1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lhasa

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LHASA (Lhassa, Lassa, “God’s ground”), the capital of Tibet. It lies in 29° 39′ N., 91° 5′ E., 11,830 ft. above sea-level. Owing to the inaccessibility of Tibet and the political and religious exclusiveness of the lamas, Lhasa was long closed to European travellers, all of whom during the latter half of the 19th century were stopped in their attempts to reach it. It was popularly known as the “Forbidden City.” But its chief features were known by the accounts of the earlier Romish missionaries who visited it and by the investigations, in modern times, of native Indian secret explorers, and others, and the British armed mission of 1904 (see Tibet).

Site and General Aspect.—The city stands in a tolerably level plain, which is surrounded on all sides by hills. Along its southern side, about 1/2 m. south of Lhasa, runs a considerable river called the Kyichu (Ki-chu) or Kyi, flowing here from E.N.E., and joining the great Tsangpo (or upper course of the Brahmaputra) some 38 m. to the south-west. The hills round the city are barren. The plain, however, is fertile, though in parts marshy. There are gardens scattered over it round the city, and these are planted with fine trees. The city is screened from view from the west by a rocky ridge, lofty and narrow, with summits at the north and south, the one flanked and crowned by the majestic buildings of Potala, the chief residence of the Dalai lama, the other by the temple of medicine. Groves, gardens and open ground intervene between this ridge and the city itself for a distance of about 1 m. A gate through the centre of the ridge gives access from the west; the road thence to the north part of the city throws off a branch to the Yutok sampa or turquoise-tiled covered bridge, one of the noted features of Lhasa, which crosses a former channel of the Kyi, and carries the road to the centre of the town.

The city is nearly circular in form, and less than 1 m. in diameter. It was walled in the latter part of the 17th century, but the walls were destroyed during the Chinese occupation in 1722. The chief streets are fairly straight, but generally of no great width. There is no paving or metal, nor any drainage system, so that the streets are dirty and in parts often flooded. The inferior quarters are unspeakably filthy, and are rife with evil smells and large mangy dogs and pigs. Many of the houses are of clay and sun-dried brick, but those of the richer people are of stone and brick. All are frequently white-washed, the doors and windows being framed in bands of red and yellow. In the suburbs there are houses entirely built of the horns of sheep and oxen set in clay mortar. This construction is in some cases very roughly carried out, but in others it is solid and highly picturesque. Some of the inferior huts of this type are inhabited by the Ragyaba or scavengers, whose chief occupation is that of disposing of corpses according to the practice of cutting and exposing them to the dogs and birds of prey. The houses generally are of two or three storeys. Externally the lower part generally presents dead walls (the ground floor being occupied by stables and similar apartments); above these rise tiers of large windows with or without projecting balconies, and over all flat broad-eaved roofs at varying levels. In the better houses there are often spacious and well-finished apartments, and the principal halls, the verandahs and terraces are often highly ornamented in brilliant colours. In every house there is a kind of chapel or shrine, carved and gilt, on which are set images and sacred books.

Temples and Monasteries.—In the centre of the city is an open square which forms the chief market-place. Here is the great temple of the “Jo” or Lord Buddha, called the Jokhang,[1] regarded as the centre of all Tibet, from which all the main roads are considered to radiate. This is the great metropolitan The Jokhang. sanctuary and church-centre of Tibet, the St Peter’s or Lateran of Lamaism. It is believed to have been founded by the Tibetan Constantine, Srong-tsan-gampo, in 652, as the shrine of one of those two very sacred Buddhist images which were associated with his conversion and with the foundation of the civilized monarchy in Tibet. The exterior of the building is not impressive; it rises little above the level of other buildings which closely surround it, and the effect of its characteristic gilt roof, though conspicuous and striking from afar, is lost close at hand.

