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Discover Nechung Monastery: Most Important Spiritual Protectorate of Nation

Nestled in the western suburbs of Lhasa, Nechung Monastery stands about 1,000 meters from the famed Drepung Monastery. Known officially as Nechung Drayang Ling (དབང་གྲགས་རོལ་པའི་དགའ་ཚལ་གནས་ཆུང་རྡོ་རྗེ་སྒྲ་དབྱངས་གླིང) and affectionately as Nechung Monastery (གནས་ཆུང་གཡུ་ལོ་བཀོད), this site serves as the residence of the oracle of Pehar. Built during the early era of the Ganden Phodrang government, it stands as the most splendid and well-preserved monument of that time. Among the temples in Lhasa, Nechung holds a special place in the hearts of the Tibetan people. It is home to revered icons such as the Red Protector Nechung Dorje Drakden and the sacred tree of Pehar, the king of protectors, making visiting Nechung Monastery a holy pilgrimage for devotees.

A Glimpse into History of Nechng Monastery

Nechung Monastery isn’t just a religious landmark; it’s also a political symbol. It has been the epicenter for significant Buddhist ceremonies under the Ganden Phodrang administration, showcasing its importance both spiritually and politically. Nechung Monastery’s foundation dates back to the time of Trisong Detsen, with later expansions by notable figures like Jokhang Jampa Badan and the Second Dalai Lama, who built the important Lakhang temple. Its most significant phase of construction occurred under Desi Sangye Gyatso, enhancing the monastery and its treasures, leading to its current renown as Nechung Monastery. Nechung Monastery boasts a square layout with a main assembly hall, courtyards, and various chapels.

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Understanding the Protector Deities in Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism recognizes two primary categories of protector deities, each playing a vital role in the spiritual practices and teachings of this rich religious tradition.

Transcendent vs. Worldly Protectors

Firstly, there are the Transcendent Protectors. These beings possess immense divine powers and have transcended the cycle of rebirth, residing beyond the six realms of existence. Their role is deeply spiritual, offering protection and guidance that align with the ultimate goals of enlightenment and liberation.

Secondly, the Worldly Protectors share the earthly plane with sentient beings. These deities live a Vajrayana Buddhist lifestyle and often communicate their will through oracles. They are deeply involved in the day-to-day affairs of the faithful, guiding and protecting them in more immediate and practical ways.

Both categories of protector deities are widely acknowledged and venerated across the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. While some protectors are considered specific to certain schools, others are revered more broadly. An interesting distinction is made between “inner” or “secret” protectors, who are transcendent, and “outer” protectors, who are worldly. Some traditions also classify protectors into more nuanced roles, such as “Protectors of the White Direction” and “Eagles of the Black Direction,” and even protectors assigned to guard families, villages, or temples.

The Path of Worldly Protectors

Worldly protectors operate within a limited scope and are bound by the laws of karma. Over time, through accumulating positive karma, these protectors can ascend to become transcendent protectors.

Pehar: A Prominent Worldly Protector


Pehar, also known as King Pehar, is among the most notable ancient deities within the Vajrayana Buddhist pantheon. He plays a crucial role in protecting the Dharma from negative forces and is destined to become a transcendent protector through his virtuous deeds. He originally guarded the Turkestan region.

Historically, Pehar was invited to Tibet by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) and King Trisong Detsen, becoming the guardian deity of Samye Monastery. Over time, as the influence of various Buddhist schools waxed and waned, Pehar’s role evolved. During the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Sakya school dominated Tibet, Pehar eventually moved from Samye to Tselpa Kagyü’s Tselpa Gompa on the south bank of the Lhasa River, following a dispute with monastery lamas.

Legend has it that Pehar was confined in a wooden box and thrown into the Lhasa River due to conflicts. The box was discovered near Drepung Monastery by Khenpo Jampa Badan, who then invited Pehar to Nechung Monastery. Here, the Second Dalai Lama built a temple specifically for Pehar, laying the foundation for Nechung’s importance as his primary residence. Pehar’s initial connection with the Gelug school began during the construction of Drepung Monastery by Gyalwa Gendun Drup (1391-1474).

