Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Instagram
 

Amazing Images Show Life Inside the Remote Buddhist Capital of Tibet

Steve Palace
Tourist in front of Potala Palace. Getty Images

Images of Tibet bring to mind mountainous serenity and Buddhist monasteries. It’s capital is one of the most remote, beautiful and controversial destinations in the world…Lhasa. This urban area is viewed by many as the heart of Tibet and has been for centuries. Its most famous citizen, the Dalai Lama, hasn’t set foot there in decades.

Located nearly 12,000 ft up, Lhasa City is amongst the highest on record. High altitudes mean unpredictable weather, but the region gets so much sun the place is sometimes referred to as Sun City. Covering 30,000 sq km, Lhasa has a population of 400,000, the majority of which are Tibetans.

Potala palace

Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet

 

Potala Palace

Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet

Its turbulent history and long-established culture make it a source of fascination for many. But what exactly happened there, and what is life like in 21st century Lhasa…?

Potala palace

This picture taken on September 9, 2016 shows tourists in front of the iconic Potala Palace in the regional capital Lhasa, in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. / AFP / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

 

Potala palace

Potala Palace

 

Tibetan monk

Tibetan monk praying on the hills of Lhasa (Photo by Yang Shaochuan/VCG via Getty Images)

Going way back, Lhasa was originally called Rasa. Apparently a royal hunting preserve, the name translated as “goat’s place”. There are actually various meanings applied here, and to the subsequent name of Lhasa. Firstly however, it’s important to look at how Lhasa – as people know it – came to be.

Jokhang temple

Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, one of Tibeten Buddhism’s holiest sites. Picture by Hiroki Ogawa CC by 3.0

 

Jokhang temple

Jokhang temple

 

Jokhang temple

The inner praying route around the temple for local pilgrims. Jokhang Temple, one of the holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism and listed on UNESCO world cultural heritage. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

 

Jokhang temple

Buddhism statues in Jokhang Temple. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The old Tibetan Empire, lasting between the 7th – 9th centuries, was founded by its king and conqueror Songtsen Gampo. He’s thought to have ruled from 605 to 649 CE (Common Era) and crucially brought Buddhism to the forefront in what became Lhasa. His Buddhist conversion was through marriage to Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. She was just one of his wives, but arguably the most influential.

Lhasa Tibet

Tourists wearing Tibetan costumes pose in front of Potala Palace square in Lhasa. In 2019, tourism revenue rose to 56 billion yuan (7.9 billion U.S. dollars). (Photo by Purbu Zhaxi/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)

 

Tibetan monk

A Tibetan monk is seen during the butter lamps lighting event at the Jokhang Temple. (Xinhua/Purbu Zhaxi) (Xinhua/Purbu Zhaxi via Getty Images)

The name “Lhasa” first makes an appearance in 822 CE and means “Place of Gods”. Another name used is the Chinese name Chengguan. Lhasa’s evolution into a spiritual and cultural hub introduced the Dalai Lama onto the world stage. A precious figure in Tibet, the Lama established Lhasa as his Tibetan capital in 1642.

Tibetan monks

Tibetan monks dance the traditional religion dance at Tashilhunpo monastery on 13 September 2018 in Lhasa, Tibet, China.(Photo by TPG/Getty Images)

 

Tibetan monks

Tibetan monks dance the traditional religion dance at Tashilhunpo monastery. (Photo by TPG/Getty Images)

His line dates back into legend, though Songtsen Gampo also has religious significance. Tricycle: The Buddhist Review mentions he “later came to be regarded as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of com-passion.” A “bodhisattva” is someone on the spiritual path. Avalokiteshvara is also believed to reincarnate the Lama, sending him sporadically to Tibet in the form of a chosen one – the current Dalai Lama is the 14th.

Dalai lama

14th Dalai Lama, at his enthronement ceremony, February 22, 1940 in Lhasa

 

Dalai lama

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Photo by Yancho Sabev CC by 3.0

Today Buddhism is still the way of life in Lhasa. Buddhist sites like Potala Palace – built on the site which hosted Songtsen Gampo’s original structures – and the Jokhang Temple draw tourists and general attention to the area.

