Jo Khang

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Jo khang is Tibet's earliest and foremost Buddhist temple. It is located in the center of Tibet's capital city, Lhasa. The Jo khang enshrines one of Tibet's most sacred Buddhist images—a statue of the buddha Śākyamuni as a young man, said to have been crafted in India during his lifetime. The monastery takes its name from this icon: Jo bo (pronounced Jowo) means "lord"; khang means "house."

The Jo khang has been a major center for Tibetan Buddhist worship and religious practice, drawing pilgrims and devotees from all parts of the Tibetan cultural world for well over a millennium. In common parlance the temple, with its numerous side chapels, adjoining courtyards, walkways, and residential quarters, is referred to simply as the Gtsug lag khang (pronounced Tsuglag khang), perhaps translated as "grand temple" or "cathedral." Western sources often describe it, somewhat misleadingly, as "the Cathedral of Lhasa."

Traditional sources such as the Maṇi bka' 'bum (Hundred Thousand Pronouncements [Regarding] Maṇi) credit the Tibetan king Srong btsan sgam po (r. ca. 614–650) and his two queens with founding the Jo khang's original temple in approximately 640. According to these accounts, the king's Chinese bride Wencheng carried the Jo bo statue to Tibet as part of her dowry. Arriving in the capital city to inauspicious signs, however, she divined that the landscape of Tibet was like a great supine demoness, obstructing the introduction and spread of the dharma. She advised the king, a new Buddhist convert, and his Nepalese wife Bhṛkuti to erect the Jo khang directly over the demoness's heart. This project was later augmented with twelve temples constructed at other physiognomic locations, where they served as great geomantic nails to pin down and subdue the forces inimical to Buddhism. The Jo khang originally housed a statue of the buddha AkṢobhya belonging to Bhṛkuti. After the king's death, the Jo bo was removed from its previous location in the nearby Ra mo che Temple, founded by Wencheng herself, and installed in the Jo khang's inner sanctum.

Modern scholarship now questions the historicity of many details of this episode, including Srong btsan sgam po's exclusive dedication to Buddhism and the existence of his Nepalese queen. However, the narratives of Tibet's Buddhist conversion through the subjugation of local deities continue to play a significant role in the religious life of many Tibetans, affirming the Jo khang's key position in the sacred geography of the Tibetan Buddhist world.

Since its founding, the Jo khang has been enlarged and renovated on numerous occasions, although architectural details from its original foundation are still evident, especially in the carved wooden door frames attributed to Newari craftsmen from Nepal. The temple suffered in the 1960s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when part of the complex and much of its original statuary were damaged or destroyed; restoration took place in the early 1970s and again during the early 1990s.

The temple lies at the heart of Lhasa's principal ritual ambulatory, called the bar skor (pronounced bark-hor) or middle circuit, which skirts its outer walls and surrounding structures. The Jo khang and bar skor together continue to form Lhasa's primary public religious space, where pilgrims and devotees daily walk, prostrate, pray, and perform offerings in the temple's many chapels and around the circumambulation path. The site is also a lively marketplace and social scene, where individuals meander through street vendor's stalls and modern Chinese department stores. Since the late 1980s the bar skor has also become the principal Tibetan stage for political protest and civil demonstration.


Aris, Michael. Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom. Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips, 1979.

Gyatso, Janet. "Down with the Demoness." Tibet Journal 12, no. 4 (1987): 34–46. Reprinted in Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet, ed. Janice Dean Willis. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1989.

Larsen, Knud, and Sinding-Larsen, Amund. The Lhasa Atlas: Traditional Tibetan Architecture and Townscape. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.

Richardson, Hugh. "The Jo-Khang 'Cathedral' of Lhasa." In Essais sur l'art du Tibet, ed. Ariane Macdonald and Yoshiro Imaeda. Paris: Librairie d'Amérique et d'Orient, 1977. Reprinted in High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, ed. Michael Aris. London: Serindia, 1998.

Vitali, Roberto. "Lhasa Jokhang and Its Secret Chapel." In Early Temples of Central Tibet. London: Serindia, 1990.

Andrew Quintman