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 Tibetan Monasteries & Sky Burial
Along the beaten and not-beaten tracks
please be patient while it loads - the photos are worth it!



Places of worship for Tibetan Buddhism as well as of the indigenous Bon religion abound in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and many other traditional Tibetan areas. Many of these monasteries and nunneries are original, dating back thousands of years while others have been rebuild by monks and nuns and pilgrims since the end of the Cultural Revolution after over 6000 monasteries were destroyed. Located at the foot of mountains, on top of mountains, and in valleys surrounded by mountains, these monastery and nunnery complexes are extensive sites of education, housing and worship. They usually include the Sutra Hall,Zhacang Buddhist school,living quarters of lamas, the palace of the Living Buddha, the living quarters for the monks, all grouped around the Hall of Enlightenment. The various buildings are connected by corridors, steps, pathways and courtyards forming a harmonious whole. There is nothing more thrilling than visiting a monastery and seeing monks in action, chanting their mantras, pounding their drums and praying in front of their yak butter lamps. For a student of religion, those seeking a spiritual experience, a Buddhist or an intellectual nomad wanting to get the full sense of this magical land, there is nothing quite like a tour of monasteries, both the well-known and the small ones off the beaten path where photos are still permitted. Here are a few examples, but there are many hidden in valleys and mountains that only your tour guide will know about. If you are interested in tracking down those less-known, but charming older monasteries, be sure to tell your guide so it can be plotted into your itinerary. You may even be allowed to stay the night. If you really want to experience Tibet rather than running with the tight schedule of a group, hiring a private guide is definitely the ultimate way to see Tibet.



 JOKHANG - Lhasa

 SERA - Lhasa

The Jokhang Temple (not a monastery) situated in the center of the old section of Lhasa was built in the mid - 7th century A. D. and later extended by successive rulers. It is now a gigantic architecture complex. Located in the east, facing to the west, it is a four-story temple with splendid golden roofs, spires and emblems.  The murals in the temple mainly depict the life stories of historic characters. The temple houses many historical relics including statues of King Songtsen Gompo, Princess Wencheng, Princess Bhrikuti Devi (Nepalese). The Jokhang Temple is the most important temple in Tibetan Buddhism. Pilgrims come from all Tibetan areas to worship the Sakyamuni Buddha and other important deities. more

Sera Monastery, the largest monastery in Tibet, with numerous colleges, lies at the foot of Tatipu Hill  in the northern suburb of Lhasa City. It is one of three most famous monasteries in Lhasa.  
The Sera Monastery is of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat Sect, a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, founded by Tsong Khapa. The monastery was named Sera which means wild rose in the Tibetan language, because the hill behind it was covered with wild roses when the monastery was built. The monastery is magnificent and covers an area of 114,946 square meters (28 acres). Its main buildings are the Coqen Hall, Zhacang (college) and Kamcun (dormitory). Scriptures written in gold powder, fine statues, scent cloth and unparalleled murals can be found in these halls. Colorful debates on Buddhist doctrines are held here (when occupied by monks). 
Situated five kilometers from Lhasa at the foot of Mt. Ganpoi Uze., Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416 by Jamyang Choje. He was a disciple of Tsongkapa, the founder of Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery, occupying an area of 250,000 squire meters with about 7,700 monks (unknown number since 2008) is the largest monastery in Tibet (TAR). The monastery keeps plentiful historical relics, Buddhist scriptures, statues, religious arts and crafts.
 GANDEN - Lhasa

Ganden Monastery is located on Wangbur Mountain, on the southern bank of Lhasa River in Tagtse County, 29 miles from Lhasa City. It stands at an altitude of 3,800 meters (12,467 feet) above sea level. It is one of the earliest and largest Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, and stands atop of the six famous temples of Gelugpa. Its significance as a religious, artistic, political and cultural relic led to it being preserved by the National Key Cultural Relic Preservation scheme in 1961, and is now known as being one of the 'Three Great Temples. Every year, one of the grandest of Buddhist activities - Buddha Painting Unfolding Festival - is conducted in the monastery, attracting thousands of visitors and disciples (when open).  Also enjoy other festivals.

SAMYE, Tsedang - 6 hours from Lhasa

Samye Monastery, founded in the 8th century during the reign of King Trisong Detsen is truly breathtaking. You can't help but fall in love with the resident monks! As the first monastery built in Tibet, this distinctive monastery and village complex forms a gigantic mandala; a representation of the world, the Tibetan universe! Enclosed by walls topped with 1008 chortens, the first Tibetan monks were ordained here.

