We set out on the Barkhor path—called the pilgrimage circuit—a walkway that encircles the Jokhang Temple. It is the most revered religious structure in Tibet. With its beautiful golden roof, the temple is four stories tall and covers about 75,000 square feet. The walkway is lined with stalls of jewelry, mala beads, colorful Tibetan clothes, and prayer flags. I get a kick out of seeing a watermelon displayed next to a set of false teeth. Something for everyone, I guess.
There’s a constant stream of Tibetan pilgrims following the circular route, always traveling in a clockwise direction. Many move in a rhythmic motion. Fascinated, I watch as they touch their hands to their forehead, take a step forward, lower them in front of their face, take another step, lower them to their chest, bend down, place their hands on the ground, prostrate their body, touch the ground with their forehead, stand, take three steps, and start over again, praying the entire way. Some are wearing rawhide knee pads and wooden planks attached to their hands for protection. Mixed into the steady hum and rhythm of their prayers, I hear the scraping of the wood along the stone pavement. Although they are covered in dust, dirt, and blood stains, I can’t help but notice the blissful look on their faces as they step, bow, and bend. I struggle to put into words what it feels like watching this continuous stream of people slowly making their way to this sacred temple. You must see it to believe it.
No matter the weather, many of these pilgrims, including children, have been performing these prostrations for thousands of miles to reach a holy place like this. Even when they aren’t making a pilgrimage, they are expected to prostrate daily.
The pilgrims are so focused they hardly notice as I carefully step between them, videotaping their faith in motion. Large red and gold prayer wheels are spun by the pilgrims as they chant their prayers. I join them, walking and spinning while silently giving thanks for being allowed to witness these holy rituals.