Lhasa rose to prominence as an administrative center in the 7th century, when Songtsen Gampo moved his capital there and built a palace on the site now occupied by the Potala. The temples of Ramoche and the Jokhang were also established at this time to house the Buddha images brought as dowries by Songtsen Gampo’s Nepalese and Chinese wives.
As the lake was filled to create the site for the Jokhang, the town was known as Rasa, ‘place of the goat’. Following the consecration of the Jokhang and the installation of the Jowo Shakyamuni image the name was changed to Lhasa, ‘place of the deity’. The rule of the Yarlung kings from their new capital lasted some 250 years, but Buddhism did not really take hold until the rule of Trisong Detsen (755-97) when Samye was established. Following the breakup of the Lhasa regime the city became peripheral to Tibetan history until Dalai Lama V (1617-82) defeated the Shigatse Tsang kings (with Mongol support).
The Barkhor: The holiest of Lhasa’s koras (devotional circumambulation circuits) and its most fascinating market. All around are shops, stalls, teahouses and cafes; the streets are filled with monks, pilgrims, street performers and hawkers. The atmosphere is an intoxicating blend of the sacred, medieval, commercial and exotic. our stone incense burners mark the four extremities of the circuit. Behind those in front of the Jokhang stand two enclosures; one housing the stump of an ancient willow allegedly planted by Songtsen Gampo’s Chinese wife and a stele inscribed with the terms of the Sino-Tibetan treaty of 822 guaranteeing mutual respect for the borders of the two countries.
The Jokhang: This 1300-year-old, golden-roofed building at the center of the Barkhor is the spiritual heart of both the city and of the Tibetan world. The most sacred and active of Tibetan temples, it was founded by Queen Bhrikuti, King Songtsen Gampo’s Nepalese wife, on a site chosen by one of his other wives (a Tang dynasty Chinese princess, Wenchang) as the principal geomantic power-place in Tibet. The courtyard in front of the Jokhang entrance is almost constantly filled with prostrating pilgrims – inside the labyrinth of shrines, halls and galleries are dimly lit by butter lamps and filled with pilgrims and incense and house some of the finest treasures of Tibetan art including a pure gold statue of Shakyamuni – the Jowo Buddha brought by Queen Wencheng – one of the most sacred images in Tibet.
The Potala Palace: The Potala towers over Lhasa and is an enduring landmark of Tibet. Little remains of the original structure built by Songtsen Gampo apart from its foundations. After Lhasa was reinstated as the capital of Tibet in the 17th century the Great 5th Dalai Lama began construction of the White Palace (built 1645-53) employing 7000 workers and 1500 artisans. It functioned as the traditional seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas.
The Red Palace is attributed to the regent Desi Sangye Gyatso and was completed in 1693. Dalai Lama V died in 1682, his death, concealed by the regent, enabling completion of the construction without the distraction of political upheaval. Within this palace are numerous outstanding temples and the reliquary tombs of eight past Dalai Lamas. Altogether the palace is 13 storeys (among the world’s tallest buildings until the 20th century skyscraper) and contains approximately 200,000 images in 1,000 rooms.
Ramoche: Second in importance only to the Jokhang, Ramoche Temple was founded by Queen Wencheng in the 7th century on a site she divined to be directly connected to the subterranean crystal palace of the Nagas. It is also reputed to be her burial site.
The main image housed here today is claimed to be the statue of Akshobya brought to Lhasa by Songtsen Gampo’s Nepalese wife, however the image was certainly missing from 1960-83, although could have disappeared much earlier during the Mongol invasions. When re-discovered it was found in 2 pieces.
Norbulingka: This 40-hectare park to the west of town was built as a summer residence for the Dalai Lamas in the mid 18th; century the site selected on account of its medicinal spring. It was here that monks protected Dalai Lama XIV from “invitations” from the Chinese military before he fled Tibet and began his government exile.
The gardens are a popular picnic spot for Tibetans on festival days, when traditional dances and operas are performed. There is also a small and rather depressing zoo.
Drepung was founded by a disciple of Tsongkhapa in 1416. Two years later the population had grown to 1000 and by the time of the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-82) the population had grown to 10,000, easily the largest monastic institution in the world. Drepung also became an important center of political power and, before the construction of the Potala by Dalai Lama V; it was the principal seat of the Geluk School. The abbot-preceptor of Drepung, the Tripa Kenpo, was an extremely influential figure within the Tibetan Government. The name Drepung means ‘rice-heap’ and comes from the Sanskrit name of a stupa in South India where the Buddha first taught the Kalachakra Tantra to King Dawa Zangpo of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala - Dhanyakataka.
