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Women pilgrims. Photograph by Jim Gourley, 2004

Women pilgrims on a road through the high grasslands between Rebgong (Tongren) and Labrang (Xiahe) along the Qinghai/Gansu border. Their destination was Kumbum monastery, two months away. Photograph © Jim Gourley, 2004

Before Buddhism was brought to Tibet in the 7th century the indigenous religion (which in its later form is known as Bon) had its own sacred places. Often these were lakes, rivers and mountains believed to be the dwelling places of deities. The gods and goddesses inhabiting these locations were taken over by Buddhism and often made into protectors of the new religion. The sacred places remained pilgrimage destinations in many cases up until the present day.

In time the monasteries which were the bases of important Buddhist hierarchs such as re-incarnate lamas also became major pilgrimage destinations. Among these was Tashilunpho monastery, seat of the Panchen Lama and the city of Lhasa, home to the Dalai Lamas since the mid 17th century and the location of the Jokang, Tibet's holiest temple. The merit gained from long distance pilgrimage to somewhere such as Lhasa can be increased further by other devotional acts such as measuring one's length on the ground by prostrations or by carrying a rock on one's back.


Drak Yerpa

Drak Yerpa. ©Elaine Alster, 2008

Drak Yerpa. ©Elaine Alster, 2008

The caves excavated in this high limestone escarpment form one of the most important meditation sites in Tibet.

Many of Tibet's most outstanding religious teachers have spent periods meditating at this location, which has been in almost continuous use since the 7th century AD. These have included the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo and the 8th century Indian teacher Guru Rinpoche or 'Precious Teacher' (also called Padmasambhava) who was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Tibet.

In the 11th century the Bengali master Atisha and his disciple Dromton taught here while the Indian yogi Padampa Seng (Nagpopa) meditated in its caves.




Drepung

Temple Courtyard, Drepung, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Temple Courtyard, Drepung, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Drepung was formerly one of the largest monasteries in Tibet, inhabited by more than 7,000 monks. It was built in 1416 by Jamyang Choje Tashi Pelden, a disciple of Tsongkhapa, the Buddhist reformer and founder of the Gelugpa Order, headed today by the 14th Dalai Lama.

It was here that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Dalai Lamas lived and were entombed. Until the building of the Potala Palace was sufficiently finished in the mid-17th century, the 5th Dalai Lama also ruled from here.

Monasteries such as Drepung came to resemble small towns with their basic unit the college or Tratsang. Colleges specialised in specific types of study including logic, disputation, astrology, medicine and meditational practice. Each had its own chapels, assembly halls and administrative and residential quarters. The range of studies offered in Tibetan monasteries reflected the ancient Indian monasteries that were their prototype.


View of Drepung, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

View of Drepung, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Shrine at Drepung, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Shrine at Drepung, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Shrine pillars, Drepung, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Shrine pillars, Drepung, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Monastery at Dreprung, Tibet. Photograph © Larry He

Monastery at Dreprung, Tibet. Photograph © Larry He


Guyantse

Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi

Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi

The monumental stupa (or Kumbum) at Gyantse was built and decorated between 1427 and 1447 by the local ruler, Rabtan Kunzang. Each of its eight storeys has many small chapels containing sculptures and wall paintings with the Vajradhara (Cosmic Buddha) at the top.

The layout of the Kumbum represents a three-dimensional mandala, which enables devotees and pilgrims to understand and physically move through the Buddhist cosmos. As they move upwards, level by level, pilgrims encounter ever more powerful and important deities. This journey therefore becomes a symbolic equivalent of the inner journey towards enlightenment.

The Kumbum has a 'stepped' appearance with chapels organised in rows along each side, larger chapels being in the centre of each side, facing the cardinal directions (North, South, East & West). Access to each level  is via internal stairways.

Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi
Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi
Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi
Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi
Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi
Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi
Shrine inside the Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi
Shrine inside the Stupa, Gyantse, Tibet. Photograph © Katalin Enyedi

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Temple roofs, Jokhang, Lhasa. Photograph © John Huntington

Temple roofs, Jokhang, Lhasa. Photograph © John Huntington

The Jokhang or 'Shrine of the Lord' is the earliest and most revered Tibetan temple.

Built by the Emperor Songtsen Gampo in 642 AD originally to house a Buddha Akshobhya image brought to Tibet by his Nepalese wife Bhrkuti. After the Emperor's death his Chinese queen, Wen Cheng, replaced this with an image said to represent the Buddha Sakyamuni at the age of 12 which she had brought to Tibet as part of her dowry. This image, the Jobo Chenpo or 'Great Lord', has stood at the heart of the temple ever since.