The main building of the Jokhang is three storeys high. The entrance consists of a portico supported on timber columns, carved and gilt, while the walls are engraved with Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan characters, and a great prayer-wheel stands on one side. Massive folding doors, ornamented with scrollwork in iron, lead to an antehall, and from this a second gate opens into a courtyard surrounded by a verandah with many pillars and chapels, and frescoes on its walls. On the left is the throne of the grand lama, laid with cushions, together with the seats of other ecclesiastical dignitaries, variously elevated according to the rank of their occupants. An inner door with enclosed vestibule gives access to the quadrangular choir or chancel, as it may be called, though its centre is open to the sky. On either side of it are three chapels, and at the extremity is the rectangular “holy of holies,” flanked by two gilded images of the coming Buddha, and screened by lattice-work. In it is the shrine on which sits the great image of Sakya, set about with small figures, lamps and a variety of offerings, and richly jewelled, though the workmanship of the whole is crude. In the second and third storeys of the temple are shrines and representations of a number of gods and goddesses. The temple contains a vast accumulation of images, gold and silver vessels, lamps, reliquaries and precious bric-à-brac of every kind. The daily offices are attended by crowds of worshippers, and a sacred way which leads round the main building is constantly traversed by devotees who perform the circuit as a work of merit, always in a particular direction. The temple was found by the members of the British mission who visited it to be exceedingly dirty, and the atmosphere was foul with the fumes of butter-lamps.

Besides the convent-cells, halls of study and magazines of precious lumber, buildings grouped about the Jokhang are occupied by the civil administration, e.g. as treasuries, customs office, courts of justice, &c., and there are also private apartments for the grand lama and other high functionaries. No woman is permitted to pass the night within the precinct.

In front of the main entrance to the Jokhang, in the shadow of a sacred willow tree, stands a famous monument, the Doring monolith, which bears the inscribed record of a treaty of peace concluded in 822 (or, according to another view, in 783) between the king of Tibet and the emperor of China. Before this monument the apostate from Lamaism, Langdharma, brother and successor of the last-named king, is said to have been standing when a fanatic recluse, who had been stirred by a vision to avenge his persecuted faith, assassinated him.

The famous Potala hill, covered by the palace of the Dalai lama, forms a majestic mountain of building; with its vast inward-sloping walls broken only in the upper parts by straight rows of many windows, and its flat roofs at various levels, it is not unlike a fortress in appearance. At the south base of the rock Potala. is a large space enclosed by walls and gates, with great porticoes on the inner side. This swarms with lamas and with beggars. A series of tolerably easy staircases, broken by intervals of gentle ascent, leads to the summit of the rock. The whole width of this is occupied by the palace. The central part of this group of buildings (for the component parts of Potala are of different dates) rises in a vast quadrangular mass above its satellites to a great height, terminating in gilt canopies similar to those on the Jokhang. Here on the lofty terrace is the grand lama’s promenade, and from this great height he looks down upon the crowds of his votaries far below. This central member of Potala is called the red palace from its crimson colour, which distinguishes it from the rest. It contains the principal halls and chapels and shrines of past Dalai lamas. There is in these much rich decorative painting, with jewelled work, carving and other ornament, but the interior of Potala as a whole cannot compare in magnificence with the exterior. Among the numerous other buildings of note on or near Potala hill, one is distinguished by the Chinese as one of the principal beauties of Lhasa. This is a temple not far from the base of the hill, in the middle of a lake which is surrounded by trees and shrubberies. This temple, called Lu-kang, is circular in form, with a loggia or portico running all round and adorned with paintings. Its name, “the serpent house,” comes from the tradition of a serpent or dragon, which dwelt here and must be propitiated lest it should cause the waters to rise and flood Lhasa.

Another great and famous temple is Ramo-ché, at the north side of the city. This is also regarded as a foundation of Srong-tsan-gampo, and is said to contain the body of his Chinese wife and the second of the primeval palladia, the image that she brought with her to the Snow-land; whence it is known as the “small Jokhang.” This temple is noted for the practice of magical arts. Its buildings are in a neglected condition.

Another monastery within the city is that of Moru, also on the north side, remarkable for its external order and cleanliness. Though famous as a school of orthodox magic, it is noted also for the printing-house in the convent garden. This convent was the temporary residence of the regent during the visit of the British mission in 1904. Other monasteries in or near the city are the Tsamo Ling or Chomoling at the north-west corner; the Tangyä Ling or Tengyeling at the west of the city; the Kundä Ling or Kundeling about 1 m. west of the city, at the foot of a low isolated hill called Chapochi. Three miles south, beyond the river, is the Tsemchog Ling or Tsecholing. These four convents are known as “The Four Ling.” From their inmates the Dalai lama’s regent, during his minority, was formerly chosen. The temple of medicine, as already stated, crowns the summit (Chagpa) at the end of the ridge west of the city, opposite to that on which stands the Potala. It is natural that in a country possessing a religious system like that of Tibet the medical profession should form a branch of the priesthood. “The treatment of disease, though based in some measure upon a judicious use of the commoner simple drugs of the country, is, as was inevitable amongst so superstitious a people, saturated with absurdity” (Waddell, Lhasa and its Mysteries).

