The Barkhor Gives Tibet a Spiritual Anchor

Pilgrims and pedestrians walk along the Barkhor street in Lhasa. i i

Pilgrims and pedestrians walk along the Barkhor street in Lhasa. Some carry hand-held prayer wheels. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Pilgrims and pedestrians walk along the Barkhor street in Lhasa.

Pilgrims and pedestrians walk along the Barkhor street in Lhasa. Some carry hand-held prayer wheels.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Chilie, 19, at work at a sewing machine, surrounded by colorful cloths. i i

Chilie, 19, works in the doorway of Labrang Nyingpa, a home full of history. He makes and sells cloths that Tibetans hang in their own doorways. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Chilie, 19, at work at a sewing machine, surrounded by colorful cloths.

Chilie, 19, works in the doorway of Labrang Nyingpa, a home full of history. He makes and sells cloths that Tibetans hang in their own doorways.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR
A stall with Tibetan Buddhist trumpets. i i

Stalls selling Tibetan jewelry and souveniers line the Barkhor. Prayer wheels, coral, turquoise and silver jewelry and Tibetan Buddhist trumpets, pictured here, are favorites. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
A stall with Tibetan Buddhist trumpets.

Stalls selling Tibetan jewelry and souveniers line the Barkhor. Prayer wheels, coral, turquoise and silver jewelry and Tibetan Buddhist trumpets, pictured here, are favorites.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR
A young woman washes clothes. i i

A young woman washes clothes on the ground floor of Labrang Nyingpa. Zongkapa, founder of Tibetan Buddhism's dominant Gelugpa ("Yellow Hat") sect, lived here during the first decade of the 15th century. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
A young woman washes clothes.

A young woman washes clothes on the ground floor of Labrang Nyingpa. Zongkapa, founder of Tibetan Buddhism's dominant Gelugpa ("Yellow Hat") sect, lived here during the first decade of the 15th century.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Drying juniper leaves to use as incense. i i

In the courtyard of Meru Nyingpa, a temple to Nechung, juniper leaves are dried in preparation for use as incense. Nechung was the state oracle and embodiment of a diety believed to protect the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government. Anthony Kuhn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn, NPR
Drying juniper leaves to use as incense.

In the courtyard of Meru Nyingpa, a temple to Nechung, juniper leaves are dried in preparation for use as incense. Nechung was the state oracle and embodiment of a diety believed to protect the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR

Lhasa, Tibet's capital, is struggling to maintain its ancient identity. Many parts of the city look much like cities across modern China.

But the spiritual epicenter of Tibet is still alive. It can be found along a circular street surrounding a 7th-century temple, where throngs of worshippers pray before a gold-and-jewel-encrusted statue of the Buddha Sakyamuni.

It's the Barkhor, a neighborhood lined with shops and homes, most featuring the stone construction, trapezoidal shapes and black-outlined windows of traditional Tibetan architecture.

People from all over Tibet walk around the Barkhor in prayer: Monks and nuns in maroon robes; Khampa horsemen with long knives; nomads clad in sheepskin robes. Everywhere you turn are the historic homes of famous priests, merchants and noblemen.

Inside a quiet old courtyard, children play. This is Meru Nyingpa, explains Chilie Quzha, former curator of the Lhasa Museum.

It was once one of the temples of Nechung, the state oracle. Tibet's theocratic leader — the Dalai Lama — consulted the oracle before making big decisions.

The Dalai Lama, his government and the oracle are now in exile, but the faithful still come to spin giant prayer wheels as if nothing had changed.

Others have filled the rooms where monks used to live. Lumde, 75, takes in the sun on a balcony. Like many Tibetans, she uses just one name. She says she moved to Lhasa from the countryside with her children 12 years ago.

"It's a great honor to live here," she says. "I don't even have to walk around the Barkhor to pray, I just go downstairs. I grew up eating Tsampa, so at my age, I have nothing to be picky about."

Some people consider Tsampa to be Tibet's national food. It's made of roasted barley flour and yak butter tea.

Close by Meru Nyingpa is Labrang Nyingpa. During the early 15th century, it was the home of Zongkapa, the founder of the Tibetan Buddhism's dominant sect. Its courtyard is ringed by three floors of balconies.

One of the residents is a shy 19-year-old named Chilie. He makes his living sewing the embroidered cloths that Tibetans hang in their doorways. He says he loves the Barkhor.

And though his home is not the most modern, he likes it just the way it is. Like other Barkhor homes, the building is alive with the worn beauty of wood and stone.

At a cafe overlooking the Jokhang temple, Quzha, the former museum curator, laments that many historic homes here have been replaced with new buildings. He says those pay architectural lip service to the Barkhor's traditions.

"Now the government takes preservation very seriously," he says. "The problem, I feel, is that it's too late. If they had taken it seriously ten years ago, the task of protection would be much easier."

Quzha is nearly 70, but he often asks his elders about the Barkhor's history. The children playing in the shadow of the temple may know even less about their heritage.

But even a casual visitor to the Barkhor can see that it still works as a neighborhood, at many levels.

It functions as a marketplace for goods and ideas from all over Tibet and beyond, and a melting pot for its peoples. It's the intersection of Tibetan politics, religion, commerce and culture. And it remains a spiritual power node, drawing pilgrims to the holiest of holies and recharging their sense of Tibetan identity.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.