Sakya Monastery, known locally as Sa-skya-dgon, rests as a sacred Buddhist site beneath the majestic peaks of Chongdu Benbo mountain in Sa’gya County, Tibet. Situated at an elevation of 4316 meters, this peaceful sanctuary divides into two distinct parts: the North and South Monasteries, with the flowing waters of Zhongqu River separating them.
Meaning Behind the Name: Sakya
The name “Sakya” originates from the Tibetan words (ས་སྐྱ་དགོན་པ།) “sa” meaning “earth” and “skya” meaning “gray-white.” Translated, it signifies “gray-white earth,” inspired by the distinctive gray-white rocks found on the slopes of Benbo mountain, resembling weathered earth. The North Monastery rests beneath these unique formations, while the South Monastery stands proudly on a plateau to the south.
Historical Roots: From Ancient Origins to the Sakya Dynasty
Sakya Monastery traces its roots back to the 8th century when the powerful Tibetan Khon family, descendants of Shakya Lodro, migrated to the Sa’gya region. Initially, Shakya Lodro’s son, Khon Knchok Gyalpo, established the “Old Sakya Monastery” to the south of Sakya. Kunga Nyingpo, the son of Shakya Lodro, led the establishment of the renowned Sakya Monastery on the slopes of Benbo mountain, initially naming it “Gurong Monastery.”
Sakya’s Illustrious Lineage: A Legacy of Spiritual Leaders
Sachen Kunga Ningbo, played a pivotal role in the monastery’s history, earning the revered title “Sakya,” the first patriarch of Sakya Monastery. His son, Sonam Tsemo, became the second patriarch, contributing significantly to the establishment of the northern branch of the monastery, known for its grand Luchu Meytsang Tenchoe Podrang (Palace of Bliss).
Sonam Tsemo’s younger brother, Drakpa Gyaltsen, served as the third patriarch and oversaw the construction of various structures within the monastery grounds. His nephew, Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, the fourth patriarch, earned the moniker “Panchen Baso,” excelling in both the “Five Sciences” and esoteric teachings. His tenure witnessed the creation of architectural marvels such as Shito Labrang and Wuzi Lakhang.
Sakya’s Ascendance: A Center of Learning and Political Influence
Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen’s nephew, Drogon Chogyal Pagpa, the fifth patriarch, received imperial recognition from Kublai Khan in 1260, marking the beginning of Sakya’s political influence. Drogon Chogyal Pagpa’s pivotal role in establishing the Sakya Dynasty and his contributions to Tibetan Buddhism led to his recognition as the “Great Treasure Dharma King.”
Since its inception by Khon Kuunchok Gyalpo, Sakya Monastery has flourished under the guidance of five successive patriarchs, expanding its influence and contributing significantly to Tibetan Buddhism. Today, Sakya Monastery stands as a testament to centuries of spiritual dedication and architectural brilliance, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in the rich history and profound teachings of Tibetan Buddhism.
Sakya Monastery: A Majestic Hub of Tibetan Buddhism
Sakya Monastery, located at the base of Chongdu Benbo mountain in the Sa’gya County, Tibet, boasts over 40 architectural units, creating a grandiose spiritual haven. As the central monastery of the Sakya sect in Tibetan Buddhism, it holds sway over more than 150 affiliated temples in Qinghai, Yunnan, Gansu, Sichuan, Bhutan, Nepal, and beyond, housing over 10,000 monks. During the reign of the Sakya Dynasty, Sakya Monastery played a pivotal role as the political, military, and cultural epicenter of Tibet, fostering influential figures like Sakya Panchen, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, and Drogon Chogyal Pagpa, who made indelible contributions to the unity of their homeland.
Historical Significance of Sakya Monastery
Sakya Monastery holds a crucial place in both Chinese history and the history of Tibetan Buddhism. It stands as a treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist culture, attracting visitors from around the world to explore its rich history and cultural heritage. Serving as the epicenter of the Sakya sect, it commanded Tibetan affairs for over 70 years during the Sakya Dynasty. It earned a reputation as the “Second Dunhuang” due to its unparalleled prestige, abundant artifacts, precious ceramics, extensive scripture collection, exquisite murals, meticulous woodcuts, and diverse statues. In 1961, it was designated as a national key cultural heritage site, cementing its status as a significant tourist destination in Tibet.
Sakya North Monastery
Established in 1073 by Khon Kunchok Gyalpo, the North Monastery expanded under successive patriarchs, notably during the Sakya Dynasty. Along the north bank of Drongqu River, it boasts layered constructions, tall pagodas, scattered monk residences, and a meticulous layout. Despite Cultural Revolution damage, Sakya Monastery restored structures like Senkhang Lingpa, showcasing its architectural prowess.
Built in 1268 on a plateau south of Drongqu River, Sakya South Monastery embodies a unique blend of Han, Indian, and Tibetan styles, spanning 45,000 square meters. With robust walls, a protective moat, and watchtowers, it reflects Yuan Dynasty fortress-style architecture’s stability and strength. Sakya Monastery, a beacon of Tibetan Buddhism, draws pilgrims and tourists to witness its rich history, cultural significance, and architectural marvels.
Sakya South Monastery: Architectural Marvels and Spiritual Splendor
Lhakang Chenmo (Great Buddha Hall)
The central structure of Sakya South Monastery, Lhakang Chenmo, also known as the Great Buddha Hall, encompasses an impressive area of approximately 6770 square meters. Inside the hall, one is greeted by a forest of columns, totaling 108, with a spacious central courtyard. In 1945, Ngawang Thudok Wangchuk divided the surrounding areas into numerous halls, creating a harmonious quadrangle. The robust and thick walls are adorned with vibrant colors – predominantly reddish-brown at the base, transitioning to gray and topped with alternating bands of white and yellow. These three colors, a distinctive feature of Sakya sect monasteries, symbolize Manjushri in red, Avalokiteshvara in white, and Vajrapani in gray, collectively referred to as the “Coloful School.”
The roof of the hall features wooden bracket sets, beams, and eaves extending outward. Vibrant reddish-brown Beima grass adorns the roof, with various copper-gilded patterns embedded, showcasing intricate designs such as the Dharma Wheel, golden deer, round mirrors, conch shells, and combinations of the Six-Syllable Mantra on the eastern, southern, western, and northern sides. A dazzling spectacle is created at the top of the hall with a display of flags and banners. A gilded treasure vase stands tall at the forefront, flanked by peacocks and banners on either side, creating a harmonious ensemble.
The eastern gateway, flanked by prayer wheel walls, leads to a portico adorned with intricately carved pillars featuring upside-down lotus and floral motifs. Wooden panels showcase intricate carvings of the Dharma Wheel, Garuda, lotus flowers, and vines. Adorning the south side of the portico are murals depicting the Six Realms, while wooden frames on either side embed bronze-gilded prayer wheels. The interior of the gateway functions as a hall with columns, arranging rows of gilded prayer wheels. Elevated, the hall features statues of the Immovable Vajra and Hayagriva, molded from clay with exquisite craftsmanship, standing at a height of 5.5 meters.
Images in the Hall
To the south, the statue of the Immovable Vajra stands in dark green, adorned with skull crowns, three eyes, and a fierce expression. The statue holds a vajra-topped staff in the upraised left hand and a sword in the lowered right hand, trampling a white female demon underfoot. To the north, the Horse-Headed Vajra, entirely nude, features a horse’s head atop a fierce expression. The right hand holds a magic wand aloft, while the left hand wields a lasso, exuding a formidable presence.
Sakya Great Scripture Hall
Facing east, the scripture hall features four stone pillars with carved waistbands and lotus bases. The southern pillar’s wooden relief depicts two tigers playing in a bamboo forest, while the northern pillar showcases twin lions supporting a precious jewel. The hall’s exterior displays murals of the Immovable Vajra, Horse-Headed Vajra, Tsampa Gyatso, and Choekyi Lhamu (Eight Auspicious Signs). The hall covers an area of 1547 square meters, with 40 columns arranged in four rows, prominently featuring the “Four Great Columns” at the forefront, especially the Kublai column, standing at 6.6 meters in height and 1.23 meters in diameter at the base.
Sakya South Monastery stands as a testament to architectural brilliance, cultural richness, and spiritual significance, inviting visitors to delve into the profound heritage of Tibetan Buddhism.
Main Scripture Hall: A Marvel of Art and Spiritual Grandeur
Central Skylight and Murals
At the heart of Sakya South Monastery lies the Main Scripture Hall, adorned with a central skylight. Transparent glass windows adorn the eastern, southern, and northern sides of this celestial opening, while mural depictions of successive Sakya lineage masters embellish the western side. The depicted masters include Drime Shakya Yeshe, Sodui Gongrig, Shangshung Tubo, Jamyang Khyentse Wangchuk, Vajravarahi, and the “Six Great Deities” from India, namely Dorje Daka, Béwo Daka, Nangwa Daka, Zamarub Daka, Awadoda, and Gayadaro. In total, these mural masterpieces vividly portray 55 deities.
