2.1 Lhasa's Historic Urban Fabric
The ancient urban and social patterns to be found in the old city reveal much about
Lhasa's cyclic historical development and the traditional life-style of its inhabitants.
The Tsuglakhang temple, as described in the previous chapter, is the spiritual and
physical heart of Lhasa. In harmony with the Buddhist traditions established by Lhasa's
founder, circumambulation routes lead clockwise around the Tsuglakhang, enabling pilgrims
to venerate Tibet's most holy shrine and to gain merit for the next life by doing so.
The innermost pilgrimage circle, the Nangkor, which leads around the Tsuglakhang's
central temple building, was presumably established at the time of its founding in the 7th
The intermediate circle, the Barkor, has existed at least since the late 14th century,
with its outlook and size changed and amended over the centuries. The shape of today's
Barkor is largely identical to that of the late 17th century, except for alterations made
in the 1960s (removal of Buddhist stupas, huge prayerwheels and other religious
attributes) and in 1984 (creation of the large open square in front of the Tsuglakhang's
main gate). Today, as it has been for centuries, the Barkor is also Lhasa's main bazaar street. However, in the early hours of the morning, and at sunset, a visitor
can ascertain that the Barkor is still a religious circumambulation route of major
importance for Lhasa citizens and pilgrims. Most practitioners do between one and three
"koras" (circumambulations) per day.
Barkor Street in
The outer circle, called Lingkor, leads clockwise around the city at its pre-1950
limits, encompassing the 40-odd temples, monasteries and shrines once existant in Lhasa.
These three koras determine the way Tibetans perceive and access the city, as customarily
a visitor would first do a Lingkor before entering the city, then do a Barkor before
entering the Jokhang. The three circumambulation routes have also in the past defined the
pattern of Lhasa's urban growth axis. Over the centuries, the city grew in concentric
circles around the Tsuglakhang. These layers of city quarters are entered by crooked
little alleyways, lined by low, white-washed stone-and-mud houses. One-, two- and
three-storey buildings would alternate with one another, so that no-one would block the
neighbour's sunlight. The dense maze formed by the old city's ancient residential
buildings was previously interspersed by temples, market squares, covered and open sewers,
ponds, gardens, and Buddhist stupas.
2.2 The Traditional Lhasa House
The traditional Lhasa house has a flat roof and the outer walls slope inwards,
resulting in a characteristic silhouette. The white-washed facade is further accentuated by thick black frames around and little slate roofs above the doors and
windows. The corners of the roof are elevated, and twigs decorated with prayer-flags in
five colours signal that the inhabitants are Buddhists. Monastic buildings have additional
attributes and a different lay-out, but the basic architecture is the same.
Lhasa's three main circamambulation routes
A typical Lhasa mansion (Dakpo Trumpa)
The vernacular buildings of old Lhasa can be classified into three main types: the
noble house, the large residential building, and the smaller house inhabited by merchants
All three types of buildings generally have at least one courtyard. Smaller and
medium-sized buildings are often rectangular in shape.
The noble houses are generally much more elaborate than the other two house types, with
better craftsmanship and better materials used. The basic noble house consists of a main
building, up to three floors high, and an attached outbuilding. The main building is often
conceived symmetrically, and always hierarchically, with the top floor accentuated by
ornate windows and balconies. The outbuilding is usually one floor lower that the main
building. It is built around a large principal courtyard, with a gallery giving access to
the romms on the upper floor. The ground floors of both buildings are designed to function
as store-rooms and stables.
The large residence yards of old Lhasa were originally owned either privately, by rich
monasteries or by the government. They probably originated as caravanserais providing
temporary lodging and shelter for travelling merchants, and later became tenement yards in
response to urban growth. Monastically-owned residence yards served the additonal purpose
of providing central accommodation for large numbers of monks during important festivals.
The traditional residence yards are less symmetrical in design, and the third floor is
always built from mudbricks. The craftsmanship displayed is generally very solid, but
ornate decorations are to be found only in a handful of rooms reserved for the owners,
their relatives or representatives.
Traders owned or rented smaller houses that served simultaneously as residence, shop
and goods storage. Usually two stories high, many of them were very well-built.
