Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century: The Capital of the Dalai Lamas

Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century: The Capital of the Dalai Lamas

Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century: The Capital of the Dalai Lamas

Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century: The Capital of the Dalai Lamas


This is the story of the rise of Lhasa, before 1642 a small town, renowned for its Jokhang temple and its three large 15th century Gelukpa monasteries. The political victory of the Gelukpa changed its destiny and it was the Fifth Dalai Lama who made Lhasa into the centre of the Tibetan world, with an influence reaching into Mongolia and Ladakh. It became a true capital, with prestigious monuments, and the Potala Palace as its focus and symbol. Based on Tibetan and Western sources, the book provides a fascinating study of the history of Lhasa against the background of the triangular relations Tibetans-Mongols-Manchus. With ample attention for 17th century Lhasa's historical, political and cultural context, it offers new insights on Lhasa, also, in the last chapter, in its contemporary Chinese framework.


Françoise Pommaret

When the name Lhasa is spoken, even in this age of global communication, interest is aroused, eyes light up or become dreamy. Few cities have as great an evocative power or such ability to make images burst forth as Lhasa: the capital of Tibet, the forbidden city, the Dalai Lamas, the Potala Palace. L.A. Waddell, who was the head doctor of the British expedition to Tibet, wrote in 1904: “We gazed with awe upon the temples and palaces of the long-sealed Forbidden City, the shrines of the mystery which had so long haunted our dreams and which lay revealed before our eyes at last.” Even if today one can go to Lhasa on an organized trip, the myth of Tibet and Lhasa is far from having disappeared from our subconscious.

Although it has never been easy to get there and permits have been necessary, Lhasa was not always a forbidden city. It was only when the great exploration expeditions of the 19th century rapidly multiplied and colonial empires were established that the Tibetan government decided, about 1810, to close Tibet and Lhasa to foreigners. The Tibetans were encouraged in this policy by the Chinese, who saw in it a means of protecting their relationship with Tibet against any foreign influence and later by the British, who, among others, wanted to establish commercial relations with Tibet and prevent any Russian interference.

The appeal of Lhasa, the forbidden fruit, only became stronger and in the West Lhasa acquired a mythical and mysterious dimension. Every traveller set the city as a goal, its secrets had to be penetrated, and secrets it must have, since it was a forbidden city. Most of them never reached Lhasa, often stopped at Nakchu—gateway to central Tibet, three hundred kilometres north of Lhasa—at the check posts of eastern Tibet, or by the British sentries in the Himalayan foothills.

All the same, three western travellers managed to reach Lhasa during the 19th century. The first was the British doctor, Thomas

L.A. Waddell, 1905: 329.

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