The Transformation of Lhasa into a Mandala of Religious and Political Authority 1642-1705 (based at the University of Virginia; PI: D. Germano; Co-PIs: T. Gyalpo, K. Schaeffer)


Lhasa is the most important city in the vast Tibetan plateau from religious, economic, and political perspectives; it has been one of the most important cities in Asia, from its historical roots in the seventh century up to the present. It is the location of what were two of the largest monasteries in Asia (Sera and Drepung), three Unesco World Heritage sites (the Potala Palace, the Norbulingka Palace, and the Jokhang Temple), and, until 1959, the seat of the Dalai Lama’s government’s political power. One of the three critical junctures of Lhasa was 1642-1705, when the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) and his Regent Sanggyé Gyatso (1653-1705) established a aristocratic-religious government – the Ganden Palace – centered in Lhasa. From the 17th to 20th century, this was the largest polity on the Tibetan plateau since the 9th century Tibetan empire. Rooted in the monastic Geluk Buddhist sect, and in partnership with aristocratic houses, the Ganden Palace was centered on the notion of the reincarnational line of the Dalai Lamas. Between 1645 and 1695 the Fifth Dalai Lama and his Regent constructed a new physical and symbolic center for his government, the Potala Palace as his residence. This building rises 117 meters above the surface of Red Hill, upon which it is constructed, thus sitting nearly 300 meters above the floor of the Lhasa valley. Between its completion in 1695 and 1889, it was the largest occupied building in the world. The Potala is at once a fortress, an administrative center, and, for faithful Tibetan Buddhists, an embodiment of the single most important bodhisattva, or celestial Buddhist deity, Avalokiteshvara, for in its center came to be housed the mortal remains of  Avalokiteshvara’s human incarnation, the Fifth Dalai Lama himself, as well as the living presence of his later reincarnations.

Building the New Lhasa

The sixty-four year process (1642-1705) of the founding of the Ganden Palace state involved dramatic military conflicts and new political-religious alliances, but also involved a complex building and rerouting agenda in the Lhasa valley intertwined with a symbolic agenda manifesting in literature, buildings, pagentry, art, and ritual. Internally, the key was establishing a new symbolic order that legitimated and authorized other new offices and procedures, and which was intrinsically Buddhist in character. At the core was the identification of the Fifth Dalai Lama himself as the earthly incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, and the mytho-historical progenitor of the Tibetan people. Buddhism has a central notion of “pure lands”, celestial realms understood to be created by Buddhas as optimal rebirth destinations for devotees, but in this form or as the esoteric mandala also explicitly used to model historical polities. Avalokiteshvara’s pure land was called “Potala”, and the building of the dramatic Potala palace in the 17th century was rooted in the attempt to bring about the terrestrial and celestial convergence of Lhasa as a geographic site and Avalokiteshva’s heaven.

The Dalai Lama situated Potala Palace on the famed Tibetan imperial site of Marpori Mountain, for the Tibetan emperors were held to be, like the Dalai Lama, incarnations of Avalokiteshvara. In locating the new governmental center on a site already suffused with historic and symbolic meaning, he integrated the glory of the past and the promise of the future within a single space, a “pure land” which symbolically transcends time even as it lays claim to present-day Tibet.  Around this new center the Dalai Lama created new institutions, such as the medical college complex on the adjacent Cakpori Mountain, and significantly developed the existing urban landscape Lhasa, including a major expansion of the Jokang temple complex and surrounding Barkor complex of temples and aristocratic residences. He also expanded the nearby Drepung and Sera monastic residences, setting the stage for them to become major seats of integrated religious and political force in their own right.


Recentering the New Lhasa

This explosion of building and architectural innovation was accompanied by the articulation of a new historical set of narratives about Avalokiteshvara’s intervention with Tibetans over time, and the convergence of Avalokiteshvara with the Dalai Lamas’ historical agency. In addition, there were explicit efforts to shift the foot traffic of humans through this landscape as new sacred circumambulation routes were systematically specified, advocated, and facilitated. In essence a new virtual Lhasa – as both a Buddhist pure land and a beneficent Tibetan state – were created with buildings, sacred traffic networks, literary narratives, and artistic representations that centered around a god and his human incarnation.

