Preface to the Power
Places of Central Tibet
This pilgrims' guide is based upon
Khyentse's Guide to the Holy Places of Central Tibet. Jamyang Kyentse Wangpo (1820-92), a Khampa lama,
made frequent, extended pilgrimages to Central Tibet and wrote his guide at the end of a
long life as a contribution to the old and popular genre of Tibetan literature called neyik,
guides to pilgrimage. Kyentse Rimpoche was no ordinary lama. One of the greatest figures
in the eastern Tibetan eclectic renaissance of the last century, his scholarship and
wisdom combined to give his work the highest mark of authority and integrity. His Guide
was translated into English and partially annotated by the noted Italian scholar Alfonsa
Ferrari, who never visited the East and who died before she could complete her work. The
annotation was completed by another Italian scholar, Luciano Petech. His contribution was
augmented by Hugh Richardson, the last British Resident in Lhasa. Richardson's clear,
concise additions to the notes, detailing observations compiled during his wide travels in
Central Tibet over several years, are of vital importance for information on the pre-1959
state of various monasteries. For their annotation, the Italian scholars relied heavily on
the accounts of their master, Giuseppe Tucci, derived from his short journey to Central
Tibet in 1948.
Khyentse's Guide covers Central, Southern and
Western Tibet. The scope of this Pilgrim's Guide is limited to Central Tibet, the
old province of Ü, which includes the Kyichu Valley system and the reaches of the Tsangpo
(Brahmaputra) in its passage from Chaksam to Kongpo. Lhasa is the centre of the province
and the places described herein are all within a radius of 250 km from Lhasa, except those
listed in the chapter "Across Tsang to the Nepal Border". During the summer
seasons of 1986-8 I visited most of the approximately 170 power-places in Central Tibet
mentioned in Khyentse's Guide. Information on the majority of his sites omitted
from our itineraries (about thirteen) has been supplied by other pilgrims. Those very few
places about which I have no contemporary information are so indicated in the text. Each
entry in this Pilgrim's Guide enlarges upon the topics that concerned Kyentse
Rimpoche: location and chief features of the site, cherished relics and treasures, and the
history and importance of the place. Kyentse Rimpoche's description of the temples, images
and treasures of the monasteries has permitted a useful comparison between what existed
before 1959 and what now remains after the Cultural Revolution. Historical information
about the power-places was derived from Khyentse's Guide, from various literary
sources (see Bibliography) and from informants at the holy places.
Although Kyentse Rimpoche was involved in an eclectic
renaissance, the gompas and shrines built by the Yellow Hats did not form any significant
part of his pilgrimage itineraries. He was concerned mainly with the age-old power-places
of the Red Hats, not with the relatively recent academies of the Gelukpa School. He
mentions the great monastic foundations of Tsongkapa and his disciples - Ganden, Drepung,
Sera, and also Chokorgyel for example - but he ignores most of the later Gelukpa
monasteries. A few significant ancient power-places were unaccountably omitted from
Kyentse's pilgrimages and these have been included here. The main inadequacy of Khyentse's
Guide is its brevity. Its principal function was to locate and identify and merely to
indicate historical associations and contemporary conditions, rather than to describe and
comment upon them. In so far as space allows, that description and commentary has been
The chief purpose of this work is identical to that of
Kyentse Rimpoche - to indicate the location and significance of the principal power-places
of Central Tibet in the hope that such information may be of practical use to pilgrims.
Most of the valley sites are now accessible by jeep-road, although the cave power-places
can only be approached by foot. It is also intended that this Pilgrim's Guide will
complement studies in the historical geography of Tibet and provide additional information
and correct old misconceptions.
In so far as this Pilgrim's Guide is based upon
short visits to each site, the information accrued is sometimes partial and lacking
corroboration, and insofar as rebuilding, restoration and the gathering in of religious
artefacts is still in process The Pilgrim's Guide will require constant updating.
