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Drepung Monastery – Biggest monastery in Tibet

The Drepung Monastery is situated in the western part of Lhasa, below Mt. Gambo Utse. It is encircled by the dark mountain and its resplendent ivory edifices sparkle in the sun. It covers an area of about 250,000 square meters. Constructed in the year 1416, it is deemed one of the most extensive monasteries among the six primary monasteries of the Geluk Sect in Tibet. Prior to the renovation of the Potala Palace, the Drepung Monastery served as the residence of the Dalai Lamas.

History of Drepung Monastery

The Drepung monastery was established in 1416 by Jamyang Choeje Tashi Palden, a devoted follower of Tsong Khapa. Despite being from a humble background in Lhoka, Jamyang Choeje excelled in his studies and became an expert in sutra before mastering the Esoteric sect. Tsong Khapa entrusted him with the task of constructing a grand monastery to disseminate his teachings, presenting him with a conch shell as a symbol of good fortune. With the support of a noble family, Jamyang Choeje began the construction of the monastery, which he named “Palden Drepung Gonpa” meaning Rice Heap in Tibetan. Upon its completion, he was appointed as the first Tripa (throne holder). In 1464, colleges were established to teach tantra in the monastery.

The second Dalai Lama constructed the Ganden Phodrang palace within the monastery when he became abbot of the monastery. The third Dalai Lama was invited to the monastery as the first living Buddha, after which he went to Qinghai to preach, earning him the title “Ocean of Wisdom” bestowed upon him by Atai Khan, the leader of Mongolia. This led to the Title of Dalai Lama. Following this, he posthumously recognized the first and second Dalai Lamas. The fifth Dalai Lama also lived in the monastery until he obtained both political and spiritual power.

The Drepung monastery holds a significant place in the history of Tibetan history due to its esteemed status and profound impact. The Ganden Podrang Palace, located within the monastery, is considered the place where the Gelug Sect assumed administrative power, as it was the residence of the Dalai Lamas.

Drepung Monastery Architecture compound

The Drepung Monastery comprises the Tsokchen Hall, four Dratsangs and Gandan Phodrang. These sections also have their corresponding associated Kamtsen, monks’ residences, and other structures, creating well-organized construction units.

Each construction unit’s interior is mainly divided into three levels: the courtyard, sutra hall, and Buddha temple, forming an ascending position from the gate to the Buddha hall. The exterior of the hall and sutra hall is ornamented with Buddhist themes like the golden roof, phase wheel, treasure building, eight treasures, etc., which boosts the solemnity of Buddhism and creates a large-scale architectural group with a stunning scale.

The view of the group of floors is magnificent, one after the other, resembling a beautiful mountain city. As per the Tibetan tradition, visiting the Drepung Monastery requires following a turning path that rotates clockwise from left to right. Generally, visitors should first go to Gandan Pozhang, then to the Tsokchen Hall, followed by the Tantric courtyard, and then from the back of the mountain to the foot of the mountain. At the foot of the mountain, there is Naichung Temple.

Things to see

The primary constructions of the monastery consist of the Tshomchen, also known as the Main Assembly Hall, four Tantric schools, and the Ganden Potrang.

If you take a stroll up the west staircase of Drepung Monastery, you will come across the well-known Ganden Potrang. This three-story palace has flowered windows and was established by the tenth Tripas in 1530 during the second Dalai Lama era. Prior to the fifth Dalai Lama’s appointment by the Qing Dynasty, the palace served as the residence of the Dalai Lamas from the third to the fifth.

The Tshomchen, which covers 4,500 square meters and is supported by 183 pillars, is situated in the centre of the monastery. The hall contains several Thangkas, murals that create a religious and enigmatic atmosphere. Additionally, there are lifelike statues of religious figures, such as Tsongkhapa and his two pupils. In front of the hall, a conch shell is worshipped as an important artefact. Legend has it that it was once used by Sakyamuni and was concealed at Mt. Gambo Utse. Later, Tsong Khapa discovered it and presented it to his disciple as a treasure of the monastery. Silver tombs for the second, third, and fourth Dalai Lamas are worshipped at the back of the palace. Upstairs, a collection of priceless scriptures is kept.