Tibetan buddhism

Pilgrims are prostrated praying on the square in front of Jokhang Temple. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

 

Lhasa Tibet

Tibetan worshipper spins a prayer wheel during her Kora, or pilgrim circuit, around the Potala Palace. (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)

 

Lhasa Tibet

A woman poses for wedding photos at the snow-covered Potala Palace square in Lhasa. (Xinhua/Chogo) XINHUA PHOTOS OF THE DAY (Xinhua/Chogo via Getty Images)

One of the most important and fun cultural events is Fairy’s Day, known as the “Women’s Festival” in modern Tibet. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the 10th month in the Tibetan calendar and commemorates Buddha Aleanterre Brahm. During the celebration, women dress in their most beautiful clothes and go to temples to present traditional ceremonial scarves called “Hada” to their honored goddess and likewise to make a wish.

Tibetan women

Tibetan women having fun during Fairy’s Day (Photo by Li Xin/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Li Xin via Getty Images)

 

Tibetan women

Tibetan women dressed up for Fairy’s Day. (Photo by Chogo/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Chogo via Getty Images)

Elsewhere in Lhasa, people flood the main thoroughfare Barkhor Street around the ancient Jokhang Temple and its square. Women and girls decorate themselves elaborately in traditional garments and jewelry. As well as religious activities, shopping and having magnificent food are also part of the festivities. Believers from all over Tibet gather i Lhasa during this festival to burn aromatic plants and pray at Jokhang temple.

Lhasa Tibet

Main avenue Barkhor Street in Lhasa. Photo by Dieter Schuh CC by 3.0

 

Lhasa Tibet

Central Square near Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Photo by Gerd Eichmann CC by 4.0

 

Lhasa Tibet

People kneel down and pray during Fairy’s Day Festival at Jokhang Temple. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

 

Tibetan Buddhist monks

Event celebrating the 600th anniversary of the founding of Sera Monastery in Lhasa. Built in 1419, Sera Monastery is a prestigious monastery of Tibetan Buddhism’s Gelug Sect. (Photo by Purbu Zhaxi/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Purbu Zhaxi via Getty Images)

 

Tibetan monks

Tibetan monks walking in Sera Monastery after debating. Debating is a traditional learning method in Tibetan Buddhism. Young monks study Buddhist classics through asking and answering questions with interesting clapping gestures. Sera Monastery is a famous Buddhist institute in Lhasa. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)

 

Tibetan buddhism

Images of Tibet. Monks from Drepung Monastery carry a massive Buddha thangka during the Sho Dun Festival (aka Yoghurt Festival). (Photo by He Penglei/China News Service/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

 

Tibetan monks

Tibetan Buddhist monks blow horns on the first day of the traditional Sho Dun Festival at Drepung Monastery. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and worshipers from all over the world come to Tibet for the week-long Festival. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)

 

Tibetan buddhism

Images of Tibet. Painted carvings along a wall with monk spinning row of prayer wheels. (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The status of Tibet was changed from an independent country into part of China – the Tibet Autonomous Region, in 1965. The Dalai Lama remains on the outside to this day, spending most of his time in India but making frequent appearances in many countries around the world.

Tibetan woman

Tibetan girl in a traditional attire during the 83rd birthday celebration of the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. (Photo by Narayan Maharjan/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Life inside the monasteries of Lhasa are a mix of the old and new. Monks live a simple and regular monastic life. Getting up at 8:30 a.m., they chant after breakfast till noon. Chanting and praying continue till 4 p.m. after a one-hour break for lunch. After dinner, they rest for an hour and continue chanting and praying till 11:30 p.m.

Tibetan monks

Images of Tibet. Students play soccer/football at Tibet Buddhism University. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)

 

Tibetan monk

36-year-old Ngawang Peljor has practiced Buddhism in the monastery for 15 years.  (Xinhua/Purbu Zhaxi via Getty Images)

However there are also days for practicing Tibetan Buddhists where playing sports, creating art and even working on the computer are part of life, especially for those at the Tibet Buddhism University. Growing tourism, which reached a record $8 billion in 2019, much of it coming from mainland China, has also sparked a modicum of modernity to the city and its inhabitants.

International relations and tourism aside, modern society’s main exposure to Lhasa has been through movies. 1997’s Seven Years In Tibet, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Brad Pitt, depicted the true life adventures of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer. He’d entered Lhasa and taught the Dalai Lama as a young boy. The same year Martin Scorsese made Kundun, a biopic of the 14th Lama and his experiences growing up. Unlike the more Western-friendly Harrer picture, Kundun failed at the box office.

Related Article: Photographer Travels Siberia to Find People of The Vanishing World

Hollywood dramas  and images are one thing, the future of Tibet is quite another. Its landscape and heritage are beautiful, but have suffered the scars of generations. In the end this most reflective and peaceful parts of the world lives under a continuous shadow.