Tibet is an ancient and inaccessible area, and the development of social conditions was limited. However, it was in those places that the prerequisites for spiritual, monastic life began to emerge. Thanks to the inquiring minds of the emerging kings and their desire for civilization, the culture of Tibet was becoming more sophisticated.
The study of Sanskrit, writing, and then book printing helped monasteries survive in difficult times. In discussing the origins of pilgrimage to Tibet, the emphasis can be placed on the very location of this country on the geographical map of the world. Inaccessible (and in ancient times inaccessible), closed to foreigners, and steeped in mysticism, Tibet has attracted representatives of Western civilization for centuries. In the past, a country of monasteries surpassing the number in the world (more than 6 thousand), a country of highly realized Dharma practitioners, Mount Kailash – the shrine of not only Buddhism plus the unique beauty of the landscape – all these are some of the main components of the birth of pilgrimage to Tibet.
Legends of Shambhala, the land of knowledge and justice, where enlightened powerful people live, stories about Buddhist traditions and a rich culture still stir the imagination of very, very many people. As you know, the inaccessible beckons and inflames the senses, and the distant, sky-high country also had a reputation as a center of Eastern spirituality. There are legends about the magical abilities of Tibetan lamas.
One of the reasons for pilgrimages to Tibet is related to the birth in this country of one of the world’s first religions, Buddhism. There is a legend that the first seeds of Buddhism came to Tibet from Heaven. During the reign of King Lhathothori (second century AD), when he was walking on the roof of his temple (usually called the last, open floor) one day, a precious box containing sacred texts and precious relics of the Buddha fell directly on his head. It fell on my head without causing any harm, but also without doing any good, because at that time no one in Tibet could yet read. For more than a thousand years Tibet has been the citadel of Buddhism, which brought Indian culture and to which it gave writing, literary language and the foundations of civilization. It is only necessary to remember that the word “Buddhism” itself was created by Europeans in the 19th century. Buddhists themselves call their religion simply Dharma (Law, Teaching) or Buddhadharma (Buddha’s Teaching).
It is traditionally believed that Tibet is the land of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the Tibetan people are his descendants. The Tibetans trace their lineage back to the union of Avalokiteshvara, who once incarnated in the form of a huge monkey and the goddess Tara, who took the form of a fearsome demoness. It was from them, according to legend, that the people who subsequently inhabited the Yarlung Valley came. According to well-known legend, before 127 B.C. The Tibetan people had no single ruler. Later, one of the Indian kings, named Rupati, after his defeat in a famous battle, crossed the Himalayas and reached the Yarlung Valley. At Yarlunga, the twelve wisest Bon priests met him and, believing him to be of heavenly origin, proclaimed him king and gave him the name Nyatri Tseno. From that moment on, a relatively civilized period of Tibetan culture began. Fundamental to Tibetan culture was the notion of the interdependence of man and nature. That is, during this period, which is commonly referred to as “pre-Buddhist,” the religion and culture of Tibet were based on the Bon school (based on shamanistic beliefs as well as borrowings from ancient Iranian religion, a theoretical religious system), the remains of which, although in a very modified form under the influence of Buddhism, can still be found in the Tibetan communities in exile.
Buddhism as the state religion of Tibet came somewhat later. It first appeared in this country during the reign of King Lha Thothori Nyantsen. A little later, Buddhism gradually assimilated into the culture until it finally permeated the entire cultural life of Tibet through the efforts of several generations of Buddhist rulers. King Songtsen Gampo, who ascended the throne at the age of thirteen, built two temples in Lhasa. Later he sent his minister to India to teach Sanskrit and writing, which resulted in the Tibetan alphabet, similar to the Sanskrit alphabet. By inviting Acharya Kumara and Brahmin Shankara from India and Achaoja Shilmanju from Nepal, the translation and dissemination of the Buddha’s teachings began. Although at that time there was not yet any appreciable and widespread study of Buddhism, the king personally gave many people the teachings, mostly concerning Arya Avalokiteshvara.
In the 8th century, during the reign of King Trisong Decen (Trisong Decen is revered by Tibetans as Manjushri, the incarnation of the Bodhisattva of wisdom), Buddhism in Tibet became much more prevalent after he invited two great teachers to the country: Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava. At the same time, the process of translating the canonical texts of Buddhism into Tibetan was greatly accelerated. For this purpose, 108 Indian scientists arrived in Tibet at the same time. They also took part in the building of Buddhist monasteries.
In ancient Tibet, Buddhism developed both outside and inside the walls of monasteries. Undoubtedly, their existence was one of the reasons for the birth of the pilgrimage. Tibetan monasteries performed not only religious but also administrative, state, and other functions; they were the material and spiritual stronghold of the state.
The planning principle of Tibetan monasteries was based on the Lamaists’ view of the sublimity of the spiritual over the earthly. Perhaps for ideological reasons, or perhaps out of fear for their property, the lamas hid in inaccessible places, setting up their cells on the summits. This is how the famous Lhasa monasteries of Sera, Drepang, and Galdan are located. The religious and residential structures of the cliff-top monasteries looked pressed together from afar. Grouped at different levels, they were more often located in the upper part of the slope. Thus, the highest sanctuary was the center of the architectural ensemble and immediately attracted the eyes of pilgrims. In most cases, the landscape contributed to this: against the backdrop of steep cliffs the temple with golden tops looked especially spectacular.
