Exploring Lhasa’s Sacred Jokhang Temple

Jokhang Square

YoWangdu’s Yolanda O’Bannon, shares with you her first impressions of the Jokhang, Lhasa’s most sacred temple.

The Tsuglakhang, also known as the Jokhang, because it houses the Jowo Rinpoche statue, is probably the wildest, most beautiful place in Lhasa, and that’s with some pretty fierce competition.

At the entrance, my Tibetan friend and I pick up a thermos of liquid yak butter to pour into the butter lamp offerings, then join the press of people queuing, sort of, in the outer courtyard, along side the Tibetans crammed into every available inch of space doing full-body prostrations.

Jowo Shakyamuni is the most important statue in Tibet
Jowo Shakyamuni is the most important statue in Tibet

Almost immediately, the atmosphere shifts into urgent expectation, and we are all herded, jostling and murmuring prayers, into the first courtyard, a space open to the sky but for a huge Tibetan cloth tent covering, and then, rushing as much as the dense crowd allows, into the very dark and narrow entrance hall — the floor already slick with the “yak” butter that will light every chapel inside. (Yaks are actually only the male of the species, so the butter we commonly call yak butter actually come from the females, called dri.)

It’s already hot, all the humans pressed together, and dark, and smells of butter and incense and age – 1400 years of age. And it’s sort of claustrophobic and freaky, with the first statues appearing in the form of fearsome protector deities lining the hall.

And now we’re all spit out into the main prayer hall dominated by two huge statues — either a Buddha Shakyamuni or an Avalokiteshwara (Boddhisatva of compassion) or Buddha Maitreya (the future Buddha) — I can’t remember which, and a Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava, 8th c. transmitter of Buddhism to Tibet), side by side in their enormity, like 30 or 40 foot tall, in the inimitable Tibetan style — the statues gold and an achingly rich blue, draped in brocades of swirling patterns of yellow, orange, red, green, gold, and encrusted with turqoise, coral, dzi and diamonds, and melting into the surrounding murals and kaleidoscopic silk banners and wildly-painted carved columns and, and and…

And it’s way too much, and too dark and hot and crowded, and phantasmagoric, but it’s at the same time a feeling of complete and utter safety and comfort, in the hum of prayers and the radiant Buddhas everywhere you look.

The Dalai Lama once said that if you feel fear you can imagine yourself laying your head in the lap of the Buddha, and this entire experience is a moment of being held by the many thousands of Buddhas and deities and protectors and prayers, all focused on all that is precious and splendid and radiant and beneficent and rich and kind in our hearts — the shining hour of humanity — our very best selves.

And now we bunch and push through to the many tiny windowless, lamp-lit chapels that line the inner perimeter of the main hall, on two floors, all surrounding the open-to-the-air center where the main statues sit, so the effect is both very dark and airy at the same time.

Each single chapel is splendid, mysterious, layered in history and meaning, and we bend and push in through low wooden beamed doors and high stone thresholds, and circle the tiny rooms auspiciously, clockwise, some folks dripping butter into the large silver lamps, cramming 1 jiao notes into every available crevice in offering, mothers touching their babies’ foreheads to holy spots, ancient pilgrims supported over the hard spots.

Most precious and most deeply beautiful is the Jowo itself — luminous, sparkling, glowing — too fast we are pushed around by handler monks for crowd control. The very old Tibetan grandma ahead of me can barely climb the 3 small steps beside the statue where we touch our foreheads to the Jowo’s left leg for a blessing, and is half-helped, half-pushed by the monk.

Finally, we flow through to the second floor chapels and then to the top floor, where we are stunned by the fierce, piercing sun and the reflections of the golden roofs. Excellent views through squinting eyes — the Potala — the prostrators in the courtyard below — the crowds streaming around the building on the Barkhor prayer circumambulation.

I cannot imagine a place I would rather be.

You may also like:
17 Dos and Don’ts for a Wonderful First Visit to Lhasa

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Updated on March 12, 2020. First published on November 25, 2011.

Your Tibet travel advisors, Lobsang and Yolanda

Most people who want to go to Tibet don't know how to get there or who to trust for help. We’re Lobsang Wangdu and Yolanda O’Bannon, and we help make Tibet travel more simple, safe and ethical so you can feel peace of mind about your trip. Learn more about us and YoWangdu here.

Reader Interactions


  1. Slavin says

    Let us speak many many compassion mantras for the Tibetans so they may have strength. Also, for the Chinese who are full of such fear and hate, and face so many lifetimes of suffering for their deeds today. Tibetan Buddhism is alive and will never die despite the actions of others.

  2. despina says

    Thank you,

    you are wellcomed,

    i issue some of Budist traditions,for examlpe,the mandrams or geng shui…

    With appriciation,
    Kosmadopoulou Despina

  3. Patty says

    When we visited Lhasa and the Jokhang Dec. 2011 the festivle for woman and full moon extravaganza was in full parade. Initially there were thousands upon thousands of Tibetians chanting, praying and gathering in, around and near this magnificant temple…so many people clapping and chanting it merged into a sound much like my stream when it is raging after a storm. At the end of the week we returned after dark, the police and military moved in and blocked any gathering at all inside the temple, the praying and chanting went on around the outside of the temple walls with official armed presence, with burning incense , chanting,movement everywhere and some brave souls diving under the military barriers to get close to the walls of the temple. We quietly moved with the crowd and watched the action unfold…..soon the military told us to move on, we never had our papers checked, yet we observed many many many Tibetians being stopped and asked for papers……..the young soldiers had fire extinguishers loaded onto their backs…we were told that over 50,000 mlitary and police could close down the Jokhang square with in ten mintues of any protest or ….at will
    Free Tibet

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