Decorative Elements and Skylight Design
The skylight’s western facade is adorned with a circular carving of 39 reclining lions. One stands out in golden hues, while the rest shimmer in silver-white tones, showcasing fierce expressions with rolled eyes, protruding tongues, flowing manes, and curled limbs, creating a dynamic impression of imminent leaping.
Inside the hall, intricately carved beams and painted pillars hang with colorful banners, creating a splendid and vibrant atmosphere. The walls are adorned with murals depicting Buddhist tales, the lineage of Sakya masters, and the great deities of India, presenting an opulent and majestic ambiance.
Western Section Statuary of Sakya Scriptre hall
To the west, before the fourth row of pillars, the hall is adorned with 12 large statues and two Buddha stupas. These large statues, made of various materials, include Shakyamuni Buddha, Amitayus Buddha, Manjushri Bodhisattva, Vajravarahi, Shakyabeuwa, and Shakya Ache Ma. Among them, eight statues are made of alloy, one of silver, and three are gold-gilded bronze. The towering heights of these statues, ranging from 8 to 9.7 meters, are particularly remarkable. The intricately crafted headgear, facial expressions, and seated postures of the Buddha statues and Bodhisattvas showcase the artistry and skill of Tibetan sculptors.
Shakyamuni Buddha: A Masterpiece of Craftsmanship
The central and largest statue is of Shakyamuni Buddha, considered the world’s largest one-piece cast Buddha statue. Standing at 9 meters tall, it exhibits seamless craftsmanship without any visible welding marks on its body. The materials used for its creation are awe-inspiring, reportedly incorporating a mix of 18 precious substances, including gold, silver, coral, and conch shells. These colossal and majestic statues reflect the brilliance, wisdom, and exceptional craftsmanship of Tibetan sculptural masters.
The Main Scripture Hall in Sakya South Monastery not only serves as a spiritual sanctuary but also stands as a testament to the extraordinary artistic and cultural heritage of Tibetan Buddhism.
Woedong Renzin Lakang: A Glimpse into Sacred Artistry
Woedong Renzin Lakang Overview
Located with its entrance facing south, covering an area of 330 square meters, Woedong Renzin Lakang is a captivating space with eight tall pillars spanning five sections in width and three in depth. Vibrant hanging banners adorn this Lakang, and its walls showcase murals depicting the Five Dhyani Buddhas, Three Primordial Deities, Sakya lineage masters, and Gasha officials responsible for the monastery’s maintenance.
On the eastern side of the Lakang, a row of eleven stupas takes center stage. Notable ones include Stronggun Amai, Gakchin Thutop Wangchuk, Wojang Zampa Lodoe, Ojang Gongkar Rinchen, and Jabe Sonam Wangpo. These silver stupas are intricately decorated with turquoise, coral, “Posha,” glass, and gilded belts, presenting a lavish and magnificent display.
Northern Lakang: A Mosaic of Art and Spirituality
Covering an area of 307 square meters, Northern Lakang Jang boasts twelve columns in two rows and houses six stupas, including a unique multi-door stupa and five Bodhi stupas. The murals within depict the citadel, the Five Sakya Patriarchs, a thousand Buddha images, Vajrapani, and Dharmapala deities. Notably, the mural portraying the Sakya Meeting during the Sapan Festival is considered a priceless treasure.
Pupa Lhakang: A Ritual Haven
Facing north and spanning an impressive 390 square meters, Pupa Lhakang features ten columns in two rows. This space primarily serves the Pupa Lha ritual, conducted annually from the 8th to the 19th day of the seventh Tibetan month. The interior houses a Pupala shrine, dedicated to the three main Pupala deities: Sopa, Yangda, and Chila. A striking gilded statue of Manjushri Bodhisattva, designed by the 8th Sapa, and crafted by Nepalese artisans, takes a central position. To its left is a gilded bronze statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, and to its right, a statue of Amitayus Buddha.
The walls of Pupala Kang are adorned with wooden alcoves housing 4137 small bronze statues, including Shakyamuni Buddha, Amitayus Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, Tara, Vajrapani, Jambhala, Vajrasattva, and Sakya masters. The sheer volume and variety of these statues create a breathtaking visual spectacle.