The temple was built by the Trisong Detsen (reigned 742-798) of the Tubo Kingdom and the work was directed by Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita, the two Indian masters that the king had invited to Tibet.  It is thought the name SAMYE (meaning "surprise" in Tibetan) originated from an exclamation Detson made. When the temple was completed, Detsen took part in the foundation ceremony and ordained seven descendants of blue blood. They became the first group of monks to live at the temple and later became known as the 'Seven Enlightened Disciples of Samye'.

The entire construction of the temple is very extravagant and complex. It replicates the universe described in the Tibetan Buddhism sutras. The central temple represents Mt. Sumeru, the mythical mountain at the centre of the cosmos. The Sun and Moon chapels stand in the north and south as the sun and moon do in the universe. Four larger halls and eight smaller halls are distributed around all sides of the central hall, symbolizing the four large continents and eight small ones. In the four corners lie the Red, White, Black and Green Pagodas guarding the Dharma (virtuous path or religion) like heavenly kings. A circular wall surrounds the temple as if symbolizing the periphery of the world. The layout of Samye Monastery resembles the mandala in the Tibetan or Esoteric Buddhism tradition. Beyond its front entrance is an idyllic courtyard, planted with flowers, trees, and bamboo. Over the centuries Samye has been associated with various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Today, Tibetans of all traditions come to worship here.

Drigung Til Monastery
Tidrum Nunnery
150 km east from Lhasa - Ü Province

One hundred kilometers northeast of Lhasa in the Drigung valley dotted with small villages lies this impressive monastery on a steep ridge overlooking the Drigung valley. The lovely valleys have an untouched and perpetual quality that makes them seem much further away from Lhasa than they actually are. The roads are rough but it’s well worth the effort to make it out hereNorth from the monastery tucked with craggy peaks is the Tidrum nunnery, a relaxing place with sacred medicinal hot springs. Drigung Til Monastery is the head monastery of the Drigungpa school of the Kagyupa order of Tibetan Buddhism. It was begun in 1179, but was almost completely destroyed during the war between the Zhigung Gagyu Sect and the Sagya Sect.
It was rebuilt and then destroyed again during the cultural revolution between 1966-1976. The new construction dates from 1983.

The lovely monastery sprouts from a high, steep ridge overlooking the Drigung Valley. A steep narrow path makes its way up into the monastic complex. There is vehicle access from the eastern end of the valley. The 180-degree views from the main courtyard are striking and a serene tranquility infuses the site.

The monastery kora heads up the hill to the main durtro (burial platform) of the Drigung Celestial Burial Ground. This is the holiest and most famous sky-burial site in the Lhasa region, maybe in all of Tibet! People travel hundreds of kilometers to bring their deceased relatives here to have the sacred rites performed in this place of unsurpassed serenity. What is a sky burial?

It may be possible to observe a sky burial if you are here, but it is absolutely essential that you gain permission from both the family of the deceased and the senior lama conducting the ceremony.

The Drigung Powa Chenmo is a religious festival held once every 12 years, in the year of the ape. The festival honors women, children and fertility. Ever since 1959 the Chinese government has forbidden the festival, but in 2004 the festival was officially approved and recognized by the authorities. Since then thousands of Tibetans now travel to the Drigung Til monastery. They pack their tents, supplies and their children on small tractors, or go by bus or truck. Seeing this festival, being a part of it and getting to know these awesome Tibetan people is truly beyond description. The roads to this timeless place are rough but it’s well worth the effort. Many hikers come from Lhasa. Others get here by bus or private car, but for those who make it, their lives are never the same.

 RETING - North of Lhasa

Reting is an historically important Buddhist monastery in central Tibet. It was founded by Atisha's chief disciple Dromtönpa in 1056 in the Reting Tsampo Valley north of Lhasa as the seat of the Kadampa lineage. Although Reting was devastated by the Red Guards during Mao's Cultural Revolution (1965-1976), it has been partially restored. Interestingly, the Reting Rinpoches were the monks responsible for the successful search and discovery of the current Dalai Lama.