Sanggyé Gyatso was a prolific writer during his twenty-four years as ruler. From his early 1681 work on governance to his 1703 history of medicine, he touched on subjects as varied as language arts, building techniques, the politics of ritual, funeral rites, astrological and calendrical theories, methods of healing, and rules for court servants. Two of his writings from the mid-1690s relate directly to the Ganden Palace’s efforts to revision Lhasa. In Tales for the New Year Sangyé Gyatso argues that the New Year is an appropriate time to commemorate the Dalai Lama, and that the Potala Palace should be integrated into the New Year’s ceremonies, which had up to that time been held at the Jokhang Temple. In the Lhasa Circumambulation Routes, he prescribes fixed pilgrimage routes for circumambulating the Fifth Dalai Lama’s stupa, the Potala, and even Lhasa itself. These writings established the legitimate authority of the Ganden Government’s rule over Tibet through  memorialization of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the re-formation of classical Buddhist traditions of practice and myth in a new Tibetan context, and the reorientation of the Lhasa urban landscape around the new symbolic and administrative center of the new government, the Potala palace.

The actual work of surveying circumambulation routes was conducted by five people, who must have provided Sangyé Gyatso with the data to compile the survey. The survey presents exact measurements for walking routes around a number of places in Lhasa, beginning with the Potala, which had only recently achieved the shape known today with the addition of the Red Palace. According to Sangyé Gyatso there was no special tradition of walking around the Red Hill upon which the Potala now stood. The new route, he advocated, was to run from the western Zhol gate through the stupa at the entrance of Lhasa, and continue clockwise around Red Hill and the Potala to eastern Zhol gate. A single circuit around the hill was surveyed at approximately one and a half kilometers, though this may be a bit longer during the rainy season when muddy. Next Sangyé Gyatso prescribes circuits in the chapel housing the Dalai Lama’s stupa as well as in adjacent chapels in the Red Palace. The principal circumambulation route is, of course, around the Fifth Dalai Lama’s stupa itself. Four chapels on the ground floor of the Red Palace are provided with circuit measurements: the Trungrab Lhakhang with its statue of Shakyamuni, the Lamrim Lhakhang and its central image of Tsongkhapa, the Rigdzin Lhakhang housing a statue of Padmasambhava, and the Dalai Lama’s chapel as a whole. From the Potala he moves to the central part of Lhasa and prescribes circuit measurements for several temples, including Ramochéand the Jokhang. Lastly, Sangyé Gyatso addresses the total length of the Lingkhor circuit around Lhasa, including Ramoché, Meru, Zhidé Tratsang, Marpori, and Chakpori, which he claims comes to a total length of roughly four-to-five miles. In all, he provides measurements for almost twenty different circuits. These circuits form the central arteries of religious life and practice around Lhasa, surviving even the great transformations of the late twentieth century.

The Workplan

Our project aims to use virtual world technologies to document Lhasa in 1642 and in 1705 in order to comparatively assess the difference between Lhasa’s built and natural environments during this time, as well as the human pathways through which the inhabitants and multitude of pilgrims would encounter those environments. Between these dates the largest inhabited building the world had known was created as part of a mammoth revisioning of the city of Lhasa and Tibetan Buddhism itself. Visitors to the new Lhasa at the end of this period would be coming before an unprecedented architectural presence, a presence emotionally charged by the most potent symbols and stories of Buddhism. The reconstruction of the valley at these two temporal junctures will enable us to finally deliver a missing piece of the 17th century puzzle to the scholarly record by enabling us to analyze the transformation put into place by the architectural and traffic shifts sponsored by the Ganden government.

Our goal is to assess the aggregate character of these changes in service of the nation building efforts of the Ganden Palace that were intertwined with the religious ascendancy of one sect and the creation of a highly specific symbolic order that authorized and supported that ascendancy through Buddhist concepts and narratives. In particular, we want to both understand how this newly built environment centered around the Potala worked in concert with the new circumambulation routes prescribing how humans should move through this landscape to articulate this agenda through a combination of vision, emotion, and concept that were engendered by locals and pilgrims. Specific points of inquiry include: the visual lines of sight from major sites throughout the valley to the Potala, the changing geomantics of the valley, the creation of a new aesthetic and emotional experience grounded in the Tibetan Buddhist notions of verticality and value, the spatial distribution and integration of aristocratic and monastic spaces, and the placement of entombed corpses of religious leaders in strategically placed funerary monuments. These will all be bound together through analyzing the precise basis for the choices made in relationship to circumambulation shifts in the 17th century against the background of a holistic appraisal of the impact of such circumambulation routes in Tibetan society.

