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.
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.