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Tashilhunpo Monastery

Tashilhunpo, meaning Heap of Glory, was the seat of the Panchen lamas. It lies at the foot of Drolmari, or Tara’s Mountain, on the west side of Shigatse and is today one of Tibet’s most active monasteries.  

It was founded in 1447 by Tsong Khapa’s youngest disciple, who was his nephew and the main organizer of the Yellow Hat Sect. The early abbots, who posthumously were named the First, Second and Third Panchen lamas, were learned scholars who often had to flee to the province of U from their fierce Red hat opponents in Tsang.

The enlargement of Tashilhumpo took place mostly under the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Panchen lamas.

Tashilhunpo had over 4,000 monks and was organized like Lhasa’s great monagteries. It had four tantric colleges, each with its own abbot. After the death of a Panchen lama, these four abbots led the search for his infant reincarnation, and one of them always acted as the prime minister of Tsang, under the control of the dalai lama in Lhasa.

The most remarkable object on the monastery grounds is an enormous Thangka Wall nine stories high, which stands like a huge drive-in movie screen, clearly visible from the city. This structure is used most of the year for storing three gigantic banners bearing images of the Buddha, which are displayed on the wall for only three days a year during summer festival.

The monastery itself, facing south, is one of the most spectacular in Tibet, its salmon-rose main buildings set off by the ecclesiastical red-brown of the parapets and clear black-and-white trim. The buildings form a horizontal line: the gigantic maitreya chaple on the west, the Panchen Lama’s palace ( containing the stupa-tomb of the Fourth) in the middle, and on the east a cluster of buildings around a large courtyard known as the Kelsang Temple.

A path runs north from the main gate between white stone buildings and courtyards that house smaller chanting halls, the debating garden, dormitories and workshops. Pilgrims coming to Tshilhunpo generally brings bags of tsampa as offerings, rather than yak butter as in Lhasa.

A lane leads east to the Panchen Lama’s Palace, entered by a doo in its east side. Wiithin, a narrow courtyard gives access to a temple containing the Fourth Panchen Lama’s tomb. The temple vestibule has very large inscriptions at either end praising the Fourth Panchen Lama. Inside, the silver and gold stupa-tomb rivals any in the Potala for the splendor of its workmanship and jewels. Measuring 11 meters in height, it contains 85 kilograms of gold and countless semi-precious stones.  On the left is a statue in a wooden enclosure representing Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light, whom the Panchen lamas are thought to embody. An upper level has long chapels with embroidered silk thangkas that relate the lives and events surrounding all the Panchen lamas. Most were made in Hangzhou, in the east of China, during the 1920s. Unfortunately, the living quarters of the Panchen lama are no longer open to the public. The rooms are more modest and human than any in the Potala.

To the left of the Fourth Panchen Lama’s stupa-tomb is a large room whose extensive murals depict the Jataka tales, stories of the Duddha’s previous lives. This room has taken on great importance because it now houses the relics of the 10th preserved by a salting process, and he gazed out of a glass box, face and hands gilded, to the astonishment and adoration of pilgrims.

Outside is a huge six-storey structure that will eventually house the 10th Panchen Lama. Its construction, still underway, has taken years and the building is certain to be a fantastically opulent final resting place for the lama.

The flagstoned Great Courtyard of the Kelsang Temple to the east has walls covered by 1,000 repeated Sakyamunis, their hands in five symbokic poses ( mudras). On the west side, the Main Chanting Hall contains the Panchen lama’s throne and two connected chapels. The left-hand one is devoted to an elaborately ensconced Sakyamuni with eight bodhisattvas robed in brocade. The right-hand one is dedicated to Tara, the goddess who sanctifies the mountain above, and whose image can be found throughout the monastery. A white Tara occupies the centre of the center of the altar, with a green Tara on either side.

The gallery surrounding the courtyard leads to chapels on the east housing hundreds of tiny Buddha statues. A Sutra Hall behind them is the repository of some 10,000 hard-carved wooden blocks used for printing the Buddhist scriptures. Tourists can buy the colored prayer flags and Tibetan lunar calendars printed here.

The roof has several chapels. On the north side, above the chapels of the Chanting Hall, is the funerary stupa of the First Dalai Lama, the only one not entombed in Lhasa. On the east side is a small chamber of horrors chapel. Painted demons, considered now to be defenders of Buddhism, betray their origins as the terrifying gods of the old animist Bon faith, who only later were absorbed by Buddhism. On the south side is a charming Tara chapel.

Less frequently visited is a small chanting hall of Ngagang Tantric college on the west side of the main north-south path, upstairs from a small courtyard. Here a morning chanting ceremony with musical instruments sometimes takes place. Pilgrims may circumambulate the hall, but tourists, especially photographers, should be sensitive to the religious atmosphere. Directly below the Panchen Lama’s palace, east of the main path, is the Gyeni Philosophy College and the Debating Garden with many fine trees. The roof of the chanting hall has a bizarre chapel on the north side, where two very tall guardians are formed from its structural columns by the use of masks and ancient armour. Outside are some extraordinary animal murals that seem to have emerged from folklore and animism. Open 9 am—5:30 pm, closed for lunch 12:30 – 3:30 pm.

Pilgrim walk

An interesting three-kilometer (two-mile) walk leads back to the city by way of the giant Thangka wall, the ruins of Shigatse’s citadel or dzong and an open-air Tibetan market. It is important to do the walk returning from Tashilhunpo to maintain a clockwise direction and avoid offending pilgrims on the path.

A sandy road parallel to the west wall of Tashilhunpo quickly becomes a well-worn path leading up behind the monastery, past prayer wheels and shrines, to the foot of the Thangka Wall, one branch descending beside the east wall to make a circle around the monastery the other continuing level along the flank of the mountain towards Shigatse. After passing an array of carved and painted rocks it emerges below the rocky prominence that dominates the city. Here a hiker can either climb up to the ruins or take a right-hand route down to the market.

The dzong, totally destroyed in 1961, was once a small Potala covering the whole hilltop, with up-sweeping white walls that seemed to grow from the crags. It had a central Red Palace and turret-like fortifications at the outer ends. The formidable structure was seen as both a homage and a challenge to the power of Lhasa embodied in the real Potala. Only the foundations remain, but the site offers a magnificent view over Shigatse and its surrounding valleys.

The market below, just south of the dzong, consists of an organized street with neat, covered stalls, where Tibetan artifacts, jewellery, cloth, leather, copperware, and other items are for sale. Visitors may find shopping here easier than on the Barkhor in Lhasa. Prices are all open to bargaining.