Tashilhunpo Monastery

Tashilhunpo Monastery is the biggest Gelugpa monastery in the Tsang region of Tibet. It is located in Shigatse around 250 kilometers away from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Situated on the foot of Mt. Drolmari, this magnificent structure is one of the six huge monasteries of the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet. It was built by First Dalai Lama in the year 1447 and expanded by successive Panchen Lamas over the centuries. It stands on a whooping area of around 300,000 square meters! Also this place has been the seat of the Panchen Lamas for hundreds of years. As the second most important religious leader of Tibet, Tashilhunpo Monastery has become a prominent landmark in Shigatse,  the second largest city in Tibet.

The Tashilhunpo Monastery was founded by Gedun Drub, later titled the first Dalai Lama. He was also the nephew and follower of the legendary Buddhist Philosopher, Je Tsongkhapa. This is one of those sites that is difficult to describe because of its circumference. The massive renovation of the monastery was started by the fourth Panchen Lama and was carried on by successive Lamas. When the monastery was at its most active, there were more than 4000 monks and 4 tantric colleges with their own abbot. In 1960, the Chinese attacked the monastery in the absence of the Pachen Lama.

Wall Displays:
As you enter the monastery, you will see a wall overlooking the monastery. This wall was build by the order of the first Dalai Lama. Visitors are in awe by the mere dimensions and size of this monastery. The largest number of visitors come during the Buddha Thangka display festival which is usually held every 14, 15 and 16 of May on the Tibetan calendar. On this day, the wall displays images of Lord Buddha.

Inside the Maitreya Chapel holds the biggest statue of a sitting Maitreya Buddha, almost 86 feet in height, well decorated with 275 kilograms of pure gold, diamonds, pearls, turquoises, corals and ambers, and other rare stones. It is rather spellbinding to know that the Buddha was handcrafted by around 900 craftsmen and took more than 9 years to construct.

The other fabulous attraction of the Tashilhunpo Monastery is the Stupa from the tenth Panchen Lama. It lies east of the chapel and is covered with gold, jewels and precious stones.

The another significant building in Tashilhunpo is the Kelsang Temple. It is one of the oldest and largest buildings in Tashilhunpo. It is truly a colossal compound. It has a Main Chanting Hall where lamas learn sutras and listen to Panchen Lama sermons. On the back end of the hall lies a 5 meters (16 feet) high statue of Sakyamuni. It is said that a part of Sakyamuni's remains were placed inside this statue!

If you see no other monastery outside of Lhasa, Tashilhunpo Monastery is an absolute must visit!

Palkhor (Palcho) Monastery - Ghantse

The Palkhor Monastery may also be called Palcho or Baiju Monastery. With a strange mix of monks this enchanting monastery is certainly different from other monasteries in Tibet. it is the only monastery that houses monks from different orders. The monks from the Gelugpa, Sakyapa and Kahdampa orders live in this monastery in harmony and tranquility. About 230 (143 miles) kilometers south of Lhasa and 100 kilometers east of Shigatse at the foot of Dzong Hill, it is truly spectacular. Built as a typical Tibetan Buddhism monastery it was erected in 1418 and has remarkably remained intact and unscathed to this day. And that is really an unbelievable feat since the Chinese destroyed over 6000 monasteries during the Cultural Revolution between 1966-1976. The tower, Palkhor Tower, is also referred to as the Ten Thousand Buddhas Tower. It is the calling card of Palkhor Monastery and the most important building in this monastery. The tower houses around 100 family halls for worshipping Buddha, 10,000 figures of Buddha in the Buddhist shrines and murals which gives it the name of the "Ten Thousand Buddhas Tower". With a exceptional history and a cornucopia of Tibetan Buddhist art, this monastery is famous for the incredible  temple and stupa dating from the 13th to 15th century. The main Assembly Hall of Palkhor Monastery, Tshomchen, was built between the end of the 14th century and the beginning of the 15th century. This three-story structure has many fascinating features. The ground floor has a chanting hall with 48 columns that are ornamented with ancient silk "thangkas". Most interesting are the murals depicting stories of Buddha. Notice that the painting style in this monastery is quite different from paintings that one seen in other monasteries. The monastery is famous worldwide for it's matchless architecture and the 'Bodhi Stupa' or 'Kumbum'. Visit the monastery on 15th of April according to Tibetan calendar Saka Dawa festival is celebrated, the birthday of Sakyamuni. An absolute gala fiesta, to say the least.