If we can imagine based upon present-day observation the Lhasa of 1705, dominated as it was by that point by the Potala, we cannot imagine, much less experience the Lhasa of 1642, when the city revolved around a fundamentally different axis. To understand the profound changes in the cityscape, we must be able to walk through Lhasa with the Potala, and Lhasa without it. Further, circumambulation and travel routes throughout the city of Lhasa as it existed before and after the creation of the Potala can be mapped with 2D (two dimensional) imaging, but a thorough comprehension of the geomantic, emotional and ritual markers that shape the Buddhist experience of movement throughout the religio-political city will require a more multi-dimensional representation. This can be achieved through methods of 3D and animation technologies linked with database access to scholarly information and media relative to the 17th century foundation of the Tibetan capital. This project proposes to build a 3D terrain model of the Kyichu River Valley in which the city of Lhasa is situated.  A massing model of the urban layout of Lhasa, marking major religious and government structures is needed to spatially relate the built environment’s relationship to the natural features in order to analyze the lived experience of pilgrims and local inhabitants. A 3D model will provide critical insight into sightlines and visual alignments affected by pedestrian traffic flow that would have helped formulate an experiential relationship of the traveler inside the city of Lhasa to the symbolic journey intended by the re-formation of urban patterns.  The comparison between 1642 and 1705, including analytical and visual comparisons, will enable precise delineation of these dramatic changes.

Resources for modeling the 17th century terrain of Lhasa will include a variety of data and media to help simulate a rich immersive experience via presentational technologies.  Raw Digital Elevation Map (DEM) data combined with currently available geographical survey data can be augmented with historical accounts and records to help provide a basis for modeling the terrain of 17th century Lhasa.  Historical records will also help provide the details for the placement of 17th century building blocks onto the terrain to provide a model of generalized detail for large scale inspection of the Lhasa environment.  Using techniques of level of detail and 3D geometry inlining will allow lower resolution block models to become high resolution detailed models of particular edifices that were crucial to the foundation of Lhasa.  The monastic complex of Meru Nyingba will serve as an example of the inclusion of high resolution 3D models into the larger massing model of the city since our team has been working with this building site for the past 11 years, including 3D models and interlinked database information on a space by space basis.  The large scale terrain and environmental massing model of Lhasa will serve as a 3D interactive gallery of other highly detailed urban building models such as Meru Nyingba.  A model such as this will allow interactive exploration of Lhasa’s urban spaces and patterns of flow on many different scales and levels of detail.

Presentation of this highly complex model will be based upon Unity3D as the framework for presenting rich, interactive 3D web media for its extensible programming environment, flexibility of use with major 3D modeling packages and ease of deployment to the World Wide Web for ubiquitous access of content. Terrain building can take place in today’s standard 3D modeling tools like 3D Studio Max and Maya3D, but can be more precisely constructed with dedicated landscape building tools such as Terragen3D, WorldBuilder or Vue. City massing models are easier to achieve with procedural modeling tools for urban landscapes such as City Engine.

Though 3D models will provide the basis of interactive exploration, 2D motion media and data driven media will enrich the immersive experience. Field work will be necessary to capture video, still images and static 3D point data of key points within Lhasa that were crucial to understanding the geomantic and spiritual queues relative to the 17th century pilgrim’s pathways through the Buddhist capital. The virtual world experience will be integrated into a Drupal-based platform which will provide precisely georeferenced access to large repositories of images, audio-video recordings, visualizations, primary texts, scholarly essays, structured data, Tibetan historical dictionary, map archive, and granular gazetteer, all of which has been constituted by years of international collaboration through the medium of the University of Virginia’s Tibetan and Himalayan Library. Our intention is thus not focus on a “pure” immersive experience of Lhasa, but rather a profoundly interwoven presentation of data, media, scholarship, and immersive experience. It is the combination, rather than merely the immersive experience by itself, which constitutes a unique research environment and methodology in service of our assessment of the precise ways, and motivations for the extensive reshaping of the built environment and human pathways through it during this seminal sixty three year period. The analysis of the visual experience of these changes will be greatly deepened and nuanced through the ability to immediately consult extensive associated visual, analytical, and textual data from each point of the model.