The three great monasteries in the vicinity of Lhasa, all claiming to be foundations of Tsongkhapa (1356–1418), the medieval reformer and organizer of the modern orthodox Lama Church, “the yellow caps,” are the following:—

1. Debung (written ’Bras spungs) is 6 m. west of Lhasa at the foot of the hills which flank the plain on the north. It is one of the largest monasteries in the world, having some 8000 monks. In the middle of the convent buildings rises a kind of pavilion, brilliant with colour and gilding, which is occupied by the Dalai Lama when he visits Debung once a year and expounds to the inmates. The place is frequented by the Mongol students who come to Lhasa to graduate, and is known in the country as the Mongol convent; it has also been notorious as a centre of political intrigue. Near it is the seat of the chief magician of Tibet, the Nachung Chos-kyong, a building picturesque in itself and in situation.

2. Sera is 3 m. north of the city on the acclivity of the hills and close to the road by which pilgrims enter from Mongolia. From a distance the crowd of buildings and temples, rising in amphitheatre against a background of rocky mountains, forms a pleasing picture. In the recesses of the hill, high above the convent, are scattered cells of lamas adopting the solitary life. The chief temple of Sera, a highly ornate building, has a special reputation as the resting-place of a famous Dorjē, i.e. the Vajra or Thunderbolt of Jupiter, the symbol of the strong and indestructible, which the priest grasps and manipulates in various ways during prayer. The emblem is a bronze instrument, shaped much like a dumbbell with pointed ends, and it is carried solemnly in procession to the Jokhang during the New Year’s festival.

The hill adjoining Sera is believed to be rich in silver ore, but it is not allowed to be worked. On the summit is a spring and a holy place of the Lhasa Mahommedans, who resort thither. Near the monastery there is said to be gold, which is worked by the monks. “Should they ... discover a nugget of large size, it is immediately replaced in the earth, under the impression that the large nuggets ... germinate in time, producing the small lumps which they are privileged to search for” (Nain Singh).

3. Galdan.—This great convent is some 25 m. east of Lhasa, on the other side of the Kyichu. It is the oldest monastery of the “Yellow” sect, having been founded by Tsongkhapa and having had him for its first superior. Here his body is said to be preserved with miraculous circumstances; here is his tomb, of marble and malachite, with a great shrine said to be of gold, and here are other relics of him, such as the impression of his hands and feet.

Samyé is another famous convent intimately connected with Lhasa, being said to be used as a treasury by the government, but it lies some 36 m. south-east on the left bank of the great Tsangpo. It was founded in 770, and is the oldest extant monastery in Tibet. It is surrounded by a very high circular stone wall, 11/2 m. in circumference, with gates facing the four points of the compass. On this wall Nain Singh, who was here on his journey in 1874, counted 1030 votive piles of brick. One very large temple occupies the centre, and round it are four smaller but still large temples. Many of the idols are said to be of pure gold, and the wealth is very great. The interiors of the temples are covered with beautiful writing in enormous characters, which the vulgar believe to be the writing of Sakya himself.

Population and Trade.—The total population of Lhasa, including the lamas in the city and vicinity, is probably about 30,000; a census in 1854 made the figure 42,000, but it is known to have greatly decreased since. There are only some 1500 resident Tibetan laymen and about 5500 Tibetan women. The permanent population embraces, besides Tibetans, settled families of Chinese (about 2000 persons), as well as people from Nepal, from Ladak, and a few from Bhotan and Mongolia. The Ladakis and some of the other foreigners are Mahommedans, and much of the trade is in their hands. Desideri (1716) speaks also of Armenians and even “Muscovites.” The Chinese have a crowded burial-ground at Lhasa, tended carefully after their manner. The Nepalese (about 800) supply the mechanics and metal-workers. There are among them excellent gold- and silversmiths; and they make the elaborate gilded canopies crowning the temples. The chief industries are the weaving of a great variety of stuffs from the fine Tibetan wool; the making of earthenware and of the wooden porringers (varying immensely in elaboration and price) of which every Tibetan carries one about with him; also the making of certain fragrant sticks of incense much valued in China and elsewhere.

