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The Jokhang Temple ("House of the Lord") is a four-storey timber complex with a gilt roof situated in the heart of Lhasa. It is the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism and is the place where the ceremonies of initiation for the Dalai Lama and Panchen Llamas are held.
Constructed in 647 by the first ruler of a unified Tibet, King Songtsen Gampo (617-49), itsí purpose was to house a sacred image of the Buddha, the Jowo Rinpoche which was brought to Lhasa by Queen Wengcheng the second wife of the King from China as a dowry. This statue is still enshrined within the temple and is the holiest object in Tibet.
The temple has been regularly expanded over the years, and underwent extensive reconstruction in the 17th century under the fifth Dalai Lama, although much of the central part of the temple is original, dating from the 7th century.
Today, Jokhang Temple is open to pilgrims and tourists but carefully controlled by the Chinese government as since 1951 and the Chinese occupation, the Temple has become the focus of Tibetan cultural identity and resistance.
Covering an area of about 25,000 square metres, Jokhang Temple consists of four storeys which combine local Tibetan architectural elements with influences from Nepal, India and the Tang Dynasty of China.
The exterior of the temple is decorated with deer and wheel motifs. These are the early symbols of Buddhism and represent the Buddha's first sermon, in which he "turned the wheel of the Dharma" in a deer park near Varanasi, India.
In the front of the temple is a large plaza and open porch, where prostrate Tibetan pilgrims can be seen. Jokhang Temple is a very important pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists who come from all over Tibet. The most devout pilgrims cover the last several miles prostrating themselves on the ground. Many pilgrims bring offerings (typically white scarves and yak butter for the votive candles) to the many chapels that ring the shrine or leave scarves outside in the open porch.
The interior consists of a number of chapels dedicated to various Gods and bodhisattvas (an enlightenment-being), and although some have undergone rebuilding, many of the original elements remain. Carbon dating tests on the wooden beams and rafters have shown them to be original; the door frames, columns and finials dating from the 7th and 8th centuries.
In the courtyard are shrines and rows of votive lights (small, prayer candles) which provide a path leading to the main hall. The main central hall is over 1,300 years old and is the oldest shrine of the complex. Above the main entrance is a Dharma Wheel (chakra) flanked by two deer. This represents the unity of all things and symbolizes the Buddha.
The central hall contains the gilded and jewelled Jowo Rinpoche (or Jowo Shakyamuni) the life-sized statue of the Buddha at the age of 12, the final destination of the pilgrims. On either side of the statue are two altars, one of King Songtsen Gampo and the other of his two wives who introduced Buddhism into Tibet. As a mark of respect, no photographs were taken inside the halls and chapels.
The third floor contains an image of Palden Lhamo, the fierce deity considered to be the principal protectress of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The roof contains many beautiful statues and gilded objects and provides fine views over the temple, the Barkor (a maze of narrow cobbled streets which is the central market of Lhasa) and the Potala Palace.
Along with the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple has, since 2000, formed part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site "Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace".