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Hidden Gems: Discovering Lesser-known Monasteries in Tibet

When discussing monasteries in Tibet, the Jokhang Temple, Sera Monastery, and Drepung Monastery immediately come to mind. Tibet boasts over 1,700 monasteries in total. Despite the oxygen deprivation, faith thrives. Alongside the aforementioned prominent ancient temples and sacred sites, Tibet is also home to numerous lesser-known monasteries with mystical significance. These monasteries are often located far from urban centres, tucked away in valleys, clinging to cliffs, veiled by clouds, or nestled near lakes. We have curated a collection of 18 specialized temples to recommend. How many have you had the opportunity to visit?

Pabongkha Monastery

Phabongkha, located on the northern outskirts of Lhasa, has a unique name in Tibetan, which means “Palace built on stones.” Despite not being large in size, Phabongkha was constructed on massive rocks in the mountains and is the second palace in Tibet after Yongbu Lhakang. It briefly served as the residence of Songtsan Gampo before the completion of the Potala Palace, where he received envoys and conducted state affairs. As a result, Phabongkha still houses the throne on which Songtsan Gampo sat.

Furthermore, Phabongkha holds significance as the retreat place of Thonmi Sambota, the creator of the Tibetan language. The gate of Phabongkha Temple bears the inscription of the first six-character mantra written in Tibetan, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” on a gold tablet with a blue background. In recent years, Phabongkha has become a popular spot for locals in Lhasa to enjoy peach blossoms in the suburbs during the spring season. Although not as grand as the Bomi Peach Blossom Valley, the peach blossoms here are still in full bloom, offering an opportunity to capture a group photo of the Peach Blossom Forest and Lhasa City.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address:Β Nine kilometres west of Sera Monastery
πŸ’° Tickets:Β 0Β yuan

Ganden Monastery 

Compared to Drepung and Sera Monasteries, which are also major monasteries in Lhasa, Ganden Monastery is less well-known. This may be due to its distance from the urban area of Lhasa and its lack of secular disturbances, making it a more popular destination for pilgrims seeking blessings. However, the religious significance of Ganden Monastery is noteworthy. It serves as the ancestral home of the Gelug Sect and was chosen and constructed by Master Tsongkhapa in 1409.

Ganden Monastery, one of the six major Gelug Sect monasteries, rests on the southern bank of the Lhasa River, specifically on the Wangbo Ri Mountain. The mountainside is adorned with over 50 buildings, featuring dark red, yellow, and white hues. These structures, which include temples, scripture halls, and monks’ houses, give the impression of a secluded Buddhist paradise similar to Sertha. Strolling on the winding steps, a profound sense of history unfolds, offering an incredible experience.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address:Β On Ganden Wangbori Mountain, Taktse County
πŸ’° Tickets:Β 50Β yuan

Drak Yerpa MonasteryΒ 

In Tibetan areas, there is a saying: “Arriving in Lhasa without Drak Yerpa is like a newly made Tibetan robe without a collar.” Drak Yerpa is a small temple located on the outskirts of Lhasa, known only to locals and visited by pilgrims. It is believed to have been a gift from Songtsan Gampo to his concubine, Princess Tritsun.

Situated on a cliff at an altitude of nearly 5,000 meters, the temple is surrounded by over 100 hidden practice caves, including Religious King Cave, where Songtsan Gampo practised, and Moon Cave, where Master Rinpoche practised. The Patriarch Cave, where Atisha practised, allows visitors to step into history. However, reaching Drak Yerpa is challenging for ordinary people. It requires climbing numerous steps, navigating through narrow caves, and ascending to a height of almost 5 kilometres. Nevertheless, the breathtaking scenery that awaits makes the strenuous journey worthwhile.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address: Zayebagou, Dazi District, Lhasa
πŸ’° Tickets: 30 yuan

Drikung Til Monastery

Drikung Ti Monastery holds a unique position in Tibetan Buddhist history as the main temple of the Drikung Kagyu Sect. It is also known for hosting the most famous Sky burial platform in Tibet, where numerous souls have found salvation. Among the three renowned sky burial sites in the world, including India’s Indian Sibai celestial burial and Shannan Chinpu Sky burial, the sky burial platform at Drikung Til Monastery stands out as the highest and largest.