As Lhasa is not only the nucleus of a cluster of vast monastic establishments, which attract students and aspirants to the religious life from all parts of Tibet and Mongolia, but is also a great place of pilgrimage, the streets and public places swarm with visitors from every part of the Himalayan plateau,[2] and from all the steppes of Asia between Manchuria and the Balkhash Lake. Naturally a great traffic arises quite apart from the pilgrimage. The city thus swarms with crowds attracted by devotion and the love of gain, and presents a great diversity of language, costume and physiognomy; though, in regard to the last point, varieties of the broad face and narrow eye greatly predominate. Much of the retail trade of the place is in the hands of the women. The curious practice of the women in plastering their faces with a dark-coloured pigment is less common in Lhasa than in the provinces.

During December especially traders arrive from western China by way of Tachienlu bringing every variety of silk-stuffs, carpets, china-ware and tea; from Siningfu come silk, gold lace, Russian goods, carpets of a superior kind, semi-precious stones, horse furniture, horses and a very large breed of fat-tailed sheep; from eastern Tibet, musk in large quantities, which eventually finds its way to Europe through Nepal; from Bhotan and Sikkim, rice; from Sikkim also tobacco; besides a variety of Indian and European goods from Nepal and Darjeeling, and charas (resinous exudation of hemp) and saffron from Ladakh and Kashmir. The merchants leave Lhasa in March, before the setting in of the rains renders the rivers impassable.

The tea importation from China is considerable, for tea is an absolute necessary to the Tibetan. The tea is of various qualities, from the coarsest, used only for “buttered” tea (a sort of broth), to the fine quality drunk by the wealthy. This is pressed into bricks or cakes weighing about 51/2 ℔, and often passes as currency. The quantity that pays duty at Tachienlu is about 10,000,000 ℔, besides some amount smuggled. No doubt a large part of this comes to Lhasa.

Lhasa Festivities.—The greatest of these is at the new year. This lasts fifteen days, and is a kind of lamaic carnival, in which masks and mummings, wherein the Tibetans take especial delight, play a great part. The celebration commences at midnight, with shouts and clangour of bells, gongs, chank-shells, drums and all the noisy repertory of Tibetan music; whilst friends exchange early visits and administer coarse sweetmeats and buttered tea. On the second day the Dalai Lama gives a grand banquet, at which the Chinese and native authorities are present, whilst in the public spaces and in front of the great convents all sorts of shows and jugglers’ performances go on. Next day a regular Tibetan exhibition takes place. A long cable, twisted of leather thongs, is stretched from a high point in the battlements of Potala slanting down to the plain, where it is strongly moored. Two men slide from top to bottom of this huge hypothenuse, sometimes lying on the chest (which is protected by a breast-plate of strong leather), spreading their arms as if to swim, and descending with the rapidity of an arrow-flight. Occasionally fatal accidents occur in this performance, which is called “the dance of the gods”; but the survivors are rewarded by the court, and the Grand Lama himself is always a witness of it. This practice occurs more or less over the Himalayan plateau, and is known in the neighbourhood of the Ganges as Barat. It is employed as a kind of expiatory rite in cases of pestilence and the like. Exactly the same performance is described as having been exhibited in St Paul’s Churchyard before King Edward VI., and again before Philip of Spain, as well as, about 1750, at Hertford and other places in England (see Strutt’s Sports, &c., 2nd ed., p. 198).