We would be grateful to receive corrections and any additional information, particularly
concerning those places that went unvisited, for future editions. Please write to the
author care of the publisher.
I would like to thank all the Tibetans who spontaneously
extended generous and gracious hospitality to us while on pilgrimage, and also to thank
the Tibetan guides and informants, monks and laymen, who with great patience and
generosity in time and spirit gave us information. I have become indebted to a host of
people during the preparation of this book, so many that it is impossible to mention them
all by name. In particular, however, I would like to thank Heather Stoddard-Karmay, A.
Bradley Rowe, Victor Chen, Steve McGuinness, Katie Hetts, Brot Coburn and Edward Henning; Stone
Routes, Raphaele Demandre, Brian Beresford and Ian Baker for their black and white
photographs; Meryl White for the maps and line-drawings; and Lokesh Chandra for use of
selected line-drawings of Buddhas and Lamas from the charts Three Hundred Icons of
Tibet. Finally, I acknowledge a deep debt of gratitude to my Lama, Dilgo Kyentse
Rimpoche, who supported this project and wrote a foreword to the book.
Chapter Five: THE DRIGUNG MANDALA
The Drigung District still presents the geographical,
cultural, political and religious unity that has characterized it for 800 years. The major
religious institutions of the Drigung Valley and adjacent tributary valleys belong to the
Drigung branch of the Kagyu school founded in the 12th century by Rinchen Pel, an
extraordinary, charismatic disciple of Drogon Pakmodrupa, in the lineage of Milarepa. The
Drigungpas form one of the four major Kagyu sub-schools with their principal gompa at
Drigung Til. In the centuries after their founder's remarkable lifetime, the Drigung
Kagyupas were a powerful force in Tibet's religious life. Even in the 1980s the emphasis
that this school places on solitary retreat and yoga derived from the original ethos of
Milarepa's practice is evident at Drigung Til and Terdrom, where hermitages have blossomed
over the hillsides at the expense of monastic reconstruction.
However, in their founder's lifetime the Drigungpas also
enjoyed a period of secular ascendancy when they formed a bulwark of Kagyu power against
the Sakya hegemony. In this period the school became entrenched in the Kailash and Labchi
areas in western Tibet, at Tsari, and also in Eastern Tibet. Then and later other gompas
were built in the Drigung area - at Tsel up the Lungsho Valley, at *Yude in a
valley running east of Drigung Dzong, and at Drigung Dzong itself. This period generated
the wealth for which Drigung Til became famous. It was said that the pilgrim should visit
Drigung Til at the end of his pilgrimage through Central Tibet, otherwise the splendours
of that gompa would blind him to the inferior glories of less well-endowed monasteries.
The Drigungpas's kinship with the older Nyingma school is
demonstrated at several sites in the district, particularly at Terdrom with its caves
associated with Guru Rimpoche, Yeshe Tsogyel and the treasure-finders of both schools who
have meditated there down the centuries. That the most auspicious and efficacious
pilgrimage in the Drigung area circumambulates these caves attests to their power. Further
evidence of the importance of the district during the period of empire may be gathered at
Shai Lhakang where a pillar records the life of Nyang Tingedzin, the Emperor Trisong
Detsen's minister and first Tibetan abbot of Samye, whose birthplace this was. Further, at
what may be considered the entrance to the Drigungpa preserve, north-east of Medro
Kongkar, are the remains of Katse Gompa, one of the Emperor Songtsen Gampo's four original
temples erected to bring the power of Buddhism to Bonpo Central Tibet in the 7th century
Three hours by bus, 68 km north-east of Lhasa in the
Kyichu Valley lies Medro Kongkar,1 the centre of the new district in which the
Drigung valley system is located. The main highway from Lhasa to the East turns south-east
up the Medro Kongkar valley, while the jeep-road to Drigung continues for 35 km to the
north-east up the Kyichu Valley to Drigung Qu, the administrative sub-centre of
Drigung. Here the Kyichu, running down the Lungsho Valley, makes a 100-degree turn to the
The Drigung Chu, known also as Shorong Chu, is the
Kyichu's principal tributary in the north-east, running for 60 km through the broad,
fertile valley of Drigung. Before the Lhasa-Chamdo highway was built to the south of
Drigung over the Gya La, the Drigung Valley provided an alternative route from the Kyichu
Valley to Kongpo and the East. The journey from Medro Kongkar to Drigung Til Gompa takes
three hours by jeep or two days by foot.