There are four Tantric colleges in the monastery, namely Loseling College, Ngapa, Deyang, Gomang, Shakor, and Thosamling. Each college has its own chanting hall and Temple. Each college has a rigorous study system that necessitates studying together eight times per year, or roughly once every 15 days to a month. The monks learn Tantra through recitation and debate. Before graduation, they must take an exam administered by Khenbu, who will assign them different ranks based on their scores. The best students will participate in the Buddhist service and be awarded the highest degree of Geshi.

Drepung Ganden Phodrang palace

The Gandan Phodrang is comprised of three sections when viewed from above. Upon entering through the front door, one will find a small courtyard. To the left is a two-story office space, while to the right there is a winding ancient tree. Climbing the steps located within the courtyard will lead to the Phodrang courtyard. The left, right, and front of the compound consist of the two-story Corridor building and housing. At the rear of the compound lies the Phodrang Building. The floor of this building is over 2 meters higher than the courtyard, with the third floor being the highest. The sutra hall on the first floor houses many Buddhist halls. The second floor serves as the main location for the Dalai Lama to handle political and religious matters. The fifth Dalai Lama’s throne is found in the living quarters of the Dalai Lama. These quarters include a sutra room, bedroom, meditation room, and living room, as well as a Drolma Hall and Dharma protection temple.

Tsokchen Assembly Hall

The Tsokchen Hall is positioned at the heart of Drepung Monastery and spans approximately 4,500 square meters. A 200 square meter square, paved with stone, is present in front of the hall. The bright corridor, which has 8 columns and is accessible by climbing the 17-level wide stone steps, is situated beyond this square. The sutra hall within the Tsokchen Assembly Hall is expansive, comprising 221 rooms and 183 columns and occupying an area of roughly 1,800 square meters.

At the centre of the hall stands a large skylight that spans over 100 square meters. The Assembly Hall is adorned with intricately carved beams and painted buildings that hang from the columns, with mantles interwoven in a variety of vibrant colours. The magnificent gold bronze statues and long oil lamps behind them are particularly eye-catching.

The Buddha statues housed within the hall are breathtakingly exquisite and lifelike, especially the Bodhisattva situated in the middle, as well as the large white umbrella that covers the Buddha. These statues are both tall and delicately crafted. The Buddha statue’s backlight, as well as the surrounding trims and carved beasts, are incredibly vivid, making it a rare and exquisite masterpiece of art.

Dusum Lhakhang (Chapel for Buddha from the Three Period)

Located at the back of the assembly hall is the “Dusum Lakang”, featuring three rooms and up to two floors in height. The front-facing high-open skylight above the front door improves indoor lighting. The three Buddha is situated alongside his two disciples within a pagoda-shaped Buddhist niche. In the middle are Shakyamuni Buddha and two disciples, surrounded by three copper-plated pagodas. This type of niche decoration is rarely seen elsewhere. The sides of the Buddha hall are adorned with elegant, graceful, and charming images of the eight disciples who followed the Buddha, while the sides of the Buddhist temple are divided into Vajrapani and Hayagiriva.

Dusum Lhakhang is one of the earliest Lakangs of Drepung Monastery, built during the Jamchen Choeje period. The existing buildings and statues within have a strong early colour. Behind and to the side of the Lakang is a one-week cloister, with the northern section of the cloister retaining precious early murals. At the exit of the cloister is a Tongzhinian imperial plaque (measuring 3 meters long, 1.2 meters wide, and 4 centimetres thick) featuring four words in the central regular script: “Introverted to Cheng Xianghua.”

Miwang Lhakhang (Chapel for Maitreya Buddha)

To the left of Dusum Lakang is “Miwang Lakang.” Inside, there is a tall 12-year-old sitting statue of a Maitreya Buddha, which reaches up to the second floor with its head. The statue’s proportions are well-balanced, the depiction is delicate, and the image is intimate and touching.

Lubum Lhakang

To the right of Dusum Lhakhang lies “Lubum Lakang”. In its front, there are two smaller pagodas painted in white, known as “Lubum Pagoda”. At the rear, three silver Stupa are placed side by side. The centre Stupa is the Tomb Stupa of the third Dalai lama (Sonan Gyatso), measuring 6.16 meters. Towards the north, there is the Tomb Stupa of the Fourth Dalai (Yunten Gyatss), measuring 5.57 meters, with a 1-meter-high wooden-waisted seat, making it a total of 6.57 meters in height. Towards the south, there is the (Desi Trinley Gyatso) Regent’s Tomb Stupa, which measures 4.6 meters in height. The tower is adorned with silver and embedded with jewellery, making it exquisite and luxurious. It took 14,800 taels of silver to construct it, which was used solely by the third and fourth Dalai Lamas.

Kangyur Lhakhang

On the second floor of the hall, there is only one “Kangyur Lakhang”, while the rest of the space is used as a warehouse. Kangyur has many classics, and three precious collections are present. One of them is the ideal version of the Great Tibetan Sutra, which was sent by Landlord Mu Zeng from Yunnan during the late Ming Dynasty. The other one is the Kangxi wood-cut scriptures of the Qing Dynasty. The last one is from 1675 (the fourth year of Kangxi), where Diba Lobsang Tudop celebrated the birthday of the Dalai Lama using gold.

Jampa Tongdol Lhakang

On the third floor of the hall, there is a small hall named “Jampa Tongdol Lakang”. The giant gold-bronze statue of Jampa Tongdol is believed to be the statue of Matriye Buddha when he was eight years old, built by the Local king Neu under the blessing of Tsongkhapa. The statue depicts a childish appearance, making it one of the best Buddha statues. In front of the Buddha statue, there is a conch, which is believed to be a magical object given to him when Tsongkhapa ordered Jamchen Choeje to build Drepung Monastery. Inside the statues have countless relics like Lama Tsongkhapa’s hair, his clothes, the hair of Master Asanga and his dress. etc

The Jampa Tongdol Lhakhang boasts a remarkable square spire golden roof. A Chinese Character plaque, bearing the inscription (穆隆元善)Mulong Yuanshan, hangs on the temple’s entrance. The plaque is adorned with an oval seal that reads “the seal of Mengqiu in the year of the Bingwu year of Daqing Daoguang”. On the back, two seals are engraved: one bears the words “Don’t Mu’s” and the other reads “The seal of Qishan”. This plaque was carved and donated by Qi Shan, who was then serving as a minister in Tibet, in July 1846 (the 26th year of Qing Daoguang) upon his transfer from Tibet.

Shakyamuni Buddha Hall

The fourth level of the temple houses the Shakyamuni Buddha Hall, which features a grand statue of Sakyamuni, believed to have been crafted from 500 taels of silver. On both sides stand 13 silver towers. The Arhat Hall is reserved for the ancestors of Buddhism, Arhats, and other deities, as well as the primary statue of the living Buddha of Drepung Monastery. The temple’s golden roof is accentuated by a splendid Gyaltsen (victory banner), inspired by mainland architecture.

Four Major Dratsang of Drepung Monastery

Dratsang is not only the educational unit of the Monastery, but also the top-level management institution below Tsokchen also referred to as the “College of Scriptures”. Initially, Drepung Monastery was divided into seven Dratsang, namely Gomang, Deyang, Loseling, Ngaba, Shakor, Tosamling, and Dulwa. Each of the seven disciples of Jamyang Choeje was in charge. Later, it merged into the current four large Dratsangs of Loseling, Gomang, Deyang, and Ngaba. The first three are Mahayana Dratsang, and the latter one is Tantric Dratsang.

