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Yumbulagang Palace: Tibet’s First Imperial Palace and Buddhist Monastery

Yumbulakhang, perched high on Tashi Ciri Mountain by the Yalong River in Tibet’s Nedong County, is full of fascinating history and stories. Its name, “Yongbulakang,” comes from its special location on a mountain shaped like a doe’s hind legs. People also call it “the palace on the legs of a doe.” You might hear it called by other names like “Yumbulagan” or “Yumolaka,” and some people refer to it as “Mother’s Womb” or “Mother and Child Temple.”

Historical Significance:

  • Earliest Tibetan Structure: Yumbulakang is recognized as the oldest building in Tibet, initially serving as a palace for the leaders of the Yarlung tribe, dating back to the 2nd century BC (circa 114 BC).
  • First Palace in Tibetan History: It is historically significant as the first-ever palace in Tibet, emphasizing its ancient origins.

Mythological Origins of Nyatri Tsenpo:

  • Emergence of the First Tibetan King: According to legend, around 237 BC, a shepherd in the region of Zantanglang encountered a remarkable man who seemed to have descended from the sky. Believed to be a “son of God,” this individual, later known as Nyatri Tsenpo (gnyav-khri-btsan-po), was carried down the mountain and hailed as the leader of the tribe, marking the genesis of the Tibetan monarchy.

Architectural Marvel:

  • Structural Uniqueness: Despite its small scale, Yumbulakang’s location on a mountain summit renders it a visually spectacular structure.
  • Cultural Landmark: Over the centuries, it has evolved from a royal palace into a revered temple, reflecting the deep-rooted religious and cultural evolution of the region.

Cultural Legacy:

  • Symbol of Ancient Tibet: Yumbulakang stands as a testament to Tibet’s earliest civilization and the genesis of its monarchical system.
  • Spiritual and Historical Jewel: The temple is not only a remarkable architectural feat but also a symbol of the spiritual beliefs and historical narratives that have shaped Tibetan culture.

Visiting Yumbulakang offers a journey back in time, providing a glimpse into the origins of Tibetan civilization and its rich cultural tapestry. The temple’s blend of historical, mythological, and architectural significance makes it a profound symbol of Tibet’s ancient heritage and a must-visit site for those interested in exploring the depths of Tibetan history and spirituality.

Yumbulakang (yum-bu-lha-khang), nestled atop Tashi Ciri Mountain in Nedong County, Tibet, is a site of immense historical and spiritual significance. Known as the first palace in Tibetan history, it traces its origins back to the early Tibetan monarchy and the establishment of the Tubo (tu-bod) kingdom.

Historical Evolution:

  • First Tibetan King: Nyatri Tsenpo (gnyav-khri-btsan-po), regarded as the first king of Tibet, is a central figure in the narrative of Yumbulakang. The name “Nyatri Tsenpo” combines “Nya” (gnyav) meaning “Shoulder,” “Khri” representing “throne,” and “Zanpu” (btsan-po) signifying “heroic lord.”
  • Son of Light: Nyatri Tsenpo is also described as the thirteenth generation of the Son of Light from the Color Realm, descending to earth and being jointly supported as king by the clan and the religion. His reign marked the beginning of the Tibetan monarchy, which lasted for thirty-two generations until the establishment of the Tubo Dynasty.

Architectural and Cultural Significance:

  • Original Structure: Initially, Yumbulakang was a royal palace constructed by Nyatri Tsenpo in the Yalong region, signifying the earliest phase of palatial architecture in Tibet.
  • Transformation into a Temple: During the reign of Songtsen Gampo (srong-btsan-sgam-po), significant changes were made, transforming Yumbulakang from a palace to a temple. This included the addition of two-storey halls, with a Buddha Hall on the ground floor and a Dharma King Hall on the upper floor.
  • Subsequent Expansions: Throughout various dynasties, Yumbulakang underwent expansions and renovations, including the construction of a foyer, monk’s rooms, and the addition of a golden roof during the fifth Dalai Lama period. In the 15th century, Tsongkhapa’s disciple, Khedrup Dhondup, built Riwu Qulin near Yumbulakang, further enhancing its religious significance.

History of Yumbulakhang

Yumbulakang’s rich history, from its beginnings as a royal palace to its evolution into a revered temple, reflects the deep-rooted spiritual and cultural heritage of Tibet. The site not only commemorates the origins of the Tibetan monarchy but also stands as a testament to the architectural ingenuity and religious transformations that have shaped Tibetan history. As the first palace and one of the earliest architectural landmarks in Tibet, Yumbulakang holds a special place in the hearts of Tibetans and the annals of Tibetan history.

Yumbulakang (yum-bu-lha-khang), standing gracefully atop Tashi Ciri Mountain in Nedong County, Tibet, is not only a historic structure but also a symbol of the resilience and restoration of Tibetan culture. This ancient palace-turned-temple has undergone significant transformations over centuries, reflecting the ebb and flow of Tibetan history.

