Holy Lands of the World - Lhasa

About the Holy Land Lhasa, sacred in the world to Tibet Buddhists, history of the religious city.


Like Mecca, Lhasa (meaning "God's house"), is a national center of trade, the capital of a region (the Tibet Autonomous Region of China) and a sacred city. Founded in the 5th century as a Buddhist fortress, Lhasa was known to Westerners as the Forbidden City because of its remote location and insularity. Behind its high walls, which were demolished in the 18th century, religion throve. Lhasa was a spiritual center even before Buddhism was brought to Tibet in 642 A.D. Until recently, the city was the center of Lamaism, a religion derived from Buddhism by Padmasambhava, a Buddhist monk from India who established the 1st Lamaic order about 770.

"Lama" means "superior one" and refers to the monks, who are also called lamas. Until the Chinese repression of religion in the 1960s, nearly 1/5 of the population of Lhasa resided in lamaseries. There were 15,000 monks in Drepung and Sera, the 2 great monasteries adjacent to Lhasa. These monks were of the strict Yellow Hat sect, so-called because of the yellow hats they wore. The common people honored their gods daily with incense and prayer flags, and they chanted a prayer which was carved on rocks and tallied on prayer wheels. Even banners and streamers proclaimed this ritual chant, om mani padme hum ("o lotus jewel, amen").

Like the Kaaba of Mecca, the Jokang (cathedral) was the central shrine to which Lhasa owed its sanctity. Numerous small chapels housed statues and relics within a 3-storied building, and a gilded life-size statue of the Buddha as a young prince stood in its inmost shrine. Other temples and monasteries surrounded the city, of which the majestic Potala Palace of the Dalai Lama was the most impressive. A 6-mi.-long, circular pilgrim's path enclosed an area westward to Kundeling monastery. Around this path the devout walked every day. Some pilgrims placed their bodies on the ground, measuring their length, the entire distance. In February or March thousands of monks from near and far and an influx of pilgrims passed through the chorten (shrine) at the city entrance for Losar, the New Year Feast. The Monlam Chenmo, or Great Prayer, began on the 3rd day of the New Year, ushering in 3 weeks of continual prayer meetings, at which the gods were beseeched for happiness and prosperity.

Under communist control, Lhasa has been modernized, increasing in size and population. But the great cathedrals and monasteries have been desecrated, and the practice of religion is suppressed.

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