Often referred to as the “place of eternal life,” the founder of Drikung Til Monastery claimed that sending corpses here allows them to enter the kingdom of heaven and achieve everlasting life. As a result, many individuals from distant places choose to send their departed loved ones here, although this practice is not widely publicized. While it is not frequently visited by tourists, the monastery itself is a remarkable site worth exploring. Its golden roof, red walls, and serene location nestled beneath towering snow-capped mountains create a profound sense of sanctity when basked in sunlight. It bears resemblance to a condensed version of the majestic Potala Palace, leaving us in awe of the remarkable achievement accomplished by people centuries ago.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address:Β Rendogang Township, north of Maldro Gongkar County
πŸ’° Tickets:Β 50Β yuan

Reting Monastery

The Reting Monastery was established nearly 1,000 years ago by Drom Tonpa, a disciple of Venerable Atisha and the founder of Kadampa. It is the first temple of Kadampa, highlighting the significance of Reting Monastery at that time. Unlike most temples in Tibet, Reting Monastery is humble and resembles the famous mountains and ancient temples inland, situated in a lush ancient cedar Forest. This ancient cedar forest has a remarkable background, with trees aged over a thousand years. It is believed that Master Tsongkhapa completed his writings in this serene ancient cedar forest.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address: Pangduo Township, Linzhou County, Lhasa City
πŸ’° Tickets: 30 yuan

Geri Nunnery

Geri has a wonderful interpretation, of “Dakini Dance Hall”. The founder of the temple is Pha Damba Sangye, a yogi from southern India. At its peak, hundreds of people practised here. This is one of the oldest nunneries in Lhasa, with a history of at least 900 years. It is located deep in Nyangrey, in the steep mountains at an altitude of 4,200 meters, surrounded by green pines and cypresses. Not all locals in Lhasa know about it. Geri Nunnery is a hermit in a corner of the world. There are only some small red and white houses scattered in the mountains. They are neither majestic nor gorgeous but have an approachable temperament. There is also the famous traditional yoghurt in Lhasa. If you come, you can have a cup.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address: Village 5, Niangre Township, Chengguan District, Lhasa City
πŸ’° Tickets: 0 yuan

Tsurphu Monastery

The Tsurphu Monastery, with a history of over 900 years, is the ancestral main temple of the Karma Kagyu Sect. Its most remarkable feature is the creation of a unique reincarnation system in Tibetan Buddhism. Due to its long history, the monastery has accumulated a significant number of cultural relics and murals, all of which are rare and sacred objects with historical value.

The most notable among them is the temple stele located in front of the main hall. This stele was originally erected in the 9th century at the Changpu Temple and bears an ancient Tibetan inscription stating, “In the river of piles of dragons, the temple is built and the place where the Three Dings are based.” Despite the destruction of the Changpu Temple during the era of Lang Dama’s extermination of the Dharma, this stele miraculously remained intact.

Tsurphu Monastery is renowned for its Tibetan incense, following the ancient method of inheriting the secret system. It incorporates thirty to forty different materials, including agarwood, sandalwood, vanilla, and nectar pills made by eminent monks who possess mantras. With its herbal fragrance, it is the only Tibetan incense sold.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address:Β  Northwest Toelong Dechen County, Lhasa City
πŸ’° Tickets:Β 40 yuan

Shungseb Nunnery

The Shungseb Nunnery, the largest nunnery in Tibet, is an ancient Nyingma temple situated on the east side of the Lhasa River. If you have enough time, you can visit it on your way to Yamdrok Yongtso as it is not far. The most legendary aspect of the temple is the story of a female living Buddha who revived it. Originally constructed in the 12th century, the temple was completely destroyed during a war when the Junggar Mongolian tribe invaded Tibet in the 18th century.

A woman from Baima Lake in the southern Himalayas wished to rebuild the temple. After years of work, the abandoned temple was restored and surpassed its previous scale. The woman, known as “Mani Luoqin,” meaning “the master who recites the six-character scriptures,” was responsible for this achievement. As a result, the temple became the renowned nunnery it is today.

Shungseb Nunnery, in Tibetan, means “in the ancient pine forest” as it was once encircled by a thriving pine forest. Presently, the surroundings continue to exude tranquillity and simplicity, adorned with diverse avian species including the Tibetan snow pheasant, Tibetan horse pheasant, grey-bellied babbler, and vibrant sparrow warbler.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address: Caina Township, Qushui County, Lhasa City
πŸ’° Tickets: 40 yuan

Nechung Monastery

Nechung Temple, located near Drepung Monastery, is a small and quiet square courtyard. Despite its inconspicuous appearance, it holds great supernatural powers. It is the most important Buddhist institution of higher learning in Tibetan history, where Tibetans yearn to learn Buddhism.

