It is six o’clock in the morning and the sun is barely up, but the streets of Lhasa are already swarming with people scurrying in lines, turning their prayer wheels and murmuring prayers. This is the enduring image of Tibet, the land of holy Lamas, sacred scriptures and butter lamps. Even if much of Tibet was plundered and its monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution following the Chinese invasion, you can still feel the strong religious belief anchored in the hearts of the people. Indeed, since then many of the monasteries have been restored, while some are still undergoing restoration, emerging slowly from the depths of secular communism. One of the main attractions in Lhasa is the Barkhor, home to the reputed Jokhang monastery. Entering this holy place is like being thrown back in time. Even before it opens, people are already queuing before the gates, some are prostrating and praying while others are doing the traditional kora or the holy circuit, walking clockwise around the temple. The Jokhang which, according to legend, was initiated by a Chinese princess (one of the wives of the first king of Tibet) is a labyrinth of chapels adorned with statues representing Tantric deities. Several life-sized statues of holy Lamas and deities are placed in the main assembly hall where the smell of butter lamps and incense can be intoxicating. Murmurs of prayers echoed throughout the inner sanctum, while pilgrims touched their heads on the revered statues while others placed offerings, money and butter lamps. After getting a little dizzy amidst the strong scent of incense, I slowly crawled out among the sea of pilgrims to find myself in the outer hall of the chapels where I walked along with pilgrims turning the many prayer wheels.
The holy circuit or kora, is a circumambulation around a sacred place, be it a monastery, chapel, prayer wheel or the famous Mt Kailash the holy mountain east of Tibet. At times it may also be performed with bodily prostrations. Encircling a holy place is performed repetitively and Tibetans believe that doing the kora can purify and cleanse their karma.
Tibetan great assembly hall is unique, it boasts the typical prayer hall structure – dark pillared construction with rows of cushioned seats for monks, various embroidered and painted thankas suspended from the ceiling, chapels with different deities and altars filled with rows of offerings and most of all butter lamps. Frescoes enhanced chapel walls where one can usually find holy scriptures wrapped in embroidered gold cloth.
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