The very first Samye monastery, called the School of Magic, was built around the 8th century. The exact date of Samye’s founding is not known and has long been a subject of debate. Most scholars are of the opinion that this event occurred in 760-780. It was in this monastery that the dispute over the path of Buddhism in Tibet was concluded at a meeting more than a thousand years ago. Perhaps no area of Tibet is as famous for its many legends and mysteries as the environs of the former School of Magic. On one of the nearby mountains are still caves where the great Padmasambhava (an Indian master who founded Tibetan Buddhism and the Tantric school of Buddhism in the 8th century) hid from the world. In Bhutan and Tibet he is also known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master). The Nyingma school of Buddhism venerates him as the second Buddha.
If legend is to be believed, Samye arose miraculously near the settlement where the king was born and where the famous magician defeated the sorcerers. In building their abode, the monks fought desperately against the demons that every night destroyed what had been built during the day. Padmasambhava not only put an end to the evil intrigues, but also made the spirits work. Humbled, they completed the erection of Samye in just a few days. This story may not have been made up, but the Bon priests, who were not known to be sympathetic to the new faith, could have been the demons. One way or another, there was already a city in the sands during the reign of Trisong Decen. Accessible only to a select few, beautiful and ghostly, it was exactly as the wizard’s creation was supposed to be. The architectural ensemble of Samye was arranged in harmony with Buddhist cosmology.
Replicating the forms of the Indian temple of Odantapuri, the plan of the monastery resembled a mandala, symbolizing the structure of the world. All the monasteries in Tibet are worthy of venerable attention, three of them, arranged near Lhasa, constitute a group with the general name “Three Thrones” built at the origins of Buddhism and became the cradle of Buddhism: Ganden (since 1409), Drepung (since 1416) and Sera (since 1419). The first known monastery in the Gelugpa tradition is considered to be Ganden. Built in 1409, it has become a model architectural appearance for other Buddhist monasteries, associated with the name of the great spiritual practice Tsongkapa . The name “Ganden” is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit “Tushita,” the legendary abode of Maitreya Buddha. It is situated at an altitude of 4,500 m. The monastery was built on the southern slope of Mount Brog-ri, and the place for this monastery was chosen by Tsongkapa himself. He became convinced that all the favorable attributes of both earth and heaven were present in this place, and founded the Ganden Monastery.
Many pilgrims are attracted to Ganden Monastery by the relics associated with the name of Tsongkapa. This is part of his mother’s skull, set in gold like a bowl of capa. Such vessels were not rare in medieval Tibet, but this bowl, according to legend, had miraculous properties. The grains of rice in it never ran out, though they were distributed in great numbers to pilgrims as a cure for many ailments. Long considered one of the largest monasteries in Tibet, today Drepung (“Pile of Rice”) is recognized as such in relation to the whole world. Drepung is the first monastery to raise from the first to the fifth Dalai Lamas. In its heyday it housed 10,000 monks, now it has 500.
Sulphur (“Briar”) is notable because it once housed the largest book-printing workshop in Tibet. Such a useful tradition as the printing of Buddhist books helped the monasteries of Tibet to survive the difficult times of Chinese expansion. Sera became one of the thousands of communities that were able to adapt to the new conditions. In the absence of serfs and vast estates, the lamas, like their counterparts at Drepung, opened the doors of their monastery to tourists.Nevertheless, the fees from tours and the issuance of paid permits for photography only supplemented the main sources of income, one of which, as before, was book-printing. During its heyday, it was home to over 5,000 monks, now about 300. The monastery is a spiritual center of Lamaism and a place of worship.
Tashilunpo Monastery in Shigatze is recognized as one of the outstanding monuments of Tibetan architecture. In the local language its name means “multislavonic. Thanks to the many talks of the first Dalai Lama Gendendrup, the monastery became known as a philosophical center.
The grandeur of Tashilunpo can only be compared to that of Potala, the main cultic structure of Tibet, a symbol of the country and a source of pride for every inhabitant of Tibet. This 13-story palace, built in 1648 in Lhasa, became the subsequent residence of the Dalai Lama, beginning with the fifth. Undoubtedly, also one of the reasons, prerequisites for the birth of pilgrimage to Tibet were monasteries, where for centuries the fundamental foundations of Tibetan medicine were formed. The best Tibetan doctors came out of the walls of the Shakpori, which in ancient times was otherwise known as the Temple and School of Medicine. Since its founding, Shakpori has had a very strict reputation. Not everyone could get in, stay in, or even begin training. Only the children of aristocrats were accepted to study at Shakpori. However, the order here was much harsher than in other monasteries in Tibet. The extremely high requirements were due to the fact that the Temple of Medicine trained not only doctors, but also the future leaders of the country. The basic principles of Tibetan medicine lie in the Buddhist philosophy, in the understanding that all phenomena, including disease, are related to the mind (mind). Thus, the spiritual, magical and physical health of man is determined by his harmony with the spiritual, magical and physical spheres of life. All of these areas are closely interconnected, and in the Tibetan tradition, the human being is seen as a holistic system.
Tibetan doctors do not fight ailments, but heal a person by eliminating the cause of the disease, trying to prevent its occurrence in the future. In the olden days, practice was emphasized, in particular the gathering of herbs, for which the young physicians climbed the Himalayan peaks. The dry air of Tibet preserved the healing plants for many years.
Since ancient times, practicing lama physicians have been guided by the four-volume manuscript of Zhudshi, which has been the main source of local medical science for more than 1,000 years. Legends link the appearance of the oral version of the book to revelations by the Buddha. The canonical treatise Zhudshi summarizes the knowledge accumulated throughout the history of Tibetan medical science. Russian specialists are familiar with this ancient work through the translation of Buryat doctor P.A. Badmaev (1903), who had a private practice in St. Petersburg. After reading Zhudshi, he convinced himself and was able to prove to his colleagues that “Tibetan medicine has reached an astonishing development and in some respects has long outstripped European medicine. The popularization of Tibetan medical science contributed to the opening of a pharmacy in the Russian capital, which was run by Badmaev himself and which sold about 300,000 items of medicines. Gradually, the fame of Tibetan medicine spread around the world, prompting the development of pilgrimage tourism to Tibet, along with the other factors described above.
