Not only is Lhasa awash with enough sights to keep even the most energetic visitor busy for days, but also the major monasteries of Sera, Drepung, Nechung and Ganden are easily accessible from the city as half-day or day-trips. Indeed, Sera and Drepung have virtually been gobbled up in the urban sprawl that now characterizes Lhasa, while the trip to Ganden is a good chance to get out into the countryside. Morning visits to any of them are likely to be in the company of parties of devout pilgrims who’ll scurry around the temples making their offerings before heading on to the next target. Follow on behind them and you’ll visit all the main buildings; don’t worry too much if you aren’t sure what you are looking at – most of the pilgrims haven’t a clue either. The monasteries are generally peaceful and atmospheric places where nobody minds you ambling at will, and sooner or later you’re bound to come across some monks who want to practise their English. Nearby, the walled, combined village and monastery of Samye is the most ancient in Tibet, and a lively and interesting place to spend a day or two.
Further afield, one of the most rewarding and popular trips in Tibet is to Namtso Lake, around 230km northwest of Lhasa, taking in Tsurphu Monastery on the way. This can be done on a two-night/three-day jaunt from Lhasa by jeep.Read More
Set at 4700m and frozen over from November to May, Namtso (纳木错, nàmùcuò; Sky Lake) is 70km long and 30km wide, the second largest saltwater lake in China (only Qinghai Hu is bigger). The scenery comes straight from a dream image of Tibet, with snowcapped mountains towering behind the massive lake and yaks grazing on the plains around nomadic herders’ tents.
A visit to SAMYE, on the north bank of the Tsangpo River, is a highlight of Tibet. A unique monastery and walled village rolled into one, it’s situated in wonderful scenery and, however you arrive, the journey is splendid. You can climb the sacred Hepo Ri to the east of the complex for excellent views (1hr); it was here that Padmasambhava is said to have subdued the local spirits and won them over to Buddhism.
Tibet’s first monastery, Samye (桑木耶寺, sāngmùyēsì) was founded in the eighth century during King Trisong Detsen’s reign, with the help of the Indian masters Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, whom he had invited to Tibet to help spread the Buddhist faith. The first Tibetan Buddhist monks were ordained here after examination and are referred to as the “Seven Examined Men”. Over the years, Samye has been associated with several of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism – Padmasambhava’s involvement in the founding of the monastery makes it important in the Nyingma school, and later it was taken over by the Sakya and Gelugpa traditions. Nowadays, followers of all traditions worship here, and Samye is a popular destination for Tibetan pilgrims, some of whom travel for weeks to reach it.
The design of the extensive monastery complex, several hundred metres in diameter, is of a giant mandala, a representation of the Buddhist universe, styled after the Indian temple of Odantapuri in Bihar. The main temple, the utse, represents Buddha’s palace on the summit of Mount Meru, the mythical mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe. The four continents in the vast ocean around Mount Meru are represented by the lingshi temples, a couple of hundred metres away at the cardinal points, each flanked by two smaller temples, lingtren, representing islands in the ocean. The utse is surrounded by four giant chortens, each several storeys high, at the corners, and there are nyima (sun) and dawa (moon) temples to the north and south, respectively. A renovated enclosing wall, topped by 1008 tiny chortens with gates at the cardinal points, flanks the whole complex. This sounds hugely ordered, but the reality is far more confusing and fun. Samye has suffered much damage and restoration over the years; today, you’ll find the temples dotted among houses, barns and animal pens, with only a few of the original 108 buildings on the site remaining in their entirety.
Life in the great monasteries
Life in the great monasteries
Fifty years ago, there were still six great, functioning Gelugpa monasteries: Sera, Drepung and Ganden near Lhasa, plus Tashilunpo in Shigatse, Labrang and Kumbum. They each operated on a similar system to cope with the huge numbers of monks that were drawn to these major institutions from all over Tibet. In their heyday, Sera and Ganden had five thousand residents each and Drepung (possibly the largest monastery the world has ever known) had between eight and ten thousand.
Each monastery was divided into colleges, dratsang, which differed from each other in the type of studies undertaken. Each college was under the management of an abbot (khenpo), and a monk responsible for discipline (ge-kor). Attached to each college were a number of houses or khangsten, where the monks lived during their time at the monastery. Usually, these houses catered for students from different geographical regions, and admission to the monastery was controlled by the heads of the houses to whom aspirant monks would apply. Each college had its own assembly hall and chapels, but there was also a main assembly hall where the entire community could gather.
Not every member of the community spent their time in scholarly pursuits. Communities the size of these took huge amounts of organization, and the largest monasteries also maintained large estates worked by serfs. About half the monks might be engaged in academic study while the other half worked at administration, the supervision of the estate work and the day-to-day running of what was essentially a small town.
The most obvious feature of these monasteries today is their emptiness; hundreds of monks now rattle around in massive compounds built for thousands. Such has been the fate of religious establishments under the Chinese and the flow of lamas into exile that there are now questions about the quality of the Buddhist education available at the monasteries inside Tibet. Monks and nuns need to be vetted and receive Chinese-government approval before they can join a monastery or convent, and although there are persistent rumours of tourists being informed on by monks, it’s also apparent that both monks and nuns have been, and continue to be, at the forefront of open political opposition to the Chinese inside Tibet.