Loseling College of Drepung Monastery

Loseling Dratsang is the largest Dratsang in Drepung Monastery, covering an area of approximately 1,860 square meters, comprising two parts: the sutra hall and the Buddhist temple. The Assembly Hall has an area of 1,053 square meters, with 102 columns. The meridians (about 60 meters long) on both sides of the sutra hall stand on the wall, which is full of various classic sutra. The furnishings in the classic hall are also extremely lavish. Behind the sutra hall is the Jampa Buddha Hall, which primarily worships the statue of the Maitreya Buddha. The Buddhist hall is connected with three rooms, and the front is connected.

The middle room is 11 meters wide and 6 meters deep. The back of the Buddhist temple is full of various Buddhas and Buddhisaatva, and only a narrow passage is left in front of pilgrims. There are 23 Khamtsen under its jurisdiction. The highest monk is Khenpo.

Gomang Dratsang

Gomang Dratsang is the second largest in the area, with two distinct parts – the sutra hall and the temple. The Dratsang spans over 985.5 square meters and consists of 102 columns, measuring 36 meters from east to west and 27 meters from north to south. The sutra hall is divided into three Lhakangs – Jigche Lhakang, Dolma Lakang, and Buddha Lhakang, and is served by monks from Inner Mongolia, Qinghai, and Naqu. Additionally, there are 16 Khamtsen under its jurisdiction.

Deyang Dratsang

In contrast, Deyang Dratsang is the smallest college, covering an area of approximately 952 square meters. The sutra hall is 7 rooms wide, with 62 columns, and a total area of 375 square meters. At the back of the sutra hall is the Buddha Hall, which is 7 rooms wide and 2 rooms deep, covering an area of 54.74 square meters. A tac-format screen door is located in the middle of the front, measuring 12.1 meters in width. There are two 1.7-meter-square-room warehouses on either side. The monastery and kitchen are located on the left, with irregular shapes. The Main statue inside the hall is Maitreya Buddha.

Ngaba Dratsang

Ngaba Dratsang, situated on the right side of the Tsokchen Assembly Hall, is the Tantric Academy of Drepung Temple. The construction of this academy is unique as it comprises a closed courtyard in the front, surrounded by monk’s rooms and a sutra hall at the back. The sutra hall is spread over an area of 467 square meters, with 9 rooms in width and 7 rooms in depth, supported by 48 columns. The walls of the hall are adorned with murals depicting tantra materials.

Jikchi Lhakang is located at the back of the sutra hall, covering an area of 56 square meters, with 3 wide rooms and 2 deep rooms. It houses a few Buddha statues, which are tall and fierce, with a horrifying appearance. The statue of Ra Lotsawa is said to be missing only one finger, which is quite intriguing. One of the three major tantras, the statue of Yamantaka, with 9 heads and 34 arms, is also present in the Hall. It is believed to be the incarnation of Manjushri Bodhisattva and was personally crafted by the Lama Tsongkhapa.

Collections of Cultural and Religious Artefacts

Drepung Monastery is the biggest Monastery in Tibet and boasts an impressive collection of valuable artefacts. The temple houses a variety of porcelain pieces from different dynasties, ranging from the early Song Dynasty to the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Most of the porcelain items are pressure cups and small bowls. The Monastery also features numerous thangka, mostly from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, including four sets of Thangka featuring four treasures in the Tsokchen assembly hall, which are elegant and luxurious.

One of the most precious items is a set of “Buddhist Scriptures” consisting of 108 pieces packed in 54 special wooden boxes. The printing and binding are exquisite, making it a treasure to behold. Additionally, the temple houses the Statues, Stupas, arts, instruments. a carved statue of Manjushri measuring 1.29 meters on both sides, with a gorgeous sandalwood round carved mirror seat. It is said to be a gift from Emperor Shunzhi of the Fifth Dalai Lama. The temple also has thousands of bronze statues, including Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and various ancestors. The most exquisite and precious bronze Bodhisattva statues were gifted by the court during the Yongle period of the Ming Dynasty.

Finally, the temple has a wide collection of ancient weapons and armour of unknown age, with the armour of the Tsokchen Hall being relatively complete and providing valuable insights into Tibetan cultural and military history.

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