Jig Lakang: A Sublime Sanctuary
Located on the north side of the front hall’s second floor, facing south, Jig Lakang spans 177 square meters. It houses three silver statues depicting Guru Padmasambhava and two Dakinis. North and east of Jig Lakang are five stupas, exhibiting intricate details and made of silver or gilded bronze. These stupas include Pema Dul Wangchuk, Teqin Tashi Rinchen, Guanningshan Peiluobu, Zhaqiang Trinley Rinchen, and Gongkar Renchin.
The walls feature murals of “Three Longevity Deities,” Sakya masters, Dharmapala deities, Lotus-born Guru’s biography, and figures from the Nyingma tradition. Originating from the Yuan Dynasty, these murals are prized for their simple yet vivid depictions. Oudong Renzeng Lakang showcases the Sakya tradition’s rich cultural heritage and religious devotion.
Overview of Sakya Monastery’s Architectural Treasures
Gehni Lakang: Aesthetic Grace in Devotion
Situated on the south side of the front hall’s second floor, facing north, Gehni Lakang covers 140 square meters. It features two horizontally arranged columns and houses nine statues of Buddhas and two stupas. The statues, made of silver or gilded bronze, range from 2.7 to 4 meters in height and include Amitayus Buddha, Manjushri Bodhisattva, Tara, Vajrayogini, Vajraheroic Wisdom Dakini, and Gongkar Ningbo. The backlit setting enhances the aura, adorned with intricately carved elements like Garudas, Nagas, Makaras, and various animals.
The two stupas, Zenglintuguo Wangdui Stupa and Gongka Solang Stupa, are both Bodhi stupas made of silver or gilded bronze, standing at a height of 3.8 meters. Murals inside depict the Three Longevity Deities, Wealth Deity (Dzambhala), Jampa Buddha, Trisong Detsen, Bodhisattva Sakyamuni, Lotus-born Guru, Eight Stupa Builders, and more, showcasing refined artistic techniques.
Lakang Zikongang: The Guardian Deities’ Abode
Referred to as the Guardian Deity Hall, Lakang Zikongang occupies the northwest corner of the second floor, facing south. This space encompasses an area of three sections in width and two in depth, with two horizontally arranged columns. The northern wall prominently features statues of Guruyi Gurulma, Bangun Xie, and Paldden Lhamo, all crafted in clay with a height of 1.2 to 1.6 meters. Adorned with skull crowns, rolling eyes, and holding a bowl filled with fresh blood and human bones, these statues project a powerful and eerie presence.
The pillars support thangkas of various wrathful deities, including Dorje Legpa, Pupa, Ziduo Jiana Bo, Vajrapani, Buza Michia, Gamawa, and Duijie. The eastern wall showcases line-drawn images of horses, yaks, sheep, dogs, and crows.
Lama Lakang: A Three-Part Sanctum
Found in the northwest corner of the third floor, Lama Lakang comprises three sections: the main hall, meditation room, and Buddha hall. The central hall, with four pillars, features murals depicting Sakyamuni’s Pure Land, Chubelam (a musical celestial being), Sakya Masters, and landscape and auspicious animal paintings.
The meditation room, located to the south, is pillar-less and designed for solitary meditation. The Buddha hall, situated to the north, has two pillars, three sections in width, and three in depth. Within the hall, a gilded bronze statue of Shakyamuni Buddha (1.4 meters tall) takes central focus, flanked by clay statues of Ngachang Kunga Rinchen and Jampa, among others. Murals in this hall depict Sakya Masters, prominent monks, and Indian adepts, showcasing exceptional artistic prowess.
Shidrak Lhakang: A Harmony of Art and Devotion
Situated on the south side, facing south, Shidrak Lhakang has two pillars in the entrance portico. The hall features three rows of pillars, totaling 18, with two long pillars supporting a skylight. The central hall is primarily used for Sakyamuni’s biography, the Four Continents, and Six Realms paintings.
The Buddha hall in the north houses a gilded bronze statue of Shakyamuni Buddha (1.4 meters tall) and several gilded bronze statues. Wooden alcoves on the east and west walls contain 37 gilded bronze and bronze statues of Buddhas, including large statues of Dainichi Nyorai, ranging in height from 68 to 75 centimeters. Murals in this hall depict sacred scenes and dance goddesses, presenting a harmonious blend of religious devotion and artistic expression.
Highlights of Sakya Monastery
- Thematic Diversity: Over 3000 murals at Sakya Monastery cover religious, historical, cultural, and societal themes.
- Tkhor Castle Murals: Located in the second-floor west corridor, these murals depict 130 castles, originating from the late 13th century. The surviving murals showcase 63 castles, ranging in diameter from 2.55 to 2.7 meters, with detailed scenes of deities, clouds, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and attendants.