THE NAME "DRIGUNG" ('Bri gung)
Three etymologies of the word Drigung3 have
been offered. Firstly, the Drigung district is said to have been the fiefdom of the
Emperor Trisong Detsen's minister Dre, while the second syllable may have been derived
from the archaic Tibetan sgar or sgang meaning "camp": thus Dre's
Camp. Secondly, the first syllable, Dri, can mean "she-yak": thus Camp of the
She-yak. Thirdly, a false etymology provided after the foundation of Til interprets the
word as "the hump of the she-yak", indicating the shape of the ridge above Til,
which does indeed have that shape.
KATSE (sKa tshal):A Songtsen Gampo Temple
Although Katse is located at the bottom of the Kyichu
Valley's eastern scarp, it is close to the confluence of the Kyichu and Medro Valleys and
on the far side of the Medro River from Medro Kongkar. Thus it is sometimes referred to as
The original lhakang of Katse was built by the Emperor
Songtsen as the north-eastern temple of the inner mandala of four temples binding the
Tibetan Demoness. Katse binds her right shoulder (p.000). Another lhakang was founded here
after Guru Rimpoche subdued the lu serpent that had subjected Bonpo devotees. These
two lhakangs formed the nucleus of the small Katse gompa until it was partially destroyed
during the Cultural Revolution. Katse would have been a Nyingma foundation that was
adopted by the Drigungpas in the 13th century, and acquired by the Gelukpas in the 17th.
Today the Drigungpas are once again in possession. The old gompa still lies in ruins, the
monks' original quarters inhabited by the Katse commune, but the lhakang built by the
Emperor Songtsen Gampo, the Tukdam Tsuklakang, has been restored on the old pattern.
The original temple struck Hugh Richardson as the most
ancient in Tibet, untouched by later restoration. The konyer assured us that the
present small, country-built building is identical in design to that which Richardson
would have visited. It has a small portico leading into the small pillared dukang with the
inner lhakang surrounded by a korsa passage. Above the lhakang on the roof is
another small shrine-room. Notable in the dukang are murals of the Drigung lineage, a new
image of the Drigung Protectress Apchi in her form of Yudronma, and old tankas of
Pelden Lhamo, Guru Rimpoche, Santaraksita and the Emperor Trisong Detsen. Images of the
Buddhas of the Past, Present and Future are the principal objects of worship in the
lhakang. At the back of the dukang is the lukang, the residence of the serpent that
Guru Rimpoche subdued. Few relics of former times remain in Katse.
TANGKYA LHAKANG (Thang skya lha khang)
A few kilometres upstream from Katse is an old bridge that
crosses the Kyichu to Tangkya Qu. In the middle of this modern administrative complex the
Tangkya4 Lhakang still stands in fair condition, but in 1986 it was locked and
barred. It appears that this temple, like Dranang Gompa, is victim to the local Party,
which prohibits restoration. The original lhakang built by the Emperor Songtsen Gampo,
which stood on the mountainside to the north of the present lhakang, was destroyed long
ago, but three of its ancient clay statues were preserved in the later temple. There seems
never to have been any Drigung Kagyupa connection here.