The temple is where most lamas who pass the Geshe degree exam are based. The Geshe degree is a high honour for Tibetan monks, and those who hold it may become abbots of the three major monasteries. Nechung Temple is known for its magical legends and exquisite murals, including unique statues of the guardian deity Pehar and his entourage.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address: Next to Drepung Monastery in the northwest suburb of Lhasa
πŸ’° Tickets: 0 yuan

Lhundup Shar Monastery

Established in the 12th century, Lhundup Shar Nunnery has undergone changes in the past century, transitioning from its original Kadampa form to its current state as a Gelugpa Nunnery. The transformation into a nunnery is attributed to a legend involving three girls who turned the temple into a place of residence through their chanting.

Despite its modest size, the temple boasts over 100 picturesque pagodas scattered around its grounds. According to legend, these 108 pagodas were constructed by esteemed monks after their passing, resulting in a magnificent pagoda forest. From the rooftop of the temple, one can witness the awe-inspiring sight of the varied pagodas nestled amidst the surrounding mountains and fields.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address:Β Jiangma Village, Qiangga Township, Linzhou County,
πŸ’° Tickets:Β 0 yuan

Rituo Temple in Yamdrok Lake

Few visitors come to the remote Rituo Temple, isolated from the water. This temple, located on the north bank of Yamdrok Lake, has gained popularity in Tiktok, being hailed as the loneliest temple in the world. Many frequent visitors to Yamdrok Lake are unaware of the existence of this small temple. Despite only recently gaining attention, the temple’s independent demeanour has captivated everyone.

The Rituo Temple is located on a small droplet-shaped island linked to the mainland by a narrow pathway. The island is surrounded by the emerald waters of Yamdrok Yumtso Lake, providing only enough room for the temple itself. Set against the backdrop of the sky, water, and clouds, the temple emits a profound sense of solitude. This solitude is further emphasized by the presence of the temple’s monks, solely composed of a master named Ngawang Phuntsok and a sheep. Their daily lives revolve around fetching water, cooking, reciting scriptures, praying, practicing, and resting. Through the ascetic routine of these monks, one can observe the strength of their faith.

TIPS

  • πŸ“Œ Address: Dongla Township, Gongga County, Shannan City πŸ’°
  • Admission fee: 0 yuan

Samding Monastery

Located near Yamdrok Lake, the Samding Monastery can be reached by crossing the Gangbala Pass from Lhasa and heading towards Nagartse. Along the way, you will come across a sign that says “Yumbuduo Temple” followed by a fork in the road. One side of the fork leads to the Yumbuduo Temple on the isolated island, which is believed to have the handprint of the legendary master Lotsawa Rinchen Sangpo. The other side leads to the Samding Monastery on a small hill, situated between the lakes Kangbu and Chenmo.

Despite being only over 300 years old, the Samding Monastery stands out as one of the few remaining monasteries of the Sakya tradition and holds a unique position. It was also once presided over by Tibet’s only female living Buddha, Samding Dorje Palmo, believed to be the reincarnation of the Indian deity Vajravarahi. Her physical body is still enshrined in the monastery, and her reincarnation lineage has continued for twelve generations.

TIPS

  • πŸ“Œ Address: Southwest of Yangzhuoyong Lake, Langkazi Township, Langkazi County.
  • πŸ’° Ticket: 25 yuan.

Damo Monastery

Damer Temple is a millennia-old temple located on a hill in Nagqu. Legend has it that Princess Wencheng, during her journey to Tibet, was captivated by the breathtaking view of the snow-capped mountains and the Nu River, and recognized the excellent geomancy of the place. As a result, future generations built Dharma Temple here. The monastery itself is not particularly famous, but its skull wall is renowned.

It is the only sky burial site in the entire Tibetan region where human skulls are preserved. After the sky burial is completed, the skulls are left behind and neatly arranged in wooden compartments within the courtyard walls. The monks in the monastery say, “Leaving the skulls to build the wall serves as a reminder for future generations to do more good deeds and commit fewer evil deeds. In death, both the noble and the commoner are equal.” It can be said that this is one of the places in Tibet that is closest to death, allowing you to face it directly and gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of life.

TIPS

  • πŸ“Œ Address: 303 Provincial Road, Chaqu Township, Biru County, Nagqu Prefecture.
  • πŸ’° Ticket: Skull Wall, 100 yuan.

Karchu Monastery

The Nyingma sect’s hidden retreat in southern Tibet is nestled amidst snow-capped mountains atop a 4,000-meter peak. A lush forest lies behind it while towering cliffs stand in front of the temple. Auspicious clouds and rainbows frequently appear around the monastery. With a history spanning 1,200 years, it has been a site for practitioners of all generations.