About five kilometers north of Lhasa is the monastery Sera. It was founded in 1419 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa on a site where the teacher and his foremost students had established hermitages. In 1959 Sera housed 5000-6000 monks, today there are only a few hundred. Much of the original complex was destroyed, however the chief colleges and Lhakhangs along with their images and relics were preserved – amongst them a vajra believed to have arrived from India in a miraculous flight.
One of the highlights of a visit to Sera is the mid–afternoon debating session attended by monks of the philosophical college and takes place in an area specifically assigned for that purpose. The noise and fervor is exciting even if you can’t understand a word they are saying.
‘The Royal Summit’ is named after a crag rising suddenly from the plane, which has been fortified since early antiquity – the fort (dzong) which crowns the crag dates from the 14th. Century. Gyantse was once Tibet’s third largest town, but nowadays its status is considerably diminished. It has however, preserved much of its original atmosphere and is one of the least Chinese-influenced towns in Tibet. There is no record of Gyantse prior to the 14th century, but it quickly emerged as center of a fiefdom with powerful connections to the Sakyapa order and dominated the wool and timber trade routes from Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan for centuries. By 1440 Gyantse’s most impressive architectural achievements had been completed – the Kumbum, the dzong and Pelkor Chode monastery.
In 1073 Gongjue Jiebu of the Kun family built a monastery on the north bank of Zongqu River to teach his new esoteric theory of Buddhism. He was convinced that the monastery built on such a site would light the mundane world. Because the monastery was built by a chalky hill, it was named Sakya, meaning chalky earth in Tibetan. The Sakya Monastery built by (popular known as the North Temple) became inadequate for rising and evermore powerful Sakya establishment. A larger monastery, which is still standing today, was built on the south bank of Zongqu River by the Kun house and Pagpa, a well-known Tibetan in the Mongolian imperial court of the 13th century. This monastery, now popularly known as the South Sakya, sits against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains 165 kilometers west of Shigatse. In 1260 Pagpa was appointed the imperial tutor and later placed in charge of Buddhist affairs. Kublai Khan then appointed him ruler of Tibet.
When the visitor approaches this massive structure, he will see a great monastery in an imposing square citadel. The outer wall is painted red, white and black, each representing the different manifestations of Buddha, a unique feature of Sakya. The Lakang Qinmu Hall, the main structure in the complex, occupies an area of 5,500 square meters with a height of over 10 meters. According to monastery records, the hall had 108 giant columns. Now there are only 40 left, with many anecdotes about them. The entire complex gives a feeling of solemnity laden with the weight of history.
Built in the mid-8th century, Samye is the first formal Buddhist Monastery with the Buddha Dharma and Sangha in Tibet. The whole construction of the monastery, for the stupas forest-like, the building high and expansive, the scale grand and broad, is designed in accordance with the shape of "mandala" layout, and furthermore, the monastery is well-known to the whole world for the highlighted and mixed perfection of Han, Tibetan and Indian architecture style in the main hall and the numerous relics such as wood and stone carvings, frescos and statues kept in the monastery. As described in a historical book, this monastery is considered "an unimaginable construction and incomparable monastery". Over the centuries it has come under the influence of the Nyingma, Sakya and Geluk schools and is thus considered a symbol of Tibet’s national identity.
The town of Shigatse (Xigaze) sits at the confluence of Nyangchu and Yarlung Tsangbo Rivers about 250 kilometers to the west of Lhasa. The second largest city in Tibet at an elevation of 3,900 meters it has a long history as a political, business, cultural and religious center. The residence for all the Panchen Lamas has been traditionally in the town.
The Tashilhunpo Monastery in the west can be seen in the distance by travelers approaching the town, with its gilded pinnacle glinting in the sunshine, an exhilarating sight to the arriving wayfarers and pilgrims. The construction of Tashilhunpo (meaning "imminent bless") began in 1447. The Monastery is the largest of its kind in central Tibet. The Great Prayer Hall, the oldest building in the monastery, can accommodate over 2,000 praying monks. The lavish throne of the Panchen, a myriad of Buddhist sculptures and ancient murals are rare treasures of the monastery. Jamkhang, the chapel of Maitreya with a height of 30 meters and a total of seven stories, is one of the most important buildings in the monastery. Enshrined inside the chapel is a 26.5-meter-high sculpture of Maitreya. Other buildings contain the magnificent funerary stupas of the Panchen Lamas.
