A view of the Potala Palace at Lhasa from below. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Lhasa, as capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, is Tibet’s political and religious center. It is the home of the Dalai Lamas, Tibet’s spiritual leaders.

Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region and historically capital of the Tibetan state, is situated in the central region of U-Tsang on the Kyushu River at a height of 3,650 meters.

The name Lha-sa (pronounced Ha-sa) in Tibetan means “divine ground,” and Lhasa has always played a combined religious and political role. The city has had two main phases: Lhasa was established as the capital by the first Buddhist king, Songtsen Gampo (609?–649 CE), in the seventh century CE to house Jowo, the sacred image of Buddha. Using geomancy (divination by means of figures or lines or geographic features), people determined that the heart of Tibet, where the image should be kept, was in an island on a lake on the site of today’s Lhasa. After the demon of the lake was subdued, a temple was built for the statue and called the “Jokhang” (House of the Lord Buddha). The Jokhang is Lhasa’s holiest shrine. The next phase was in the seventeenth century, when Lhasa was reestablished as the capital of the Dalai Lamas, the Tibetan spiritual leaders. The Potala Palace was built on the Marpo-Ri (Red Hill) as the center for the joint religious and secular government of Tibet.

Around the Jokhang is the Barkhor, or circumambulation path, along which pilgrims walk or prostrate themselves. The Norbulingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, lies to the west. Other sites include the ancient Ramoche temple. The historic monasteries of Ganden, Drepung, and Sera, headquarters of the dominant Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lamas, are close to Lhasa and have wielded enormous influence over the city.

Since Chinese rule modern Lhasa has expanded, dwarfing the Tibetan area, large parts of which have been demolished. Lhasa suffered during the Tibetan uprising in 1959 and was extensively damaged in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). In the 1980s the Chinese began restoration work, and a Chinese city expanded in the area to house the administration and business. Today the Tibet Heritage Fund has helped to preserve some areas of historic Lhasa around the Barkhor.

Modern Lhasa has been described variously as drab, featureless, or like a bustling frontier town. Under the Chinese plan of modernizing Tibet and developing its economy, small-scale manufacturing, beer brewing, and now the Internet have come to the city. Lhasa’s importance as a pilgrimage center for Tibetans and as a tourist destination has allowed it to preserve some of its main features, while the Chinese plan for Tibet has created a completely new city. China has ambitious plans for Lhasa as part of its policy of developing the western regions of the People’s Republic, including building the world’s highest railroad linking Lhasa to the nearest railhead in Qinghai Province.

In March 2008 anti-Chinese riots led to several deaths of both Han Chinese and demonstrators and embarrassed China in its Olympics year.

Further Reading

Barnett, R. (2006). Lhasa, streets with memories. New York: Columbia University Press.

Batchelor, S. (1987). The Tibet guide. London: Wisdom.

Chandra Das, S. (1970). Journey to Lhasa and central Tibet. New Delhi: Manjusri. (Original work published 1902).

Dowman, K. (1999). Power places of central Tibet. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Larsen, K., & Sinding-Larsen, A. (2001). The Lhasa atlas. London: Serindia.

Richardson, H. (1994). Ceremonies of the Lhasa year. London: Serindia.

Source: Kowalewski, Michael. (2009). Lhasa. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1307–1308. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The Potala Palace, especially with clouds hovering over mountains in the background, is an imposing presence in Lhasa. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

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