Renowned masters like Lotsawa Rinpoche have spent seven years, seven months, and seven days in solitary retreat here, and numerous meditation caves can still be found around the temple. Almost every morning, the mountain is engulfed in swirling mist, obscuring the Karchu Monastery on its summit. The saying “only in the mountains, where clouds are thick, can one find it” perfectly encapsulates this heavenly temple perched among the clouds. The chance of encountering the nine-coloured divine bird, the Satyr Tragopan, here is high. This mountain spirit, more vibrant than a peacock, is Nepal’s national bird. It can often be seen foraging on the grassy slope beneath the white stupa behind Karchu Monastery in the mornings. Capturing such a rare bird in such a serene manner is nearly impossible in any other part of Tibet.

TIPS

  • πŸ“Œ Address: Karchu Mountain, Lakang Town, Luoza County, Shannan City.
  • πŸ’° Ticket: 30 yuan.

Tadruk Monastery

Tranduk Temple, one of the “Three Holy Temples” in Shannan, is renowned in the Tibetan area. It was among the earliest Buddhist temples constructed in the Tubo period and possesses the first Buddhist hall in Tibetan history. Princess Wencheng also stayed here for practice.

In her Tibetan geo landscape map, Tranduk Temple is the temple used to suppress the witch’s left shoulder, which holds great significance. Legend has it that an evil dragon occupied this site before the temple’s establishment. It was only after Songtsan Gambo, taking the form of a giant bird, subdued the evil dragon that Tranduk Temple was built.

This place also holds an extraordinary treasure, a Tangka called the “Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Resting Picture” made from precious materials like pearl agate. Princess Naidong funded it, using 29,026 pearls, 1997 corals, and gold jewellery, making it truly priceless.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address: Mountain South City, Naidong District, Gongbu Ri, at the foot of the mountain in the south. πŸ’° Admission fee: 35 yuan.

Sekhar Guthok Temple

The small village of Sichang, where the temple is located, is relatively unknown in Tibet, with a population of only 2000. It is separated from the border of Bhutan by only one mountain. However, thanks to the existence of the Sakya Gakudo Temple, this remote and secluded village has been continuously visited by believers for over a thousand years.

This temple has the most magnificent pagoda in Tibet. 900 years ago, the second-generation founder of the Kagyu sect, Master Milarepa, spent 6 years and 7 months building the nine-story pagoda in the temple six times, solely for his teacher. This legendary pagoda stands at 28 meters and is visible upon entering Sichang. It features a thrilling prayer wheel pathway, with the outermost floor serving as the pathway. However, there is no protection, and you can only hold onto the thumb-thick steel bar on the exterior wall of the tower, moving slowly and carefully to spin the prayer wheel.

TIPS

  • πŸ“Œ Address: Sexiang Township, Luozha County, Shannan City.
  • πŸ’° Ticket: 30 yuan.

Lhokha Wolong Temple

Continuing up the mountain road from the Sekar Guthok Temple, you will find the Lhokha Wolong Temple at the top. The temple complex is scattered across the mountaintop, creating a Buddhist paradise atmosphere. Lhokha Wolong Temple is the initial and central spiritual hub of the Gelug sect, personally established by its founder, Master Marpa.

Lhokha Wolong is a sacred place where the master imparted Buddhist teachings. The name “Lhokha Wolong” signifies the location where the guru made prophecies and granted empowerment. Centuries ago, Master Marpa’s disciples meditated in mountain caves and practised under the shade of trees in this area. Even today, you can find the caves where they practised along the cliff ridge. Every blade of grass and tree here bears the weight of history, a testament to the power of faith.

TIPS

  • πŸ“Œ Address: Above the Serkaguto Monastery, Sexiang, Luozha County, Shannan City.
  • πŸ’° Ticket: 30 yuan.

Sakya Monastery

Sakya Monastery is the main temple of the Sakya sect, highly regarded alongside the Potala Palace and Samye Monastery. The name of the temple means “grey-land,” but its exterior walls are painted with three colours symbolizing Manjusri Bodhisattva (red), Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (white), and Vajrapani Bodhisattva (green).

Unlike scattered temples in the mountains, Sakya Monastery resembles a majestic castle, modeled after fort cities. It is surrounded by towering walls on all sides, with a faintly discerned protective moat. In the archaeological world, Sakya Monastery is renowned as the “Dunhuang of the Snowland”, due to its abundant cultural relics that rival Dunhuang. The monastery houses numerous exquisite and valuable murals, statues, and three expansive library rooms. The most renowned scripture wall consists of approximately 84,000 volumes of scriptures, measuring around 60 meters long and 10 meters high, making it the tallest in the world. Many are hand-copied classics, originating in ancient India with a history of thousands of years.

TIPS

πŸ“Œ Address: Benbo Mountain, Basiba Road, Sakya County, Shigatse City
πŸ’° Tickets: 45 yuan


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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