The first pilgrim travelers to Tibet
For a long time Europeans called Tibet “the land of snow and mystery,” and for many it was not a real place on earth, but a mysterious and enigmatic myth. We owe our knowledge of Tibet’s past to the courageous travelers of various nationalities who, despite the dangers, fearlessly ventured into these remote regions of Central Asia. The dangers were not mythical, but very real, for the Tibetan government forbade foreigners, especially Europeans-“those carrying filth to the sacred land”-to cross the border of the country, under pain of severe punishments. Punishment awaited those who assisted the aliens as well. Many travelers, having made the difficult journey, were forced to turn back before reaching the cherished Tibet. At the very beginning of the twentieth century, the country of Tibet, mysterious to Westerners, remained a blank spot on the map of Asia. It was under the influence of, and jealously guarded by, such powers as China, Great Britain, and Russia. But prohibitions were not always in force for everyone, and for centuries there have been intrepid people who have come to Tibet: missionaries, explorers, military men from British India, spies and adventurers – all of them, each in his own way, recalled strange distant lands, strange cities, vast spaces, the unusual nature of these places, and it seemed that reality and fiction merged in their tales. No other place on earth in all times and eras has been able to excite the human imagination so much.
Unlike other places around the globe, everything here seemed mysterious and unearthly. In the middle of the nineteenth century, modern notions of alien life were not yet in circulation. Nevertheless, to this unmounted mountainous region, as if truly marked by the seal of closeness to God, people, according to their testimonies, found themselves as if in another world.
Many explorers and travelers dreamed of going to Tibet, but only a few succeeded. For a long time, Tibet was the hardest part of the world to reach. The reason for this was not so much the harsh climatic conditions of the highlands and the natural isolation of the region, as the policy of the Tibetan rulers, who forbade access to foreigners here. The region did not become more accessible in the twentieth century. The protracted and bloody conflict between supporters of Tibetan independence and official Beijing made it impossible to travel there. Tibet was for a long time a restricted area for tourists and did not open to the public until 1984.
The first wave of European travelers to Asia was in the mid-13th century. In 1241 Europe barely recovered from the fear provoked by the invasion of the Mongols, who left only after the death of Ugedei Khan. The pope and Louis IX decided to send ambassadors to the great Mongol khan to inquire about his further intentions. In 1246 the Franciscan monk Giovanni da Plano Carpini arrived at the court of Güyük Khan. When he returned from his journey, he wrote his History of the Mongols, in which he set forth all the information known at the time about Tibet.
In 1253 the envoy of Louis IX, Willem de Rubruk, paid a visit to Mangu Khan. In his travel accounts, he first mentioned Tibetan Buddhism by reciting the four words of the famous prayer: Om Mani Padme Hum. He also shared his memories of participating in religious debates, of monks who believe in the transmigration of souls, and of the strange “Tebet” people, whose members are cannibals and drink from their ancestors’ skulls.
Marco Polo, for his part, was also interested in Tibetan customs. In 1275 he arrived at the court of Kublai Khan and noticed the presence of “sorcerers” and priests. During his journey he also visited the border regions of Tibet, inhabited, he said, by ferocious brigands and filthy idolaters with savage customs.
In 1325-1326 the Franciscan monk Odoric de Pordenon visited the holy city. A native of Italy was allowed into the Tibetan capital, mistaking him for a missionary from China. Writing a very vague description of Lhasa, he noted that “the walls of the city are white and black, and the shedding of blood is absolutely forbidden. The Italian’s notes caused bewilderment among later scholars, who expressed doubts about his stay in Lhasa and Tibet in general. In fact, Ordorico did not enter Lhasa, but only reached Khotan in Central Asia.
It took almost three centuries after Odoric before a third European was able to penetrate Tibet. This time the starting point was Agra, on the Jumna River in Western India, and the courageous traveler was the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio d’Andrada. He ascended dangerous and almost impassable passes to the sources of the Ganges and, after a tedious journey of many days, all the horrors and hardships of which are described in his diary, reached the sacred Lake Manosarovar and the state of Gughe and reached Zapazhan, which is in the extreme southwest of Hundes in the Setlej River (relatively near Mount Kailash).
At that time it was an independent kingdom of no less importance than Central Tibet. Here he was amiably received by the king and then reached Ladakh and Kashmir through the high Rudok Pass. In his memoirs, Antonio d’Andrada noted that he was extremely warmly received by the king, who took an interest in the new religion and allowed him to establish a mission and build a church in his kingdom. He found that there were undeniable similarities between the two religions and regretted that the Buddhist clergy were extremely hostile to the new religion. His wanderings lasted almost two years (1624-1626).
Antonio d’Andrada was followed by a number of other missionaries to the kingdom of Guge, who were equally welcome by King Tzapajan; this mercy for opponents of the true faith brought upon the king the wrath of the Dalai Lama and the campaign of Prince Gushihan of Kukunor, the famous zealot of the Buddhist faith, who killed the king. The resulting internal upheaval and persecution of missionaries forced them to leave Tibet in 1652, without having succeeded in the Christian enlightenment they had begun.
The journey of the Jesuit Austrian Johannes Grueber and the Belgian Albert d’Orville seems more important from a geographical point of view. The first was the protagonist and initiator of the entire enterprise, the second only his companion. Gruber did not undertake the journey to Tibet and Lhasa for missionary work like his predecessor and immediate successors. His task was purely geographical: to find a new route by land to Europe, which, he suggested, had not yet been touched by anyone. Johann Grueber and Albert d’Orville reached Lhasa on October 8, 1661, and remained in that city for more than ten months.
