Lhasa Temples: what are the must-see monasteries in Lhasa

November,14 2019 BY Sonam Tenphel 0 COMMENTS

Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, is the center of the Buddhist religion in Tibet and home to dozens of temples and monasteries, several of which are the most important temples in the region. The unique culture of the city and its long history makes this city a shining example of Tibetan Buddhism, with row upon row of stunning Buddhist buildings. Lhasa has around 22 temples in total, including nunneries, plus around 15 hermitage sites that are located in the hills to the north of Lhasa itself.

The monasteries and temples include:
Jokhang Monastery, Ramoche Temple, Ganden Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Drak Yerpa, Drigung Monastery, Kundeling Monastery, Muru Nyingba Monastery, Nechung, Nenang Monastery, Nyêmo Chekar monastery, Nyethang Drolma Temple, Reting Monastery, Taklung Monastery, Tsomon Ling, Tsurphu Monastery, Yangpachen Monastery

The Nunneries, which all fall under the ordinance of the Sera Monastery, include:
Ani Tsankhung Nunnery, Chupzang Nunnery, Garu Nunnery, Negodong Nunnery

While all of the temples are not actually situated inside the city of Lhasa, they are all within the Lhasa prefecture-level city limits, which stretches as far north as Lake Namtso in Damxung County. Lhasa has a number of ancient Buddhist temples, from the most sacred Jokhang temple to the smallest stupa and nunnery. While several of the temples are in out of the way places, and are hard to get to, there are a good number that can be visited easily, and are the most popular temples and monasteries for any visit to Lhasa.

Jokhang Temple and Ramoche Temple

In the 7th century, the Tibetan king Songtsan Gambo married the Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal Kingdom and the Princess Wencheng of Tang Dynasty. They also brought the Buddha statues of Sakyamuni to Tibet. At the proposal of Princess Wencheng, Songtsan Gambo built two Buddhist temples in the center of Lhasa to worship the two Buddha statues. One is the Jokhang Temple, built for the eight-year old Buddha statue of Sakyamuni by the Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti, and the other one is the Ramoche Temple, built for the twelve-year-old Buddha statue of Sakyamuni.

Jokhang Temple - a temple built before the establishment of Lhasa city

One of the oldest temples in Tibet, the Jokhang Temple is considered to be the center of Tibetan Buddhism and the most sacred temple in Tibet. Located in the center of the old city, in Barkhor Square, the temple is maintained by the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism and is a mix of Tibetan, Indian, and Nepali design, making it very unique.

Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, TibetJokhang Temple, the center of Tibetan Buddhism

The temple was built in 652AD by the 33rd Tibetan King, Songtsen Gampo, for his Buddhist wives, Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty. The temple was enlarged over the next 900 years, with the last work being completed in around 1610. The temple now houses the statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha at the age of twelve, which was brought to Lhasa by the Princess Wencheng as part of her dowry. The statue is believed to be the oldest statue of Sakyamuni Buddha in existence, and is said to have been blessed by Buddha himself, making it more than 2,500 years old.

The temple is also the site of many pilgrim’s dedications, and pilgrims travel from all over Tibet, many walking the entire distance, travel there to pray and prostrate in front of the gates. The pilgrims will then walk around the ritual kora circuit around the temple, which follows the roads of Barkhor Street, the most famous streets in Tibet.

Jokhang is believed to be the spiritual heart of Tibetan Buddhism, and legends say it is literally so. Tibet was considered to be ruled by a wild demoness that opposed Buddhism and to stop her, Songtsen Gampo built 13 temples at strategic points in the region. The first four, known as the “ru bzhi”, were in Central Tibet, the second four, the “mtha'dul” were built in the outer areas, and the final four, the “yang'dul”, were built on the frontiers in the north, south, east, and west. Jokhang, the final temple, was built over the heart of the demoness, subduing her forever.

Ramoche Temple - the sister temple to Jokhang Monastery

The second most sacred temple, after the Jokhang, the Ramoche Temple lies in the northwest of Lhasa, east of Potala Palace and north of Jokhang. Dating back to the 7th century, it was the sister temple to the Jokhang, and was completed at around the same time. While the Jokhang Temple houses the Jowo Rinpoche, the statue brought to Tibet by Princess Wencheng, the Ramoche Temple houses the Jowo Mikyö Dorje, the statue brought to Tibet from Nepal by Princess Bhrikuti.

The Ramoche Temple was originally the home of the Jowo Rinpoche, after it was brought to Tibet in 641AD, and was built in the traditional Chinese style, as requested by the Princess Wencheng. After the death of Songtsen Gampo in 649AD, the statue was hidden by Wencheng in a secret chamber in the Jokhang Temple, due to the threat of invasion from the Tang Dynasty. In 710, Princess Jincheng, the Tang Dynasty wife of the Tibetan king, Tridé Tsuktsen, had the statue moved to the central hall of the Jokhang, where it remains to this day. The statue was replaced in the Ramoche temple with the Jowo Mikyö Dorje, the small bronze statue of Buddha when he was eight years old.

