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Jokhang Temple: The Heart of Lhasa’s Spiritual Landscape

Jokhang Temple, nestled in the heart of Lhasa near the Tibetan Hospital, stands as a beacon of Tibetan culture and spirituality. Translated as “House of the Lord Buddha” (ཇོ་ཁང་) in Tibetan. This ancient monastery is celebrated by buddhist worldwide. Recognized as a UNESCO heritage and national key cultural relic and rated as a 5A tourist attraction. Jokhang Temple is an essential extension of the Potala Palace’s cultural heritage.

A Journey Through Time

Founded in 647 AD by King Songtsen Gampo and Princess Bhrikuti, Jokhang Temple boasts a history spanning over 1,360 years. Renowned as “Rasa Trulnang Tsuklakhang,” among other names, its construction marks a pivotal moment in Tibetan history. Over the centuries, successive Tibetan kings expanded the temple. Significant renovations were undertaken in the 11th century by the great translator Atisha. In 15th century under the patronage of King Tzawa Jampa, Je Tsongkhapa adorned the temple and a golden crown for the Buddha statue, known as “Jowo Rinpoche.”

The temple’s grand expansion began under the Fifth Dalai Lama and continued over 40 years under Depa Sangye Gyatso, culminating in the structure we see today, with five golden roofs and 108 chapels honoring deities from Tibet’s major Buddhist sects.

Preservation and Restoration of Lhasa Tsuklakhang

After the Cultural Revolution caused severe damage, restoration efforts starting in 1978. It brought the temple back to life, including the creation of Jokhang Temple Square in 1984. The temple, covering more than 25,000 square meters, boasts multi-layered roofs, ornate eaves, and gilded beauty. It preserves treasures dating back to the 7th century. The annual Great Prayer Festival, a tradition since Lama Tsongkhapa’s time, brings together all Tibetan Buddhist sects in devotion. It establishes Jokhang Temple as a center of religious unity.

Architectural Marvel of Tsuklakhang: Center of Jokhang

Facing west, Jokhang Temple’s layout follows a longitudinal axis, comprising porticos, courtyards, sanctuaries, monk quarters, and storerooms. The main hall, set towards the rear, presides over a spacious courtyard encircled by a colonnaded veranda. It add to the temple’s distinct character. Jokhang Temple, with its rich history and spiritual significance. Temple remains a cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhism, inviting pilgrims and visitors to explore the depths of its sacred halls and the beauty of its intricate design.

Tsuglhakhang, known as “ལྷ་ལྡན་ར་ས་འཕྲུལ་སྣང་གི་གཙུག་ལག་ཁང”in Tibetan. Originally named འོ་མཚོ་ (Milky Lake) its foundation was laid by filling a lake with soil carried by white goat, hence the name. Tsuglhakhang stands as the core of Jokhang Temple, enclosed within a square fortress-like compound. Measuring 97 meters in length from east to west, including the protruding central section. 82.5 meters in width from north to south, the main hall rises four stories high. The doorframes are intricately carved with motifs of flying celestials, animals, and lotuses. Under the eaves of the second and third floors, rows of wooden carved mythical beasts and sphinx-like sculptures blend traditional Tibetan architectural forms with the robust simplicity characteristic of Tang dynasty buildings.

Stories Carved in Wood

Inside, every wooden pillar tells a tale, smeared with sticky butter for religious offerings. One special pillar in the temple, known as the “Tooth Pillar,” is covered with human teeth. These teeth come from pilgrims who died on their way to Jokhang. Putting a tooth in this pillar was a way for others to complete the journey for them, making sure their spiritual journey was fulfilled. The central hall features a spacious courtyard surrounded by over twenty inward-facing chapels and scripture halls.

jokhang temple tour lhasa s spiritual heart
Jokhang temple tour lhasa s spiritual heart

Sacred Statues and Pilgrim’s Path

Walking clockwise into the inner sanctum of Jokhang, visitors are greeted by imposing statues. On the left stands Padmasambhava, and on the right, a Maitreya Buddha. Behind these figures is a sculpture of Avalokiteśvara with a thousand hands and eyes. Next to the main Maitreya Buddha are two smaller Jampa (Maitreya) statues. The larger, funded by the noble Polha Miwang family, showcases exquisite craftsmanship.

