Tibetan monks at morning prayer. PHOTO BY YIXUAN SHUKE.
Zuglakang Monastery in Lhasa is the most sacred Buddhist site in Tibet. It houses a statue of the Buddha said to date from his lifetime (c. 566–486 BCE).
Regarded as the most sacred Buddhist site in Tibet, Zuglakang Monastery has been closely linked with the historical development of Lhasa as a city and of Tibet as a nation. Zuglakang is one of the primary places of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists because it contains a revered statue—that of Jowo (the Buddha at the age of twelve)—said to date from the lifetime of the Buddha (c. 566–486 BCE). Also, the name of the city, “Lhasa” (place of the gods) is an appellative for “Zuglakang.”
Legends relate that the Yarlung king, Songsten Gampo (605–649 CE), began construction of the monastery in the year 639 in accordance with the wishes of his wife Bhrikuti, a princess of Nepal who had brought, as part of her dowry, statues of the Buddha that she wished to house in a suitable temple; she had noted that Tibet possessed no Buddhist temple. Songsten Gampo himself is said to have worked alongside the laborers in erecting Zuglakang.
The king had a second, Chinese wife, Wencheng Kongjo, of the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) royal house. She, too, was a Buddhist and had brought with her the Jowo statue; she also required a temple for it. Wencheng is said to have practiced geomancy (divination by means of figures or lines or geographic features), and thereby she located the site where a temple would not be harmed by malignant forces. Zuglakang was built at that site.
Much of Zuglakang’s design is based on Indian Buddhist architecture, with a strong, but later, admixture of Nepalese and Tang elements. Indeed, the structure itself may well be the oldest extant example of Indian religious structural design because similar buildings in India have long vanished, given the fact that Buddhism did not endure in the subcontinent. The monastery also contains many carved pillars, ornamented shrines, and adorned ceilings; it once had many paintings on stucco, but many of these have been destroyed, most during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).
When the Yarlung dynasty was overthrown in the middle of the ninth century, Zuglakang fell into disrepair, given the anti-Buddhist fervor of Repachen, the new ruler. However, subsequent kings began to demonstrate their piety and to show their legitimacy by undertaking elaborate restorations of the monastery. Thus, by the eighteenth century Zuglakang had become an expansive complex with chapels, residential apartments for the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, dormitories for monks, kitchens, storage facilities, government offices, service buildings, and large courtyards.
However, Zuglakang’s symbolic significance as the first Buddhist temple in Tibet has allowed it to become intimately interwoven with Tibetan history. Thus, it has become the emblem of Tibetan identity. The sacred quality of the monastery depends on the legends that surround it, which ultimately speak of the process through which the message of the Buddha was brought to Tibet and then firmly rooted there. Zuglakang, then, is much more than a monastic complex: It is the soul of Tibet because through it Tibetans have constructed their identity, and within its walls they have historically placed their cultural, political, and religious aspirations.
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