Most people’s Tibet tour begins from its capital, Lhasa, which contains world heritage sites like the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, and the Norbulingka—the first, the main seat of the Dalai Lama, and the last, his summer residence, while Jokhang is the most revered shrine in the country. The Lhasa tour alone can be an entire itinerary in itself, so rich is it in history and culture. Besides those mentioned above, there are many other Lhasa attractions, including the famed Barkhor Circuit.
The Potala Palace is an icon that is most identifiable with Tibet, much as Swayambhunath Stupa’s pinnacle with the all-seeing eyes of Buddha is of Kathmandu. Potala Palace was once the epicenter of all administrative and political activities of the erstwhile kingdom of Tibet, now the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. The Dalai Lamas, the spiritual heads of the country, once resided here. The palace as it stands now was built by the fifth Dalai Lama. The first Dalai Lama, Gedundrup, was born in 1391, while Tenzing Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, lives today in exile in India. In between, there has been a succession of Dalai Lamas, the story of each pretty much enmeshed with the history of Tibet.
It was during the period of fifth Dalai Lama (1616-1682) that both spiritual and temporal powers were acquired by the Dalai Lama, and it was during his reign that a great new age was ushered in into the country. He is credited with writing Tibet’s history in detail and it was during his time that the Potrang Karpo (White Palace) was completed in 1648. Later, the construction of Potrang Marpo (Red Palace) was finished between 1690 and 1694. Additional renovations were done on the chapels and assembly halls of the Potrang Karpo in 1922 during the 13th Dalai Lama’s time and two more stories were also added to the Potrang Marpo. Inside, the Potala Palace encompasses an area of some 130,000 square meters. There’s a lot of history within its walls, that’s for sure, and you’ll undoubtedly make the Potala Palace the first site of your visit during your Lhasa tour.
The Norbulingka (Jewel Park), in the western part of Lhasa, was once the Dalai Lamas’ summer palace. The reason for the name is due to the presence of a large garden on the premises that’s sprawls over some 360,000 square meters. The 7th Dalai Lama was the one to have the first summer palace constructed in 1755 while it was the 13th Dalai Lama who was responsible for construction of three additional palaces nearby. Similarly, the New Summer Palace (Takten Migyi Potrang) was built by the 14th Dalai Lama between 1954 and 1956. The Norbulingka is the main site of the Shotun festival (Yogurt festival) that’s held in end July or early August every year. It’s when there’s a lot of thrilling opera performances on the palace grounds. So, if your Tibet travel happens to be around that time, you’re fortunate.
Visiting the Jokhang Temple is like traveling into an exotic past setting, one in which you’ll be assailed by the sight of numerous butter lamps flickering all around, the heavy smell of burning incense and yak butter, and the spectacle of bustling devotees mumbling prayers and turning their prayer wheels rhythmically while others prostrate themselves on the ground. Also known as Tsuglhakhang, this venerated shrine is located smack in the center of Lhasa old town. The temple was established way back in the 7th century, and houses the statue of Jowo Sakyamuni, one of the most sacred of all icons in Tibet. As you enter the temple, you’ll be met by giant statues of the Four Heavenly Kings (Chokyong), two on each side. The inner prayer hall has a 6-meter high statue of Guru Rinpoche along with five other equally large statues of other deities including that of Maitreya (the Future Buddha) and the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara. There are more than a dozen chapels on the ground floor dedicated to various deities and these are visited by pilgrims in a clockwise fashion. Likewise, there are also a number of chapels on the first floor, including one dedicated to Songtsen Gampo, the king who married a Nepali princess, Bhrikuti, in addition to his Chinese wife, Princess Wencheng. No doubt, the Jokhang Temple will be a major highlight of your Lhasa tour.
Lhasa’s urban area of the past, that’s around 1.33 km2 in area, spreads out from the middle of Barkhor Street and includes 27 temples (including Jokhang), 199 courtyards (of which 56 are pretty vintage), and some 35 alleys. Much renovation has been done to the area realizing its historic and cultural significance. A new roadway has been built that’s surfaced with anti-slip blue stones that are meant to absorb strong sunshine and new lane has been made in its middle paved with smooth stones to make it more comfortable for prostrating pilgrims. The lighting arrangements have also been well designed, with lamps being adorned with an auspicious Tibetan knot and various religious symbols. Similarly, there have been quite a few renovation activities within the Jokhang Temple, around which is the quadrangle of streets known as the Barkhor Circuit. Four pot-bellied stone incense burners (sangkang) mark the four extremes of the circuit. You’ll get plenty of opportunities for some souvenir-shopping here since there are a large number of shops in the area. Make it a point to also visit the Gedan Choephel Artist’ Guild on the northeast side, where you can feast your eyes on some fine examples of Tibetan modern art.
Well, having read all that, you’ll surely agree that a Lhasa tour could turn out to be a pretty time-consuming one, what with the fantastic sights and sounds you’ll be experiencing through your exploration of ancient palaces, revered monasteries, and bustling traditional markets. So, be sure to keep aside enough time for an exciting Lhasa tour during your Tibet travel.