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China: Tashilhunpo monastery

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Tashilhunpo monastery | China | Asia

[Visited: April 2007]

When I entered Tashilhunpo monastery through the main gate, it felt like walking into a separate village. I found myself on a huge square, and could see the gilded roofs of some of the chapels in a distance. Otherwise, I saw streets and alleys, with monks passing through as real villagers. Instead of rushing to the chapels directly, I decided to take more time to explore the quiet, whitewashed streets, discovering some small squares on the way. This monastery, which is actually one of the great Gelugpa establishments, was founded in the mid-15th century by Genden Drup, who was later named the First Dalai Lama.

Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Morning light falling on Tashilhunpo monastery

The call of the chapels was too strong, and I succumbed to it. I went straight for the main chapel: the Chapel of Jampa, or Maitreya Temple. Once inside, my eyes were inevitably drawn to the ceiling where I saw, towering high above me, the enormous gilded face of Maitreya, the Future Buddha. With over 26 metres in height, this is the largest gilded statue in the world. It is not really ancient: work started in 1914 and it took a small army of 900 Tibetan and Nepalese artisans to complete in four years. Apart from the fact that it contains around 300kg of gold, the statue is remarkable for its size, but it also seems very friendly, considering its height. The walls of this high-ceiling hall are covered by one thousand gold-painted Jampas or Maitreyas on a red background. Tashilhunpo is actually the seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama in the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. While the name literally means great scholar, Panchen Lamas have almost inevitably become involved in political power plays between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese, who sought to use the two leading figures in Tibetan Buddhism to drive a wedge in the local religion - a play that continues to the present day.

Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Head of Maitreya, largest gilded statue in the world

But this does not prevent the visitor from enjoying the chapels of the monastery and the many monks living in it. Probably the most remarkable scene I saw was in the central courtyard. When approaching from outside, I noticed monks rushing in, and perhaps hundreds of red shoes everywhere on the floor. Down in the courtyard, monks carrying huge metal jugs, emptying them in flasks lined up at the end of the stairs. When all flasks were full, they were carried up, and I followed them. Monks gathered to drink milky tea or cha ngamo. Afterwards, they collectively started studying religious scriptures. While watching the monks inside, some of the monks near the entrance gestured me to sit with them. It was good to be a little bit more part of the scene, to see the long-shaped religious books the monks were using, to see how they could behave like naughty schoolboys, giggling when their master did not look. Quite soon after that, the leading monk came by and when he spotted me, grew quite agitated and ushered me out again. The sun was going down, and visitors were leaving: it was time to leave the monopoly of the monastery back to the monks. Soft sunlight was setting over the white buildings as I left, just in time to walk the kora around Tashilhunpo monastery.

Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Afternoon tea for Tashilhunpo monks
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Monks of Tashilhunpo monastery
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Red monastery door with Tashilhunpo monk
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Tashilhunpo monk pouring sweet milk tea in a flask
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Tashilhunpo monastery: gathering room filled with monks
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Alley of Tashilhunpo monastery
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Buddhist symbol of harmony: bird on top of hare on top of monkey, on top of elephant
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Tea ceremony with Tashilhunpo monks
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Studying religious scriptures: monks at Tashilhunpo monastery
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Monk and visitors looking at the courtyard of Tashilhunpo monastery
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Red prayer wheels of Tashilhunpo monastery
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Afternoon sunlight on Tashilhunpo monastery building
Picture of Tashilhunpo monastery (China): Tashilhunpo monastery: some buildings in the early morning sunlight

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