Compared with the grandeur and historical monasteries in Tibet, Rongbuk Monastery is quite simple and small. However, it ranked on the top of CNN’s ‘Great Places to be a Recluse’ in 2011 and is always listed as one of the must-see sites because of its stunning scenery and special experience.
Introduction of Rongbuk Monastery
Lying at the foot of Rongbuk Glacier at 5,009 meters (16,434 feet) above sea level, Rongbuk Monastery is the highest monastery in the world and one of the highest-elevation settlements ever built. It is about 25 kilometers to the summit of Mount Everest and a few kilometers from the newly-moved Everest Base Camp.
Rongbuk is a Buddhist monastery of the Nyingma sect built in 1902 by the Nyingmapa Lama Ngawang Tenzin Norbu. It once provided protections and supplies for early climbers though they were regarded as heretics, and climbers would perform a pious pray here as a ritual before starting their mountaineering. The monastery once housed about 500 monks and nuns but now there are only dozens of monks and nuns.
Since it was built, the monastery has been a major site of religious importance to the Sherpa people of the Khumbu region of Nepal, who make regular trips through the mountains to visit the monastery and walk the kora around its outer walls. The monastery was actually built on a sacred site in an area of meditation caves and huts that had been used by Buddhist monks since the early 18th century.
Highlights of Rongbuk Monastery
Best Place to view Mt. Everest
With its excellent location, the monastery is one of the best places from which to view the stunning peak of Mount Everest, and is a popular stopping point for tourists and pilgrims alike. Whether you choose to stand in the car park of the monastery, outside the monastery guesthouse opposite, or on the top of the small hill behind, you can get an unobstructed and amazingly clear view of the top of this massive mountain.
And for many, the ability to stay overnight only enhances their enjoyment of the view. For those stopping overnight around Rongbuk Monastery, you can get some great sunset and sunrise photos of the mountain, the sun turning the slopes a burnt orange color.
Unique Building: walls with superb murals, statue of Padmasambhava
Built at the hillside, the Rongbuk Monastery possesses five storeys, only two of which are used today. The second floor of the monastery has two halls. The outer hall of the monastery is the main hall, where monks and nuns can both pray. The inner hall contains the spectacular statue of Padmasambhava, the ancient Indian sage responsible for the dissemination of Buddhism throughout Tibet in the 8th century. The history of the monastery tells of how Padmasambhava stayed here in the meditation caves more than 1,200 years ago.
The frontage of the monastery is also adorned with an ancient stupa that contains the reliquary of the former abbot and founder of the monastery, Lama Ngawang Tenzin Norbu. The outer wall of the monastery, around the kora route, is also adored with prayer wheels, for the pilgrimage of the Buddhists that perform the kora ritual around the monastery.
The monastery was once noted for its vast treasures of Buddhist books and other religious regalia. Much of this was moved to Tengboche for safe-keeping in the 1970s, but was lost due to a fire that broke out in 1989. However, the halls of the monastery are covered with murals and paintings that depict the various aspects of Buddha.
Experience authentic life of Tibetan monks and nuns in one monastery
Rongbuk Monastery is one of the most unusual monasteries in Tibet, in that it does not segregate monks and nuns, as many traditional monasteries do. Here, monks and nuns practice and pray together, though there are separate lodgings. This unusual practice has come about due to the many meditation caves originally being used by nuns in Tibet, with the monks coming later to use most of them. When the monastery was built, it was agreed that nuns would be permitted to remain and stay in the monastery along with the monks.
At its height, the monastery once contained more than 500 monks and nuns in total, though this number has dwindled dramatically over the last 50 years. Now, the number of occupants is much smaller, with reports telling of there being only around 30 monks and nuns in attendance at the monastery, Nevertheless, the monastery is one of the most amazing examples of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries there are, thanks to its allowance for monks and nuns to be under the same roofs.
Religious ceremony in Tibetan festival
The largest and most popular festival held at the monastery each year is the renowned Saga Dawa Festival, which celebrates the life, enlightenment, and death of Sakyamuni Buddha. Held on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Tibetan calendar, this amazing festival is held in great esteem by the locals, as it is the closest instance of the festival for many of the region’s Tibetan Buddhists and Sherpas.
The festival is held in the main courtyard of the monastery, and is attended by many of the devout Buddhists from the nearby towns and villages. The monks and nuns of the monastery, though small in number, dress up in the traditional costumes to perform Cham dances and other performances based on the life of Buddha. Lasting for three days, this festival really brings Rongbuk Monastery to life and is filled with color and excitement.
How to go to Rongbuk Monastery
Getting to Rongbuk Monastery is not hard for travelers to the plateau. International tourists are required to be on a pre-arranged tour of the region with a registered Tibetan travel agency, and visit Rongbuk with Tibet Travel Permits which will be applied by the travel agency on the behalf of them.
The #classic Mount Everest and Rongbuk Monastery tour# departs from Lhasa, and heads past Lake Yamdrok, and through Gyantse, Shigatse, and Tingri, as it snakes its way to the monastery. This makes it a drive of around 691 kilometers from Lhasa to Rongbuk, which takes two days.
For travelers visiting Tibet from Kathmandu, though the drive from Gyirong Port to Rongbuk Monastery is much shorter, it still takes around three days to get there. After leaving Kathmandu, you will travel first to Syabru Bensi, then stop for a second night in Gyirong Town to acclimatize the altitude. The last leg of the trip takes you from Gyirong Town to Rongbuk, a total distance of 496 kilometers.
Best time to visit Rongbuk Monastery
Rongbuk Monastery lies close to both the Everest Base Camp and Mount Everest, and as such, its best visiting time is as the same as the best time to visit Mount Everest, in spring and autumn. However, there is no reason that you cannot visit this amazing monastery at any time of the year. Spring and autumn, from March to May and September to November, are the best times to travel, as the skies are clear and bright and there is no rain.
Additional bonus to visit this monastery
A bonus to visiting the monastery these days is the relative closeness to the base camp for Mount Everest, not to mention the Rongbuk Monastery Guesthouse and Rongbuk Restaurant on the other side of the dirt road.
With over 100 beds in about 30 rooms, Rongbuk Guesthouse is open all the year around even in the winter days. Though small with simple and basic equipment, it is clean and cozy. The Rongbuk Restaurant just lies next to the guesthouse, it supplies hot water and decency food. These make the trip to the monastery a little more comfortable for tourists, with better food and warmer rooms especially in the winter.
As the world’s highest Buddhist monastery, a trip to Rongbuk is one of the most exciting parts of a tour across the Tibetan plateau. While it may not be the oldest monastery in Tibet, it is one of the most important in Western Tibet, and one of the most well-known around the world. And with the amazing views of the World’s Highest Mountain right outside the door, this is a great place to end your exploration of the Tibetan plateau.