The Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery is a 300-year-old Tibetan Buddhist complex north of the city of Zhongdian, in Yunnan province. Also referred to as Sungtseling or Guihuasi, it is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery located in the province. Sometimes known as the “Little Potala Palace”, it is the most important monastery in southwest China. The monastery is a faithful recreation of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, hence the name. The Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery belongs to the Yellow Hat sect of the Gelug order of Tibetan Buddhism.
- The Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery was built in 1679.
- It is situated 5 km north of Zhongdian (renamed Shangri-La in 2001), in Shangri-La County, Yunnan province, China.
- The monastery endured extensive damage during the Cultural Revolution, but was rebuilt and restored in 1983.
- 700 monks reside in the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, living in 200 associated houses on the site.
- The monastery is located in the Hengduan Mountain Range, which is part of the Mount Baimang Nature Reserve.
History of the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery
During the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644) the site was a small temple belonging to the Nyingma Sect. Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, founded the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, in 1679. Often referred to as the Great Fifth, he was the first Dalai Lama to wield both secular and spiritual power over Tibet. Gyatso was responsible for unifying Tibet, after a Mongol military intervention. The monastery was built in traditional Tibetan and Han Chinese architectural style, after he experienced a spiritual revelation. It was built as an accurate representation of his official residence, the Potala Palace, located in Lhasa, Tibet.
The monastery was built during the reign of Kangxi Emperor (1662 to 1722) in the Qing Dynasty. The emperor provided full patronage for the construction, and it was completed in 1681. The Fifth Dalai Lama gave it the name “Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery”, honoring the famous Ganden Monastery in Tibet. Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug order, had established Ganden Monastery in 1409.
In the Qing Dynasty during the reign of Qianlong, Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery flourished. Under the control of the Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso (1708 to 1757), the monastery was at its peak. It provided accommodation for more than 2000 monks, thus establishing it as the most important and magnificent monastery in the region.
In the 1930’s, the monastery housed General He Long, the Chinese Communist revolutionary, during his campaign. While leading a section of the Red Army through the region, monks provided much needed supplies. Unfortunately in 1959, a portion of the monastery received extensive damage, after Chinese troops shelled it during their advance into Tibet. In 1983, the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery underwent an full restoration and renovation.
Culture of the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery
Buildings: Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery has two main structures, Zhacang Hall and Jikang Hall situated in the monastery’s centre. These are surrounded by eight colleges: Jaya Khamstsen, Dongwang Khamstsen, Yangtang Khamstsen, Xiangcheng Khamstsen, Gro Khamstsen, Duke Khamstsen, Rongba Khamstsen, and Jidi Khamstsen situated adjacent to the main halls.
The entrance gate provides access to the main building of the monastery complex through 146 steep stairs. The main building is constructed in the traditional Tibetan architectural style, and has a gilded copper roof. More than 1500 monks can meditate and chant Buddhist scriptures within the hall. Numerous incredible frescos, depicting Buddhist legends are represented on its walls. Another feature of the hall is 108 soaring pillars on the left and right sides of the building. An enormous 8 m (26 ft) tall gilded statue of Buddha is situated at the main alter. Hallways are lit with yak butter oil lamps and incense.
Other structures were built in the Han Chinese architectural style. Walkways throughout the complex are all decorated with magnificent frescos and sculptures. Likewise, altars are adorned with yak butter lamps.
Festivals: The ‘Heavenly Steed Festival’ is a three-day horseracing extravaganza. It occurs in June, and involves horseracing, eating, dancing, and overall revelry. The designated racecourse is at an elevation of 3,288 m (10,787 ft). Inhabitants camp in tents on meadowland surrounding the racecourse.
The Gedong Festival is an important day in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar. Buddhist followers gather at monasteries, including Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery, to pray for a favourable coming year. The annual festival is held at different times at specific monasteries, but at Ganden Sumtsenling, the Gedong Festival occurs from November 26th to November 29th, on the Tibetan calendar. Monks clad in costumes with ornate masks conduct religious dances, in which they portray a variety of deities from Tibetan mythology. Ceremonial horns, cymbals, and drums are played during the dances.
- Visitors must remember that the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery is a religious site, so be respectful.
- Do not speak loudly, and always request permission before taking photos of the monks and pilgrims. Photography is forbidden in some areas of the monastery.
- Do not smoke in the monastery complex.
- At an elevation of over 3,300 m, reaching the Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery via the 146 stairs can be tiring. Visitors should take their time.
- The monastery is open to visitors from 8 AM to 6 PM.