The “ Great Three Gelugpa Monasteries” in Lhasa

In 1409, Je Tsongkhapa built Ganden Monastery in Dagzê County and presided over all the affairs. Since then, Jamyamg Choge Tashi Palden and Jamchen Chojey, two of the main disciples of Je Tsongkhapa, had established Drepung and Sera Monasteries respectively. Hence Lhasa Great Three Gelugpa Monasteries took shape. After the Tsongkhapa masters died, the Gelugpa continued to develop and a number of monasteries were built in various places. And even the former monks’ temples were converted into Gelugpa and became Gelugpa temples. Together with the Lhasa Three Gelugpa Monasteris, Shigatse Tashilhunpo Monastery, Qinghai Ta’er Temple and Gansu Labrang Monastery are reputated as the top six Gelugpa Monasteries in Tibetan Area.

Ganden Monastery - the first Gelupa Buddhist monastery established by Tsong Khapa and Ganden Kora

One of the Great Three Monasteries of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, Ganden Monastery was the seat of the Gelug School, and was built by the founder of the school, Je Tsongkhapa, in 1409. Located around 40 kilometers to the north of Lhasa City, in Dagzê County, the monastery sits on the top of the Wangbur Mountain, a small mountain that lies inside a hilly natural amphitheater. At an altitude of 4,300 meters above sea level, the full name of the monastery is “Ganden Namgyal Ling”, which translates to “joyful victorious temple”.

Ganden Monastery in Lhasa, TibetEnjoying the charming scenery from the top of Wangbur Mountain

The monastery was the seat of Tsongkhapa during his life, who stayed at the monastery often and died in his bedchamber there in 1419. On the event of his death, his robe and staff were passed on to the first Ganden Tripa, Gyeltsabjey, and his body was preserved and entombed in a gold and silver tomb in the monastery he founded. The reliquary chorten that holds his remains is known as the Tongwa Donden, which means “Meaningful to Behold”. On each June 15 in Tibetan calendar, a huge Thangka of Buddha, 26m in length and 10m in width, will be exhibited in this monastery.

Ganden is the farthest from Lhasa among all the three university monasteries, Drepung, Sera and Ganden. Also, traditionally it had a smaller population: with some 6,000 monks in the early 20th century. Waddell reports an estimate of about 3,300 in the 1890s. But the number shinked to about 2,000 in 1959.

Ganden Monastery consisted of two principal original colleges, Jangtse and Shartse. The former one means North Peak, and the other, East Peak. There are totally three main sights in the Ganden Monastery: the Serdung to contain the tomb of Tsongkhapa, the Tsokchen Assembly Hall and the Ngam Cho Khang the chapel, used to be the place for Tsongkhapa to teach. Some of his artifacts can also be found here. The best way to visit this monastery is to follow the pilgrims who go to the Ganden Kora. But many tourists prefer trekking from Ganden Monastery to Samye Temple. Ganden to Samye trekking asks well adaption to the high altitude so this trekking is recommended after you have stayed in Lhasa for a few days.

Drepung Monastery - a place that produces generation of famous monks and Buddha Thangka unfolding

The largest of all Tibetan monasteries, Drepung is located on Gambo Utse Mountain, around five kilometers from the western outskirts of Lhasa. One of the Great Three Monasteries of the Gelug School, along with its peers Ganden and Sera monasteries, it was built in 1416 by Jamyamg Choge Tashi Palden, one of the main disciples of Tsongkhapa. On its completion it was chosen as the new seat of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, and has retained that premier position ever since.

The Ganden Phodrang, the residential quarters of the Dalai Lama in the monastery, was the center of government in Tibet until the construction of the Potala Palace by the fifth Dalai Lama. Constructed in 1518 inside he grounds of the monastery by the retrospectively-named second Dalai Lama, its name was later given to the Tibetan Government that was established in the Potala Palace by the 5th Dalai Lama. Buddha Exhibition in this temple is very famous, especially during the annual Shoton Festival.

>> Top 2 Gelugpa Monasteries to Enjoy Buddha Unfolding Ceremony in Tibet: Drepung and Tashilhunpo Monastery

Sera Monastery - a wild rose garden in Tibet and Monk Debate

The third of the Great Three monasteries of the Gelug School, Sera Monastery was built in 1419, at the time of the death of Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the school. Located around 5km to the north of the Jokhang Temple, the name is attributed to the fact that, during the construction of the monastery, the hills around it were covered in wild roses in full bloom, yet completely out of season.

Founded by the disciple of Tsongkhapa, Jamchen Chojey, to commemorate his passing, Sera Monastery has long been responsible for around 19 hermitage sites, which includes four nunneries, which lie in the foothills just to the north of Lhasa City. However, what is unique about this university monastery is its method of education. Young monks in training are taken to the debating courtyard in the afternoons and given lessons in theological, theosophical, and philosophical debate by their teachers. These debates are heated and extravagant, with lots of excessive hand gestures, foot stomping, and expressive gestures. Even if you cannot understand what they say, you will be immerge yourself in the extraordinarily competitive debate.

