The parade resembles an enormous turbine, revolving with a constant and unfaltering energy.
Jokhang Temple holds a central position in Lhasa, not only in terms of location but also in social life.
Established in 647 A.D., the Jokhang Temple was constructed by Songtsen Gampo, a well-known leader of the Tubo era, to welcome a 12-year-old Buddha statue brought by Princess Chizun of Nepal. It is due to the arrival of this statue that Lhasa has earned the title of “Holy Land” and has become the most prominent place of worship for Buddhists.
With the establishment of the Jokhang Temple, an increasing number of Buddhists came to worship here. Many have passed this “nearest place to the Buddha” down as a family treasure. Devotees from pastoral areas set up sturdy “black tents” here, while those from the valley built simple adobe houses. Later, the remarkable spiritual energy of Jokhang Temple drew more people here. Tents and adobe houses sprang up around the lake and even began to appear with the same civil and stone structure as the Jokhang Temple. The once-disordered houses gradually separated into different functions based on regional cultures. Due to the place of faith, the ancient city of Lhasa took shape in an organized manner. Jokhang Temple has become the true heart of Lhasa.
Tibet – Tang Alliance Memorial Pillars
Tubo Dynasty rapidly expanded its sphere of influence after the 7th century.
Despite living for only 33 years, Songtsen Gampo accomplished countless remarkable feats. At the tender age of 12, in 629 A.D., he united the diverse tribes in Tibet, founded a new political system Kyishod (modern-day Lhasa), devised a written script, issued decrees, developed agriculture and animal husbandry, and erected infrastructure.
To solidify the new regime’s stability, Songtsen Gampo officially introduced Buddhism to Tibet, where Bon was the prevalent belief system. As Songtsen Gampo endeavoured to unify the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, he engaged in military conflicts with the Tang Dynasty, with both sides experiencing victories and defeats.
A skilled politician like Songtsen Gampo had to concentrate on internal affairs while seeking opportunities for growth. Apart from warfare, marriage was deemed the most effective method. Tibet king, Songtsen Gampo, admired the Tang Dynasty’s advanced production technology and culture and requested to marry the princess of Tang Taizong Li Shimin.
Princess Wencheng Gongzhu
Tubo sought to marry the Tang Dynasty twice, but Emperor Taizong rejected the proposals. Tubo believed that it was Tuyuhun in the east, who defame King Songtsen Gampo, so he attacked Tuyuhun and appropriated some land and money.
In 636 A.D., Tubo requested to marry the princess again, but Emperor Taizong turned him down once more. Tubo could not tolerate this and expanded its territory outwardly, feeling confident enough to compete with Tang Yi. Consequently, in 638, he fought a battle with the Tang army in Songzhou.
In 641, Emperor Taizong designated his daughter Wencheng to marry Songzan Gampo.
Princess Wencheng married Tubo in 641. Since then, despite the fact that Tubo and the Tang Dynasty now and again had frictions, they had been typically harmonious and communicated frequently. In 821 A.D., the Tang Dynasty and Tubo despatched envoys to attain an alliance to try to find the motive of the Uncle and Nephew alliance treaty. In 823 A.D., Zanpu Trisong Detsen, one of the three religious kings, erected a monument in front of Jokhang Temple.
The inscription is in Chinese on one aspect and Tibetan on the alternative aspect, the means are the same. It in particular affirms the achievements of the 2 princesses Wencheng and Jincheng. Trisong Detsen summarizes the connection with the Tang Dynasty with the word “nephew-uncle relationship”. The inscription is straightforward and unpretentious, and the phrases are sincere.
Tang and their descendants will constantly remember “the relation of the uncle and nephew”. Next to the monument is a willow tree, which is planted by Princess Wencheng herself. The locals name it Princess Willow.
Princess Wencheng played a significant role in the cultural exchange between Tang Dynasty and Tibet. Along with production tools, medical devices, and scriptures, she also introduced silkworm seeds, wine, paper, ink, and embroidery skills to Tibet. This exchange led to the development of Tubo’s cultural diversity and exquisite skills. Princess Wencheng’s peace and relatives brought three significant achievements to Tibet, namely opening up the ancient road of Tang and Tibet, promoting Buddhism in Tibet, and advancing the progress of culture and science and technology in Tibet. Her contributions earned her the name “Gyamo Sa” among the Tubo people, which means “fairy from the Central Plains.”
At the age of 16, Princess Wencheng married Songtsen Gampo, who had four other wives, each representing a different region of Tibet. The policy of harmony was aimed not only at the Tang Dynasty but also at weighing the forces of all parties. Following Songtsen Gampo’s death, Princess Wencheng lived for 30 years in Tibet until her death, without having any children.
Old Architecture around Barkhor Street
On Barkhor Street, Tibetan-style edifices line up one after the other. Some of these structures boast impressive white walls and red roofs, while others appear simple with dusty exteriors and crooked walls. Not only are governmental institutions like the Kasha government, local courts, and prisons situated here, but there are also shops, stalls, and workshops.