Tsuglhakhang captures the essence of Tibetan spirituality and artistic heritage, inviting pilgrims and visitors alike to explore its deep historical roots and architectural beauty. This sacred space not only serves as a testament to centuries of devotion but also as a cultural bridge, melding architectural influences and spiritual traditions into a singular, harmonious entity.

Exploring the Upper Floors of Jokhang Temple: A Journey to Spiritual Heights

Upon leaving the Five Protector Gods’ Chapel, a climb up the stone stairs leads to the second floor of Jokhang Temple, home to 18 sanctuaries, with the third floor housing 16 more. Each corner of the fourth floor reveals treasures and sacred spaces dedicated to various aspects of Tibetan Buddhism and history.

Sanctuaries of Faith and History

In the southeast corner, the “Tsema Banden” chapel is full of ritual items and treasure jars, showing the temple’s deep ceremonial roots. The northeast’s “Lhala Tsangkhang” is home to statues and old writings about stars and time, connecting religious rituals to the natural world. The southwest “Tsering Che Nga” chapel pays tribute to guardians of the faith, including the monk Pelgyi Dorje who killed Langdarma, and displays the arrow used, highlighting the temple’s key place in Kagyu history. The northwest “Lamrin Lhakhang” honors the Buddha of Longevity and the Sixteen Arhats, underlining the temple’s commitment to long-lasting spirituality.

Outside, the “Drolma Lhakhang” in the northwest corner, facing from west to east, honors Tara and the Twenty-One Taras, showing the vital role of female divinity in Tibetan Buddhism. Around the temple, 108 gold-coated copper prayer wheels stand in the north, east, and south walkways, creating a beautiful scene of faithfulness.

The Golden Roofs of Jokhang Temple: Symbols of Divine Illumination

The highlight of the visit is seeing the temple’s golden roofs. The Avalokiteśvara Chapel’s golden roof, paid for by the Prince of Ali in 1190, was the first of its kind in Tibetan monasteries. It has been made even more beautiful with repairs and additions over time. The main Buddha Hall’s golden roof, made around 1310 and fixed up later. It has dragons and uses generous donations from people over the years, showing how much the community cares.

The Jampa (Maitreya) Buddha Hall’s roof, put together from pieces of other temples, stands out, especially after the Fifth Dalai Lama had it significantly improved. These roofs, with their shiny golden tiles and detailed decorations, sparkle in the sunlight and offer an amazing sight near the Potala Palace. Visiting the upper floors and golden roofs of the Jokhang Temple not only takes you through the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. Moreover lets you see the stunning art and architecture that has amazed pilgrims and visitors for hundreds of years.

jokhang temple tour lhasa s spiritual heart
Jokhang temple tour lhasa s spiritual heart

The Jowo Shakyamuni: The Quintessence of Sacredness in Tibet

Tibet reveres the Jowo Shakyamuni statue as its most sacred and pivotal Buddha image. The celestial architect Viswakarma, hailing from India, carved this revered image, infusing it with deep religious significance and a direct link to the Buddha. Historical documents, including the “Vase-Shaped Pillar Testament” from the eleventh century, reveal that artisans based the Jowo Shakyamuni’s sculpture on a life portrait of the Buddha, enhancing its authenticity and spiritual value.

Intended to represent Buddha after his parinirvana, the statue serves as a tangible focus for devotion. Its sanctity and potent spiritual presence stem from its accurate depiction of the Buddha and Viswakarma’s divine artistry. This story of divine origin and lifelike representation echoes in the narratives surrounding other venerated Buddhist statues, such as Thailand’s Emerald Buddha and Japan’s Seiryoji Buddha, underscoring a shared motif in Buddhist art and worship.

