DAZZLING sunshine radiates from a cloudless sky; gilded temples with dim butter lamps flickering inside day and night sprawl along rolling snow-capped mountains; pilgrims, whirling prayer-wheels in hand, throw themselves flat on the ground with every step they take towards shrines as prayer-banners flutter overhead. These are the kinds of sights that distinguish Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, from any other city in the world.
Though constructions of steel and concrete have appeared in the 1,300-year-old city, none can challenge the grandeur of Potala Palace, visible from any spot in the city. The palace attracts swarms of Buddhists and tourists every year.
Lhasa means "holy land" or "land of the gods" in Tibetan. The city was originally called Rasa, a combination of Ra, meaning goat, and Sa, meaning earth. The name derives from a story related to the construction of Jokhang Monastery. In the 7th century Songtsen Gampo planned to build the capital of his Tubo Kingdom in a valley, whose outline resembled a recumbent Raksasi, or she-demon. The king's wife Wencheng, a princess of the Tang monarchy, proposed building a palace and a temple on the demon's head and heart respectively. Potala Palace soon rose where the devil's head was supposed to be. But on the spot holding her heart lay a fathomless lake. Over many months earth was carried in by goats to fill the body of water, but progress was slow. One day the goats jumped into the lake to fill it with their own bodies. Their sacrifice so moved the Buddha that the chasm magically folded, and Jokhang Monastery was soon built on the site.
With the growing prominence of Jokhang Monastery, more and more Buddhist monks and followers streamed in, many from neighboring countries such as India and Bangladesh. Consequently more temples, hotels and homes were built in the area. Meanwhile Potala Palace was expanded, giving more buzz to the rising city on the plateau, which gradually got a new name: Lhasa.
The Tubo Dynasty tumbled in the mid-9th century. During the same period a Buddhism-cleansing movement flared across Tibet, resulting in the closure of all Buddhist shrines, including Jokhang. Lhasa lost its political and religious weight, and didn't regain it until centuries later. In 1409 Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug Sect, convened the Great Summons Ceremony in Lhasa. He gradually expanded his influence to the whole plateau, and established a theocratic regime. Lhasa has remained a regional capital to the present day.