Historical Timeline and Restoration:

  • 1962 Designation: Recognized as an autonomous region-level cultural relics protection unit, Yumbulakang holds immense cultural and historical value.
  • Cultural Revolution Impact: During the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution, Yumbulakang faced considerable destruction, leading to the loss of statues, murals, and crucial architectural elements.
  • 1982 Restoration: Beginning in 1982, extensive efforts were undertaken to restore Yumbulakang to its former glory, meticulously reconstructing its architecture and art.

Architectural Divisions:

Yumbulakang’s architecture is divided into three distinct sections, each symbolizing different aspects of its historical and religious significance:

  1. Watchtower-Style Building:
    • Located at the eastern end, this is the oldest part of the complex, believed to be constructed by Nie Chi Zanpu.
    • The structure is 11 meters high, 4.6 meters wide (north to south), and 3.5 meters long (east to west).
    • Although it appears to have five layers from the outside, it comprises three layers internally.
    • The first floor leads to the Xumizuo in the hall, and a small door on the second floor connects to the top of the main hall.
  2. Halls:
    • These spaces serve as the main areas for religious activities and ceremonies.
    • They house various statues, thangkas, and other religious artefacts, embodying the spiritual essence of the temple.
  3. Monks’ Rooms and Ancillary Buildings:
    • These areas accommodate the monastic community and support the temple’s daily functions.
    • They are integral to maintaining the religious practices and traditions of Yumbulakang.

Cultural and Religious Importance:

Yumbulakang is not just an architectural marvel; it’s a living testament to the spiritual journey and cultural heritage of Tibet. Its restoration symbolizes the enduring spirit of Tibetan Buddhism and the commitment to preserving a rich historical legacy. For visitors and pilgrims alike, Yumbulakang offers a profound experience, connecting them with the ancient roots of Tibetan civilization and spirituality.

Yumbulakang, the historical edifice in Tibet, presents a fascinating blend of architecture and spiritual heritage. This ancient structure, once a palace and now a temple, epitomizes the rich Tibetan history and its evolution.

Architectural Significance:

  • Tower-style Building: The original structure of Yumbulakang, featuring thick walls and a compact interior, signifies its ancient origins. With the first floor spanning merely 2.28 square meters and the upper floors covering 4.18 square meters each, it’s evident that this building was part of a larger palace complex in its early days.
  • Palatial Expansion: Believed to be constructed by Songtsen Gampo, the initial three-story palace was later restored to two stories. The integration of this palace into Yumbulakang’s architecture points to its historical significance as a royal residence before transitioning into a spiritual center.

Interior Details:

  • Foyer and Buddhist Hall: The foyer, forming the front half of the first floor, leads to a Buddhist hall. This hall, with an area of approximately 60 square meters. It is supported by eight pillars, creating a spacious and solemn environment for worship and religious gatherings.
  • Statues and Artifacts: The Buddhist hall is adorned with statues of significant figures in Tibetan history and Buddhism, including:
    • Songtsen Gampo and Chisong Detsen on the north wall.
    • Princess Wencheng and Princess Chizun on the south wall.
    • Tunmi Sambuza and Ludongzan, alongside statues of Manjushri and the three Longevity Statues.

Cultural Relics:

The “Records of Tibetan Cultural Relics” describe the hall’s rich array of statues and the unique characteristics of early Tibetan sculpture. This includes the notable depiction of Sakyamuni Buddha with distinct facial features and artistic details, reflecting the early Tibetan sculptural style.

Historical and Cultural Importance:

Yumbulakang’s architecture and the artifacts within it tell a story of Tibet’s royal past, its transition into a Buddhist stronghold, and the cultural interplay between royalty and religion. The statues and relics housed here are not only artistic masterpieces but also bearers of historical testimony, linking the present to a profound and storied past.

Yumbulakang stands as a testament to Tibetan history, offering insights into the architectural styles, royal lineages, and the spiritual journey of Tibetan Buddhism. It remains a beacon of Tibetan heritage, attracting visitors and pilgrims who seek to connect with the ancient roots of this unique and enduring culture.

Yumbulakang, an iconic structure in Tibetan culture, serves as a repository of rich Buddhist history and art. This ancient palace, transformed into a spiritual sanctuary, houses an array of revered images and artifacts, each narrating a unique aspect of Tibetan Buddhism and history.

Interior Art and Symbolism:

  • Buddhist Hall Murals: The south wall features images of the Twenty-one Taras, a significant set of female deities in Tibetan Buddhism, embodying various virtues and aspects of compassion. The north wall displays reliefs of the Twenty-one Zidamani Tara and the Eight Medicine Kings, symbolizing healing and protection.
  • Dharma King’s Hall: This two-story structure, divided into front and rear sections, includes rooms that were once living spaces and now serve as shrines. The north and south rooms of the hall showcase the integration of historical and religious elements in Tibetan architecture.

Statues and Relics:

  • Guanyin Bodhisattva and Sakyamuni Buddha: The statues in the Dharma King’s Hall are particularly noteworthy, with the Guanyin Bodhisattva statue mirroring the style of those in the Potala Palace, indicating the deep spiritual and artistic connections within Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Buddhist Cabinet: The back wall of the hall contains a cabinet with an assortment of bronze statues, including Maitreya Buddha, Tsongkhapa, Padmasambhava, and Manjusri. These figures represent important aspects of the Buddhist pantheon and are crucial to Tibetan religious practices.

