1. The Potala Palace
The most iconic building in Tibet is the Potala Palace. Situated on the top of Marpo Ri, at 130 meters above the Lhasa valley, this imposing structure is the seat of the Dalai Lamas. The Potala Palace got its name in the eleventh century as a reference to the mythical mountain of Potalaka in Southern India, supposedly the residence of Bodhisattva Chenresig or Avalokiteshwara, who is believed to have been reincarnated as Tibet’s first Buddhist king, Songtsen Gampo. The emperor Songtsen Gampo is believed to have built the first palace on Marpo Ri in the year 637. To the locals, Potala is known as “Tse Potang” which means the Peak Palace. Modern construction of the Potala began in the year 1645 CE by Gyelwa Ngapa, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. The original building was a nine-storey palace. After the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the Regent Desi Sangye Gyatso, who succeeded him, completed the work by building the Potang Marpo, the Red Palace. The thirteenth Dalai Lama added the top two-storeys and these light and airy apartments can be seen when you make a Lhasa tour and come across Potala. Some of the chambers like the Chogyel Drupuk (the King’s meditation cave) and the Pakpa Lhakhang, within the Potala are attributed to the original structure built by Songtsen Gampo. The Pakpa Lhakang, which contains the shrine of Potala Jowo Lokeswara, is considered to be the most sacred shrine in the Potala.
Architecturally, the palace is divided into two sections, The White Palace and the Red Palace. The former houses the living quarters of the Dalai Lamas beginning with the Fifth Dalai Lama. The Red Palace consists of numerous Chapels, statues, idols and Chortens dedicated to the Dalai Lamas. The ground floor of the Red Palace, houses the main assembly hall which is flanked by four beautiful chapels. The first is the Chapel of Lamrim (the path of graduation) referring to the stages of advancement towards the path to enlightenment. The central figure in this Chapel is Tsongkapa, the founder of the Gelugpa sect whose teachings are associated with the Lamrim scriptures. The second one is the Chapel is Rigsum Lhakang, devoted to the eight Indian masters who brought many practices to Tibet. Among these Guru Rimpoche (Saint Padmasambhava) takes the highest place which is why there is a Silver statue of him as the central figure inside the Chapel. The third Chapel is the Serdung Zamling Gyenjikhang also known as the Chapel of Dalai Lamas’ Tombs. There is a tall Chorten of the Fifth Dalai Lama, gilded with thousands of kilos of gold. There are other Chortens dedicated to a few other Dalai Lamas. The last one is Trungrab Lhakhang, the Chapel of the high born. Inside, at the corner there is the statue and Chorten of the 11th Dalai Lama. There are also statues of the eight medicine Buddhas, a central Sakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama) and the fifth Dalai Lama and then Chenresig, Songsten Gampo and the first four Dalai Lamas.
The First Floor is closed to visitors while the second floor contains the Chapel of Kalachakra also known as Dukhor Lhakhang. This Chapel is famous it the three dimensional mandala. It also has the Chapel of Sakyamuni, a Chapel of the nine Buddhas of longevity and King Songsten Gampo’s meditation cave. On the third floor, there is the Chapel of Jampa devoted to the Maitreya or the Future Buddha. There is the Chapel of Victory that houses a library with ancient texts of Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian origin. Along with the Tombs of 4 Dalai Lamas, the floor houses other Chapels like the Chapel of Immortal happiness and the Chapel of Arya Lokeshvara. During a Tibet tour, a visit to Potala is a must.
2. Jokhang Temple
If you take a Tibet tour and see only the Potala Palace, you’ll missing other mesmerizing, Tibetan architectural and spiritual structures such as the magnificent Jokhang Temple. The Jokhang temple is about a 1000 meters to the east of Potala Place and is situated at Barkhor Street which also serves as a circumambulatory path for pilgrims. The history of Jokhang dates back to 642 CE when King Songtsen Gampo first laid the foundations of the temple. Songsten Gampo who had two wives, one from Nepal and the other from China needed a temple to house the images of Buddha that they had brought along from their respective homelands, and the newly Buddhist King built the temple called the Rasa Tulnang Tsuklhakhang which means the temple of mystery, magic, emanation, goat and the seat of God. The word “Rasa” means Goat in the Tibetan language and is associated with Jokhang because when the temple was built Lhasa was a city of Goats owing to the large amount of Goats that were used to move the soil, while building the temple on a location that was originally a lake. The temple became a place where Princess Wen Cheng, the Chinese wife of King Gampo placed the statue of Jowo Chempo, a sacred gold statue of the Buddha. The temple Jowo Lhakhang came to be called Jokhang.