Kumbum Stupa of Palkhor Monastery - Ghantse

Kumbum Stupa is one of the most distinctive temples in the world. It is an unusual architectural masterpiece with its nine levels rise in the manner of a step pyramid. Its construction started in 1418 and it was completed in 1427. It is designed in classic stupa or pagoda style. The  word Kumbum literally means 10,000 images and according to its name Kumbum stupa contains 10,000 murals some of which are dates back to 15 century and still in tact. These images include Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Vajras, Dharma Kings, Arhats, Disciples, great adepts of different orders in Tibetan Buddhist history, and outstanding figures in Tibetan history such as Songtsen Gampo and Trisong Detsen. It was an important centre of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism and still considered as one of the most outstanding and sacred places of Tibet. This amazing structure is 35 meters in height, octagonal in shape, has a 9 storey terraced exterior, 108 chapels, and superb murals (wall paintings). It raises over four symmetrical floors plus two upper floors and is capped with a gold dome. The four floors contain 108 chapels which the pilgrims visit.

 SAKYA - Shigatse area

Located in Skaya Country 30 kilometers off the Shigatse-Xegar highway, this monastery stands in two parts on either side of Dongchu River. This monastery is the center of the Sakyapa Sect (White Earth Order). The northern part of the monastery was built in the year 1079 and the southern founded in 1268.  For people seeking spiritual and personal growth, Sakya Monastery provides access to the Buddha’s teachings and guidance within a community of practitioners. Sakya Monastery provides a place to learn from highly qualified and spiritual Tibetan Lamas in a beautiful traditional setting.

Shalu Monastery

The monastery of Shalu was founded by Chetsun Sherab Jungnay in the region of Nyangro near the present day town of Shigatse. In the early fourteenth century it became the most important centre of learning under Butön Rinpoche (1290-1364 ), one of Tibet's greatest scholars. There he brought together the one hundred and eight volumes of the fundamental texts of Buddhism, the Kanjur, and the two hundred volumes of "treaties and commentaries", the Tenjur. At the same time he supervised the execution of 499 tantric mandalas, a few of which can be still seen in two chapels on the first floor. In 1305, Butön Rinpoche advised Prince Drakpa Gyaltsen to extend the monastery, following which Shalu was decorated by Tibetan and Nepalese artists who had been trained in the Mongol imperial workshops under the famous Newari master, Arniko (1245-1306). Due to Butön's activity, the monastery became one of the most important centers of study in Tibet, continuing on as an influential, non-sectarian monastery for centuries to come. The association has adopted the name of Shalu, as an exceptional repository of Tibetan religious art, and in memory of this great Buddhist

Rongbuk Monastery

Rongbuk Monastery is one of the highest monastery in the world. At the elevation of 4800 meters it is the last inhabited spot before Everest Base Camp. Of course, interesting in its own way and a place to stay overnight, Rongbuk is small and really only worth a visit if you are on your way up to Everest Base Camp. It is situated in Basum Township, in Shigaste Prefecture of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The road up to Base Camp is not paved and very rough. Rongbuk was built by a local lama in about 1899. Previously this land area was a camp of meditation huts used by monks and hermits for over 400 years. The best part is the hermitage meditation caves that dot the cliff walls all around the monastery complex and up and down the valley. Lining the paths, are many walls and stones are carved with sacred syllables and prayers. Zatul Rinpoche, the lama who founded this monastery has always been held in high esteem by Tibetans. Even though a minor physical monastery, in past times this place was an active centre of Tibetan Buddhism teachings. During annual ceremonies this place came alive with masked dancers and throngs of faithful pilgrims. Cymbals clanked amid the ceaseless thunder of the long Tibetan trumpets.

The chorten dramatically marks this last human dwelling place before one heads up to the stark valley to Base Camp. Walking up from Rongbuk Monastery, you see the famous Rongbuk Glacier Zone which is the largest of all the hundreds of glaciers formed around the Mt. Everest. The three glaciers north of the Mt. Everest flow south and assemble at a river traversing the foot of the monastery. This is called 'Rongbuk River', and the water here is extremely cold.

In Rongbuk monastery both the monks and nuns reside and celebrate Tibetan Buddhist festivals together. Come during the three days Saga Dawa Festival which is held to celebrate the birth of Sakyamuni. During the play many monks disguise themselves and dance for hours.

 RALUNG - Gyantse area, Tsang

Ralung Monastery is the traditional seat of the Drukpa Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery is surrounded by the towering peaks and majestic glacier fields. The founder of Bhutan was the 18th abbot of Ralung monastery. In 1616 he fled Tibet when his recognition as the reincarnation of renowned scholar Pema Karpo was challenged by the governor. Ngawang Namgyel proved to be a worthy incarnation  as he far surpassed the accomplishments of his tormentors. He unified the warring valleys of Bhutan, fending off attacks from Tibet, forming a national identity, and establishing a Drukpa theocracy that continues to this day in modified form as the Royal Government of Bhutan.

