There were said to be over six thousand monasteries in Tibet where over twenty percent of the male population was resident. The Chinese invasion destroyed all but a handful of monasteries and allowed only some of the most famous to physically remain. Although there have been periodic liberalizations allowing a small number of people to become monks or nuns this has fluctuated with the political whims of Beijing.


What follows are some images of interest to me. They are in no particular order and with no overriding purpose other than visual presentation of some of the things we saw.


Located a few kilometer west of Lhasa Drepung was the largest monastery in Tibet, housing 10,000 monks of the Gelugpa (yellow Hat) order. In 1994, there were only about 200 monks in residence. A significant number of the buildings were only empty shells remaining from what was apparently deliberate destruction.

Remains of destroyed buildings, Drepung. Prayer wheel

Corner tower on the roof of the main hall at Drepung with protective figures.

Laundry. Buddhist docrine permitted the monk three robes. This is evidently where they are washed.Main hall, Drepung


Corner Gargoyle Tresol, (tantric trident)

We had been wandering around Drepung for several hours and stopped at the bottom of these stairs for something to eat (peanut butter is indispensible in Asia!)



We then saw monks, sometimes alone and sometimes in pairs, going down the suceeding portions of the stairway.

We followed them and were treated to quite an expereince.


We were allowed to quietly sit in and photograph formal monastic debating class in the debating garden. Debating, which had its own special form and technique, was a formal part of monastic education in several schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Pictures below are some of the scenes we were allowed to see.

Sera Monastery

Sera, consisting of sevaral monastic academies is the other major monastery of the Lhasa area and housed several thousand monks.

Butter lamp, Sera Monastery. Much of the illumination in ther interior of prayer halls and chapels is from burning butter fat. Yak (actually Dri; Yak is the male of the species, the Dri is female. Tibetans laugh at the though of "Yak Butter" as we would at the mention of "Bull Butter").


Decorated doors and ceiling beams, Sera.


Prayer Wheels, Nechung.


Located near Drepung, Nechung was the home of the State Oracle of Lhasa. The oracle was consulted on major decisions. After entering a trance, the advice would be provided. It is also referred to as a 'Demon Fortress' because of its association with magic, exorcism and pre-Buddhist influences. Recently undergoing restoration, its walls feature hundreds of 'demonic' scenes.


Even the door handles, hinges and pulls are in a demonic theme.



Gynatse is the third largest city in Tibet and was a regional administrtive center whose governor was quite powerful. It was dominated by the Palkor Chode, a walled monastic complex containing monasteries of many schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Only a few buildings remain, most were destroyed by the Chinese.

Main Chanting HallKalachakra Symbol


Among the most remarkable surviving buildings in Tibet is the Kumbum. This choten is eight stories high and consists of 68 chaples arrayed over the first five stories. Each chapel displays masterful 15 the century iconography in the form of wall painting.

The Gyantse Kumbum

Examples of chapel paintings in the Kumbum.


Shalu is located about 18 kilometers southwest of Shigatse. It was built in the 11 th century and was a seat of great learning. After its destruction by an earthquake in the 14 th century, Shalu was rebuilt with the assistance of the Mongols, consequently it featured a green Mongol style tile roof. Its greatest artistic feature was a series of paintings executed by Nehwari craftsmen. The Nehwars are the original native residents of the Kathmandu valley in Nepal and are to this day renowned artisans. It was the Nehwars who invented the architectural Pagoda style which now permeates all of southeast Asia. Although most of the monastery was destroyed by the Chinese, a main building remained featuring some remarkable mandalas and wall paintings arrayed along a corridor.

The ground floor corridor features remarkable paintings up high and narrow corridor walls. Much of the painting is faded and watermarked.

A young monk let us into a storage room which was pitch black and had not seen sunlight since its construction. It was strewn with ancient roofing tiles. However on its two far walls were these masterpeices of Nehwari Buddhist painting from the 14 th century.


We also stopped at Tashilompo monastery in Shigatse, Tibet's second largest city. Shigatse is the seat of the Panchen Lama who was traditionally a religious power of the same order as the Dalai Lama. Perhaps because of the traditional linkage between Chian and the Panchen Lama, and because the last Panchen Lama was on better terms with the Chinese (although they imprisoned him for many years) we found the Tashilumpo monastery to be populated with hundreds of monks. It was clearly well funded and active and was probable representative of the level of activity at a major monastery before the Chinese destruction.

(Since our visit, a new Panchen Lama,was recognized by the Dalai Lama and subsequently deposed by the Chinese. His whereabouts are unknown and a replacement was installed by the Chinese; an unusual intercession by a emporal regime which eschews religion. These events have received worldwide attention.)

The only pictures of Tashilumpo I'd like to present are those taken by one of our party during a surprise (to us anyway) visit by the 17th Karmapa. Follow this link.