The most remarkable celebration of the new year’s festivities is the great jubilee of the Monlam (s Mon-lam, “prayer”), instituted by Tsongkhapa himself in 1408. Lamas from all parts of Tibet, but chiefly from the great convents in the neighbourhood, flock to Lhasa, and every road leading thither is thronged with troops of monks on foot or horseback, on yaks or donkeys, carrying with them their breviaries and their cooking-pots. Those who cannot find lodging bivouac in the streets and squares, or pitch their little black tents in the plain. The festival lasts six days, during which there reigns a kind of saturnalia. Unspeakable confusion and disorder reign, while gangs of lamas parade the streets, shouting, singing and coming to blows. The object of this gathering is, however, supposed to be devotional. Vast processions take place, with mystic offerings and lama-music, to the Jokhang and Moru convents; the Grand Lama himself assists at the festival, and from an elevated throne beside the Jokhang receives the offerings of the multitude and bestows his benediction.

On the 15th of the first month multitudes of torches are kept ablaze, which lighten up the city to a great distance, whilst the interior of the Jokhang is illuminated throughout the night by innumerable lanterns shedding light on coloured figures in bas-relief, framed in arabesques of animals, birds and flowers, and representing the history of Buddha and other subjects, all modelled in butter. The figures are executed on a large scale, and, as described by Huc, who witnessed the festival at Kunbum on the frontier of China, with extraordinary truth and skill. These singular works of art occupy some months in preparation, and on the morrow are thrown away. On other days horse-races take place from Sera to Potala, and foot-races from Potala to the city. On the 27th of the month the holy Dorjē is carried in solemn procession from Sera to the Jokhang, and to the presence of the lama at Potala.

Of other great annual feasts, one, in the fourth month, is assigned to the conception of Sakya, but appears to connect itself with the old nature-feast of the entering of spring, and to be more or less identical with the Hūlī of India. A second, the consecration of the waters, in September-October, appears, on the confines of India, to be associated with the Dasehra.

On the 30th day of the second month there takes place a strange ceremony, akin to that of the scapegoat (which is not unknown in India). It is called the driving out of the demon. A man is hired to perform the part of demon (or victim rather), a part which sometimes ends fatally. He is fantastically dressed, his face mottled with white and black, and is then brought forth from the Jokhang to engage in quasi-theological controversy with one who represents the Grand Lama. This ends in their throwing dice against each other (as it were for the weal or woe of Lhasa). If the demon were to win the omen would be appalling; so this is effectually barred by false dice. The victim is then marched outside the city, followed by the troops and by the whole populace, hooting, shouting and firing volleys after him. Once he is driven off, the people return, and he is carried off to the Samyé convent. Should he die shortly after, this is auspicious; if not, he is kept in ward at Samyé for a twelvemonth.

Nain Singh, whose habitual accuracy is attested by many facts, mentions a strange practice of comparatively recent origin, according to which the civil power in the city is put up to auction for the first twenty-three days of the new year. The purchaser, who must be a member of the Debung monastery, and is termed the Jalno, is a kind of lord of misrule, who exercises arbitrary authority during that time for his own benefit, levying taxes and capricious fines upon the citizens.

History.—The seat of the princes whose family raised Tibet to a position among the powers of Asia was originally on the Yarlung river, in the extreme east of the region now occupied by Tibetan tribes. It was transplanted to Lhasa in the 7th century by the king Srong-tsan-gampo, conqueror, civilizer and proselytizer, the founder of Buddhism in Tibet, the introducer of the Indian alphabet. On the three-peaked crag now occupied by the palace-monastery of the Grand Lama this king is said to have established his fortress, while he founded in the plain below temples to receive the sacred images, brought respectively from Nepal and from China by the brides to whom his own conversion is attributed.

Tibet endured as a conquering power some two centuries, and the more famous among the descendants of the founder added to the city. This-rong-de-tsan (who reigned 740–786) is said to have erected a great temple-palace of which the basement followed the Tibetan style, the middle storey the Chinese, and the upper storey the Indian—a combination which would aptly symbolize the elements that have moulded the culture of Lhasa. His son, the last of the great orthodox kings, in the next century, is said to have summoned artists from Nepal and India, and among many splendid foundations to have erected a sanctuary (at Samyé) of vast height, which had nine storeys, the three lower of stone, the three middle of brick, the three uppermost of timber. With this king the glory of Tibet and of ancient Lhasa reached its zenith, and in 822, a monument recording his treaty on equal terms with the Great T’ang emperor of China was erected in the city. There followed dark days for Lhasa and the Buddhist church in the accession of this king’s brother Langdharma, who has been called the Julian of the lamas. This king rejected the doctrine, persecuted and scattered its ministers, and threw down its temples, convents and images. It was more than a century before Buddhism recovered its hold and its convents were rehabilitated over Tibet. The country was then split into an infinity of petty states, many of them ruled from the convents by warlike ecclesiastics; but, though the old monarchy never recovered, Lhasa seems to have maintained some supremacy, and probably never lost its claim to be the chief city of that congeries of principalities, with a common faith and a common language, which was called Tibet.