Tsetang (Zetang), the birthplace of earliest Tibetans, sits on the south bank in the middle section of the Yarlung Tsangbo River
Traduk Monastery is one of the earliest Buddhist temples in Tibetan history. Built in 641 A.D., it is said that King Songtsan Gampo established the temple to suppress the ogress in order to prosper his kingdom. And later it became the winter palace of King Songtsan Gampo and Princess Wencheng in Shannan. Of all the treasures and relics kept in this monastery, the pearled Tangka -- "Avalokitesvara at his rest" is the most remarkable
Tombs of the Kings: The Tombs of Tibetan Kings in Chongkye County are the only tomb group of Tibet. Here are buried the kings, ministers and some royal concubines from the 29th generation to the last (40th) of "Tupo" Dynasty. Of all the tombs, the most remarkable is that of King Songtsan Gampo's.
Yambulagang: Towering at the summit of Mt. Tashitseri Yambulagang is the first palace as well as one of the earliest constructions in Tibet. The legend says, it was established by Bon religious believers for the first Tibetan King Nyetri Tsampo during the 2nd century B.C., and later it turned to be the summer palace of King Songtsan Gampo and Princess Wencheng. In the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama, it was converted to a monastery of the Yellow Sect.
Kailash / Kang Rinpoche / Precious Snow Mountain (6714m)
Collectively known as Kangri Tsosum - Ponri Ngaden, Lake Manasarovar & Kailash – are said to lie at the heart of the ancient Shangshung Kingdom, the supposed land of origin of the pre-Buddhist Bonpo. Kailash is their soul mountain, which they also call Yungdrung Gu Tse (Nine-Storey Swastika Mountain). This is the place where their legendary founder, Tongpa Shenrab descended from heaven to earth.
In the 11th C with the revival and ascendancy of Buddhism in Tibet, Milarepa was the dominant influence in the area. He defeated his Bonpo archrival, Naro Bonchung, in a series of magical contests. Relic traces of this epic battle can be seen from time to time along the khora. From the 12th C the Kagyupa flourished around the mountain. Monasteries and retreats sprang up and pilgrims arrived in large numbers to pay homage to Kang Rinpoche.
To Buddhists it is the abode of Demchok, the wrathful manifestation of Buddha Sakyamuni. To Hindus it is the dwelling of Shiva, the destroyer and according to the Sanskrit tradition of Vishnu Purana (200BC) it is a representation of Mt Sumeru, the cosmic mountain at the center of the universe.
Four major rivers have their sources here. The Indus, the Satlej, the Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and the Karnali. The holy Ganges also originates in the area. Tibetans consider all these rivers sacred and their sources even more so.
The Guge Kingdom
According to Tibetan historical annals, after the sudden death of Tsampo Lhangdama, the last king of the Tubo Kingdom, in the wake of his persecution of Buddhists, his two rival sons, Yundan and Osong, were locked in a bloody war for the throne which continued for two generations. Osong's son was killed by the soldiers of his rival kin and his two orphaned sons fled Lhasa. Jede, the elder of the two, took refuge in Ngari where he married the local chieftain's daughter who borne him three sons. The youngest had a son named Keri who became founder of the Guge Kingdom whose territory once included all the farm and pasture land in southern Ngari. A hill of about 300 meters high stands to the south of Xiangquan River (Langqen Kanbab) in Tsada County.
A complex of palaces, temples, fortifications, Buddhist pagodas and military tunnels right up the slope of the hill form the ruins of a lost kingdom. The construction began in the 10th century and was continuously expanded by 16 successive kings until the 16th century. These imposing buildings on the treacherous slope are connected by tunnels and protected by solid fortifications. The Kingdom of Guge played an important role in the rival of Tibetan Buddhism. The Guge kings were ardent advocates of the religion who sent envoys to India to invite Buddhist masters to Tibet and sponsored the translation of scriptures. The religious revival began in Ngari and extended to the entire Tibetan region. The kingdom also kept Tibet from repeated invasions by enemies from the west. A brutal battle in the 16th century brought the kingdom to an abrupt end. No writings can be found today about its fate there after and the ruins are the only evidence of the once majestic palaces and crushed glory.
As the visitor climbs up the hill slope, he can easily see the ruins of block houses, spacious palaces and glorious temples everywhere. The remains of painted sculptures and frescoes stand testimony to an art tradition that claimed splendor and diversity. The wealth of artifacts sealed stories of kings, ministers, clergymen and common people in the lost era of grandeur.