There are few sources from which to trace the history of Grueber and Albert d’Orville’s journey: in 1677 the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher printed their notes and the engravings illustrating them. These records first mention the fifth Dalai Lama, Lhasa, and the Potala Palace. Gruber was the first to give any detailed and accurate description of Tibet, the country and its inhabitants, because he was an eyewitness to all that he described.
In the early 18th century, Jesuits and Capuchins attempted to establish missions in Tibet and defend the primacy of their faith. From 1708 the active preaching of Christianity was opened in Tibet and neighboring Nepal, entrusted by the Sacred Congregation of Rome to the monks of the Capuchin order. This activity, fruitless in the sense of the results it achieved in planting Christianity in Tibet, acquires a special interest in the history of travel and research in the country, covering a period of time of nearly forty years and giving several famous names. The works of these missionaries, like those of the Jesuits, remained almost unknown until very recently, and therefore were not fairly appreciated by Tibetologists, until Magnaghi o Belligatti and Puini o Desideri were published. In 1716 the Capuchin Orazio della Penna arrived in Lhasa by one route and the Jesuits Emmanuel Frere and Ippolito Desideri by another. Despite some differences between Jesuits and Capuchins, missionaries of both orders respected each other and even began to learn Tibetan together. Their common task was to convert Tibetans to Christianity. The Tibetans were very lenient with the missionaries and even allowed them into the large Sera monastery near Lhasa. The Italian Jesuit Ippolito Desideri stayed in Tibet for almost five years. Having encountered incredible difficulties on the road, he settled in well in the holy city and reluctantly left it in 1721, giving way to colleagues from the Capuchin fraternity. His memoirs of the journey were not published until 1904 because of tensions between the Jesuits and the Capuchins. Unfortunately, Desideri’s work was appreciated too late. This work, by an outstanding polymath, geographer, and researcher, introduced the Western reader to Tibet and Lhasa for the first time. Desideri, who lived in Tibet for several years, witnessed the political changes in Tibet after the overthrow of the sixth Dalai Lama and the invasion of the Dzungar Mongol tribe. Desideri was the last Jesuit to visit Tibet in the 18th century.
As for della Pena, he lived in Tibet for sixteen years. During this time, the Manchus contributed to the fact that monks stopped trusting Europeans and Western religious missions closed one after another. Orazio della Pena left his Brief Description of the Tibetan Kingdom to posterity. Published a century after its creation, this document was of scientific interest, becoming a guide for subsequent expeditions. The ambassadors who replaced the missionaries had basically only one goal: to establish trade relations with Tibet. From 1774 to 1783 the British Trading Company twice tried to establish trade relations with Tibet. From a commercial point of view, these trips were not very successful, but later published memoirs contained interesting facts about life in Tibet during that historical period.
The formation of two groups of travelers with different interests but the same goal of entering Lhasa can be attributed to that time. The first group consisted of pilgrims. The pious people for the most part were not literate and were mainly interested in religious objects. The second type of researcher was formed thanks to the British Secret Service. Some hoped to take possession of the mythical riches of this country, whose capital, Lhasa, was called the “Forbidden City. Others wanted to achieve fame as great travelers. Few have succeeded in such ventures. However, those who sincerely sought spiritual enlightenment achieved more. One of the first such travelers to Tibet was Evariste Haq, a Catholic missionary from France, who in 1864 told the Western world of his stay at Kumbum Monastery. Europeans read with amazement his essays on incredible phenomena, such as how Tibetan lamas could effortlessly travel great distances while in a body that seemed to consist of fog and dreams.
Rumors of such miracles led Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) to Tibet around 1857. There she lived for a total of seven years, learning from the great spiritual masters. She called them Mahatmas (Great ones), “perfect, or attained,” and believed that they possessed some of the oldest and perhaps truest spiritual teachings in the world. There are very few details about Blavatsky’s own travels in Tibet; in her writings she focused on the spiritual wisdom she collected. As early as the 1960s, H.P. Blavatsky showed the West that in Tibet one could find spiritual wonders and extraordinary teachings. In the first decades of the twentieth century, several intrepid travelers, like Colonel Bradford, attempted to traverse the mountains that guarded Tibet to see for themselves the wonders hidden behind them. Most of them failed or died. But the few who succeeded returned to the outside world with stories of the magical and mysterious land. They told of llamas with supernatural powers, flying mystics, living Methuselahs, and sages who were immune to death and performed miracles.
Among the discoverers of Tibet from the Russian Geographical Society was the Buryat scientist Gombozhap Tsybikov.Tsybikov was the first Russian scientist who was able to penetrate deep into Tibet and return safely. The results of his journey are set out in the book “The Buddhist Pilgrim at the Shrines of Tibet,” published in Petrograd in 1919. Tsybikov journey began November 25, 1899 from Urga and ended April 4, 1902. He visited the largest cities and religious centers of Tibet: Gumbum, Labran in Amdo, Lhasa and three major monasteries – Galdan, Braibun and Sera, the residence of the Panchen Lama – Tashilunpo monastery, the ancient capital of Tibet Tszetan and Samye monastery. Tsybikov traveled with a camera and made a terrific photo report, he had the most complete access to Tibet’s treasures. During his wanderings, Tsybikov did a truly Herculean job of selecting and printing in one of the monastery’s print shops a collection of 333 volumes of Tibetan xylographic literature on religion, philosophy, history, medicine, and grammar. The traveler brought the entire collection of Tibetan literature back home and gave it to the Russian Geographic Society. The collection was then given to the Asiatic Museum of the Academy of Sciences. Tsybikov’s works became world famous.
