Located in the center of old Lhasa city, Johkang Monastery is a prime seat of the Gelugpa (Yellow) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It was first built in 647. In 643, the 18 year old Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) reached Lhasa. She brought with her a 12 year old, life-sized statue of Sakyamuni. It was believed that the statue was modeled according to the appearance of Sakyamuni and was consecrated by Sakyamuni himself.
At the time, there were only 3 life-sized statues of Sakyamuni in the world. One was 8 years old, another 12 years old, and the last 18 years old. Originally, a life-sized statue of Sakyamuni aged 16 was in India. However, it sank into the Indian Ocean in the religious war. Thus, the 12 year old relic became the most precious one. Songtsen Gampo, leader of the Tubo kingdom, constructed Ramoche Monastery for Princess Wencheng to house the statue, and he also built Johkang Monastey for his Nepalese Princess Khidzun. When Princess Jicheng brought the statue of Sakyamuni from Ramoche Monastery to Jokhang Monastery, it became the new worshiping center. After years of expansion, Jokhang Monastery has proudly reached the scale that it has today.
In the 7th century AD, China was under the reign of the Tang Dynasty. The era when Emperor Taizong Li Shimin reigned is called the Golden Years of Zhenguan (Zhenguan being the reign title of Emperor Taizong), and it took a long period of 22 years (627-649) for the Tang Empire to become the first power in Asia. At the same time, Tibet was a small country on the frontier governed by Songsten Gampo who ascended the throne as the king at the age of 13.
Under the administration of Songsten Gampo, the national strength of Tibet was so powerful that no country could parallel it except the Tang Dynasty of China. Songtsen Gampo was a statesman of vision. He first married the Nepaleae Princess Khidzun, and then twice later, he sent a minister to Chang'an (present-day Xi'an, China) in search of a Tang Princess to marry. Finally, the Princess Wencheng was betrothed to him.
In 641, the 16 year old Princess Wencheng and her envoys and maidservants journeyed to Tibet from her home in China. She brought with her a great number of dowries, advanced culture, and techniques. Having endured the hardships of the long journey, Princess Wencheng reached Lhasa in 643 and married Songsten Gampo who was 29 years old and has been waiting for her for 3 years. As well, the 2 beautiful princesses Khidzun and Wencheng were both from Buddhist countries. When they came to Tibet, each of them brought with her a valuable statue of Sakyamuni as the most precious dowry.
However, at that time, there was no palace in Lhasa, not even a constant house. Also, Tibetans all lived in the tents, so it became a dilemma considering how to house the invaluable statues. With Princess Wencheng’s suggestion, Songsten Gampo constructed Ramoche Monastery for her to house the prized statue. The gate of the monastery faces east to show the princess's nostalgia for her homeland.
When Songsten Gampo built Ramoche Monastery for Princess Wencheng, Princess Khidzun also wanted to build a monastery to house the statue she brought. However, the construction of the monastery was unsuccessful and collapsed. At her wits' end, Princess Khidzun turned to Princess Wencheng, who was graced with both virtues and talents, for help. Princess Wencheng knew "feng shui" very well and had an intimate knowledge of "bagua;" she reckoned that the terrain of Tibet was just like a Rakshas witch lying on her back, with Lhasa’s Wotang Lake being her heart and the water being her blood. She contended that a monastery should be built on the lake to get rid of evils. Hence it came to exist the beautiful Jokhang Monastery.
Since its construction, Jokhang Monastery has suffered from 2 serious disasters. One was the campaign for forbidding Buddhism initiated by the nobles who believed in the primitive Bon religion in the late of 7th century; the other was the 2nd campaign for forbidding Buddhism which was launched by the Tibet leader Langdama in the middle of the 9th century. During the campaign, Jokhang Monastery was destroyed and forced to close. Twice the statue of Sakyamuni was buried under the ground.
Legends of the Monastery’s Founding
Another legend pertaining to the founding of the monastery has it that Lhasa was a wasteland at that time. By observing the environment of Lhasa, Princess Wencheng reckoned, according to Chinese astrology, that the wilderness in which Lhasa was located was the gate of a dragon. So, a monastery should be built on the land to get rid of the dragon. Jokhang Monastery became the first monastery to enshrine the statue of the Buddha and was built with the support of Songtsen Gampo.
The monastery is the product of Han, Tibetan, and Nepalese architectural techniques. Visitors should be excited to see various exotic and sacred sculptures.
For example, on the southeastern corner of Jokhang Monastery stands a statue of the Heavenly King carved out of stone; on the southwestern corner is a large eagle carved of stone as well; a stone tower is built on the western part; and a stone lion stands erect on the northern part. Visitors can see these relics on each part of the outside wall of Jokhang Moastery. When the monastery was built, it initially attracted pilgrims from every corner of Tibet to worship the Buddha. Afterwards, inns and workers’ residences gradually emerged around the monastery, thus the establishment of the well-known Barkhor Street with the monastery in the center. That was the embryonic form of Lhasa.
There is also a legend that the site which on which Jokhang Monastery is located was a lake in earlier times. Songtsen Gampo made a promise to Princess Khidzun by the lake that a monastery should be built where the ring has fallen. It so happened that the ring dropped into the lake immediately, and the surface of the lake became full of a net of lights and a 9-level white tower appeared among the light net.
After this, immense construction works began on the basis of thousands of goats who carried clay for the construction of the monastery. It took 3 years to built Jokhang Monastery, and it was originally named Ruosa in memory of the achievements of goats. In Chinese, “Ruo” means "goat" and “Sa" means "clay," in the Tibetan language. The monastery was renamed "Zhulakang" (the sutra hall) and also called "Juekang" (the Buddha hall) meaning the building was created by the goats who carried all its clay.