There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Tibetan Monasteries - Not Necessarily in Tibet

I have recently been writing about Sarnath. The post is dated 18th of February - that was when we were there - but I have only just finished it. These things take time.

Sarnath was where the Buddha gave his first teachings after achieving enlightenment in what is now the city of Bodh Gaya. If my research had been a little more diligent, I would have realised we were only 250 Km from Bodh Gaya and included it in our trip. But I did not. Bum.

Buddhism has all but died out in India, the land of its birth, but it thrives to the north, east and south. This set me thinking about Buddhist architecture in different countries. In China it is easy to mistake a Taoist Temple for a Buddhist Temple and vice versa, but no one could mistake a Chinese Buddhist temple for a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, though they both practice Mahayana Buddhism. Burmese temples are very different from their Thai cousins, though both belong to the Therevada branch.

On the other hand Tibetan Buddhism (sometimes classified as part of Mahayana and other times as a third separate branch) may spread well beyond Tibet, but its buildings are almost always identifiably Tibetan. I posted Three Favourite Buddhist Temples in November 2011. All were Tibetan – we had not then visited Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand – but only one was in Tibet.

Our first major Buddhist temple was Beijing’s Yonghe Gong in 2004.  It was one of the ‘Three Favourites’ but is an exception to the rule. Built in 1649 as a residence for court eunuchs and only later adapted for use as a temple, it is Tibetan in theology but Ming in design.

Lhasa, Tibet

Visiting Lhasa in 2005, the first real Tibetan monastery we saw was the huge Drepung complex – another of the ‘Three Favourites’. I wrote about it then, so here I only offer these photographs. One of an inner courtyard.....

Drepung Monastery, Lhasa
....and the other of the prayer hall.

Prayer Hall, Drepung Monastery, Lhasa

The Jokhang Temple is the spiritual and physical centre of Lhasa and is usually packed with pilgrims, the air dense with the smell of wood smoke and burning yak butter. The frontage on Barkhor Square is modest but on the roof its relationship with Drepung is obvious.

Lynne on the roof of the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa
There is also a good view across the Square to the dramatically sited Potala Palace...

The Potala Palace from the roof of the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

...the home of the Dalai Lama – though he has lived in exile since 1959.

Lynne and I outside the Potala Palace, Lhasa

From inside the palace is very similar in design and decoration.

Inside the Potala Palace complex, Lhasa


On our Trans-Siberian trip in 2007 we encountered two Russian Datsuns, both following the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The little temple at Atsagat sits alone on the endless grassland north east of Ulan Ude (see Ulan Ude (2))…..

Atsagat Temple, near Ulan Ude

…..while the larger Ivolginsk Datsun (see Ulan Ude (1)) dating only from 1947 is west of the city and less isolated.

The Temple at the Ivolginsk Datsun, near Ulan Ude

They both have elements of Tibetan design…..

Tibetan style stupas, Ivolginsk, near Ulan Ude

….though Ivolginsk in particular can look Russian from some aspects.

Ivolginsk looking a bit more Russian
That they look Tibetan at all is remarkable as they are over 2000 km north of Lhasa.

Tibetan Monasteries

Our 2007 journey continued south into Mongolia. Most Mongolians also follow the Gelugpa tradition and Gandan Monastery in Ulan Bator is the country’s foremost temple….

Gandan Manastery, Ulan Bator

…while that at Erdene Zuu (see With the Mongolian Nomads) the third of the ‘Three Favourites’ is medieval in origin though suffered much under communism.

Erdene Zuu
Both are built very much in the Tibetan style.

Tibetan style stupas, Erdene Zuu

The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile live in Dharamsala in the extreme north of India. We have not been there, but in 2010 we visited the small town of Kushalnagar in the southern state of Karnataka - as far south of Lhasa as Ulan Bator is north - where the state government has settled 10 000 exiled Tibetans. As well as the usual secular requirements of any settlement, there are two Gelugpa monasteries and the much larger Namdroling Temple which follows the Nyingmapa tradition from Eastern Tibet. 
Namdroling Monastery, Kushalnagar, Karnatica
As can be seen both from the outside and the interior, Namdroling is well financed. It is known as ‘The Golden Temple’- and with good reason.

Interior of Namdroling - The Golden Temple

July in Lhasa had been pleasantly warm but air-conditioning was unnecessary, people merely left doors and windows open and allowed in the fresh, if rather thin, air. At other times of the year it can be viciously cold. February in Kushalanagar was hot and humid (it is equally hot, though far wetter in the monsoon season) and the vegetation around the temple could not have been less Tibetan. Namdroling looked like an exotic transplant from a faraway land.

Namdroling, The Golden Temple, Kushalnagar