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Jokhang Temple (built 647 onward)

The Jokhang or �House of the Lord,� Temple in Lhasa is the most revered and intensely spiritual holy site in Tibet. It is the destination for pilgrims from all over the country and from different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism, and provides continued evidence of a tradition that had its beginnings over a thousand years ago. Pilgrims prostrate themselves in prayer in front of the main entry. Some come hundreds of miles in a continuing prostrate position, body length by body length.

There is much legend, and many conflicting accounts connected with this early Tubo period of history, King Songtsen Gampo, his wives, and the Jokhang Temple. This brief entry will not attempt to summarize or reconcile the different and confusing legends and traditions.

The Jokhang had its beginnings in the 7th century with King Songtsen Gampo (r. 617-649 or 650), one of Tibet�s most significant rulers. Songtsen Gampo was the first emperor of a united Tibet. He also became a strong proponent of Buddhism, built many temples and was instrumental in the creation of the Tibetan written language. The king had at least five wives. Two were important to the development of Tibetan Buddhism and in the founding of the Jokhang Temple. In the early 630s the king married the Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti (or Bhrituti, Tritsun), the sister of the Nepalese king. She brought as part of her dowry a statue of the Buddha. In 641 he married Princess Wencheng, the niece or daughter, of the Tang Taizong emperor. She also brought a statue, the �Jowo Shakyamuni,� a life-size (1.5 meters tall) statue of the Buddha at age twelve (some suggest age eight). Frequently regilded and bejeweled, it is a rare treasure and a priceless element of Tibetan Buddhism. Here the legends differ, though both queens contributed to the development of the Jokhang. Actually two temples were built, Queen Bhrikuti founded the monastery to house the statue, while Queen Wencheng chose the location, purported to be the best location based on the traditions of geomancy. It was built on a pool that was a witch�s heart; this would exorcise the evil she brought to the region. Another temple, the Ramoche Temple, was founded about the same time. The former was originally built to house the Sakyamuni brought by Princess Wencheng, but shortly thereafter was moved to the larger Jokhang Temple (this story also is very complex).

The main building is four stories and combines architectural styles and techniques from Nepal, China and India, as well as Tibet. The temple is dark and mysterious and filled with smoke from incense, candles, hundreds of votive lamps and from a variety of offerings, including yak butter. Numerous devotees visit to pray, using the series of large bronze prayer-wheels or the smaller individual hand-held prayer-wheels. There are numerous chapels with vivid historic murals of sutras and other stories, and many statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The main hall of the temple houses the Jowo Shakyamuni. The temple has often been expanded and remodeled or reconstructed, and today is a labyrinth of rooms, chapels and external corridors that cover an approximate area of 25,000 square meters. There was extensive reconstruction in the seventeenth century, though many of the beams and rafters are original, as determined by carbon dating. Mongols sacked it on several occasions and there was damage during later times as well. The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles and also support gilded birds, bells and a variety of other figures. It is from the roofs that one can see the complexity of the structure, the Barkhor path below and also view the breath-taking Potala Palace in the distance.

Text by Robert D. Fiala, Concordia University, Nebraska, USA


All images copyright 2007 by Gilbert and Bonnie Daenzer, Seward, Nebraska, USA. The images were taken in September, 2006.

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans (Peoples of Asia)
  Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006. Oxford

Ma Linhua. Old Lhasa: A Sacred City at Dusk
  Foreign Languages Press., 2003. Beijing

Schell, Orville. Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood
  Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt, 2000. New York

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