Jokhang Temple was founded in 647 by King Songtsen Gampo (r.617-49), the first ruler of a unified Tibet, and his two foreign wives who are credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet. The king's first wife, Princess Bhrikuti (married in the 630s), was the sister of the Nepalese king, while his second wife, Princess Wencheng (married 641), was the niece or daughter of the Chinese emperor.
The temple was constructed to house a sacred image of the Buddha, the Jowo Rinpoche, which Queen Wengcheng brought with her from China as a dowry. This statue is still enshrined within the temple and is the holiest object in Tibet.
Various traditions explain the foundation of the temple. In one version, Queen Bhrikuti founded the temple to house the statue, while Queen Wengcheng chose the site based on the principles of geomancy (feng shui). Another legend says that the king threw his ring into the air, asking the spirits to show him where to build the temple. The ring fell into a lake, from which a stupa emerged. The lake was filled in to support Jokhang Temple, whose central shrine was built over the miraculous stupa.
The temple has been regularly expanded over the years, including extensive reconstruction under the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century. Remarkably, however, the core of the temple is still original from the 7th century.
Since the Chinese occupation in 1951, Jokhang Temple has taken on a political role as the focus of Tibetan cultural identity and resistance. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), part of the Jokhang was used as a pigsty while another section housed Chinese soldiers, who spent days burning the temple's ancient Tibetan scriptures.
Today, Jokhang Temple is open to pilgrims and tourists but carefully controlled by the Chinese government. Only 100 monks can occupy the temple at any time and the area is reportedly monitored by hundreds of police. For this reason, it is generally not safe for monks to speak to foreign visitors.
Tourists can only tour Jokhang Temple in the afternoon; the morning is reserved for pilgrims. The best way to experience the temple is to arrive at 8am to watch the pilgrims perform their devotions, then visit the interior in the afternoon. The temple is relatively quiet then, save for the presence of Chinese student tour guides.
Standing four stories tall and covering an area of about 25,000 square meters in the heart of Lhasa, Jokhang Temple combines local Tibetan elements with influences from Nepal, China and India. In the front is a large plaza and open porch, which is usually filled with prostrate Tibetan pilgrims.
The exterior of the temple is decorated with deer and wheel motifs, early symbols of Buddhism. Both represent the Buddha's first sermon, in which he "turned the wheel of the Dharma" in a deer park near Varanasi, India.
Jokhang's interior is a dark and atmospheric labyrinth of chapels dedicated to various gods and bodhisattvas, illuminated by votive candles and thick with the smoke of incense. Although some of the temple has been rebuilt, original elements remain: the wooden beams and rafters have been shown by carbon dating to be original; the Newari door frames, columns and finials date from the 7th and 8th centuries.
The main cloister is ringed with large prayer wheels, kept spinning throughout the day by pilgrims. The cloister leads to the central hall, which contains Jokhang Temple's star attraction: the Jowo Rinpoche (or Jowo Shakyamuni) This life-sized (5 foot/1.5m) statue of the Buddha at age 12 is the holiest object in Tibet. Probably originating in India, it was brought to Lhasa as part of the Chinese Princess Wencheng's dowry in 641. The richly gilded and bejeweled image is flanked by altars of King Songtsen Gampo and his two wives, who together introduced Buddhism into Tibet.
The third floor contains an image of Palden Lhamo, fierce protector of both Lhasa and the Dalai Lama. She is said to have murdered her own child to bring her husband to his senses and put an end to his endless military campaigns. The roof is accessible and provides fine views over the temple, the Barkhor path and the Potala Palace.
A chapel on the south side of the complex contains more recent yab-yum images of sexual union. Many mistakenly believe tantric practice has no place in the "reformed" Geluk School, but Tsongkapa simply restated the principle that only advanced practitioners should engage in tantric sex.
Jokhang Temple is a very important pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists. Pilgrims come from all corners of Tibet, usually on foot and often performing austerities for penance along the way. The most devout pilgrims cover the last several miles prostrate on the ground. More prostrations are undertaken in the plaza in front of the temple. Before entering, most pilgrims circumambulate the temple on the Barkhor, a sacred path that is also lined with market stalls selling yak butter and jewelry.
Inside the temple, pilgrims make their way gradually to the central shrine, often crawling on their hands and knees or prostrate on their bellies. They hum prayers while also spinning prayer wheels, and bring offerings (typically white scarves and yak butter for the votive candles) to the many chapels that ring the shrine. Finally, they pray before the sacred image of the Jowo Shakyamuni.
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