A Cultural and Artistic Treasure Trove of Jokhang Temple

Jokhang Temple, located at the heart of Lhasa city, near the Tibetan Hospital, serves as a magnificent repository of Han and Tibetan cultural heritage. Esteemed worldwide, this ancient temple is not only a key cultural relic but also a 5A-rated tourist site, playing a pivotal role in the study of Tibet’s history and religious practices through its vast collection of sculptures, murals, Thangkas, and artifacts.

Sculptures: A Diverse Collection

Jokhang Temple houses an extensive collection of sacred statues, featuring over 300 deities including Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dakinis, Vajras, Kings, and Protectors from various epochs. Among these are unique statues brought from distant lands like Indonesia and Oman during the Tubo period, each with its own miraculous backstory, ranging from natural formation to celestial origins.

The temple also boasts a significant collection of gilded copper statues, many resembling the artistic style of the Tang dynasty, offering valuable insights for researchers. Ming dynasty statues, complex in form and often bearing inscriptions or specific dates, provide crucial clues for historical studies. Notably, a collection of gilded Bodhisattva statues inscribed with “Donated during the Yongle era of the Great Ming” stands out as a testament to Emperor Yongle’s patronage.

Murals of Jokhang: Ancient Tibetan Art

With an area spanning 4,400 square meters, Jokhang Temple’s murals represent the oldest in Tibet. Efforts in 1989 to preserve and restore these artistic masterpieces have ensured that both early and more recent works remain for visitors to admire. These murals, capturing the essence of the Tubo period and the era of the Fifth Dalai Lama, showcase the main characteristics of Tibetan mural art across significant historical phases.

Tubo period murals on the second floor depict a large “Mandala” surrounded by deities like Vajrapani and Green Tara in a style marked by robust, simple colors and black outlines. These images, free in form and rich in style, bring to life the divine through dynamic poses, ornate adornments, and expressive facial features, from the fierce Vajrapani to the serene and graceful Guanyin.

Jokhang Temple’s collection of sculptures and murals not only highlights the artistic achievements of Tibetan culture but also serves as invaluable material for understanding Tibet’s rich historical and religious landscape. Visitors to Jokhang are invited to explore these artistic treasures, each telling its own story of devotion, craftsmanship, and cultural exchange.

The Artistic Wonders of Jokhang Temple’s Second Floor

Jokhang Temple, the spiritual heart of Lhasa, harbors a vast collection of sculptures, murals, Thangkas, and artifacts that represent a rich tapestry of Tibetan and Han cultural achievements. This ancient site not only holds religious significance but also stands as a key resource for scholars exploring Tibet’s history and religious practices.

Masterpieces in Sculpture and Mural Art

The temple’s second floor presents a breathtaking array of sculptures and murals, each piece narrating stories of divinity, history, and cultural exchange.

Divine Sculptures: A Realm of Sanctity

Within its sacred halls, Jokhang Temple showcases an impressive array of deity sculptures. Beyond the revered Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dakinis, Vajras, Kings, and Protectors, the temple is home to rare statues from the Tubo period, sourced from as far as Indonesia and Oman. These include the Kasya Chandana Buddha, Serdok Chen Chandana Buddha, and the Holy Kasaba Buddha, each with its own mystic origin story, blending natural phenomena with divine lore.

The collection also boasts finely crafted gilded copper statues, many mirroring the artistic finesse of the Tang dynasty. These statues, particularly those with Ming dynasty inscriptions, provide invaluable insights into the intricate relations between Tibet and the Ming imperial court.

Murals: Canvas of History and Faith

Jokhang’s murals, spanning 4,400 square meters, are among Tibet’s earliest, with efforts in 1989 preserving and restoring these treasures. The second floor’s murals from the Tubo period feature a rich palette of primary colors, depicting deities like Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Green Tara in a style that combines grandeur with simplicity. The murals from the Ganden Phodrang period, however, expand the temple’s narrative canvas, incorporating historical and cultural scenes alongside religious iconography, such as the “Princess Wencheng Entering Tibet” and “Marriage of Songtsen Gampo.”

jokhang temple tour lhasa s spiritual heart
Jokhang temple tour lhasa s spiritual heart

The Living Canvas of Jokhang

The second floor’s murals also portray lifelike figures from Tibetan history, their flowing robes and intricate accessories painted with meticulous attention to detail. Figures like Padmasambhava’s consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, and historical leaders are depicted with a vividness that brings centuries-old stories to life. These characters, with their expressive faces and gestures, encapsulate the essence of Tibetan artistry.

