The pulsating heart of the Tibetan Quarter is the Barkhor, essentially a pilgrim circuit that proceeds clockwise around the exterior of the 1300-year old, golden-roofed Jokhang Temple. In a sign of respect, Buddhists always circumambulate shrines, temples and other religious objects such as stupas in a clockwise direction, walking in slow, measured steps and keeping their right side towards the object of veneration. As a hive of streetside market activity and enthralling pilgrim jamboree, a trip to the Barkhor makes a perfect introduction to Tibetan life.
On my first day, which luckily happened to be a Tibetan festival, I stood close to the Jokhang entrance, mesmerized by the ceaseless flow of highly colorful Tibetans tramping around the Barkhor. From wide-eyed, rosy-cheeked toddlers in ethnic-style papooses to wizened, sun-darkened octogenarians with walnut-like skin, it seemed like the whole of Lhasa had turned out to pay homage to the Buddha. Some women had complemented their eye-catching ensembles with designer sunglasses and ribbons in their braids, and I visualized them sashaying down the catwalks of New York and Milan introducing a new line in Tibetan haute couture.
The Jokhang Temple is the spiritual center of Tibet, the Holy of Holies, the end point of countless Tibetan pilgrimages. Unlike the nearby lofty Potala Palace, the Jokhang has intimate, human proportions, bustling with worshippers and redolent with mystery. Drifting slowly with the crowd, I could see that the outer courtyard and porch of the temple were filled with pilgrims making full-length prostration towards the holy sanctum.In Vajrayana Buddhism, the predominant form of Buddhism in Tibet, prostrations are seen as a means of purifying ones body, speech and mind of karmic defilements, especially pride. Despite being a non-believer, it was a humbling experience watching these crowds of al fresco worshipers repeatedly following their strict routine, the noise of prostration boards scraping dusty flagstones filling the incense-laden air.
After several years hacking his way through London's PR and advertising jungle, and another couple of years in recuperative sabbatical in France and Korea, Daniel Allen's quest for a more Bohemian-styled life of art and journalism led him to the Chinese capital, Beijing.
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