The temple gained importance during the reign of Trisong Detsun, who propounded the Nalanda tradition of Buddhism. In the 11th century the Indian monk, Jowo Atisha is believed to come to the temple and taught at its premises. When Lhasa became the political capital of Tibet during the time of the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century, Jokhang automatically became the holiest temple in all of Tibet. It still enjoys the same significance. Inside Jokhang you come across a passage that contains images of four guardian spirits; of water, mountains and ether. Beyond that, there is the main assembly hall or Dukhang. This assembly hall is used for ceremonial rituals during festivals. As you enter the main courtyard or hall, to the left wall there is a throne which was used by the Dalai Lamas in the past. The sanctum sanctorum beyond the assembly hall houses many chapels while the Central prayer hall houses 6 large statues. Jokang contains images of Jowo Chempo (Sakyamuni), the Buddha of our age, Tujechempo (Mahakarunika), the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, Jampa (Maitreya), the Future Buddha of Loving Kindness, and Drolma (Tara), the Goddess of Devotion. The entire complex of Jokhang temple contains more than 3,000 images of the Buddha and various other deities along with manuscripts that are considered sacred to the Tibetans. The temple walls are decorated with religious and historical murals. On the first floor of the temple, the inner sanctum is also surrounded by various Chapels. There are also residential quarters for the monks and a private room for the Dalai Lamas. The notable Chapels on the first floor are the Chapel of the Three Kings, dedicated to Trisong Detsun, Songtsen Gampo and Ralpachen. There is another Chapel dedicated entirely to Songsten Gampo. One of the most significant Chapels is the one dedicated to Tsongkapa and his disciples, on the ground floor. It has the image of Tsongkapa who was the head of the Gelugpa Yellow Hat Sect. When the image was made, Tsongkapa himself had said that the image looked resembled him. While the ground floor of Jokhang has 16 Chapels, the first floor has 13 Chapels dedicated to various deities.
3. Sera Monastery
One of the most important monasteries of the Gelugpa Sect (the other two are Drepung and Ganden Monasteries), Sera is situated at a distance of 5 kilometres north of Jokhang Temple and it is imperative that you visit it during your Tibet tour. Built in the year 1419 by ‘Jamchen Choje’ Sakya Yeshe, who was one of the primary disciples of Tsongkapa (founder of the Gelugpa Sect), Sera is a Buddhist monastery and university which contains three colleges (Dratsangs) within it. When it was built there were five Dratsangs but today it has only three of them; the Sera Je Dratsang, the Sera Me Dratsang; and the Ngakpa Dratsang. The common assembly hall is an important feature within the Sera Monastery. This is called Tsokchen and is built against the rock on the eastern side of Sera's central road. The hall was constructed in the year 1710 CE. This hall is famous for the enormous Thangka (Buddhist religious painting) on its wall and the large idol of Jampa (Maitreya Buddha). The idol is so big that it stretches up to the upper floor. Adorned on all sides of this statue are idols of the Dalai Lamas and Sakya Yeshe, the founder of Sera.
On the upper floor there is the Tujechempo Lhakang temple that contains the image of Tujechempo (Mahakarunika) or the Compassionate one, which is considered to be Sera's most beneficent, blessing-bestowing image. Sera Me Dratsang was dates back to the time when the original monastery was constructed. There is a main hall within the college that is of Sakyamuni that is adjoined by the images of Jampa and Jampelyang. There are four Chapels to the rear. The most important among all the Chapels within the Sera Me is the Miwang Jowo which has a Sakyamuni statue that dates back to the 15th century. The Ngakpa Dratsang is devoted to the studies of Tantric Buddhism and is the smallest of the three colleges within Sera. There is the main hall which was built with four tall and forty-two short ornately carved columns. The main image in the centre of the hall is of Jamchen Chojey Sakya Yeshe wearing a black hat. Behind him are other famous masters of Sera, like Gyeltsen Zangpo, who was the first teacher at Sera, and Lodro Rinche, who was the founder of the Sera Je Dratsang. To the rear of the hall, there are three Chapels. The first one features the image of Jampa and a thousand armed Chenresig. The second one is the Neten Lhakhang which houses the image of Sakyamuni along with the images of sixteen wise elders. The third one is the Jigje Lakhang chapel which houses the 15th century image of Bhairava along with those of Mahakala, the guardian. The second floor had the images of Amitayus and also eight 'Medicine Buddhas', as also reliquaries (stupas) of Gyeltsen Zangpo and Jetsun Chokyi Gyeltsen. Sera Je College or the Jepa Dratsang is the largest among the three colleges of Sera. It has an impossibly large assembly hall adorned by beautiful murals and Thangkas. At the north-western corner of the ]epa Duchen is the Tamdrin Lhakang, dedicated to the past, present and future Buddhas, and this remarkable chamber is undoubtedly the most sacred place in the entire Sera complex. At the centre of this Chapel is the image of Tamdrin, the protector who is a wrathful meditator. His form in the statue is the Lotus of subdued wrath, which indicates his symbolic representation of the energy that destroy obstacles towards enlightenment. He is the guardian and protector of Sera. A second Chapel is dedicated to the same deity in the upper floor, though it is him in a different form there. There are also other two Chapels dedicated to the Gelugpa Sect founder Tsongkapa. There is a debating courtyard to the east of Sera Je Dratsang, which is still in use today.
4. Drepung Monastery
Drepung actually is a collection of monasteries and was once the largest conglomeration at one place. Visit Drepung during your Tibet tour along with Sera and Ganden monasteries. Drepung means “Heap of Rice” referring to the white washed building that could be seen from afar. Located about 8km away to the West of Lhasa, Drepung suffered a lot from the invasion of rival kings throughout history. This was the principal seat of the Yellow Hats before the Great Fifth Dalai Lama constructed the Potala. During the glory days of Drepung, it housed over 7,000 monks at a time. Today, there are only about 400. While many of Drepung's chief buildings have been destroyed, its four colleges, Ngapa College, Gomang College, Deyang College and Loseling College, the Assembly Hall (Tsokchen), and the Dalai Lamas' residence (Ganden Palace), have been preserved. Originally there were seven Dratsangs (colleges) but by the 18th century, they were combined to form four with their own syllabus and Abbots. These colleges surround the main assembly hall. The Assembly hall is enormous and is adorned with Thangkas, and is supported by over 180 columns. This hall was rebuilt by the Regent after it had collapsed in 1735 CE. It is also known as the Jamkang Sarpa, as it’s most powerful image is of Jampa, the protector of Drepung, called Jampa Tongdrol, the liberator from the cycle of life and death by mere sight is the main image. To the rear end there is a beautiful Chapel that features idols of deities like Chana Dorji and Tamdrin. It also contains the idol of Sakyamuni. The assembly hall also includes an enormous two storey statue of Jampelyang (Manjushri), flanked by the statues of Tsongkapa, the 13th Dalai Lama and a host of other deities and masters. There are also many other Chapels, like the Sakyamuni Chapel which is full of Chortens. There is the Miwang Chapel that contains the colossal three-storey statue of Jampa, the future Buddha. There is also the Drölma Lhakhang. Drölma is a protective deity. The Drepung Monastery complex also has the Ganden Phodrang or Ganden Palace which was established by the second Dalai Lama, and was the home to many Dalai Lamas over the centuries. There are many Chapels within the Ganden Palace that houses various statues of a pantheon of deities. Ngapa Dratsang is a tantric college that was consecrated by Tsongkapa himself. It contains the most dominant of Drepung's images, the statue of Dorje Jigche (Vajra Bhairava), the King with the Iron Rope. This deity is the Gelug School’s principal tutelary deity and protector. The second college called Loseling is the school of logic where Jampa is the chief image. A mural of Sonam Drakpa, one of the greatest Gelug masters and abbot of Loseling in the early 17th century, is found in its assembly hall. Gomang Dratsung is the second largest college of Drepung and its structure looks very much like that of Loseling. The assembly hall of the college has murals that depict the 108 scenes in the life of the Buddha Sakyamuni (Siddhartha Gautama). On the west side is the Chapel of the chief Gelug Protector Pelden Lhamo. The last and the smallest of the college is the Deyang College whose main hall is adorned by the statues of Jampa, Jampelyang, Drolma and the 13th Dalai Lama. There are also a whole lot of smaller colleges whose visit can be reduced on your Tibet tour itinerary as they don’t hold much significance.
