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The Eternal City No More

April 29, 2014


It was early June yet it snowed during the night, leaving a dusting of white on the mountains that ringed the city of Lhasa long after it had melted away from the terraced rooftops and gilded copper canopies of the temples and monasteries within the city. After two weeks of traveling on buses and trucks, and crossing passes over 17,000 feet, I had arrived in the capital of Tibet during the Saga Dawa Düchen, the 15th day of the 4th month of the Buddhist lunar calendar, when the Buddha’s birth and his enlightenment are celebrated. This is a time of celebration, and for days Tibetans from all around the countryside came to fill the ancient city. Sellers lined the main streets with makeshift stalls displaying goods from the isolated villages within the steep mountainous valleys of the Tibetan plateau. Beggars arrived in great numbers, with the well founded belief that the city dwellers would be more generous during the festival season. Pilgrims likewise flocked to the urban center, filling the open plaza outside the entrance to the Jokhang Temple, prostrating themselves while they chanted and prayed.

The Jokhang Temple is the most sacred temple in all of Tibet and the conceptual center of the city of Lhasa. First built in the 7th century, it has been added to and enlarged over its thousand year history. On this day, pilgrims by the hundreds crowded its innermost courtyard, visiting the surrounding chapels and placing offerings at the many gilded statues, while the low-pitched, monotone drone of chanting, saffron-robed monks filled the air. Then they would walk the Nangkor, the innermost kora or sacred path that circumambulated the most ancient precinct within the temple, turning the multitude of oversized brass prayer wheels that lined the outer wall of the route, keeping them in constant motion as they continued their clockwise circumambulation within the temple.

Beyond the temple, the Barkhor thronged with people from every class of society, forming the second sacred circuit which encircled the ancient core of the city. This path is about a kilometer in length and lined with the whitewashed stone facades of traditional Tibetan buildings which tapered as they rose to two and three stories, increasing their sense of height and monumentality. Shops occupied the ground level, and the addition of wooden stalls selling every kind of good further narrowed the streetscape. Wooden poles bearing strings of brightly colored red, yellow, green, blue and white prayer flags guided pilgrims and myself along this route.   Likewise heaps of stones, placed one by one as an act of devotion by countless passing pilgrims, marked the route. These were always passed on the left, following a clockwise rotation so important in Buddhist rituals. Open fires also burned along the way, to which pilgrims continually added juniper branches to fuel the smoldering embers.

Likewise the Linkhor, the outermost kora which formed a seven kilometer circuit around the medieval city, was flush with people from all walks of life. I was just one of the thousands who leisurely made their way along this course throughout the day; many spinning hand-held prayer wheels as they slowly progressed, while others stopping to socialize in the parks and open spaces along the way. The Linkhor enclosed the Barkhor, the Chokpori hill (considered the 4th most sacred mountain in Tibet), and the immense Portala Palace which visually dominated over the ancient city. On occasion I would encounter a pilgrim crawling this entire route on their hands and knees, as a form of religious devotion. They would fold their hands above their heads, bow and then prostrate themselves along the roadway, often placing some sacred object or conch shell at their fingertips to mark the point at which they would place their feet for the next prostration. In this way they covered the entire sacred circuit one body length at a time.

Portala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Portala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

A small diversion along the Linkhor brought me to the Potala palace, which sat on a rocky outcrop some 300 meters above the valley floor, making it visible from any point within the city. Although a palaces was erected at this site by Songtsan Gampo, the monk who introduced Buddhism to Tibet and founded the first Tibetan Empire in the 7th century, construction on the present structure began in 1645 under the great 5th Dalai Lama. The massive palace consists of two interlinked structures, built up to 13 stories and all together containing over a thousand rooms. The White Palace, designated by its whitewashed walls, consisted of the living quarters and offices of the Dalai Lama and served as the seat of the Tibetan government until 1959, when the present Dalai Lama fled the invading forces of the Chinese army after the Tibetan revolt. Nestled within this structure is the Red Palace, whose crimson walls and gilded roofs contain a monastery and a collection of religious halls, chapels and shrines to Tibetan Buddhism.   A formidable ramp which switched back and forth up the steep hillside led to the main entrance court of the Palace. A large embroidered banner hung over the entrance hall, and I followed the crush of pilgrims as they progressed through the hallways and courtyards of the Palace which were lined with painted images of deities and ancient lamas in vivid pigments of crimson, yellow and green, all subdued by age. The pilgrims brought offerings of melted yak butter which they added to the rows of burning oil lamps which illuminated the many gilded images of past lamas and bodhisattvas with a dim flickering glow. Often they would touch the ends of the colorful silk robes that draped these figures, which were soiled and discolored by the touch of thousands of hands. I walked from one darkened hall to the next, their ceilings blackened by the soot from the multitude of yak butter lamps. One chapel displayed a collection of ancient weapons, with bows and arrows, swords and armor hanging haphazardly from the rafters.

Remarkably, I was allowed to wander unrestricted, essentially lost, throughout the labyrinthine maze of halls and gallerieswithin the palace, until I mistakenly left through a minor exit at the back side of the building, which then prevented me from reentering. Unfortunately, I never saw the burial chorten (the Tibetan form of a stupa) containing the remains of the renowned 5th Dalai Lama, which rose to 49 feet and was sheathed with more than 110,000 teals of solid gold and some 20,000 pearls and precious stones.[1] This was just one of the eight funerary chortens within the palace which hold the remains of the fifth through the thirteenth Dali Lamas (excluding the sixth), and which were all elaborately decorated in gold, precious stones and gems and placed under the gilded peaked roofs of the palace; their eves adorned with mythical creatures and ridgeline surmounted by sacred vases shaped like pagodas. But at that time were no docents to direct me nor was there a guidebook that I could have followed to find these places on my own. Yet my time spent wandering through Lhasa and this extraordinary palace was such a sublime and inspiring experience, that it became a defining event in my life. It was after this incident that I became determined to study architecture as a way to understand culture and history.

But this vision of Lhasa was the city I experienced a generation ago, when China was just beginning to industrialize and Tibet had just opened to Western tourists. Today, foreigners traveling to Tibet are strictly controlled and it is only possible to visit Lhasa after attaining an Alien’s Travel Permit and enrolling in an officially organized tour. There are now high speed trains that can make the 4000 km journey from Beijing to Lhasa in less than two days. The train even supplies extra oxygen for its passengers to prevent altitude sickness as it travels across the high passes, and its windows are covered with a protective film to protect passengers from ultraviolet radiation. Currently the Potala palace is a museum, which provides one hour tours to a limited number of paying ticket holders each day. The Linkhor has been largely destroyed by recent construction, resulting from a government policy of modernization as a means of cultural assimilation. The Barkhor is likewise threatened, with recent plans to develop a shopping mall and parking garage within this area.[2] A similar effort at “modernization” is likewise occurring in the western province of Xinjiang, where forced demolitions and urban renewal within the historic district of the ancient silk route city of Kashgar, similarly serves as a method of political control and cultural assimilation (or some may say obliteration) of the ethnic Uyghur minority population within this part of China.[3] I suspect that even the hotel I stayed in at Lhasa; a traditional Tibetan courtyard structure with a three-storied drop toilet, is now long gone, most likely replaced by some modern tourist accommodation.[4]

So the Lhasa I once knew and which left such a lasting impression, may exist only in my mind, and as my experience of Lhasa fades to a distant memory, so too will the historic city it seems. And although the loss of the historic fabric of such a special and ancient place may seem like a tragedy to some; I try not to consider it that way. Every Buddhist knows that existence is a state constant flux and change, and that resistance to this universal law is just another aspect of maya, the illusion that binds us to the material world and the cause of suffering. Preservationists desire to cling to the material reality of the world and preserve the physical substance of buildings of the past in order to access some essential truth about the human experience, may be simply a false attempt to defy the rules of Dharma, the natural law of the Universe. In that sense, maybe the modernization of Lhasa and the loss of this ancient city is just a lesson we need to learn, to lead us to a more enlightened view of the world around us. But for me, I still cling to that memory of what once was; a memory of such a special place during such a particular time which I had been fortunate enough to have experienced. But like all experiences in life; they occur only once, never to be experienced again.

Thomas Gensheimer
Department of Architectural History
Savannah College of Art and Design


[1] Although most sources agree with the size of this chorten, I found little agreement on amount of gold and precious stones used to decorate this burial stupa. But the general consensus is a very large quantity, consisting of thousands of kilograms of gold and at least eighteen thousand precious stones.

[2] (see Yeshe Choesang, “China destroys the ancient Buddhist symbols of Lhasa City in Tibet,” The Tibet Post International, May 9, 2013,

[3] (see Uyghur Human Rights Project, “Living on the Margins: The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities” April 2, 2012,’s-demolition-uyghur-communities.html and Nick Holdstock, “Razing Kashgar, LRB blog, May 25, 2012,

[4] Trip Advisor lists 249 modern looking hotels in Lhasa today. It seems there is even a Super 8 Motel in Lhasa which you can book through Expedia.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Claudia Rosa-López permalink
    April 29, 2014 3:48 pm

    I remember seeing that image in the first day of class at SCAD. It was for the History of Non-Western Architecture and Urbanism. Great class.


  2. May 1, 2014 10:20 am

    Great post! Evocative evanescence–


  3. James William Goodwin Jr. permalink
    November 8, 2014 6:19 am

    I will not dispute the theological-poetic implications of your reflections. What troubles me more about the destruction of Lhasa is that it results from a deliberate movement to destroy the memory and identity of Tibetan culture. In that sense, it is not just a movement of flux and change, but an aggression upon a form of life.
    Of course, the same could be said of money speculation that brings down many historically significant buildings and neighborhoods – here in Brazil that is a constant threat. But it seems to me that the Chinese case is more aggressive, since it is a planned destruction with a clear goal in mind.
    Thanks for sharing!


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