Smaller residences owned or inhabited by common people were often built from mud-brick on
a stone foundation and were less decorated than houses owned by nobles or merchants.
2.3 Materials and Construction
|Construction of a traditional building in the 1940's
The traditional way of building is a response to Tibet's cold and dry climate,
and the earthquake-prone ground. Since from at least the 7th century onwards until
recently, the materials used for construction of housing in Lhasa have not changed much.
Local stone, wood and earth are the basic materials, different qualities of which were
used for different purposes. Slate, for example, forms the little roofs over doors and
windows, while granite is preferably used for walls. Softer woods (such as poplar) are
used for carvings, while harder woods (firs, nut trees) are used for structural support.
One of the most characteristic features of traditional Tibetan architecture is the
battered wall. Besides giving Tibetan buildings a distinctive
silhouette, the inward-sloping walls also provide extra stability in case of tremors. The
sloping is created by the reduction in thickness from the ground floor wall to the top
floor wall, with the inside wall remaining vertical
|Wall detail, Bonshoe mansion, early 20h century
The walls on the ground floor, usually built from stone on shallow stone
foundations, are extremely thick, often more than a metre. The walls get thinner and
lighter towards the top of the building. The top floor of a house is commonly built from
mud bricks; but wealthier houses would have used stone bricks for all floors. Between the
meticulously-made outer and somewhat simpler inner faces,
the wall core is filled with stone rubble and then rammed with
mud, straw and other insulating materials.
|Section of traditionally-built wall
The masonry deserves special mention. Courses of large rectangular stones,
roughly of equal size, are laid between layers of small flat stones. This technique, known
as galetted rubble, gives the walls a greater flexibility in case of tremors and therefore
adds to the stability of a house. The top of a wall is sealed against rain by a cornice
made from slate and wood, crowned by a mound of clay.
Ceilings, supported by a pillar-post construction, are built by placing wooden rafters
between the cental beams and the walls. The rafters support layers of
pebbles and mud. The roofs are sealed either by stamped and oiled clay (known as Arga) or
water-absorbing sand known as Tikse.
|Pillar-capital-beam, decorated with carvings, Dakpo Trumpa
The thick walls and the filled ceilings ensure maximum insulation against the
harsh temperature changes in the Tibetan climate.
Tradionally responsible for the entire construction of a house there would be a master
carpenter or master stone mason, who had the title of "chimo". The client would
explain the size of the house and any special needs, and the only drawing of the building
needed would be a rough sketch drawn on sand or with charcoal on a
piece of wood, for the client's approval. For the placement of doors, windows and
designation of rooms, as well as for ceremonially initiating the construction project, a
monk well-versed in Tibetan geomancy would be hired.
Tadongshar front elevation
For the refinement of the Lhasa style of architecture, the period from the 17th
century onwards is most relevant. The 17th century saw the consolidation of the lamaist
state. Building projects during that period re-defined the Lhasa urban landscape. In the
18th and 19th centuries, influential aristocrats and monastic officials built opulent
mansions as their residences. The concentration of wealth, political power and religious
importance provided the necessary background for the formation of a tradition of master
builders. In the early 20th century, contacts between Tibet and the outside world
gradually increased. The advent of new construction materials obtained from outside of
Tibet, first of glass, later of metal beams, and finally of cement, heralded a
modernisation of the traditional way of building houses in Lhasa.
2.4 Life-Style in an Old Manor House
The most elaborate houses of old Lhasa were the homes of the aristocracy. Each was
built as the residence of a single noble family, who would live there with their
relatives, servants, animals and stored goods. We find a good description of a noble house
in the writings of Sir Charles Bell, British special envoy to Tibet and a personal friend
of the 13th Dalai Lama. In 1915, Bell stayed with the wealthy Palha family at their
country estate near Gyantse. The following description of the estate gives a good
impression of the life-style of the Tibetan aristocracy prior to 1959, though it must be
noted that a noble house in Lhasa is only a down-sized version of the country manor.
