In Lhasa, The roof of the world
12th April 2003


THE SOUTH WEST China Airlines aircraft touched down at Dongar with a bang. I quelled a surge of excitement. I was finally in the land of Shangri-La, the land of Magic and Mystery. Soon, while driving towards Lhasa, the Forbidden City, images of a hermit kingdom, quaint golden roofed monasteries, wise mantra –chanting monks filled me imagination. Through my reverie I took in the stark landscape of low-lying sandy hills and a cobalt blue sky. It was very bright and the sunlight at this rarefied altitude of about 12,000 ft, made everything stand out vividly.
Our guide, Ming mar shouted, “Okay guys! We’re driving into Lhasa,” shattering my dreams in more ways than one. I was shocked, “This is Lhasa?” I stared in disbelief at the double lane highway with Land cruiser and Volkswagens, modern buildings, hotels, departmental stores and restaurants. Lhasa is a modern town like anywhere else in the world!
The great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s ravaged Tibet’s cultural and historical heritage. Monuments and monasteries were burnt, worship banned, monks sent to labour camps, the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama and lakhs of people driven immigration of Han Chinese, have changed Tibet irrevocably. Ming mar, who is Tibetan by birth, told me, “Life is tough for us Tibetans. We have to keep reporting to the local police and are not allowed to have passports. The Chinese have all the economic power and we have to struggle to find jobs.”
Lhasa’s cardinal landmark and a wonder of Eastern architecture, is the glorious Potala Palace, with is a vast white and ochre fortress and has gold roofs. The Potala had been the home of each of the successive Dalai Lama moved here in 1649. Thankfully, it was spared during the Cultural Revolution and reopened to the public in 1980. I wandered through three floors – a maze of hundreds of rooms containing chapels, tombs, statues, mandalas thangkhas and butter lamps.
The air is heavy with the incense of centuries, but all the brilliant colours and decorations could not disguise the sense of desolation of a lost Buddhist Kingdom.
Buddhist arrived in Tibet during the 7th Century, from India, and was altered by its interaction with the native religion Bon, a shamanistic faith. Since hen, various schools of Tibetan Buddhism have flourished and trace lineage back to great Indian teachers. The most revered is Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the 8th century tantric master, who subdued Tibet’s “evil spirits and helped establish Buddhism is a unique fusion shamanism and ideological faith, encompassing a path of moderation, devotion to he power of natural places, undertaking pilgrimages and the worship of fierce and protective deities.
I got my first feel of ‘Old Lhasa’ at the Barkhor, in the old town. This quadrangle of streets, with old Tibetan buildings, was crowded with pilgrims and Chinese stalls selling prayer wheels, jewelry, cowboy style hats, prayer flags, thangkhas and even Yak skulls. An ‘Antique’ prayer wheel caught my eye and the stall girl told me that is “originally from the Jokhang temple”, across the square.
As I crossed over to this three-storey building, with its golden bronze-plated roof, with my camera, I was surround by prostrating pilgrims, rotating prayer wheels, wafting incense and murmured the mantra, Om mani padme hum, the mantra of Chenresig (Avalokiteshwar) of whom all Dalai Lamas are reincarnations. Ming mar told me it is the most important pilgrimage destination in Tibet.
“People from all over come here – sometimes by doing complete prostration all the way, which can take months, even years.”  The Jokhang houses statues, chapels and images of the pantheon of Tibetan deities.
Today, Tibetans have won back many religious freedoms, and Buddhism still permeates most facets of daily life. Of course the Dalai Lama was a forbidden name and when I tried to ask Ming mar about him, he would “Shh” me with a “don’t talk so loud” expression, looking around anxiously, “even his photos are banned.” The Norbulingka, the 8th century summer palace of the Dalai Lama, was an anticlimax, as most rooms were closed to public. In 1959, the present 14th Dalai Lama had escaped from here, disguised as a Tibetan soldier.
An evening walk around the town took me past several hairdressing salons, packed with young Chinese boys and girls in funky hairstyles and jeans, a few branded stores, cinema halls and lively nightclubs. As I sipped a margarita at the Red Dragon Bar, the ‘hostesses’, pretty and dressed skimpily, asked me to buy them drinks and begged me to dance performed by a pretty Chinese girl, I mourned for the mystical city of yore.
  • You can fly into Lhasa from Kathmandu. It’ best to organize your trip through a reliable travel agency like we did with Eco Adventures, email:
  • The best time to be in Tibet is from May to November. For the first few days, take it easy in order to acclimatize to the high altitude.
  • Do not take photos, tapes or books at Dalai Lama, this is strictly prohibited.
  • A visa for Tibet can be obtained from Chinese Embassy in Delhi at 50 –D, Shantipath, Chanakyapuri, email: