The Monastery Circuit of Tibet
One of the main attractions of visiting Tibet is touring the region’s beautiful monasteries. While many thousand were destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and countless priceless artefacts lost, a number did survive. Plus, many more have been restored to some degree since. Each monastery is unique in its history and cultural position, and is different from the last. So even though you may be visiting two or even three monasteries per day on your tour of Tibet, you will discover new things each time.
Here are the monasteries you will visit on a ten day trip from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp, stopping in Gyantse, Shigatse and Shakya on the way.
The Jhokang, in the centre of Lhasa’s old Tibetan town, is the holiest temple in Tibet. The oldest parts of the building date back from the year 652, but it was built over many centuries. Its architectural style is influenced by Indian and Nepali styles, as well as Tibetan. Inside you can see lots of Buddhist statues and mandalas, but perhaps the most attractive feature is the view from the flat rooftop. You can look down on Barkhor Square below, where Tibetan devotees flock to the temple, and look across to the Potala Palace and the hills in the distance.
Drepung is the largest monastery in Tibet. It is base about five kilometres from Lhasa, at the foot of Mount Gephel. It was once believed to be the largest monastery in the world, housing up to 10,000 monks. Nowadays, only a fraction of this number still lives there–only around 300 monks. It is a large complex with many buildings to walk around, but not so large or steep to be tiring, so it is a good monastery to visit in your first few days in Tibet, when still acclimatising. One of the nicest features of Drepung is the large, colourful paintings on the rocks above the monastery.
Sera is another good monastery to visit in your first few days in Tibet. It is much as two kilometres north of Lhasa. Like Drepung, it is a great university monastery. A primary attraction of visiting Sera is to watch the young monks in their afternoon debating. As a form of study, the monks debate Buddhist philosophy in an open-air courtyard. It can get quite noisy, and the monks clap their hands if their opponent makes a mistake. The debating is open to the public, and typically happens in the mid-afternoon.
Lhasa’s iconic Potala Palace was originally built in the 7th century, and then developed in the 17th century into the grand, sprawling palace complex that it is now. It was home to the Dalai Lamas, the kings of Tibet and heads of Tibetan Buddhism, between the 17th and mid-20th century. As well as the impressive exterior views, the smaller chapels, meditation rooms and living quarters inside are just as beautiful and interesting. You will probably visit the Potala Palace during your second or third day in Tibet, as visiting requires a lot of walking up steps, which can be too tiring for new arrivals.
Gyantse was once one of the biggest cities in Tibet, but it is now quite small. The town is 262 kilometres west of Lhasa. The magnificent Kumbum, adjacent to the Palcho Monastery, is a multi-layered chorten and is the biggest in Tibet. You can walk to the highest level for views across the city, and towards the hilltop Gyante’s Dzong Fort. Don’t forget to look inside the little chapels inside the Kumbum, as there are large Buddha statues inside. The town also once housed a British military garrison, in the early twentieth century, and you can see evidence of this history by strolling through the old Tibetan part of town, with its traditional homes.
My personal favourite place that I visited in Tibet was the Sakya Monastery, founded in 1073. After several days of touring monasteries I thought I had seen it all, but Shakya is in another league. To get there, you turn down a side road from the highway and travel a further 25 kilometres. It’s 127 kilometres west of Shigatse, on the way towards Everest. Unlike most other monastery buildings in Tibet, it is not white paint, but a bluish-grey, with red detailing. This colour scheme is reflected in the nearby houses, too. One of the highlights is the incredible library, which houses around 80,000 Tibetan Buddhist books, from floor to ceiling. The monastery also contains some of the best-preserved Tibetan artworks in the whole region. When booking a tour to Tibet, make sure that your itinerary includes a visit to Sakya.
Inspired to go? Have a look at some of the trips Royal Mountain Travel offers in Tibet: