The Lhasa Barkhor

The Barkhor is the heart of Lhasa, or rather it is the area that surrounds the heart of hearts, the Lhasa Tsuklhakhang. This  7th century structure was commissioned by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gompo, and built in Newari style by artisans brought over from Nepal. Its main temple, the Jokhang (house of the Jowo) houses the statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha brought from China by Songtsen Gompo’s Chinese wife. The temple itself was originally built for the statue brought from Nepal by his Nepalese wife, but at some point in history, the statues were switched and the Nepalese Jowo is now situated in the Ramoche temple nearby.

Pilgrims come from all over Tibet to pay their respects to the holy statues in the Tsuklhakhang, spread out in a multitude of chapels. They circumambulate the temple on the Barkhor’s main street which draws a wide circles around it and other temples and noble’s houses. Tibetans being very practical people, the Barkhor is today as it was in the past also a place to trade, and a bustling market.

I came to Lhasa in late November and found the place teeming with pilgrims. Dechen, Yidam and I dedicated an afternoon to shopping and thoroughly enjoyed the bustle of shoppers, sellers, professional prostrators, men and women with their prayer wheels, people on cell phones, men from Kham huddling in groups selling fake dzis, as well as dogs of all sizes going about their business in a very assertive way. I was amazed by the extraordinary array of Tibetan goods; here in one place was everything Tibetans use and eat; dried meat, butter, strung up cheese, dried cheese, spices and roots of all kinds. There were Tibetan hats, ready-made chubas, traditional materials to make chubas, somba shoes, blenders to make buttered tea, incense burners, ladles and Tibetan style thermoses. There were of course religious paraphernalia and many other things, including a meat market run by Huis from Gansu and cheap clothing especially appreciated by the far dwelling winter visitors. We all stocked on dried cheese, locally made thermoses and a beautiful wooden bowl from a store that sold only wooden bowls.

View of a Barkhor street from a rooftop
Man selling a sheepskin
Selling somba shoes in the old Barkhor 1940’s. (Heinrich Harrer photo)
Selling scriptures in the old Barkhor, 1940’s (Heinrich Harrer photo)
Mani wheels in a religious paraphernalia store
Food stall in the 40’s (Heinrich Harrer photo)
Selling rolls of tie dyed woolen cloth, 1940’s (Heinrich Harrer photo)
Selling ‘Tsering Kyilkhor’ hats, popular in Central Tibet
Bread stall

We sat in a rooftop restaurant enjoying the sun, looking down at the passers by, the older ones carrying a cane and prayer wheel or both, and clad in a wide array of regional styles from all over Tibet. We were told that they come in winter when farm or herding work slows down and enjoy the warm Lhasa sun. Lhasa people tend to find the winters too cold and often spend the winter months in Chengdu. The Barkhor has retained its character though most of its two-story houses were replaced by three storied ones built of whitewashed stone. Here and there, an older house has survived, a larger complex around a courtyard, looking a little dilapidated. From the roof, where we could see the pagodas of the Tsuklhakhang and the Potala in the distance, friends pointed to several old houses. One, Surkhang House only seemed to retain a wall, probably knocked down in stages. Pongda Tsang House, across the street, was still in one piece.

dried roots
doing our shopping
butter store, next to the dentist
The back (and only remaining wall) of Sukhang House, so we were told. Now a spot for pilgrims
someone’s laundry
Pilgrims near the entrance of the Tsuklhakang
Waiting in line and prostrating
Three generations visiting Lhasa
Lhasa from a rooftop
Tea seller in the 40’s, (Heinrich Harrer)


copper goods, the factory is near Sera Monastery
Butter churns and religious paraphanalia
Woman from the Kokonor Area in Amdo
The dentist
stalls selling butter for offering lamps inside the Tsuklhakang
Old woman in a pink chuba
Cat in a tailor’s workshop

Revisiting Charlottesville

This year, I returned to Charlottesville after 40 years. Kalsang and I lived there two years which turned out to be turning points in our lives. It was from Charlottesville that we decided to go live in India, but it was also where I was most closely introduced to Buddhism, through the studies I made there and the two lamas we both became close to.

In the 70’s Charlottesville, home of Jefferson, UVA and Monticello became the stronghold of Tibetan and Buddhist studies in the South of the USA. Kalsang and I enrolled in the PHD program in Buddhist studies at UVA where Jeffrey Hopkins, who initiated it, invited Tibetan lamas and scholars yearly. We lived there in 1977 and 78, with Kalsang and Lati Rinpoche, from Ganden Shartse then Locho Rinpoche from Drepung Loseling being the only Tibetans in the area. We were often visited by Tibetan friends from New York and my family members, sisters, nanny and my parents, my father meeting Kalsang there for the first time. There were numerous visits to Monticello, the Blue Ridge Mountains and the University grounds.

Genam and I took the train from DC on a cold and snowy February morning. The main campus looked the same, though the shops had a different, more contemporary look and the area beyond the immediate campus was changed beyond recognition. I took Genam to visit Monticello and took him to the main campus, that dates back to Jefferson’s time. We met with the group of Tibetan student entrepreneurs from Tibet, enrolled in a six week program in which Dorje Rinchen, Norlha’s Sales Manager, was a participant. We saw a few professors and attended a Losar party where I met the local Tibetans who numbered over two hundred. My old classmates had all moved on to other Universities, but it was heartening to see that so much had grown and branched out in forty years.

With Lati Rinpoche, on the Quad,1977
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Kalsang on the Quad, 1978
With Locho Rinpoche and visiting Tibetan friends Yeshi Khedup and Thupten Golok 
Locho Rinpoche at Monticello, 1978
With Locho Rinpoche in the Blue Ridge Mountains 
Kalsang and my father at Monticello
My mother at UVA 
My parents with Kalsang 
With Locho Rinpoche in our apartment on Colonnade Drive, just before we left 
Kalsang with the movers, packing for India 
Genam on the Quad, 2018
Monticello, 2018
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With the Tibetan students, Dorje on the right 
Meeting new friends at the Losar party