Situated at the foot of Mount Gephel is the largest monastery in Tibet, Drepung Monastery. It is considered one of the “great three” Gelug universty monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism. The other two being Sera Monastery and Ganden Monastary, respectively. From afar, Drepung Monastery resembles a heap of rice, hence the English translation means “Heap of Rice Monastery”. With its rich 600-year history and cultural relics, this extraordinary complex is definitely a must-see attraction that cannot be missed.
- Drepung Monastery is located 5 km (3.1 miles) from Lhasa.
- Covering an area of 20,000 square meters, it was once the largest monastery in the world, housing over 10,000 monks.
- There were seven main colleges at Drepung at one time including Goman, Loseling, Deyang, Shagkor, Gyelwa, Dulwa, and Ngagpa.
- Drepung Monastery is considered the preeminent monastery, as the second to the fifth Dalai Lamas studied Buddhism at the complex.
History Of Drepung Monastery
Drepung Monastery was founded in 1416 by one of Tsongkhapa main disciples, Jamyang Choge Tashi Palden (1397–1449). In 1464, several structures were constructed in the complex to accommodate the growing number of followers. Drepung soon became the premier seat of the Gelug school of Buddhism, and was considered one of the four leading Gelug monasteries. It was the principle residence of the Dalai Lamas Gendun Gyatso (the 2nd Dalai Lama), until Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (also referred to as the “Great Fifth”) built the Potala Palace.
In 1518, Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542) constructed Ganden Phodrang Palace, which is situated within the complex. He declared it as his chief residence and the seat of government administrational power. In 1535, Penchen Sönam Drakpa (1478-1554 CE) succeeded the Throne of Drepung. He was widely regarded as the most esteemed figure of the Gelug school. Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588 CE) was named the third Dalai Lama in 1546, taking his place at Drepung. He was so revered, that the Khan of Mongolia invited him to preach in Qinghai province in 1578. In 1642, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (the fifth Dalai Lama) established government, and three years later, began construction on the Potala Palace, thus moving the seat of power. Yet, Drepung Monastery still maintained its esteem and influence throughout the centuries on the Gelug sect.
In 1951, roughly 40 percent of the ancient monastic town was destroyed when the Chinese army arrived in Lhasa. However, the main structures including the colleges and Ganden Phodrang (the former Dali Lamas’ residence) were preserved.
Culture Of Drepung Monastery
Since it was founded in the early 15th-century, many additions and reconstructions have happened at the complex. All incredibly well preserved, the most important historical buildings include Ganden Potrang, Coqen Hall, the four Zhacangs (or Tantric colleges) and numerous Kamcuns, amongst others.
Ganden Potrang: Located in the southwestern corner of the complex, Ganden Potrang was established in 1530 by the 2nd Dalai Lama, Gedun Gyatso. The structure consists of three storeys. The first storey was used principally for holding ceremonies, the second for administrative affairs of the Dalai Lama, and the third floor was the personal living quarters.
Coqen Hall: Situated in the center of the complex, this is considered the main hall of the monastery. It has a total area of 4,500 square meters, and has several halls located within. The largest is the Sutra Hall at 1,850 square meters and supported by 183 towering columns. The massive interior of this hall is draped with stunning Thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist paintings). Amongst the other precious relics housed here are collections of sutras and many ornate statues of Buddha. Located on the third storey of the structure, is the enshrined an enormous bronze statue of the Qamba Buddha, believed to be based on his appearance as an 8-year-old boy. Coqen Hall served as the administrative center of Drepung Monastery in ancient times.
The Four Zhacangs: In the past, there had been seven Zhacangs, but they merged into four according to the types of learning. There are Loseling College, Gomang College, Deyang College and Ngagpa College. Loseling is the largest at Drepung, and contains the biggest population of monks. Loseling, along with Gomang and Deyang focus on the Esoteric Buddhism, while Ngagpa focuses on Exotoric Buddhism.
Shoton Festival: known as one of the grand Buddhist festivals, its main site is Drepung Monastery. Held on June 30th in the Tibetan calendar, the festival involves the unfurling of an exquisite tapestry of Buddha, measuring 80 meters long and 40 meters wide. Thereafter, many activities occur, including Tibetan opera performances amongst other things.
- Drepung Monastery is open from 9 AM to 5 PM daily.
- Before entering the complex, visitors must go through a security check. Lighters are not permitted on the monastery grounds.
- Buddhist monk debating takes place in the courtyard at 2:30 PM.
- Within the complex, the Thangka Exhibition Platform provides an incredible panoramic view of the entirety of Lhasa.