The Ganden Phodrang period murals, with their lavish use of gold and silver, intricate patterns, and detailed environmental renditions, signify a leap in artistic expression, showcasing a uniquely Tibetan style enriched with symbolism and sophistication.

Jokhang Temple’s second floor is a testament to the enduring spirit of Tibetan culture, offering visitors a journey through time where art, history, and spirituality intertwine to tell the tale of a people deeply rooted in their faith and heritage.

Discovering the Thangkas and Artifacts of Jokhang Temple

Jokhang Temple, a beacon of Tibetan Buddhism and culture in Lhasa, houses an incredible array of Thangkas and historical artifacts, spanning centuries of Tibetan history. These treasures not only serve as a window into the spiritual and artistic legacy of Tibet but also highlight the intricate craftsmanship and cultural exchanges that have enriched Tibetan society over the ages.

Thangkas: Embroidered Masterpieces

Among the hundreds of Thangkas, two exceptional pieces stand out: the Shengle Vajra and Mahāvairocana Thangkas, gifted by Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty to Tibetan religious leaders over 500 years ago. These Thangkas, remarkable for their vivid colors and pristine condition, are embroidered with a complexity that brings the depicted deities to life. Craftsmen utilized techniques like dense needle overlay and gold thread inlay to enhance the images’ three-dimensionality, creating exquisite works of art that embody the peak of embroidery skill.

Precious Artifacts: A Glimpse into Tibetan History

Jokhang Temple’s collection of artifacts from as early as the 7th century offers invaluable insights into Tibet’s historical narrative. Highlights include the Red Seal Tripitaka, 108 volumes presented by the Yunnan chieftain Mu Zeng, a grand silver lamp offered to the Buddha by Genghis Khan’s descendant Hulagu Khan, and silver Buddha robes and a large golden lamp from the Ming Dynasty. These gifts, alongside imperial plaques from the Ming, Qing, and Republic eras, the Five Buddha crown donated by Tsongkhapa, and various porcelains and ritual instruments, provide rich material for the study of Tibetan history.

Woodcarvings: The Unique Heritage of Jokhang

The wooden carvings on the doors and frames of the temple, especially those from the Tubo period, demonstrate the artistic influence of Nepal and ancient India, featuring an array of religious figures, animals, and plants. Unique to Jokhang and pivotal to its UNESCO World Heritage designation, these carvings are a testament to the temple’s enduring legacy. The wood’s exceptional hardness, echoing a metallic sound when struck, speaks to the resilience of these carvings through more than 1,400 years of history.

Jokhang Temple, through its Thangkas and artifacts, stands as a cultural and spiritual archive, preserving the essence of Tibetan art, faith, and history for future generations to explore and cherish.

Treasures of Jokhang Temple: A Journey Through Time

Jokhang Temple, nestled in the heart of Lhasa, stands as a guardian of Tibetan culture, history, and spirituality. This revered site preserves a wealth of artifacts and relics, each narrating stories from Tibet’s rich tapestry of historical epochs. Let’s explore some of the temple’s most distinguished treasures that continue to draw admiration and awe from visitors worldwide.

Tang-Tubo Alliance Stele: A Monument of Unity

The Tang-Tubo Alliance Stele, standing in front of Jokhang Temple under the “Princess Willow,” celebrates the peace treaty between the Tibetan Empire and the Tang Dynasty in 823 AD. This stele, known as the “Longqing Alliance Stele” or “Nephew-Uncle Alliance Stele,” showcases both nations’ commitment to peace and good relations. With inscriptions in Tibetan and Chinese, it symbolizes the lasting friendship between Tibetan and Han peoples.