The first Tangkya lhakang is believed, like Katse, to have
been built by the Emperor Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, perhaps as a temple to subdue
the Tibetan Demoness. It was restored by the master Lume in the early 11th century after
the period of suppression. In the 12th century a lhakang was built to enshrine the remains
of Lama Shikpo Rimpoche (1149-99). Tangkya was the gompa in which Taklung Tangpa took
refuge after running away from home in the 12th century, and this connection was sustained
by some of his Taklungpa disciples. Later, Tangkya belonged to the Jonangpas until the
Gelukpas appropriated all Jonang gompas in the 17th century. Thereafter it became attached
to the Namgyel Dratsang in the Potala.
DRIGUNG DZONGSAR ('Bri gung rdzong gsar): The Drigung Fort
The original Drigung D
zong was located on the left bank of
the Kyichu where the river cuts through a low ridge into the area of its confluence with
the Mangra Chu and Shorong Chu. From its height above the rivers it commanded the
entrances to both the Lungsho and Sho Valleys. The fortress destroyed during the Cultural
Revolution probably dated from the 16th century. The large Drigungpa lhakang within its
walls was an important place of pilgrimage. A small lhakang has recently been built on the
site. On the opposite side of the Kyichu is the empty site of * Yuna gompa.
SHAI LHAKANG (Zhwa'i lha khang): Nyang Tingedzin's Residence
The Shai Lhakang5 is located in the south-west
corner of a village on the left bank of the Mangra Chu, 1.5 km to the east of Drigung Qu.
The Nyang Clan of Tibetan antiquity gave its name to the valley that descends from the
south-east by Shai Lhakang. The Nyang Clan's most famous son was Nyang Tingedzin Sangpo,
who was a strong supporter of the Emperor Trisong Detsen in his efforts to promote
Buddhism in Tibet, and who became the first Tibetan abbot of the Samye monastery. Nyang
Tingedzin founded Shai Lhakang at the end of the 8th or the beginning of the 9th century.
During the Cultural Revolution the principal lhakang,
together with the Guru Tsengye Lhakang and the Rignga Chorten, were totally destroyed.
Only the ancient building used as monks' quarters that stands to the north of the site was
preserved. Of the two dorings that stood one on each side of the lhakang's portico,
the one on the left side of the door still stands on its base carved with a swastika in
the empire style, while only remnants remain of the pillar that stood on the right side.
Recent and continuing rebuilding has only restored a single small lhakang to the right of
the portico. This lhakang contains images of the three Dzogchen Protectors - Ekajati,
Rahula and Dorje Lekpa - and of the omniscient Longchempa.
Shai Lhakang's great importance to historians lies in the
two inscribed doring pillars that stood one each side of the Lhakang's portico.
Both dorings record exceptional grants of land and privilege to Nyang Tingedzin and
his heirs by the Emperor Senalek in the early 9th century. It appears that having made
himself indispensable to Trisong Detsen and having become Senalek's guardian, when in the
year 800 a dispute arose over the Emperor Murub's successor, Nyang Tingedzin assisted
Senalek who eventually gained the throne in 804. The ample rewards that this monk obtained
for his service to his royal Buddhist masters are attested to by the inscription on the
Shai Lhakang's early and abiding religious importance was
derived from its founder's status as the principal recipient of the essential Dzogchen
Precept Class (man ngag sde) instruction of the Indian master and pandita
Vimalamitra. As the Emperor's preceptor Nyang Tingedzin induced Trisong Detsen to invite
Vimalamitra to Tibet. After Tingedzin had founded the Shai Lhakang in the early part of
the 9th century, under the protection of the Guardian Deity Dorje Lekpa, it was here that
he hid the Vimala Nyingtik texts as treasures for discovery in a later period. These texts
were recovered from Shai Lhakang by Dangma Lhungyel, who was born in nearby Sho in the
11th century. In the 14th century the Shai Lhakang was restored by Longchempa, the
synthesizer of the various Dzogchen lineages. Later the Lhakang came under the authority
of the Gelukpas, and in the 18th century it was restored by the seventh Dalai Lama.