Of the most famous pilgrim explorers of the Tibetan Plateau, one cannot ignore the legendary Roerich family. A family of artists, influenced by the spiritual teachings and culture of Central Asia, radically changing their cultural background and religion, devoted their lives and all their energies to the study of Tibet and the search for the mystical Shambhala.
The scientific outcome of Roerich’s Tibetan journey was herbaria and maps of Central Asia, the literary outcome was his book Shambhala, and the artistic outcome was his canvases based on his travel sketches.
The first woman from Europe to enter Tibet and Lhasa in 1924, after numerous unsuccessful attempts, was the 56-year-old French Tibetan explorer and spiritual practitioner Alexandra David-Neel. She also fell under the spell of this mystical country. In 1927, a Frenchwoman published her memoirs of her journey to Tibet, titled Journey of a Parisian Woman to Lhasa. The work was a huge success in Europe and, unlike the scientific notes of Orientalists and diplomats, told about this wonderful country in a popular form.
In the 1950s Lowell Thomas Jr., the famous American traveler, describing his journey to the “closed and silent land” of Tibet, said: “The mysterious mountainous country, lying behind the peaks of the Himalayas on the roof of the world, has long been the number one land of Eldorado for explorers and travelers hungry for the unknown. Travelers who overcame all geographical obstacles and reached Tibet found a culture there with a strong spiritual element.
Tibet did not officially open to foreigners until 1988.
Tourist attractions in Tibet
The Tibetan city of Lhasa attracts visitors with its spirituality. Even its name literally means “abode of the gods” in Tibetan. The palace of the Dalai Lama Potala has housed two holy statues of Buddha for centuries, attracting much attention from Buddhists. The Jokhang Temple is also among the very important shrines, as it houses one of the oldest statues of Buddha, dating back to the 10th century. The sacred paths on which Buddha worshippers travel also pass through the Nyanchangkhanlha and Amyemachin mountains. Today everyone can come to Tibet by buying a tour. You can take a hired vehicle from Lhasa to Kailas, make the sacred bark, dip into the waters of the sacred lakes.Tibet by definition is a concentration of Buddhist shrines, which we will consider in detail in the relevant section. It should be noted that in Russia there are numerous peoples who have long practiced the Tibetan form of Buddhism. In the territory of present-day Russia, Buddhism was spread in the 16th-17th centuries from Mongolia through the nomadic Kalmyks (orats), who eventually settled in the northern Caspian region and in the lands of present-day Buryatia. In 1741 Empress Elizaveta Petrovna issued a decree recognizing the existence of the “Lamaic faith” and establishing the number of datsans (temples) – 11 and the number of regular lamas – 150. Buddhism was officially adopted as the state religion in the Russian Empire.
Despite the unfortunate consequences of the so-called “cultural revolution” expansively imposed by the Chinese government, which destroyed many monasteries and other sacred sites, there are still sacred places in Tibet with a lasting attraction for spiritual pilgrimage. Among the most significant are: the capital Lhasa and its Potala Palace, Jokang Temple, Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar.
Tibet is a sacred country, and Lhasa is the shrine of that sacred country. Perhaps nowhere else, except Lhasa, can one feel so keenly the power of religious feelings.
The people of the capital city of Tibet were fortunate enough, like the gods, to rise to dizzying heights. The proximity to the gods is recorded in the city’s name, Lhasa, which means “Land of the Gods” in the local language.
Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, has been a major pilgrimage site for centuries. To this day, the inhabitants of even the most remote corners of Tibet try to visit it at least once in their lives. Often they set out on foot and even barefoot. Some especially sturdy pilgrims “stretch out” – sprawled out on the ground to their full height all the way. When they reach the city, they often rush to Jokang, the main temple, without stopping even for a cup of tea, to pay their respects to the image of the Buddha, Jovo Rinpoche.
Lhasa is located in a remarkably picturesque valley surrounded by mountains. The city’s altitude is 3,660 meters above sea level, so any foreign tourist who finds himself here risks experiencing an attack of “mountain sickness” – headache and weakness. However, Lhasa is worth it to ignore the illness. This city remains sacred to Lamaists of the world today. The shrines of Tibetan Buddhism are preserved here.
There are prayer drums in the center of the town square, which pilgrims touch with awe. An obligatory part of the Lhasa cityscape are Buddhist monks in bright saffron togas: there are several Lamaist monasteries around. Often in the city you can find monk-servants singing Lamaist chants and collecting alms. Lhasa is a sacred place for Tibetans. Some pilgrims perform the ancient ritual of walking in a circle around the holy places, stretching out after each step.
Called the heart and soul of Tibet, Lhasa has for centuries remained closed to all but the townspeople and pilgrims themselves. The city was not declared the capital of Tibet until 1642, during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama, to whom it owes its rebirth.
There is a large temple in the central part of the city and a smaller one in the northern part. In addition, Lhasa has the palaces of the sannyasis and noble reborns, which have in fact been turned into small monasteries.
The most majestic monument in Lhasa remains the magnificent Potala, the famous residence of the Dalai Lama, which can be seen from everywhere.
“The Palace of a Thousand Rooms,” as the Potala is often called, was built in the Middle Ages 115 meters above the city. Its austere beauty blends wonderfully with the surrounding mountains. Tibetan architects were the first to build multi-story buildings. The capital’s Potala Palace rose 13 stories in its finished form. Before him, world architecture knew only multilevel towers.
The Potala Palace is a sacred place of Tibetan Buddhism and is visited every year by a great number of pilgrims and tourists.
Frozen in its unique beauty, the Potala Palace could adorn any European capital. Its powerful forms amaze and fascinate foreigners, arousing awe even in those who have nothing to do with Buddhism.