The Arab geographers of the 10th century speak of Tibet, but without real knowledge, and none speaks of any city that we can identify with Lhasa. The first passage in any Western author in which such identification can be probably traced occurs in the narrative of Friar Odoric of Pordenone (c. 1330). This remarkable traveller’s route from Europe to India, and thence by sea to China, can be traced satisfactorily, but of his journey homeward through Asia the indications are very fragmentary. He speaks, however, on this return journey of the realm of Tibet, which lay on the confines of India proper: “The folk of that country dwell in tents made of black felt. But the chief and royal city is all built with walls of black and white, and all its streets are very well paved. In this city no one shall dare to shed the blood of any, whether man or beast, for the reverence they bear a certain idol that is there worshipped. In that city dwelleth the Abassi, i.e. in their tongue the pope, who is the head of all the idolaters, and has the disposal of all their benefices such as they are after their manner.”

We know that Kublai Khan had constituted a young prince of the Lama Church, Mati Dhwaja, as head of that body, and tributary ruler of Tibet, but besides this all is obscure for a century. This passage of Odoric shows that such authority continued under Kublai’s descendants, and that some foreshadow of the position since occupied by the Dalai Lama already existed. But it was not till a century after Odoric that the strange heredity of the dynasty of the Dalai Lamas of Lhasa actually began. In the first two centuries of its existence the residence of these pontiffs was rather at Debung or Sera than at Lhasa itself, though the latter was the centre of devout resort. A great event for Lhasa was the conversion, or reconversion, of the Mongols to Lamaism (c. 1577), which made the city the focus of sanctity and pilgrimage to so vast a tract of Asia. It was in the middle of the 17th century that Lhasa became the residence of the Dalai Lama. A native prince, known as the Tsangpo, with his seat at Shigatse, had made himself master of southern Tibet, and threatened to absorb the whole. The fifth Dalai Lama, Nagwang Lobzang, called in the aid of a Kalmuck prince, Gushi Khan, from the neighbourhood of the Koko-nor, who defeated and slew the Tsangpo and made over full dominion in Tibet to the lama (1641). The latter now first established his court and built his palace on the rock-site of the fortress of the ancient monarchy, which apparently had fallen into ruin, and to this he gave the name of Potala.

The founder of Potala died in 1681. He had appointed as “regent” or civil administrator (Deisri, or Deba) one supposed to be his own natural son. This remarkable personage, Sangye Gyamtso, of great ambition and accomplishment, still renowned in Tibet as the author of some of the most valued works of the native literature, concealed the death of his master, asserting that the latter had retired, in mystic meditation or trance, to the upper chambers of the palace. The government continued to be carried on in the lama’s name by the regent, who leagued with Galdan Khan of Dzungaria against the Chinese (Manchu) power. It was not till the great emperor Kang-hi was marching on Tibet that the death of the lama, sixteen years before, was admitted. A solemn funeral was then performed, at which 108,000 lamas assisted, and a new incarnation was set up in the person of a youth of fifteen, Tsangs-yang Gyamtso. This young man was the scandal of the Lamaist Church in every kind of evil living and debauchery, so that he was deposed and assassinated in 1701. But it was under him and the regent Sangye Gyamtso that the Potala palace attained its present scale of grandeur, and that most of the other great buildings of Lhasa were extended and embellished.

For further history and bibliography, see Tibet. Consult also Lamaism.  (H. Y.; L. A. W.) 

  1. The name given by Köppen (Die lamaische Kirche, Berlin, 1859, p. 74) is “La Brang,” by which it is sometimes known.
  2. Among articles sold in the Lhasa bazaars are fossil bones, called by the people “lightning bones,” and believed to have healing virtues.