We walked out of the restaurant and onto the street filled with tourists, locals, and vendors selling various goods—hats to keep out the sun, prayer flags, fresh fruit, jewelry, incense, and thangka paintings, among other things. When we turned left, I saw the Jokhang temple for the first time—painted red and white, adorned with gold decorations, it stood at the end of a long, modern plaza that was cleared in 1985 and reconstructed in 2000. The Jokhang is Lhasa’s main temple, built around 640 CE. Situated around the Jokhang Temple lies the Barkor, where Tibetan Buddhists come from all over Tibet to do kora, or circumambulations. The Tibetan word Barkor is literally the name for the kora route around the Jokhang.
The areas surrounding the Jokhang seemed as though they were constantly filled with Tibetans, some in their traditional dress, some swinging their prayer wheels, or thumbing prayer beads while muttering prayers under their breath. The Barkor was where Lhasa’s residents lived before the days of modern development, and doubles as a maze-like marketplace, overflowing with booths and shops selling various goods. The streets and alleyways of the Barkor twisted and turned with seemingly no rhyme or reason, and it was easy to get lost or forget where your destination lay, which, in a way, made it all the more charming.
Around six or seven each night, the Barkor seemed to come alive. In September, the sun was still up at that time, illuminating the front of the Jokhang with its last rays of light, and it seemed as though every Tibetan in town was out of work and doing their kora around the Jokhang. In some spots where the walkway narrowed, people were cramped together, only able to move at a snail’s pace. At these points, one constantly had to watch out for swinging prayer wheels, and dodge people as they performed full body prostrations. In the front of the Jokhang, the air smelled of firewood, smoke, and incense from two of the four pyres that surrounded the temple, and ones ears were flooded with the sound of prayers being murmured and of people prostrating at all hours of the day—the sound of wood as it slid swiftly over concrete hundreds of times. As the sun started to set, a fervor set in, and people started shutting up their booths for the day, while new people opened up shop—most of whom simply laid blankets out on the street and piled up clothes for sale in giant mounds. The quiet daytime kora turned into a party of sorts each night, with people meeting in the street, vendors shouting prices, and people paying their respects around the temple.
As I walked towards the Jokhang Temple on my first day in Lhasa, it was as though everything was silently floating by in slow motion, every step taken became uncharacteristically leisurely and deliberate—there is something about the Jokhang that makes one stop and stare. The air smelled of incense, the giant square filled with people shuffling about, moving between the pots of flowers planted in patterns throughout the vast courtyard leading up to the Jokhang. There were Tibetans with flashes of red ribbons or large chunks of coral and turquoise sitting in their hair, donning exquisite chupas—dresses—and swinging prayer wheels in a clockwise fashion as they walked, muttering barely-audible prayers under their breath along the way.