The architectural composition of the Potala unfolds in a vertical plane, which distinguishes the Lhasa palace from most of the famous ensembles of Central Asia. Seven thousand people were involved in the construction of the complex.
Since its consecration, the Potala has served every ruler as both home and resting place. It was the seat of the Tibetan government, where the most venerable lamas lived and worshipped Buddha, making the palace, with its dark halls, dark corners, underground lakes, and room tombs, a world of its own.
In Tibet, the inexplicable ability of the “initiates” to see beyond the horizon of time is particularly striking. Before a new Dalai Lama enters the Potala Palace, his chambers are painted with murals from his future life. This was also the case in 1940 at the inauguration of the current hierarch. If you study the murals carefully, you become convinced that the tumultuous events of 1959 (the anti-Peking mutiny, whose defeat forced the Dalai Lama and his supporters to flee to India) were predicted in advance by allegorical imagery.
Today the Potala is open to visitors as a museum and a functioning temple, although until recently only monks walked its halls. Divine services continue to be held in the Red Palace. There is also a huge repository of Buddhist manuscripts.
In 1994, the Potala Palace was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site.
When you are in modern-day Lhasa, you cannot help but notice the golden roof of Jokang, the main temple of the capital, topped with an emblem depicting the wheel of life between two fallow deer.
The Jokang Temple (Jhokang) is one of the most revered temples of Tibetan Buddhism and a place of pilgrimage for the faithful. It was laid in the 7th century by King Sontsen Gampo to house the relics brought with the dowry of his two wives. A beautiful image of Buddha Akshobhya, brought by the beautiful Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti and Jowo Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa in Tibetan), brought by the Chinese Princess Wencheng.
The name Jokang itself comes from Jowo, and literally means “Jowo Chapel. Both relics can be seen with thousands of pilgrims when the temple is open. It’s usually from 8 to noon, and sometimes in the afternoon. The entrance to the roof (top floor), is located inside the main courtyard and is open from sunrise to sunset. In front of the Jokang Gate, Tibetans perform prostrations. There is a small basement in the square in which a thousand candles burn.
Jokang’s main shrine is a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, depicting him at the age of 16, when he was still a young prince at his home in Kapilavatsu.
The main four-story building fused Han Chinese, Tibetan, Indian, and Nepalese styles of architecture, further embodying the worldview of Buddhism. The central hall symbolizes the core of the cosmos.
One of the most important Kor (Barkhor kora) in Tibetan Buddhism takes place around Jokang. Barkhor kora runs along the street that wraps around Jokang, which consists of many shops and stores offering cultural goods and everything else. The bark moves clockwise, involving thousands of people reciting mantras and circling the temple from sunrise to sunset. Such a symbolic circular circumambulation is made around almost any holy or important place for Buddhists. Walking through Barkhor, along with thousands of pilgrims, one feels as if one has plunged into the medieval atmosphere of Tibet.
Already at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, most of the interior contents of Jokang were desecrated by Red Guard fighters and it is believed that many items were taken from the temple. At some point, the room that served as the monks’ dwelling was renamed Inn Number 5, and part of the temple itself was turned into a pigsty. Since 1980, Jokang began to be restored, and today only the eye of an expert can see that the temple has survived the hardships of recent years.
Now there are regular pujas (services) at Jokang.
Rows of brass drums suspended on a vertical axis stretch along the Jokang walls, forming the first of three sacred circles. The second is Polkhor Street, which skirts the main temple of Lhasa. According to legend, in the beginning it surrounded a lake in which demons lived. Not wishing to tolerate an unclean force near them, the townspeople backfilled the reservoir and built a Jokang in its place. The third circle was formed by the 10-kilometer-long Lingkor Street; the last sacred ring encompassed the entire ancient city along with the Potala Palace. There is now a steady stream of people streaming down all three streets.
It is almost impossible to distinguish a pilgrim from a merchant or an ordinary shopper, although no one feels the need to do so because, for the people of Tibet, there is no such thing as faith. Religion and everyday life are inseparable for them, so the products presented here are equally important for both or one side of life.
The movement through the sacred circles meant prayer only if the pilgrim’s right shoulder was facing the shrine.
Every fall, around mid-September, paper kites soar over Tibetan heads. Their launch symbolizes the big autumn moon, the beginning of the harvest festival, the time of the national bathing in the hot springs and the gathering of medicinal herbs. The second major holiday, New Year’s Day, is held in the first month of the Tibetan calendar in the main square of Lhasa, where there is a great worship service for 10 days. The ceremony, first held in the 15th century, now gathers about 100,000 citizens and pilgrims from all over the Buddhist world.
Just as the earth makes a circle around the life-giving star, so the Tibetan pilgrims make a detour around the sacred Mount Kailash. Pilgrims believe that those who have passed 108 circles around Kailash are guaranteed to be reborn in the Pure Land in heaven, for the divine power of this place is so powerful that it can purify karma, that is, erase all causes that could lead to birth in the lower worlds and among animals and humans.
In Asia the myth of the sacred mountain, the center of the world, on whose slopes come the four great rivers that give life to the lands through which they flow, is widespread. The source of this myth is found in an Indian epic telling of Mount Meru, the abode of the gods. Its height is immeasurable, its summit rests in the sky, and its slopes sparkle with gold, rubies, crystal, and lapis lazuli. According to Indian sources, this mountain is located somewhere in the Himalayas, but, over time, the legend of the mythical Mount Meru became increasingly associated with Mount Kailash. And this is no accident. The gods may not live there, but the location of Kailash is key in the watershed system of the entire area, and it is from its slopes that the four great rivers of the Indian subcontinent originate. On the southern slope begins Karnali, one of the main tributaries of the Ganges. The headwaters of the Indus begin on the north slope, the Sutlej on the west slope, and the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) on the east slope.