The house at Drong-tse is built around a qudrangular courtyard. The side opposite
the entrance rises to four stories above the ground [note: in Lhasa city, three
stories was the rule]. On the topmost floor the members of the family live during the
summer months, moving one floor down in the winter for the sake of warmth. Their
sitting-rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen are here. There is a schoolroom also, to which come
both the sons of the house and those of the retainers and the tenantry, but the Pa-lha
boys have their own special seats. A small praying-room, where the family priests read
prayers, though poorly furnished, is heated with braziers of yak-dung, the common fuel of
high Tibet, where wood is scarce and coal basically unknown. Thus warmed, the family
gather in it often during the cold mornings and evenings of the long Tibetan winter. All
the sitting-rooms have altars and images in them, for, from prince to peasant, their
religion is part and parcel of the life of the Tibetan people.
On the floor below are found the room for the two stewards, in which they do their work
and pass the day. On the walls hang bows and arrows kept ready for the archery which
delights the heart of Tibetan man and maid, held as it is under the blue Tibetan sky and
accompanied by wine and song. On the floor are three or four of the low Tibetan tables
with teacups on them drawing attention to the national beverage. Beyond are two
Gönkhangs. Here, too, is the largest chapel in the house. It is known as the Kan-gyur
chapel, for it enshrines a complete copy of the Buddhist canonical books, one hundred and
eight volumes in all. In the floor is a large trap-door through which grain is poured into
the store-room below. A kitchen for the servants, a store-room, and a large reception
room, used for important entertainments, complete the tale of rooms on this storey. It was
on this floor that my wife and I were lodged when on a three-day
visit to Drong-tse in 1915. For our room we were given a large chapel, part of it being
partitioned for our use. Behind the partition a monk could be heard off and on from five
o'clock in the morning intoning the services for the Pa-lha household.
At the New Year, the more influential retainers and tenants come to offer
ceremonial scarves to the head of the house. If a member of the house is present, he
receives the scarves; if not, these are laid on the table in front of his empty seat.
On the floor below we are among the rooms for servants and for storage. An apartment
used for housing wool runs along one side. From end to end of the other side runs a long
room for housing grain. Part of the latter, however, is taken up by two open verandahs,
separated by a partition wall and facing the courtyard. These spaces are used by persons
of rank somewhat lower than that of the master of the house for watching the
entertainments that from time to time take place in the courtyard. Convention requires
that those of highest rank shall sit in the highest seats, though thereby they lose the
better view of the spectacle. The nobility are accommodated with seats in the gallery, the
common folk are relegated to the stalls.
Rugs, tables, &c., filled a lumber-room; in another bread was kept; in yet another
was stored barley to be used for making beer (chang). I had often heard that Tibetans laid
in a large part of their meat supply once yearly, in October, and here I witnessed the
proof of this. For in a large room joints of yak-beef and mutton were hanging from the
ceiling. The meat had been killed for nine months - October to July - but was free from
offensive smell. A bedroom for the priests and various servants' apartments found place on
On the first storey are two rooms for brewing beer, a large room in which meat,
barley-flour, oil, and such-like are stored together. Along the other sides we find rooms
used for peas, barley, and other grain.
After the Tibetan custom a strong wooden ladder with steep, narrow steps leads to the
courtyard below. At the top of the ladder, in a recess on each side of it, stands a
praying-wheel, as high as a man and of ample girth. Thousands upon thousands of
incantations and prayers are printed and pressed together within these great cylinders. At
the foor of each sits an old dame, who makes it to revolve, and in so doing sends upwards
this mass of prayer and offering for the benefit of the world at large and the Pa-lha
household in particular.[...]
Round the courtyard, under the projecting verandahs of the floor above, are stables. At
the back of these are rooms for storing hay. [...]
The room in which we were offered the usual tea, cakes, and fruit was, as so often
happens, a chapel and a sitting room combined. But it was unusual in that it faced towards
the north. Tibetans usually arrange that their best rooms shall catch as much sunlight as
2.5 The Traditional Lhasa
House as a Relic of the Past
The elaborate life-style of the aristocracy has now all but disappeared. Changes in
society have led to the decline of private ownership, and population development has
created increasing demand for inexpensive public housing. The advent of steel and cement
has made it possible to build faster and comparatively cheaper than before. These factors
have led to the decline and near-disappearance of the traditional skills, and have also
contributed to a drastic change in appearance of the city of Lhasa.