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Pehar: The Guardian Deity of the Gelug Tradition and the Nechung Oracle

The association of King Pehar with the Gelug tradition dates back to the era of the Second Dalai Lama. He was invited to Drepung Monastery and honored with a special temple, becoming the monastery’s guardian deity. This marked the beginning of Pehar’s role as a protector for the Gelug school, leading to the establishment of the Nechung Oracle, the tradition of searching for reincarnated tulkus (reincarnated lamas).

Nechung: The Worldly Protector Deity

Nechung is an ancient and renowned worldly protector deity who plays a crucial role not only in the religious domain but also in the political and social life of modern Tibet. Residing in this world, Nechung lives a tantric life of Tibetan Buddhism and expresses his will through an oracle. This unique position and function have led to the historical significance of the Nechung Oracle.

The Oracle’s Role in Tibetan Buddhism

The prominence of the Nechung Oracle was established during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who appointed Pehar’s chief oracle as the state oracle. The Oracle’s special status has allowed him to play a pivotal role in political and religious affairs, where the secular and the sacred often merge.

The contributions of the Nechung Oracle can be categorized into three main roles:

  1. Identifying Reincarnated Tulkus: The Nechung Oracle plays a critical role in identifying the reincarnations of high lamas, providing details such as the direction to find them, their birth signs, and parents’ names.
  2. Influence on Political Events: The Oracle has played various roles in political affairs, highlighting the intertwined nature of religion and governance in Tibet.
  3. Religious Significance: As a religious figure, the Nechung Oracle holds a respected position in daily religious life, embodying a form of religious expression.

The Oracle and Divination

Nechung’s Oracle acts as a medium for Pehar through trance, expressing the deity’s intentions. The Oracle’s divination practices are complex, covering various aspects of political, social, and religious life. These practices cannot be simply classified as shamanism, though they share elements typical of shamanistic practices:

  • A designated practitioner (the Nechung Lama)
  • Ritual objects (such as spears, swords, bows used in ceremonies)
  • Acts of divination, including transforming substances (water, wine into medicine), blessing grains, and predicting the future.

Nechung Monastery and Its Sacred Spaces

Inside Nechung Monastery, the northwest corner houses the chapel dedicated to King Pehar and Guru Rinpoche, along with Pehar’s sacred soul tree. The Oracle’s ceremonies, while not easily defined, demonstrate the complex interplay of religion, politics, and society in Tibet.

Nechung Monastery: A Haven of Tibetan Buddhist Architecture and Art

Nechung Monastery, with its rich history and religious significance, hosts a variety of important buildings and spaces that serve both religious and practical purposes for the monks and visitors alike. Here’s a glimpse into the main architectural and spiritual components of this sacred site.

Key Structures within Nechung Monastery

  • Deyang Dorje Hall: A central space for worship and ceremonies.
  • Main Assembly Hall: The heart of the monastery where major religious gatherings occur.
  • Tsokdong Lakhang: A special temple built for intensive meditation by the 13th Dalai Lama, which was later relocated to Norbulingka due to opposition from the nobility.
  • Zangkhang, Dokang Lakhang, and Eastern Buddha Hall: These spaces serve various functions, including prayer, meditation, and teaching.
  • Lama Lakhang and Zanlin Senqiong: Dedicated areas for the residing monks and their spiritual practices.
  • Danzhur Lakhang, Senqiong Riwu Dara, and the Rock “Lama Qing”: Each of these features adds to the monastery’s spiritual ambiance and historical depth.
  • Tzokhang, Gatsel, Lachang, and Tsoqing: Additional structures that support the monastery’s day-to-day operations and religious activities.

Tsokhang

Tsokhang, specifically, refers to a small house with a courtyard constructed by the 13th Dalai Lama for secluded meditation behind the monastery. This site, once vacated, highlights the monastery’s historical layers and the evolving nature of its sacred practices.

The Main Assembly Hall Entrance

The entrance to the Main Assembly Hall is not just an architectural feature; it stands as a gateway to the profound spiritual journey within Nechung Monastery.

Murals of Nechung Monastery

Nechung Monastery’s murals are among the most distinctive in all of Tibet, rivaled only by those at ancient Tholing and Palkhor Monasteries. These artworks vividly depict King Pehar, his entourage, the 28 lunar mansions, the 12 Yaksha Generals, the 9 Yama Lords, and the 8 Great Planetary Deities. Known for their graphic and fearsome imagery, the murals starkly contrast with the more serene and contemplative art found in other Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. Drawing from the New Mendi style and incorporating elements of the Kyenze school, as well as influences from the Nyingma tradition and Bön religion, these murals create a visual narrative that is both terrifying and captivating.

A Counterpart in India

Reflecting its spiritual importance, a namesake monastery has also been established in India to serve as a residence for the Nechung Oracle, further extending the reach and influence of Nechung’s protective deity across the Buddhist world. Through its unique combination of architecture, sacred art, and living traditions, Nechung Monastery continues to stand as a beacon of Tibetan Buddhism, embodying the depth and diversity of this ancient spiritual path.

Artistic Heritage of Nechung Temple

Several theories suggest Pehar’s origins, connecting him to the Sanskrit “Vihara,” the Turkic “Bag,” or the Persian “Paihar.” Commonly, people believe his father was the “White Heaven God,” a heavenly deity, and his mother was the prosperous “Nine-Headed Dragon Lady.” Pehar’s chest and abdomen are bare, showcasing his strength and fearless nature. Around his waist, he wears skins of humans and tigers, signifying his warrior aspects, and a necklace of human heads hangs around his neck, symbolizing his dominion over life and death.

In his main arms, Pehar holds a bow and arrow, ready to strike, while his other hands wield a knife, sword, hook, and staff, each weapon carrying deep symbolic meanings and showcasing his multifaceted roles as protector and guardian. He is seated majestically upon a green-maned lion, a mount that reflects his noble and fearsome qualities.

Unique Tibetan style arts and design of Nechung Monastery

This artistic representation draws upon the medieval period of Tibetan art, a golden era influenced by the diverse cultures of Central Asia, India, and the Mongolian steppes. The mural perfectly encapsulates the artistic characteristics of divine beings, with warriors in helmets and armor, wielding spears and shields, and mounted on splendid horses, reflecting the nomadic art of Central Asia and Mongolia.

Furthermore, the depiction of deities, particularly those from the Vajrayana Buddhism and Taras, is influenced by Indian art styles. The influences of Han Chinese art, along with those from neighboring Nepal and Kashmir, are evident in the portrayal of lay figures and background ornaments, resulting in a piece that is both intricate and elegant. This artwork stands as a precious legacy of Tibetan mural art, offering immense aesthetic and spiritual value to its viewers.

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Pehar: The Protector Deity in Tibetan Buddhism

Many theories explain Pehar’s origins, linking him to the Sanskrit word “Vihara,” the Turkic “Bag,” or the Persian “Paihar.” A popular belief holds that a god from the heavens, known as the “White Heaven God,” was his father, and his mother was the wealthy “Nine-Headed Dragon Lady.”

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Pehar lived in the heavenly realm as Brahma, ruling over the thirty-three gods. In the Middle Ages, he came down to the human world, in Hor, becoming known as the “Crystal White Ghost.” There, he led the temples in the Badahor area and became known as the “Lord of Life.” In the 8th century, Trisong Detsen and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) took him to the Samye Monastery in southern Tibet to work as a protector deity. By the Fifth Dalai Lama’s era, Pehar moved to Nechung Monastery near the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, stepping into his role as the main protector deity. He became the foremost among the Five King Protectors

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Visitor Tips

When exploring the temple and admiring the murals dedicated to Pehar, note that the interior lighting can be quite dim. It’s advisable to bring a flashlight or headlamp to fully appreciate the intricate details of these precious artworks.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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