A fold high on the side of the mountain to the south of
Shai Lhakang hides the site of a hermitage of Nyang Tingedzin.
YANGRI GON (Yang ri dgon)
The site of Yangri Gon6 is located 10 km up the
Sho Valley at the base of the scarp on the left bank of the river. The Shorong Chu runs in
a gorge up to 75 m below the valley floor for this part of its course. The entire
gompa was razed to form the site of a military base in the 1960s. It is revealing,
however, that although the military would have liked to destroy every last trace of Yangri
Gon, until 1985 a single stretch of wall remained standing within the military compound.
This wall was a special residence of the Guardian Goddess Apchi. Apchi is said to have
been a Kandroma who during the empire period married an ancestor of the Drigung Kyapgon,
an exorcist. Apchi, or Drigung Apchi, became the Protectress of the Drigungpas and most of
the many sungkangs found throughout Drigung belong to her. As the Protector of
Yangri Gon, legend had it that anyone tampering with the goddess' residence would die soon
thereafter. A series of deaths amongst those engaged in the destruction left the wall
standing for twenty years. Tibetans finally demolished it in 1985. This story may indicate
that the destruction of the gompas during the Cultural Revolution was done by the Red
Guards out of fear of the power within them, rather than with the clean conscience of
scientific rationalists. The Red Guards were undoubtedly burning with a fanaticism that
can only be derived from zeal of a religious nature, but millennia of obeisance to the
gods was not eradicated by a change of political leadership.
To the east of Yangri Gon, on the northern slope of a
side-valley, is a pleasant grove hiding the site of an old hermitage that was attached to
the gompa. A new lhakang has been built here and several monks maintain the tradition of
A large appendage of the Drigung Til gompa, Yangri Gon was
founded by Trinle Sangpo, the eighth incarnation of the Drigung Kyapgon. As many as 500
monks were in residence before 1959. Its enormous wealth, particularly demonstrated by the
gilt chortens enshrining Drigung Lamas, attested to the continuity of Drigung prosperity.
DRIGUNG TIL ('Bri gung mthil): Seat of the Drigung Kagyupas
Drigung Til,7 or simply Til, the greatest of
the Drigungpas' gompas, is located some 40 km from Drigung Dzong up the Sho Valley. On the
right bank of the fast flowing river, 300 m above the broad valley, the monastery is
built on the brow of a long ridge. The slope under the ridge was so steep that ladders
were used to connect the lhakangs and residences that had been built after excavation of
the mountainside. To the east and north-east passes give access to the valleys of Kongpo
and the plains of Nakchuka.
The Drigungpas are one of the three surviving Kagyu
schools derived from Drogon Pakmodrupa's disciples, and Drigung Til is the Drigungpa seat.
Their tradition is rooted in the ascetic practices of Milarepa, but they have absorbed
many Nyingma characteristics, so that some would say that there is little distinction
between the Drigungpas and Nyingmapas.
The rebuilding of this important institution in Tibet's
spiritual and political history began in 1983. The greatest achievement is the
reconstructed assembly hall and chief lhakang built upon a high platform with foundations
30 m below. On the same lowest level of construction to the east, close to the site
of Drigung Kyapgon Rinchen Pel's original place of retreat, where the hermitage of the
present meditation master Pachung Rimpoche is situated, is the gomkang, which is the
Guardian Goddess Apchi's principal residence. To the west of the assembly hall is a ruined
building enshrining Drigung Kyapgon's broken reliquary chorten. Further to the west the
large impressive ruins are of a labrang residence, and then higher up the remains
of the Yangri Gon Dratsang and Dukang. On this level is the new residence of the present
Drigung Rimpoches. Spread over the ridge are innumerable rustic hermitages belonging to
the ninety monks, nuns, yogins and laymen now committed to three years of retreat.
The principal relics enshrined in the Assembly Hall
include Drigung Kyapgon's footprint, and his personal conch and trumpet (gyaling).