To see the greatness of Kailash, one must be at a distance from it; to understand its form, one must go around it: to feel its various states, one must contemplate it at sunrise and sunset, at full moon and noon, in sun and rain, in snow, in a storm, in winter, in summer, in autumn and in spring. He who contemplates the mountain approaches its life, as intense and varied as human life. Mountains grow and decay, they breathe and pulsate with life. They attract and collect the invisible energies that surround them: the forces of air, water, electricity and magnetism. They create winds, clouds, storms, showers, waterfalls, and rivers. They fill everything around them with life and give shelter and food to countless living creatures. This is the greatness of the mighty mountains.
To understand this, you have to look at the map. Kailash sits atop the Tibetan Plateau and forms the spire of the “roof of the world,” as the Tibetan plateau is called. From it, like spokes in the hub of a wheel, the most powerful rivers flowing east, west, northeast, and south: the Brahmaputra, the Indus, the Sutlej, and the Karnali. They all originate in the Kailas-Manasarovar region, which is the highest part of the Tibetan Plateau. The ancient scriptures say that these rivers flow out of Lake Manasarovar to the foot of Mount Kailasa and, after encircling the sacred land seven times, diverge, thus honoring the throne of the gods, according to the ritual of circumambulation (Sanskrit pradak-shina). The Tibetans call the Brahmaputra, which begins east of Kailasa Manasarovar, “Tam-chog-Khambab”, a river “flowing from the mouth of a horse”; the Sutlej, which begins west of it, “Langchen-Khambab”, that is, a river “flowing from the mouth of an elephant”; The Indus, which begins north of Kailasa, is “Senghe-Khambab,” or river “flowing from the mouth of a lion,” and the Karnali in the south (in the plain it is called the Ganges) is “Magcha-Khambab,” that is, a river “flowing from the beak of a peacock.” These animals form the “chariot,” or throne of the four Dhyani-Buddhas. The names of the rivers indicate that they are considered parts of the universal mandala, the center of which is Mount Kailash.
It was through these rivers that India’s cultural and religious connection with Tibet was carried out. This can be seen in the example of the Brahmaputra and the Indus, which, like giant arms, extend from the Kailash-Manasarovar region, embracing the Himalayas and the entire Indian subcontinent, after which the Indus flows into the Arabian Sea in the west, and Brahmaputra into the Bay of Bengal in the east.
Mount Kailash, which is 6,714 meters (6,666 according to other sources) above sea level, is not the highest in the region, but due to its outstanding shape and location and the many legends associated with it, it has great significance in the Tibetan worldview. The four ribs of Mount Kailash correspond almost exactly to the main sides of the world, and the cracks on its southern side are shaped like a swastika, a Buddhist symbol of spiritual power. In Tibetan, Kailash is known as Kang Rinpoche, that is, “the Jewel of the Snows.
More than 1.2 billion people on Earth consider Mount Kailash the holiest place on the planet: 400 million Buddhists, 820 million Hindus, 3-5 million Jainists, and about half a million followers of the pagan Bon religion. For comparison, there are about 2 billion Christians on Earth, 1.5 billion Muslims.
Mount Kailash brought together believers of four religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Bon followers. It should be noted that in India, the right to make a pilgrimage to Kailash is drawn in the national lottery.
Worshiping Kailash (by going around the mountain) is a ritual called kora. The more roots you made, the more “sins” you dropped. The entire road is 56 kilometers, and the way along it takes one to three days, depending on the health of the pilgrim. The altitude difference on the mountain trail is about 1 kilometer. The highest point on the route is 5,700 meters above sea level. For comparison, the highest mountain in our country – in Russia, Elbrus – is 5642 meters high.
There are several routes to Kailash, all of which are difficult and require good fitness and preparation. Tourists on the Kailash tour will face real difficulties, not only physical, but also moral. Pilgrims believe that only a pure soul can reach Mount Kailash, despite all the hardships. All this is more than offset by the amazing beauty of the surrounding countryside.
It is believed that the “effectiveness” of the bark increases if one passes it during a full moon, and a bark performed in the Tibetan year of the Horse increases the merit many times over. The Saga Dawa Festival, held on the night of the full moon of the fourth Tibetan month, which commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment and attainment of Paranirvana, is a great time to visit Kailash, as thousands of pilgrims from all over Tibet flock to the site at this time.
As for visiting sacred places while passing the bark, perhaps every inch of the way, every element of the surrounding landscape, is sacred and full of philosophical and religious meaning. In general, the route around the mountain itself is a deeply philosophical expression of the Buddhist worldview and represents the circle of birth, life, death and a new rebirth, with each of the above stages of human existence corresponding to certain stages of the passage of the crust.
For pilgrims, Mount Kailash is the real axis of the world, connecting heaven, earth and hell. This is the place where the transformation of the spirit is possible.
In front of the mountain Kailash, at a distance of about thirty kilometers scattered lakes, like twin brothers Rakshas Tal at an altitude of 4584 meters in the shape of the moon and Manasarovar at an altitude of 4600 meters (one of the highest lakes in the world) in the form of the Sun. The water of one is salty and black, the other is fresh and white, like milk.
Legends tell that in the white lake lies a magic key that opens the secret door of Mount Kailas, which leads to the valley of the sages within the mountain, to Shambhala.
The lakes are connected by a channel called from ancient times Ganga Chu, and when it happens that the waters of Manasarovar flow into Rakshas Tal, the Tibetans rejoice, considering it a good sign. It is believed that the balance of water in these lakes symbolizes the balance of energy throughout the world, so the water level in Manasarovar is always higher. The Tibetans keep a close eye on the water level in the Ganges Chu Canal, by which they predict the fate of Tibet. For most of the twentieth century the canal remained virtually dry, only in the nineties the water began to flow between the two lakes again, little by little. This is said to be due to the relaxations made by China regarding Buddhism in Tibet and the entry of foreigners into the country.