Drak Yerpa - holy place where Terton has been found and scenic hike

Just a short drive to the east out of the city of Lhasa, on a hillside in Dagzê County, lies the Drak Yerpa Monastery, with its collection of ancient meditation caves. Lying in the Yerpa Valley, the monastery lies around 16 kilometers to the northeast of Lhasa, on the banks of the Kyichu River. From the monastery, it is yet another ten kilometers to the ancient caves in the limestone cliffs that were the meditation caves of Drak Yerpa, which once held more than 300 monks in hermitage at any one time.

Drak Yerpa in Lhasa, TibetHiking to Drak Yerpa and enjoying the view of the lush shrubs thriving in the mountains

Founded by the Tibetan queen of Songtsen Gampo, Monza Triucham, the monastery has traditionally held sway over the caves, which have been used by such religious and political dignitaries as the king and his two foreign brides in later years, as well as Padmasambhava and several of his disciples. The caves were also used for 22 years for the meditation of Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje, the Buddhist monk assassin of the ancient anti-Buddhist Bon Emperor, Langdarma, in 842 AD.

Similar to the Tiger Nest in Bhutan, Drak Yerpa merges with the hills with some chapels embedded in the cliff. There are also many caves in the mountains, where monks practice Buddhism and do some meditation. There is an old saying in Lhasa, “Visiting Lhasa without touring Drak Yerpa would be like making a brand-new Tibetan cloth without collar”. Hiking around Drak Yerpa, you’ll view the lush shrubs thriving in the mountains, crystal rivulets meandering through the green pastures, lovely flowers blooming on the trees, etc. If lucky enough, you’ll be likely to encounter the docile blue sheep grazing around.

>> Guide to Top 2 Buddhist Hermitages in Tibet: Drak Yerpa and Chim-puk Hermitage

Nunneries worthy of a Visit in Lhasa

There was once a ballad in Tibet, vividly summarizing the characteristics of the four nunneries in Lhasa: ”the nuns of the Miqinresi Temple, practicing Buddhism on the top of the cliff; the nuns of the Galisi Temple, herding in the ravine; the nuns of the Langgusi Temple, drinking wine in the chapel; only the nuns of the Canggusi Temple (Ani Tsankhung Nunnery) have both the practice of the Dharma and the secular life."

Canggu Nunnery is the only nun temple in Lhasa, belonging to Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism. Entering the gate, you’ll see a row of prayer wheels and weisang furnace, and the main chapel is on your left hand. It’s home to hundreds of nuns. They chant in the hall from 8:00 to 16:00 every day and hold several large-scale chanting activities every month.

Sitting next to Jokhang Temple, Canggu Nunnery hides in the 6of old Lhasa Town, which is very popular among locals to worship and drink fragrant sweet tea. The taste of Tibetan dumplings and Tibetan noodles is very good. Just order a bottle of Tibet sweet tea, you can enjoy a whole afternoon here, making friends with locals, sharing your travel experience or idling away your leisure time.

Other Lhasa Temples and Monasteries

Tsurphu Monastery - the real Kalacakravajra Mandala

The traditional seat of the Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsurphu lies in the Doilungdêqên District of Lhasa, in Gurum, around 70 kilometers from Lhasa. Lying at 4,300 meters above sea level, the monastery was built in the middle of the valley, surrounded by high mountains on all sides. The traditional seat of the Karmapa lamas, the gompa was founded in 1159 by the first Karmapa Lama, Düsum Khyenpa.

On his initial visit to the site, he made offerings to the local deities and divinities, and finally founded the monastery there as a building in 1189. The monastery soon grew, and at its height had more than 100 monks in residence. Completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the rebuilding began in 1980, which took almost a decade to complete. The monastery also has a branch monastery in Nangchen, Kham, known as the Jang Tana Yelpa Kagyu Monastery. The monastery was founded in 1068, almost a hundred years before the Tsurphu site was discovered.

Reting Monastery – a monastery among hundreds and thousands of ancient cypresses

Reting Monastery, also known as Radreng Monastery, is a historically important Buddhist monastery in Lhasa of central Tibet. This monastery 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.

Drigung Monastery – a place of eternity

Drigung is a notable monastery about 150 km east from Lhasa. A tradition in Tibetan Buddhism known as sky burials are commonly performed by monks of the monastery, and it has become one of the more notable aspects of the monastery's culture wherein the bodies of the dead are put out for nature to decompose or for predatory birds to eat. As Buddhists believe in reincarnation, there is no need, in their view, to preserve the corpses.

There are numerous temples of all sizes dotting in and around Lhasa and we just named a few here. Wanna delve into Tibetan Buddhism and make an in-depth travel in Lhasa Monasteries and Temples? We are already here to work out your personal itinerary and please feel free to contact us!

Sonam Tenphel

About the Author - Sonam Tenphel

Energetic, responsible and reliable, Sonam is a guide with more than seven years experience informing visitors about heritage sites and attractions places in Tibet.

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