The “Forever to Be Followed” Stele, set up in 1794 by Qing official He Lin, honors the fight against smallpox in Tibet. This pioneering public health effort, marked by inscriptions and carvings in Tibetan and Chinese on the stele, reflects the Qing dynasty’s care for Tibetan people’s health.

Beside the Tang-Tubo Alliance Stele is the “Princess Willow,” a tree over 1,300 years old, planted by Princess Wencheng. Though now decayed, this willow remains a symbol of the Tibetan people’s affection for Princess Wencheng. Legend has it that the tree grew from Buddha Shakyamuni’s hair brought by the princess, adding spiritual importance to its existence.

Everlasting Lamps: Illuminating the Divine

Jokhang Temple is home to several pure gold everlasting lamps, with the most significant one donated by the 10th Panchen Lama in 1985. This lamp, bearing his blessings and signature, symbolizes a prayer for world peace and the well-being of all beings, reflecting the temple’s spiritual aspirations.

The Jokhang Bell: A Resonant Heritage

Trisong Detsen offered the Jokhang Bell to the temple when he built the Wo Xiang Temple. People believe that Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana and Prince Gungu Choekyong used this bell to recite the Mani mantra for their mothers. This makes the bell a treasured and sacred item for believers.

Jokhang Temple also has a tapestry of Buddha Shakyamuni. Legend says Princess Wencheng herself embroidered it. There are also shoes that King Songtsen Gampo reportedly wore to bless people. Plus, the temple has a special wine vat made from materials from Han, India, Tibet, and Nepal. The Dharma King used it, showing the temple’s deep cultural and spiritual roots.

Jokhang Temple, through its remarkable collection of artifacts, murals, Thangkas, and sculptures, continues to stand as a beacon of Tibetan Buddhist faith, art, and history, inviting visitors to delve into the depths of its ancient and sacred lore.

King Songtsen Gampo: The Architect of Jokhang Temple and Tibet’s Unifier

King Songtsen Gampo, the visionary founder of the Jokhang Temple and the unifier of the Tibetan Empire, is a figure of monumental importance in Tibetan history. His reign, marked by the establishment of the first unified Tibetan state, the introduction of Buddhism, and the creation of the Tibetan script, set the foundation for the cultural and political development of Tibet. Marrying Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, he fostered strong diplomatic ties and brought Buddhist teachings and advancements in medicine, astronomy, and craftsmanship from China and Nepal to Tibet.

Princess Bhrikuti: The Nepalese Influence on Tibetan Buddhism

Princess Bhrikuti, King Songtsen Gampo’s Nepalese queen, played a pivotal role in the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. Her arrival in Tibet with a statue of the young Shakyamuni Buddha and skilled artisans led to the construction of the Jokhang Temple, establishing a significant Buddhist site that continues to be revered today. Her contributions greatly influenced the religious landscape of Tibet, bringing Nepalese Buddhist traditions to the Tibetan plateau.

Exploring Jokhang Temple: Tips for Visitors

  • Photography Tips: The temple’s rooftop offers stunning views of the Potala Palace in the morning and the Jokhang Temple plaza bathed in the glow of the setting sun in the afternoon. Post-rain summers provide a unique opportunity to capture the temple amidst rainbows.
  • The Kora Path: Surrounding the main hall, the Kora path, lined with 380 prayer wheels, is a profound spiritual journey for the devout and an immersive experience for visitors. Walking clockwise and spinning the prayer wheels is a practice embraced by pilgrims to accumulate merit.
  • The Murals: Right at the entrance of the main hall, murals depicting the founding story of Jokhang Temple offer a glimpse into 7th-century Lhasa, King Songtsen Gampo, and Princess Wencheng. These artworks are essential for understanding the temple’s historical and cultural significance.

Jokhang Temple, through the legacies of King Songtsen Gampo and Princess Bhrikuti, remains a living testament to the synthesis of Nepalese, Chinese, and Tibetan cultures, standing as a central pillar in the study of Tibetan Buddhism and history.

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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