Cultural Significance:

  • Sutra Collection: The presence of “Ganyur” and other vital sutras highlights Yumbulakang’s role as a center of Buddhist learning and preservation.
  • Dalai Lama’s Bedroom: The second-floor bedroom, used by Dalai Lamas during their visits, is a testament to the temple’s significance in Tibetan Buddhism and its role in hosting spiritual leaders.

Artistic Heritage:

  • Murals: The walls of Lakang Palace are adorned with vibrant murals, showcasing the richness of Tibetan art and its ability to convey religious narratives and cultural heritage.
  • Ancient Mural: A particularly ancient mural, preserved in a glass frame, offers a glimpse into the early artistic expressions of Tibetan culture, making it a valuable piece of Yumbulakang’s historical puzzle.

Yumbulakang stands as a beacon of Tibetan religious and cultural identity, bridging the ancient past with contemporary spiritual practices. Its murals, statues, and artifacts not only embellish its architectural grandeur but also serve as conduits to understanding the rich tapestry of Tibetan Buddhism and its historical journey.

Yumbulakang, steeped in Tibetan myth and history, offers a unique window into the religious and cultural evolution of Tibet. Its walls, adorned with murals, not only enhance its architectural beauty but also serve as visual narratives of Tibet’s past.

Murals in the Buddhist Hall:

  • Early History of Tibet: A mural on the left wall vividly portrays the formation of the Tibetan kingdom, the construction of the inaugural palace, and the development of agriculture, embodying the foundational moments of Tibetan civilization.
  • Divine Scripture Descent: Another mural illustrates the extraordinary event where Buddhist scriptures descended from the heavens during the reign of Latuo Tori Niezan, marking a pivotal moment in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet.

Mythological Significance:

  • Legend of Divine Objects: This legend, depicting the descent of sacred texts and artefacts from the sky, underscores the divine origins of Buddhism in Tibet. These artefacts were perceived as enigmatic and powerful, contributing to the sanctity and reverence of Yumbulakang in Tibetan culture.

Artistic Depictions:

  • Padmasambhava in Meditation: A mural shows the revered sage Padmasambhava in deep meditation within a cave, highlighting his significance in Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Pantheon of Buddhist Figures: The opposite wall displays intricate paintings of the Twenty-One Taras, Padmasambhava, Sakyamuni Buddha, and the sixteen Arhats, each figure holding a special place in Tibetan religious practice.

Cultural and Historical Insights:

  • Introduction of Buddhism: The legend associated with the murals indicates that Buddhism’s establishment in Tibet was a gradual process, gaining momentum during Songtsen Gampo’s reign, five generations after Latuo Tori Niezan.
  • Yumbulakang’s Transformation: Originally a royal palace, Yumbulakang’s transition into a religious temple reflects the intertwining of Tibet’s political and spiritual history.

Yumbulakang, through its murals and legends, narrates a story that intertwines the mystical, the historical, and the spiritual. These artistic treasures not only beautify the temple but also serve as enduring testaments to Tibet’s rich cultural tapestry and the profound impact of Buddhism on its history.

Located a mere 400 meters northeast of the iconic Yumbulakang, in the Tashi Miri ravine. The legendary “Gar Spring.” is there. This perennial spring, discovered by Gar Dongtsen, a minister of the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo, is deeply embedded in Tibetan lore.

Legendary Gar Spring:

  • Mythical Discovery: The spring is named after Gar Dongtsen, emphasizing its historical connection to the ancient Tibetan monarchy.
  • Healing Waters: The spring is believed to possess mystical properties, with its waters said to purify the soul, rejuvenate the skin, and cure diseases. This belief underscores the deep spiritual connection Tibetans have with their natural surroundings.

Exploring Yongbulakang and its Surroundings:

Getting to Yongbulakang:

  • Tickets Needed: Visitors must buy tickets for a tour that usually lasts about an hour.
  • Open Hours: Yongbulakang is open from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
  • Getting There: Located about 11 kilometers from Zedang, you can reach the site by minibuses, tourist buses, or by walking.

Attractions Nearby:

Bangtang Palace Ruins: Just 5 kilometres south in the Pozhang District. These ruins are believed to be Princess Jincheng’s palace from the Tang Dynasty. They offer a glimpse into the historical relations between China and Tibet.

“Xiesai Firewood” Field

Agricultural Significance: Contrary to some claims, this field below Yongbulakang, named for its resemblance to a Dolma offering, wasn’t Tibet’s first farmland. It was specifically cultivated to grow highland barley for royal tsampa. It reflecting the agricultural practices and food culture of ancient Tibet.

Historical Village of Xiaba

First Village in Tibet: Situated at the base of Yongbulakang. Xiaba village in Menzhi is mentioned in Tibetan historical texts as “Yalong Sokar,” making it the earliest recorded village in Tibet. This spot holds significant historical value, showcasing the beginnings of Tibetan civilization.

Visitors to Yongbulakang and Gar Spring embark on a journey through time, experiencing firsthand the mystical and historical narratives that have shaped Tibetan culture and spirituality.

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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