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My Favorite Walk: The Barkhor

September 16, 2010

Just over 1km long, the Barkhor Circuit circles the Jokhang Temple, on the streets of Lhasa’s old town.  The Jokhang is Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest temple. 

I walked the circuit a few times every day on my first visit to Tibet 9 years ago.  I am back in China, Tibet specifically, to do the Barkhor.  It’s simply the happiest place I’ve ever been and I wanted that feeling again.    

On arrival driving through Lhasa I have a sinking feeling seeing all the new buildings.  Chinese built concrete and big panes of glass versus the Tibetan style whitewashed mud brick with black trim and multi colored lintels.  There are also many new “fake old” buildings made of concrete brick with white paint.  I’m not fooled – they don’t have the right surface texture and patina of mud brick being repainted every year hundreds of times.  The walls are too straight.  I can’t explain why one building has soul and the other doesn’t.  I’m not a superstitious or sentimental person, but that’s how I feel about Lhasa.

Jokhang Temple, incense burner and people doing the circuit

It is late afternoon.  I drop my bag in the hotel room and walk quickly through a zigzag of narrow market streets to the circuit so I can do it once before it gets dark.  And with relief I see that it is the same.  I think nothing can kill it.  The giddiness of the pilgrim is a hard thing to dampen.  Religion is life in Tibet, and I’m so happy to see that hasn’t changed.

Tibetan with prayer wheel

Pilgrims and locals walk the circuit passing 4 large blackened incense burners.  The juniper incense strongly scents the air with the austere subtly sweet smell of wood and fire.  Each burner puffs a large plume of white smoke into the sky.  The most serious pilgrims carry wooden blocks and wear thick aprons because they prostrate themselves, their belly down on the ground, after every single step.  Many people carry prayer wheels that they keep spinning continuously.  The sound is a low buzz because everyone is murmuring their own private prayer.  I ask if it’s a set prayer and am told no, everyone prays their own thing, but they must pray for others and all living creatures, not for themselves.  They believe that this gives them merit and a chance for a higher level in the next life (there are 6 levels).  I think of it as Buddha points.  I’d just received news that my new nephew had been born but I didn’t know his name yet, so to join in the spirit I say “bless baby Tambre” over and over (his name is Oscar).

After completing the circuit, pilgrims stop in front of the temple to pray and do prostrations.  Then they join the packed line of people to enter the temple and pass through the various chapels containing holy statues and objects.  Inside the air feels and smells warm and thick, but it doesn’t stink which is a minor miracle given the grime of centuries of crowded pilgrims rubbing every surface.  Besides bodies the other scents are incense from burners on the ground, wax burning in hundreds of “yak butter” lamps (now all wax I’m told), and offerings like barley wine.

front of Jokhang prostrations

Why do I, as a non-religious agnostic person, love the Barkhor?  It is Tibet condensed in 1km.  Everyone is so happy to be there building up credit in their Buddha banks.  It’s very crowded and you can’t help bumping into people, but when the bump happens a friendly smile instead of an “f-you” is exchanged.  I am happy to keep bobbing along in the sea of murmuring Tibetans.

view of Barkhor Square and Circuit from top of Jokhang

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2010 8:11 pm

    Thank-you dear Sariah for the wonderful visual display of photographs along with the your
    sensory descriptions that help me feel your amazing experience. I also have a need to see and smell
    in order to acheive the full impact and am not surprised by your deeply emotional experience. Buddism is a happy practise. I have followed the Dahli Lama’s teaching for
    some years and during times of difficulties have practised meditation more regularly. When the mind becomes free of the clutter the gift is the intensification of all senses. These dear enlighten Tibetan Buddists are a fine example of acheiving “Enlightenment” and hopefully the Dahli Lama will be returned to Tibet from his present excile in India. Please save me one little peice of the incense so I may smell the experience as well!
    “om mani padme hum”. Lxo

  2. September 22, 2010 7:42 am

    Hi Lauren,
    I’ve collected a few kinds of incense from Tibet and Syria, will definitely share some with you. I’m still not converting to any religion, even Buddhism, but I do love the spirit of the people in Tibet and the good vibe in Lhasa. As for the Dalai Lama, unfortunately I think the chance that he’ll ever be back in Tibet is less than zero. He has stated that he may be the last one, at least the last one chosen in the traditional way and not as a political pawn.

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