Numerous cultural relics and ancient architectural courtyards can be found in this area, including Larang Ningba, Rabsey Tsenkang, Samdrup Podrang, Bomda tsang, Tromsikhang, Drakang, and the Gendun Choepel Memorial Hall. These ancient buildings, weathered by time, resemble precious family heirlooms and are nestled in the arms of Baarkhor Street.
An ancient dwelling beside the millenary willow tree on Barkhor Street was erected during the Tubo period of Songzan Gampo. It stands as one of the oldest edifices in Lhasa. “Larang” means the abode of a living Buddha, while “Nyingpa” signifies the aged in Tibetan.
Labrang Nyingpa, previously known as ‘Tonpa’, served as the home of the creator of the present-day Tibetan language and the most distinguished minister of Tubo during the Songtsen Gampo era. Master Tsongkhapa, a prominent religious revolutionary and master in Tibet during the 15th century, resided in this dwelling.
In the 17th century, the fifth Dalai Lama utilized it as a bedroom before relocating to the newly built chamber on the top floor of the Jokhang Temple. The bedroom where the fifth Dalai Lama resided was subsequently called Labrang Nyingpa. Although Labrang Nyingpa was constructed earlier than the Jokhang Temple, the precise date of its construction remains unverifiable. It is believed that the blueprints for the Jokhang Temple were drawn up in Labrang Nyingba. Following the peaceful liberation of Tibet, it became the headquarters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Tibet. With numerous historical luminaries having lived on its grounds, Labrang Nyingpa embodies significant historical and cultural significance.
The Rabsey Tsenkhang Temple is among the four significant Tsenkhang temples in Lhasa (the other three being the Zima Guardian Hall in Dablin, Karmaxia, and Tengyeling Temple). It was established in the reign of Songtsen Gampo, and Princess Wencheng also resided here. During the time of the 12th Dalai Lama (1856-1875), the temple was put under the administration of the Sera Monastery.
The Rabsey Tsenkhang is not sizable, and it comprises only a single level. It is located on the upper floor of the building, and it is recognized for its reverence of the Dragon God. In the centre of the main hall, the three mentors and their apprentices of Zongkhapa, Master Padmasambhava, Tara, Drabji Lhamo, and other idols are worshipped. On the Buddha’s statue at the centre, there is a stone on the far left, which is the “soul stone” of Tuduo Wangqiu, the dragon god. On the back of the stone, there is another slate with the footprints of Songtsen.
The outer facade of Samdup Phodrang, much like the other houses on Bakhor Street, is painted white, while the windows sport a black trapezoid shape. The market stalls that block the front of the house provide a glimpse into the market’s daily life. Unfortunately, most of the cultural monument is obscured by security equipment, making it easy to forget the house’s former grandeur.
In 1642, kyoshud, led by Gushi Khan, conquered Tibet and established the Ganden Phodrang Government. Samdup Phodrang, built especially for Gushi Khan, was a luxurious residence. After his death, the Heshuo’s special power in Tibet weakened, and Samdup Phodrang became the home of Sonam Dargey, the father of the Seventh Dalai Lama. Sonam Dargey, a highly capable and responsible individual, had a unique personality. Regent recognized his talents and made him a duke in 1729. Under his name, a large area of land and the Samdup Phodrang mansion in Shannan was acquired. After his death, Emperor Qianlong canonized the Seventh Dalai Lama’s younger brother as a Duke. The Samdup Phodrang family is one of Tibet’s four major families and holds a prominent position in Tibet’s history.
Pomdatsang is the most comprehensive edifice in the ancient city of Lhasa, boasting a history of over three centuries. During the Reting era, it served as the dwelling of the commander of the Tibetan military. Until the late 1950s, Bondacang was a renowned commercial entity in Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Tibet.
During Wartime, its mule and horse caravans established a land international transportation route, providing strong support to the rear and achieving remarkable success, which gained widespread admiration both domestically and abroad. Presently, it has been transformed into a Tibetan-style hotel. The ancient courtyard’s porch stones, the iron flowers adorning the railings, and the typical Senxia architectural design in the corridors create a captivating ambience reminiscent of the Tibetan aristocratic lifestyle of the yesteryears.
Tromsikhang serves as the residence and workplace of the Amban in Tibet during the Qing Dynasty. Due to its location, the south building of the compound offers a bustling view of Baguo Street, earning it the name “Chongsaikang,” meaning “a house with a view of the market.” This name aptly conveys the government gate’s geographical position and Barkhor Street’s rich history and prosperity.
The establishment of the Amban in Tibet dates back to the fifth year of Yongzheng (1727) during the Qing Dynasty. In the first month of that year, Seng Ge and Mara were sent to Tibet as ambassadors stationed in Tibet.
Tromsikhang currently serves as the display area of the previous location of the Qing government’s Amban in Tibet. Once you pass through the ministerial gate, take the steps up the stone staircase, and the sign hanging on the hall’s entrance will come into view. The phrase “Fuyuan Suijiang” is prominently displayed. As you enter the exhibition hall, you’ll find a collection of historical and cultural artefacts, official appointments, literature and research works from ancient and modern scholars, and restored historical scenes. This provides a clearer understanding of the tireless efforts of the hundreds of Ambans stationed in Tibet over 185 years since the establishment of the ministerial system in Tibet. They worked hard to strengthen borders and build frontiers.