5. Norbulingka Palace
The Norbulingka Palace is located 3km south-west of the Potala palace and is an important sight on a Tibet tour. This was the summer residence of the Dalai Lamas from the mid-18th century. An annual Shoton Festival which is held in the first week of July is held at Norbulingka where people watch Tibetan operas and have traditional dances. This Palace was built in 1755 CE by the seventh Dalai Lama, Kalsang Potang. It is believed that this was originally just a park where the fifth Dalai Lama would spend time and this tradition was followed by the seventh Dalai Lama who decided to build a palace on this space. Over time, it served as a school for young Dalai Lamas who would study here during the summers. This, in turn, became the seat of power and of political and religious significance to entire Tibet for two centuries. Norbulingka is a structure of 374 rooms and has a large garden located at an elevation of 3650m. Many Dalai lamas have added various structures to the Palace complex. Some have added a pond, a pavilion, the yellow fence, also planted lots of tree and plants which turned the Palace compounds into a very beautiful park. Every successive Dalai Lama has extended and built their own structures. On December 14, 2001, UNESCO enlisted Norbulingka as a World Heritage Site. Norbulingka means "Jewel Garden". The architecture of Norbulingka is an amalgamation of art, religion, engineering and gardening. There are a lot of wood work within the structure and traditional influences can be seen in structure of the palace. Norbulingka can be classified into five different parts or palaces. The Kelsang Phodrang, Tsokyil Palace, Golden Lingka, Lake Heart Palace and Takten Mingyur Palace and your Tibet tour generally should take you to each building. Each palace has three main sections: the palace area, the forest area, and the area in front of the palace. There is also a pavilion called Khamsum Zilnon which is a two storey pavilion facing the front gate of the Palace. The Dalai Lamas watched Tibetan Opera from this place during the Shoton festival. The palace of Kelsang Phodrang was built by the seventh Dalai Lama. It consists of worship rooms, reading rooms, and bedrooms. The main hall consists of the throne of the 7th Dalai Lama amidst statues of different deities. To the north-west of Kelsang Phodrang is the Tsokyil Palace which is actually a pavilion in the middle of the lake and built by the 8th Dalai Lama. To the north-west of Kelsang Phodrang also lies the Chensel Palace and on the west side of Norbulingka is the Golden Phodrang built in 1922 by the 13th Dalai Lama. The most beautiful area in southwest Norbulingka, the Lake Heart Palace was built by the 8th Dalai Lama to hold parties with dignitaries. The main attraction of Norbulingka is the Takten Mingyur Phodrang, which is the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama. It is therefore, a pilgrimage site for the Tibetans who offer Khadas (Buddhist Scarves) in its various rooms. It is therefore also an integral part of a Tibet Tour. There is the assembly hall draped with murals that depict the history of Tibet. The palace houses Dalai Lama's study chambers, his bedroom, bathroom, a small library and meditation room. There is also a throne in the reception hall which is normally covered with Khadas left there by pilgrims. The walls of the reception room is covered with murals that show the Dalai Lama and the people around him. The many rooms within this Palace has exquisite murals of Sakyamuni and his eight contemplative disciples among other religious portrayals through art.
6. The Barkhor Street
Lhasa’s Barkhor Street has held sway with both Tibetan pilgrims and tourists alike. A Tibet Tour cannot be considered complete without taking a walk along Barkhor Street. This street the most popular circumambulatory devotion (Kora) of pilgrims and the people of Lhasa and entire Tibet because it encircles the entire Jokhang temple complex, the Muru Nyingba (the Lhasa seat of the former State Oracle), and other Chapels, in a rectangular, kilometre walk. On the street there are always smoke and mist from the four large incense burners (Sangkangs) in the four cardinal directions with incense and aromatic plants like Juniper burning constantly making it an alluring place to tour. It is believed that burning this incense purifies any religious ritual. The Jokhang temple is the holiest shrine in Lhasa, which houses sacred artefacts and so pilgrims flock to this place from all places and all walks of life to walk around the temple. It can be said that Barkhor has been in existence for over 1400 years since the Jokhang was first built which makes it one of the oldest streets in the world still in use. At present, there are 56 civilian courtyards within Barkhor Street that has both modern as well as traditional structural composition which makes it a rich historical heritage. Devoted pilgrims complete the procedure by lying prostrate and crawling. There is one section of slab stoned path available for these pious pilgrims to do this reverent practice. Other pilgrims who walk on foot take about 30-40 minutes to complete the entire circle. Barkhor Street maintains the primitive and original style of Tibet with shops built in line close to each other. The whole street paved by hand-crafted stones is interspersed with some old Tibetan houses and exotic buildings. According to Tibetan traditions and faith, you should walk clockwise in Barkhor Street. The exotic Tibet tour must take you around Barkhor Street which is one of the most enigmatic places in Lhasa.