- Biography of Shakyamuni Murals: Adorning the east wall of the assembly hall, these murals vividly portray the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, spanning from his birth to parinirvana. The accompanying eight life-size statues add a remarkable visual dimension.
- Biography of Lotus-born Guru Murals: Found on the west wall of Tsuklakhang, these murals narrate the birth, teachings, travels, demon subjugation, and the establishment of the Samye Monastery by Padmasambhava, commonly known as Lotus-born Guru.
- Kunshi Hereditary History Murals: In the north section of the second-floor east corridor, these murals display portraits of 118 members of the Kunshi family, tracing their lineage from three ancestral figures. The detailed depictions provide valuable insights into the family’s attire evolution over different periods.
- Landscape and Fauna Murals: Various halls feature landscapes, lions, tigers, longevity symbols, saintly monks, vase and lotus motifs, and lively depictions of animals and birds, creating a surreal and idyllic atmosphere.
- Thangkas: Sakya Monastery houses 280 thangkas with a history of nearly 700 years. Notable pieces include “Biography of the 8th Karmapa” and “Sapan Kunga Gyaltsen,” both highlighting rare moments in debates and achievements.
- Scriptures: Over 45,000 scriptures are stored in the wooden racks behind the main hall, covering literature, medicine, philosophy, history, and mathematics. These scriptures, inscribed with gold, silver, and pearl powder, hold significance for scholars and researchers.
- Palm Leaf Manuscripts: Eight palm leaf manuscripts, with the “Diamond Sutra” as the most precious, showcase intricate paintings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other divine beings. These rare artifacts exemplify the distinctive aesthetics of Jataka art.
- Ceramics: A collection of over 1100 ceramic pieces dating from the Yuan Dynasty to the Republican era, displaying diverse motifs ranging from religious symbols to everyday scenes. The exquisite craftsmanship includes white porcelain with simple elegance and vibrant painted designs.
- Seals and Imperial Decrees: With over 10 Kunshi family members serving as imperial tutors during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, Sakya Monastery possesses numerous imperial seals and decrees. These artifacts are invaluable for understanding the political dynamics between the central government and Tibet.
3. Sakya Cham Dance:
- Intangible Cultural Heritage: Sakya Cham, originating from the Vajra deity dance devised by Lhatsun Chenpo at Sangye Temple, has been recognized as an autonomous region-level intangible cultural heritage.
- Diverse Performances: The three major performances—Po Zang Cham (Spring), Kunchok Cham (Autumn), and Chonga Cham (Winter)—showcase various rituals, including ancient Vajra deity dances, swordplay, archery, and lively exchanges and bartering after the ceremonies.
Tips for Highlights
Khon Kunchok Gyalpo
- Founder of Sakya Monastery: Khon Kunchok Gyalpo, meaning “Treasure King,” established Sakya Monastery in 1073 and founded the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism.
- Early Training: He initially studied Nyingma teachings and exoteric scriptures but later learned new translation methods from eminent teachers like Drokmi Shakya Yeshi and others.
- Sakya School Formation: After building Sakya Monastery, he integrated political and religious authority, establishing the Sakya school and implementing a hereditary system within the family.
- Formation: Founded by Khon Kunchok Gyalpo in 1073 in the Sakya region, Sakya Monastery became the focal point, leading to the establishment of the Sakya school.
- Symbolism: The monastery walls are adorned with red, white, and black floral patterns symbolizing Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, and Vajrapani.
- Leadership: The leadership of the Sakya school is hereditary within the Khon Kunchok Gyalpo family, maintaining both blood and spiritual lineages.
- Teachings: The school emphasizes teachings like “Lamdre” (Path and Result) and encompasses both exoteric and esoteric practices.
Sakya Monastery Study Institute
- Construction: Initiated in May 2005, this institute took five years to complete, costing over 9.62 million yuan. It integrates traditional Tibetan Buddhist architectural art with modern construction techniques.
- Curriculum: Offers a 6 to 9-year curriculum with three levels (primary, middle, and high school) and eight departments covering various subjects.
- Facilities: Equipped with a library, computer room, editorial department, monk dormitories, and lecturer quarters.
- Accommodation: Lodging options are concentrated around Sakya Monastery. Sakya Hotel is recommended, providing standard and multiple-person rooms. Several family inns in the vicinity also offer good environments.
- Photography: Best time to photograph Sakya Monastery is during sunset or early morning for panoramic shots. The Sakya Cham dance ceremony is a grand event, providing opportunities to capture diverse cultural and religious scenes.