Gendun Chomphel Memorial Hall
Gendun Chomphel, a renowned Tibetan intellectual, poet, artist, interpreter and pioneer of humanism, was born in the spring of 1903 in Tongren County, Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province. At the tender age of 4, he was recognized as a reincarnated spiritual child of the Dorji Drak Temple in Tibet. Subsequently, he pursued his studies in various monasteries and spent 12 years in South Asia. He passed away in Lhasa in 1951 on his 49th birthday.
The Garushak Courtyard located on Barkhor Street, served as the residence, and final resting place of Gendun Chomphel. In 2013, a commemorative museum dedicated to him was reconstructed at this site.
Daily Commodity in Tibetan Life
Barkhor Street is an extremely thriving place. It is home to not only eminent individuals and aristocrats but also common folk. The street boasts of not just eminent monks and lamas, but also a multitude of devotees. It is not just the intellectuals and sages who frequent the street, but also numerous artisans such as carpenters, silversmiths, blacksmiths, painters, tailors, and other craftsmen. The street is lined with an array of stalls, tents, and small shops where these people engage in various colourful transactions.
The street exudes an aura of the bygone era and is adorned with handicrafts such as Tibetan scriptures, incense, knives, rings, earrings, bracelets, traditional attire, and other artefacts. One can witness the unique manual production methods of the Tibetan people here and gain a deeper appreciation for their vibrant and diverse way of life. The locals are known for their warm hospitality, and this street is the hub of Tibetan social life. It is the most concentrated, prominent, and profound centre of Tibetan social life.
In the Tibetan region, whether in temples or homes, a revitalizing aroma fills the air as long as people reside there. It is a blend of grass and butter fragrances from the grasslands, which mixes in the atmosphere, permeating every nook and cranny, invigorating our senses. This scent is emitted from Tibetan incense.
You can sense the antiquity in the air. Mindroling Tibetan incense, one of the three major kinds of Tibetan incense in Tibet, originated from the Mindroling Temple, the ancestral court of the Nyingma School established in 1670 in Shannan. Its history is extensive. In the past, it was exclusively used for the Potala Palace, demonstrating its esteemed status.
The production of Mindroling Tibetan incense’s raw materials is relatively demanding. It adheres to the ancient recipe recorded in the Buddhist scriptures, condensing over 30 precious medicinal ingredients, spices, gold, silver, and other precious minerals. During production, no artificial fragrances are added, and each raw material’s proportion and treatment method are strictly regulated. The process is intricate. All production stages, from raw material processing, moulding, finishing and drying, to packaging, are handmade. Therefore, the annual production of Mindroling Tibetan incense is limited, further emphasizing its value.
When lit, it purifies the air, prevents influenza, and disinfects. Moreover, it has calming, soothing, and refreshing effects, among others, which are indescribable.
Min bamboo forest hidden incense is a treasure that has been meticulously crafted with time, and each one is worth cherishing and savouring. It is the finest incense product, and lighting it is akin to conversing with a wise elder. Its rich meaning is akin to a gentle and sweet mountain stream and the soft and delicate snow on the Himalayas, with no impurities.
The snow-covered plateau is not just a natural wonder, but also a moving spectacle. Additionally, it boasts a vibrant scene of the environment.
Woeser Gamchung Teahouse
Nestled amidst the bustling streets of the temple and market, Guangming Gamchung Teahouse is a quintessential civilian establishment. If Barkhor Street is the heart of Lhasa, then this charming teahouse is the lifeblood of the city. Bustling with activity, it attracts a diverse crowd of merchants, monks, civil servants, artisans, and devoted pilgrims who come from far and wide to pay their respects to Buddha.
Even the unemployed gather here, creating a lively and colourful atmosphere akin to a theatrical performance. Nowadays even more Chinese Tourists gather here for a cup of tea and feel the bustling and slow mode of life.
The magnificent Tibetan-style exterior conceals a simple industrial interior. Drawing back the unassuming old-fashioned curtains, one can sit anywhere, place their change on the table, and sip tea in silence. Upon looking up, the cup is magically refilled, creating a natural and relaxed atmosphere. The Guangming Sweet Teahouse is a beloved spot for locals due to its affordability and neighbourly ambience. With every tea refill, the cup is filled to the brim, almost overflowing.
Despite its small size and dim lighting, the Sweet Teahouse is always bustling with people. The ceiling is adorned with only a few blackened light bulbs that barely illuminate the space. Dozens of worn long tables with benches line the room, yet sitting there is a peaceful and serene experience. One can converse with strangers or enjoy their own company without feeling out of place. It is a return to the most basic form of communication.
The Sweet Teahouse is to Lhasa what teahouses are to Chengdu, cafes are to Paris and can be found on every street corner. It is the go-to spot for daily leisure and the most comfortable and welcoming place for locals. The number of Sweet Teahouses in the bustling streets of Lhasa is countless, and the amount of people who frequent them is immeasurable.