The Fascinating Treasures of Tibet

Potala Palace, Tibet

Potala Palace. Image: flickr/Richard IJzermans

The great Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan wished to honor one his most respected teachers of the past, Chos-rje pa Sakya. So, he ordered his current spiritual teacher, Lama Phags-pa, to build a golden stupa in Lhasa in his honor. Phags-pa was in somewhat of a conundrum. Looking around, he didn’t see any architect good enough to build a stupa that would impress the great emperor. So he looked outside Tibet and sent an urgent request to King Jaya Bhim Dev Malla of Nepal for help. King Malla was only too pleased to do so, and he sent someone whom he admired very much, Arniko, an architect, artist, and sculptor, who would lead a group of 80 artisans to Tibet. Arniko’s finished work was impressive enough for him to be called to the emperor’s majestic presence. Kublai Khan was surprised to see that the architect was hardly 17-year-old, and this made him decide to further test his abilities. He asked him to repair a statue of a Sung emperor in copper previously deemed to be un-repairable by others. Arniko did the job so well that he went on become a favorite of the emperor and resulted in him being given plenty of assignments in China. In due time, he was conferred with the title of Liang Guo Gong (duke) and became a minister of the court. Arniko’s most famous work was the White Pagoda (White Dagoba) of Miaoying Temple in Beijing which took eight years to be completed (1271-79). On the other hand, there is not much mention of the stupa made by Arniko in Tibet.

Monks in Tashilunpo Monastery

Monks in Tashilunpo Monastery. Image: flickr/Richard IJzermans

However, Tibet has many architectural wonders even if they were not all made by Arniko. The greatest of them is Potala Palace, one of the world’s best known landmarks. It sits atop Marpo Ri Hill, 130 m above the Lhasa valley, and from there, rises a further 170 m heavenwards. The palace started to be built during the fifth Dalai Lama’s time in 1645; in 1648, the White Palace (Potrang Karpo) was completed, followed by the Red Palace (Potrang Marpo) between 1690 and 1694.  A central courtyard (Deyangshar) separates the two palaces, the Potrang Karpo being the living quarters of the Dalai Lama while the Potrang Marpo is for religious studies. The year 1922 saw many renovations to the palace, with the 13th Dalai Lama adding two stories to the Potrang Marpo, and renovating some chapels and assembly halls in the Potrang Karpo.

As is well known, Tibet has undergone tumultuous changes in its history, but despite everything, the Potala Palace has not undergone much change, and the chapels, along with the artifacts inside, have remained well preserved. It’s a vast palace boasting interior space in excess of 130,000 sq m, and through the ages, was where the Dalai Lama resided and from where the Tibetan government ruled. Potala Palace has always been a pilgrimage site for devout Buddhists, one of the most sacrosanct features of the palace being the fact that it houses the tombs of past Dalai Lamas. It is one of Tibet’s two world heritage sites, the other being Norbulingka Palace which served as the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas and is famous for its beautiful gardens, and was built in the 18th century during the reign of the 7th Dalai Lama.

Drepung Monastery, Tibet

Drepung Monastery

Another of Tibet’s treasures is located at a distance of some five kilometers from Lhasa. This is the Drepung Monastery (“Rice Heap” Monastery). Perched on the Gambo Utse Mountain, it constitutes, along with Ganden and Sera, the ‘great three’ Gelugpa university monasteries in Tibet, with Drepung being the largest of the three. So large, in fact, that once it is said to have housed as many as 10,000 monks at a time! Currently, it houses a more modest number, only about three hundred. It was built in 1416 by a leading disciple of Tsongkhapa, Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden, and was the main seat of the Gelugpa School. In 1518, the 2nd Dalai Lama constructed the Ganden Podang Palace inside the Drepung Monastery. This was where the Dalai Lamas resided before the construction of the Potala Palace by the 5th Dalai Lama.

About 112 km from Lhasa at the border between Damxung County and Baingoin County is located yet another of Tibet’s treasures, the magnificent Namtso (Lake Nam) which has a surface area of 1,870 sq km. It is the highest salt lake in the world, located as it is at a height of 4,718 meters. At its south-eastern corner is the Tashi Dor Monastery. Another lake that is as magnificent as Namtso is Yamdrok Lake (Yamdok Yumtso), some 100 km from Lhasa and about 90 km from Gyantse. It has an area of 621 sq km and is 72 km long. Somewhat in the shape of a fan, Yamdro has nine islands, one of these having the Samding Monastery and another having an old fort, Pede Dzong.

Namtso Lake. Image: flickr/Boqiang LiaoThe above are but a few of the treasures that await you in Tibet. The region has much more to offer, including many more ancient monasteries that are a feast for the senses. One example being Pelkor Chode which dates back to the 15th century and belongs to the Gelukpa order, one of main branches of Tibetan Buddhism. Another example being the Tashi Lumpo Monastery, which is the residence of the Panchen Lama, and which houses a 36-meter high figure of Buddha. Similarly, Sakya Monastery, which belongs to the Sakyapa School, another branch of Tibetan Buddhism, is as remarkable, with its red and grey walls and its impressive library of more than 80.000 publications.

Indeed, Tibet is not only the “roof of the world” but also the seat of an ancient civilization rich in culture and tradition. Indeed, Tibet is not only to be visited to see its fascinating natural landscape that includes vast blue lakes, but also to see its many fascinating monasteries where tradition and culture continue unabated.

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