In the heart of old Lhasa stands Tibet’s holiest temple, the Jokhang. Like the other sacred sites of the Tibetan capital, it is surrounded at all hours by dense throngs of pilgrims from every corner of the country. The open expanse of Barkhor Square extends to the west and when I was in Lhasa, I used to eat breakfast at a little rooftop restaurant overlooking it, watching the ebb and flow of people below.
The nomads from the high plateaux were identifiable by their homespun woolen robes which, in the warmth of Lhasa, they wore pulled off one shoulder. The men carried small gunnysacks and twirled hand-held prayer wheels. Enormous elaborate hairdos cascaded down the women’s backs in endless coiled braids adorned with gold and silver disks and pounds of semi-precious red, blue and green stones. Multicoloured aprons accessorized their long black skirts. Children and aged relatives completed the family groups, everyone barreling along toward the next pilgrimage site.
Local city-dwellers were distinguished by their air of relative cleanliness and prosperity, their faces not as deeply lined by decades of squinting into the harsh high-altitude sun and scouring winds of the wide-open pasturelands. Young women, in knots of four or five, promenaded arm in arm, showing off their finery for the young men-about-town.
Everywhere I looked there were shaven-headed monks clad in scarlet robes. Some were old figures hobbling along, leaning on staffs, while others were vigorous young novices who looked more suited to rugby than studying Buddhist scriptures.
Tourists made up the last major species of Barkhor fauna. Chinese groups chattered loudly as they followed the little yellow flags of megaphone-toting guides. They outnumbered the western tourists in their garish red and yellow Gore-Tex. Chinese police and army officers milled around, keeping a watchful eye for any anti-Chinese demonstrations.
Breakfast over, I would take a postprandial lap of the Barkhor, the clockwise pilgrim route around the Jokhang. Outside the main doors, I would weave between hundreds of devotees prostrating repeatedly towards the temple; the better prepared brought cushions to protect their knees from the hard flagstones. Dense smoke wafting from burning juniper branches obscured the centuries-old pillar inscribed with Tibetan-Chinese peace treaties. The Barkhor itself was crowded with pilgrims marching along in grim determination, muttering the sacred syllables “Om Mani Padme Hum” in an indistinguishable low drone. Merchant’s stalls lined the street, selling everything from shoes and fur hats to Chinese plastic knick-knacks and providing secular temptations; many pilgrims interrupted their laps for some good-natured haggling.
The stalls gave way sometimes to long arrays of copper prayer wheels set into the walls of the Jokhang, and, like everyone else, I would spin them as I passed, sending prayers whirling out into the cosmos. Here and there a cavernous entrance led into a small chapel in which banks of flickering yak-butter lamps picked out arrays of serene deities or fearsome Bhairabs in the gloom.
Back out in the sunshine, the first prostrators would appear. Instead of walking, these hardy souls show their religious devotion by progressing inchworm-like along the street. Clapping their hands above their heads, they lie down full length on the ground, touching their foreheads to the pavement before standing up again at the furthest point reached by their hands and then repeating the process. I watched their agonizing progress in fascination. They came prepared for the wear and tear of their trade: old bits of car tires armoured their knees and toes, while leather aprons girded their chests and thighs. Their foreheads bore circular callouses from striking the ground untold thousands of times. These particular men and boys were merely making their way a kilometer or so around the Barkhor, but others traverse the entire length of Tibet, taking months or years to complete their journeys to Lhasa from Kham and Amdo in the east or the great Koko Nor lake in the north.
They survive on the alms of the faithful, and I would often see pilgrims pause to slip a few small banknotes into their path. The old men seemed genuine in their faith, but a few times I caught the boys counting their takings after a few minutes and retiring to a nearby store for an extended ice-cream break. Still, it made my own bicycle journey to Lhasa seem like the lazy man’s option, and I admired their astounding perseverence.
Swept along by the tide of humanity, before I knew it I would find myself back in Barkhor Square. Refreshed by this view of an age-old faith and way of life resisting the tide of Chinese consumerism and assimilation engulfing the rest of Lhasa, I would set off on my own daily exploration of the city, already looking forward to the next morning’s lap of the Barkhor.