The Jokhang has remained one of the main focuses of Tibetan devotion and pilgrimage up until the present time. Each day, countless pilgrims prostrate before the entrance or circumambulate its sacred precinct as an act of devotion. Its central copper gilded roofs were a gift from the Nepalese Buddhist kingdom of Kasa Malla in the 14th century while other roofs were added in the 17th century.
 

Mount Kailash

Sacred Mount Kailash, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Sacred Mount Kailash, Tibet. Photograph © John Huntington

Situated in the Tibetan Himalayas, Mount Kailash is the source of some of the longest rivers in Asia - the Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra. It is considered to be a sacred place for Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and followers of Bon (a blend of Buddhism and the ancient indigenous religion of Tibet).

Buddhists believe that Kailash is the home of the Buddha Demchok (or Chakrasamvara), who represents the bliss of enlightenment. Legend has it that the great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, defeated and subdued the Bon magician, Naro Bonchung, in a contest to ascend the mountain. Milarepa rode on the rays of the sun, reaching the summit first and establishing it as his meditation seat.

Every year thousands of pilgrims make ritual circuits around Mount Kailash (52 km), believing that this practice will confer religious merit and good fortune. Some pilgrims walk the path whilst others make prostrations all the way around, a process that can take four days. Walking on the mountain itself is considered taboo.

View a Googlemap of Mount Kailash

Samye

Stupa (chorten), Samye, Tibet. Photograph by Alick Mighall

Stupa (chorten), Samye, Tibet. Photograph by Alick Mighall

Samye, the first monastery built in Tibet, was constructed in approximately 775 AD under the patronage of King Trison Detsen of Tibet. It is laid out in the shape of a mandala with the main three-storey temple in the centre representing the legendary Mount Meru, the centre of the Buddhist universe. It was supposedly modelled on the design of the Odantapuri monastery in Bihar, India. Other buildings around the temple are placed in each of the cardinal directions and a circular wall encloses the whole complex.

Decorated with wall paintings and sculptures and containing important relics, Samye continues to be a focus for Buddhist pilgrimage in Tibet.

Sera

Interior of assembly hall, Sera, Tibet. Photograph by Marijn van Goudoever

Interior of assembly hall, Sera, Tibet. Photograph by Marijn van Goudoever

One of Tibet's great monastic universities, Sera was founded in 1419 by Sakya Yeshe (1355-1435), a leading disciple of Tsongkhapa, the great monastic reformer.

Three colleges were established to give basic instruction to the monks, to teach the tantras and to provide shelter for wandering monks.

By 1959 Sera was home to more than 5,000 monks. However, following the Tibetan uprising of 1959 and the subsequent Cultural Revolution (1966-1977), the monastery at Sera was badly damaged and now houses a greatly reduced monastic population.

Tashilunpho

Frescoes at Tashilunpho, Shigatse. Photograph by Melinda Pankhurst

Frescoes at Tashilunpho, Shigatse. Photograph by Melinda Pankhurst

Tashilunpho in Shigatse is one of the six great monasteries of the Gelugpa sect (Yellow Hat). Founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama and substantially enlarged in the 17th century, the monastery is the seat of the Panchen Lama (Great Scholar). As the second highest ranking lamas in Tibet (after the Dalai Lamas), the Panchen Lamas are believed to be incarnations of Amitabha Buddha and have a responsibility for finding the incarnations of the Dalai Lama.

The monastery is popular with Tibetan pilgrims as it houses the tombs of the Panchen Lamas, marked visually by sloping Chinese-style golden roofs.







 

Temple at Tashilunpho, Shigatse. Photograph by Melinda Pankhurst
Temple at Tashilunpho, Shigatse. Photograph by Melinda Pankhurst
Pilgrims celebrate Sagadawa at Tashilunpho, Shigatse. Photograph by Melinda Pankhurst
Pilgrims celebrate Sagadawa at Tashilunpho, Shigatse. Photograph by Melinda Pankhurst
Pilgrims celebrate Sagadawa at Tashilunpho, Shigatse. Photograph by Melinda Pankhurst
Pilgrims celebrate Sagadawa at Tashilunpho, Shigatse. Photograph by Melinda Pankhurst

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