The two lakes Manasarovar and Rakshas Tal balance each other like yin and yang. Legend has it that the lakes are mystically linked to the forces of good and evil, and Lake Manasarovar was the first created object in Brahma’s mind.. Therefore, in Sanskrit, the name of the lake “Manas sarovara” is formed from the words manas (consciousness) and sarovara (lake). In Tibetan the name of the lake is “Mapam Tso”, “Invincible Lake”.
Lake Manasarovar, located to the east, is considered sacred by Tibetans and Hindus. Many pilgrims make a bark around the lake, it takes about four days.
The area of the lake is about 520 km², depth – up to 82 m. The lake freezes over in the winter. The valley in which the lake is located is bounded on the south by the Great Himalayas and on the north by the Kailash range.
The Tibetans believe that the waters of Lake Manasarovar are alive and the waters of Lake Rakshas are dead.
Living water due to its increased density is located in the bottom layer of Lake Manasarovar near its northwestern shore. Dead water, too, with increased density is in the near-bottom layers near the northern shore of Lake Rakshas. At the northern end of these lakes is the Chu-Gompa Monastery, which looks after these lakes and springs. It should be noted that these lakes are fed from the north by rivers originating in the vicinity of the sacred mountain Kailas. The waters of these rivers partially mix with the waters of the healing springs.
The Himalayan monks report that Lake Manasarovar with its living water was formed (created) about 300 B.C. and Lake Rakshas about 650 B.C. This indicates their artificial origin. Similar springs, according to legends, were created by the Big Men (Titans) 20,000 B.C. and into the new era. They were created mainly for the people who went to live under the ground, where they then went themselves. Scientific researchers assume that the sources of dead and living water are artificial devices of High Intelligence and Knowledge possessed by ancient civilizations. This knowledge has been preserved somewhere and continues to be used for creation.
The curious and mysterious thing is that there is always a strong wind over Lake Rakshas, and the surface of the water is in a storm of varying strength. At the same time, a few kilometers away on Lake Manasarovar, the water is calm, like a mirror smooth surface.
Water is a powerful energy-informational substance, especially if it is saturated with the divine thoughtform, kindness and heart of the healer.
Rakshas Tal Lake is less popular with pilgrims. No wonder: it is named after a troop of flesh-eating demons, the rakshasas, who, according to Hindu mythology, dwell in its waters. According to legend, the water of Rakshas Tala was poisonous until a golden fish made a passage from Manasarovar to let some of the holy water into the dark lake.
In Manasarovar you can see the reflection of the dome of the formidable Mount Kailash.
The lake is of extraordinary beauty, its waters have a rich palette from clear blue near the shore to green and emerald in the center. The lake is surrounded by eight monasteries, like a great wheel of life with eight spokes.
If for Tibetans Kailash is the abode of the god Demchog, Manasarovar is the abode of his friend and consolation, the goddess Dorje Phagmo. Together they symbolize wisdom and compassion, making Kailash and Manasarovar the perfect sacred pair: male and female, father-sky and mother-earth. For the pilgrimage to Kailash to be harmonious, it is necessary to make the circumambulation of both the lake and the peak. The bark around Manasarovar is undertaken first, only then can the bark (ritual circumambulation) of Kailash begin.
It is here that the faithful make their sacred circumambulation from the small village of Darcena. The point of the kora is to go through one’s incarnations as quickly as possible, to free oneself from them and reach nirvana or paradise. It is believed that because of this grows here a lot of medicinal herbs with special healing properties. You can also find several healing radioactive springs, and the waters of the lake are rich in many freshwater fish, including carp and trout, whose meat also has magical healing properties.
An important destination for pilgrims is Chiu Monastery, picturesquely located near the northwest shore of the lake. There are hot springs near Chiu where you can have a bath and wash, and in the monastery itself you can visit the cave where Padmasambhava meditated. From the monastery there is a magnificent view of the turquoise lake, the top of Kailash.
The other shrine, the kingdom of Gouge, has a rich history and, as the mighty capital of ancient Tibet, and the largest monastic complex, a center for meditation. It is now completely destroyed – the remains of clay statues with barely preserved paintings and multi-story caves are a reminder of the greatness of the king and the prayerful work of the monks.
One can talk and write about the shrines of Tibet endlessly, like drawing water from an inexhaustible holy spring, but the main thing to realize is that the goal of a pilgrimage to Tibetan shrines is not only to physically walk the difficult path, but also to understand and discover something for oneself.
Familiarity with the fate of this people allows us to look differently at much in the history of our own country and civilization as a whole, to think about the true meaning of world change. The grand work of the past preserves the flow of life in places of prayer and meditation, Earth tells those who hear, shows those who see, and asks for the fulfillment of the Law.
Pilgrimage to Tibet
Pilgrimage – the desire of believing people to worship in holy places.
Pilgrimage implies a certain human attitude toward reality. The idea of pilgrimage implies action under conditions of special hardship, a voluntary commitment to be in those conditions. It symbolizes a person’s willingness to sacrifice transient material values for eternal spiritual ones.
If we consider that the main essence of pilgrimage is the desire to get away from the hustle and bustle of life and join the highest Absolute Truth, knowledge of Self, and beauty, then Tibet in this sense is the ideal place to achieve this goal.
Leave a short application form. We will contact you, help with choosing a tour, buy tickets, get all the necessary documents and discuss all the details.
You can check out our travelers’ reviews of Tibet.