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Jokhang temple (Lhasa, Tibet central)

Jokhang is a must-see in Central Tibet. All Tibetans have been there or aspire to go there. It is generally the first place that travellers visit. And they are quite right to do so.

Jokhang rooftop

The Jokhang in 3 points:

➡️ It was built in the 7th century under the rule of King Songtsen Gampo.

➡️ Inside, there is the statue of "Jowo", probably the most revered statue in Tibet.

➡️ It is the most sacred place for Tibetans (at least Buddhists) and a must-see for travellers.

Let's take a closer look at it all.

1. Why was Jokhang built?

"Planted on the heart of the demoness of Tibet, the ogress of the rocks, this ancient temple with golden roofs is at the center of religious life".

Excerpt from "Respire, tu es vivante. De Lhassa à l'Everest, une aventure écologique et spirituelle", Marion Chaygneaud-Dupuy

A demon-ogress? 👹

King Songtsen Gampo is one of the most famous kings of Tibet. Hed ruled in the 7th century.

King Songtsen Gampo has two wives: a Nepalese princess and a Chinese princess. The dowries of his wives were, it seems, very furnished. His Chinese wife's dowry contained an extraordinary statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, the "Jowo" statue.

This king had a particular interest in Buddhism, which his wives practiced. The king decided to build the first Buddhist temple in Lhasa, his capital. He chose to build it on a lake located in the center of Lhasa.

How to build a structure on a lake? They tried to put beams directly on the lake, but without success. Someone came up with the idea of loading sandbags onto goats, which then spilled the sand onto the water to create firm ground.

The work could finally begin.

Fun fact ? In Tibetan, the full name of the Jokhang is "Rasa Trulnang Tsuglag Khang" and the "Ra" means "goat", in honor of the goats that helped lay the foundation of the temple. 🐐

But let us not rejoice too quickly.

Every night, the work was undone. The king and his Chinese wife consulted the deities and were told that a demoness lay dormant under the entire Tibetan soil.

The only solution: to plant temples and monasteries on its vital points.

This was done immediately by King Songtsen Gampo. And finally, the temple of Jokhang could be built: it came to seal the heart of the demoness and finished to subjugate her.

As you will see later, Tibetan history is full of spirits, demons and ogres.

Pelgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang temple

2. What is the Jowo statue?

As you now know, this statue was brought by the Chinese wife of King Songtsen Gampo.

Note that the Nepalese wife also brought a statue of the Buddha, which is today in the Ramoche temple, another of the iconic monasteries of Lhasa, built during the same period.

The Jowo statue brought by the Chinese wife represents Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha) at the age of twelve. It is about 1.5 meters tall and covered with gold.

It was originally supposed to be placed in the temple of Ramoche, but it would have been moved several times during history to avoid its destruction.

It is now in the Jokhang temple.

To pay homage to the statue of Jowo and thus accumulate merit (positive karma), Tibetans :

  • prostrate themselves in front of

  • put their head at the foot of the statue

  • deposit banknotes in front of it

  • offer khata (white scarves)

  • make a "gold offering" : a small quantity of gold powder is bought, then given to a monk of the temple, who mixes the powder with water and repaints the golden statue of Jowo with it.

Note that if it is forbidden to take pictures inside the Jokhang, those who make gold offerings are allowed to film the monk painting the statue.

Gold offering to the Jowo (video by Salt Butter Tea)

3. What is there to see in the Jokhang temple?

Architecture: The temple was built during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. Historians note a strong influence of Nepalese art. The golden roofs of the temple are absolutely beautiful.

The statues: The temple houses an incredible variety of statues. The most important is of course the Jowo, but there are others. Some statues were brought by the Nepalese wife of King Songtsen Gampo. For example, many Tibetan pilgrims go to admire the statue of Palden Lhamo, which is considered as a protective deity of Lhasa.

Wall paintings: There are some great classics of Tibetan wall paintings such as:

🌿 the legend of the 4 friends (the elephant, the hare, the monkey and the bird)

🌿 the founding myth of Tibet (the monkey and the ogress)

🌿 the events of the life of the historical Buddha

🌿 the events of the Buddha's previous lives

Tibetans praying: Usually, pilgrims first line up to enter. Once inside, they walk around the temple in a clockwise direction. In each of the small chapels that make up the temple, they touch the bottom of the statues with their foreheads to receive their blessings. The statue they are most looking forward to is of course the statue of the Jowo, in front of which everyone is crowded. Sometimes they place their rosaries on the bottom of the statues or on the walls of the temple to impregnate them with blessings. They also make offerings of lamps. The temple is full of lamps of all sizes, made from butter. Pilgrims come with a thermos of melted butter and fill the lamps. Usually while praying.

From the outside too, the temple is the object of devotion. Pilgrims prostrate in front of it. Tibetans walk around it in a clockwise direction. Even those who are in the neighbourhood for another reason manage to walk around it in that clockwise direction, just to accumulate merit on their way.

Pelgrims prostrating in front of the Jokhang temple


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