Trandruk Monastery
 Shannon Province

 Ganzu Province

Located on the southern side of Mt. Gangpo Ri, Trandruk Monastery can be found 2 kilometers south of Tradrug on the eastern bank of Yarlung River. This is one of the earliest Buddhist monasteries and worth a look if you're in the area. It looks a lot like the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.
Trandruk means 'the sound of an eagle roaring like a dragon' in the Tibetan language. Rumor has it that the land where Trandruk Monastery now stands was once a lake. Here's the story. A monstrous dragon with five heads settled in the lake and created huge problems for the inhabitants of this area. In an effort to regain peace and happiness for the people, Songtsen Gampo turned himself into a roc, an incredible sortof bird. After many fights with the dragon, Gampo finally won the battle over this evil creature, The roc pecked unendingly at the five heads of the dragon and it finally died. Therefore the name of Trandruk was given to the monastery when it was built, to commemorate the great deeds of Songtsen Gampo.

 As one of the most famous monasteries in Tibet, built in the age of the great ruler Songtsen Gampo, the main building is called Tshomchen. Residing inside this ornate building is a giant copper statue of Buddha. The jawdropping thangka (painted wall hanging) is the greatest treasure of the monastery. With 29,000 plus pearls, a diamond, two carbuncles, and other precious gems it is priceless.

Labrang Monastery is one of the six great monasteries of the Geluk (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism. It is located in Xiahe County (Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Perfecture) in the Gansu province area of Amdo. It's about four hours from Lanzhou. This rural area is magnificent to visit in the summer with yaks roaming the verdant green hillsides and sheep meandering along the roadside. Although less visited than the TAR, this area is a place you can experience Tibetan life as it was for centuries as it is still about seventy percent Tibetan (nomads and farmers). The monastery complex towers above the northern village. The white walls and golden roofs feature a blend of Tibetan and Han architectural styles. The monastery contains 18 halls, six institutes of learning, a golden stupa, a sutra debate, and nearly 60,000 sutras. There once were more than 2000 monks in residence. There is also a very interesting museum. If you're in this area, this is a must-see!

Monasteries near Xining, Qinghai Province
Tibet Shashung Monastery

Shashung Monastery currently houses 350 monks. Founded in 1349 this is one of the oldest standing monasteries in the region.

Kumbum Jampa Ling Monastery/Ta'er (Gelugpa/yellow hat sect)
In commemorating the founder of the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsong Khapa (1357-1419), the Kumbum Jampa Ling Monastery was built in 1577 more than 150 years after his death. In the Tibetan language, Kumbum Jampa Ling is translated as 'gongben', which means '10,000 figures of Buddha'. more

Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Tour Conclusion
There are many, many other monasteries in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, almost all of them worth a visit is you are in the mindset of studying this fascinating religion and culture. These are but a few. Depending on your time, itinerary and desires, our guides can coordinate visits to all of the off-the-track monasteries and temples that have been such an integral part of the development of the Tibetan people and their mores. Please contact our guides for more information. 

Tibetan Sky Burial

Tibetan Sky Burial can be shocking for the western mind, but if you put off your cultural mores and just think of the practicality behind the sky burial, it is probably the most logical burial practice in the world. A sky burial doesn't bury the family with the financial burden of a western funeral. A sky burial is a neat, clean, efficient way to dispose of the physical shell a human leaves behind. A sky burial prevents the waste of flesh. A sky burial allows the body to be of use to living things and contributes to the benefit of those still living and in need of food. We must remember, as the Tibetan's clearly believe, that the body is not the person. The body was a useful cocoon, or shell, or edifice for the energy, the soul, the person who has gone on to another realm, heaven or world. Keeping these things in the forefront of your mind, here is the definition of a Tibetan sky burial.

After a week of prayers, chants, and religious rites to help the departed soul, the body is taken to a celestial burial site, usually on the top of a sacred hill or a nearby hill used for this purpose. The body is laid out for the vultures to clean or the monks cut the flesh from the bones and the vultures are invited to feast on it. The bones are then cut up, smashed up, mixed up with the brains and some tsampa and again offered to the birds. Everything must go, anything that remains is burnt and again offered to the sky in a separate ritual.

For a first-hand account with photos, click here.























































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