Tibetans believe that lakes are the abodes of protective deities and therefore invested with special spiritual powers. Yamdrok Lake, located approximately between the capital of Lhasa and the town of Gyantse, is considered one of the most sacred bodies of water in Tibet.
Local folklore relates that a fairy maiden was concerned that nine small lakes were in danger of drying up. Worried that creatures in the lakes would die, she threw 350 grams of gold into the air, recited a mantra, and merged all the small lakes into the one large one we see today.
However the sacred nature of Yamdrok Lake has to do with its role in discovering the newly reincarnated Dalai Lama after the present one passes into parinirvana (dies). Following the death of a of Dalai Lama, a specially selected group of Buddhist monks and laity travel to Yamdrok Lake. They throw white scarves, a wish-granting vase, and medicine material into the lake while reciting sacred chants. The mirrored surface of the lake reflects images that provide clues to the location of the child who is the reincarnated Dalai Lama.
To this day, devout Buddhists travel around the lake’s perimeter by horseback every year. The journey takes about a month and is considered an adequate replacement for those who cannot travel to Lhasa to circumnavigate the Potala Palace and the capital city’s holy monasteries. Completing a circuit of Yamdrok Lake ensures that Buddha will bless the pilgrim and bring good luck and happiness in the coming year. For non-Buddhists, the draw of the lake is its exquisite beauty. The color of the water changes with the movement of the sun through the sky, ranging from the deep azure blue that I witnessed to a surreal turquoise. And the perpetually snow-capped, 23,592-foot high Mount Nojin Kangtsang, provides a stunning backdrop.
Author’s note: After many years of trying to visit Tibet, I was finally successful with the assistance of Himalaya Journey, an absolutely fantastic company that specializes in small group tours of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and India.