The founder's image takes pride of place on the altar, and on the right side are images of
Apchi as Pelden Lhamo and as Dorje Chodron, her wrathful form. Signs of Drigung's original
wealth of sculpture can be seen in the many large and small bronzes that have been
unearthed during the reconstruction.
The history of Til began in the year 1167, when a yogin
disciple of Drogon Pakmodrupa called Minyak Gomring founded a small hermitage on the
ridge. Twelve years later, in 1179, another disciple of Pakmodrupa fulfilled a prophecy by
accepting the land that Minyakpa offered him and by establishing a major Kagyu lineage.
This Lama's name was Rinchen Pel (1143-1217), a Khampa of the Drukgyel Kyura clan, with a
background in the Nyingma school, who had left his homeland a decade before to sit at the
feet of Drogon Pakmodrupa at Densatil. He was to become known as Drigung Kyapgon, Saviour
of the Drigungpas, and Drigung Choje, Master of the Drigung Dharma, and Jigten Sumgon,
Lord of the Three Realms, and Kyupa Lama.
The 13th century was Drigung's period of greatest vitality
and expansion. Aligned with the Kagyu opposition to the Mongol-supported Sakya power,
Drigung Til became a target for the invading Mongol general Dorta in 1240, when its
abbot's power saved it from destruction. Legend has it that the Guardian Goddess Apchi was
responsible for the Mongols' defeat by imprisoning many of them in her lhakang in the
valley below the gompa and incinerating them. However, in 1290 Drigung was destroyed by
another Mongol army, this time commanded by a Sakya general. But the Drigungpas were
already established in gompas and hermitages throughout Tibet and their future was
DRIGUNG DUNDRO ('Bri gung dur khrod): Til's Sky-burial Site
The Drigung dundro to which bodies were, and still
are, brought from as far away as Kongpo and Nakchuka, is as it ever was. This power-place
for disposal of the dead is famous throughout Tibet. It is considered identical to the
most famous of the Eight Indian Charnel Grounds, Siwaitsel (Sitavana) near Bodh Gaya.
Legend has it that a rainbow connects Sitavana with this place and that the Guardian Deity
* Yibkyi Chang presides over both. A vulture's footprint in stone still to be
seen here is said to belong to Siwaitsel's Protector. The site is located at the western
extremity of the ridge on which Til is built, and the path of circumambulation that passes
outside the entire Til complex encompasses it.
Within a perimeter of chortens, lhakangs and prayer flags,
a circle of boulders 12 m in diameter represents the mandala of Demchok
(Cakrasamvara). A larger standing stone at the top and a flat stone near the centre are
those employed by the rogyapa butchers. Another standing stone painted red is a
self-manifest mani-stone. Behind the stone circle is a shrine-room with new paintings of
the Wrathful and Peaceful Deities on its walls. To the right of it is a small room filled
with hair shaven from the dead, and further to the right is a chorten that marks the place
of Drigung Kyapgon's throne, also marked by his footprint in rock.
SHOTO TERDROM (gZho stod gter sgrom): "Box of Treasures"
Terdrom8 is undoubtedly the pearl in the
Drigung oyster. Its spectacular mountain ranges of limestone and schist, its medicinal hot
springs, its meditation caves, its historical associations, and the sense of power
emanating from the yogins and yoginis who continue the Drigung tradition of solitary
retreat in its hermitages, combine to give the pilgrim an initiation into the meaning and
purpose of such power-places. Terdrom is located at the head of a side-valley that enters
the Sho Valley 2 km west of Til. A rough jeep-road climbs slowly for 16 km to the
north-east through the meadows of the narrow Shoto Valley with its sides covered by dwarf
rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs. There are several medicinal hot springs by the
There are two focal points in the Terdrom area: the lower
one is at the confluence of two rivers where the principal hot springs emerge and where
the Ani Gompa is situated, and the upper one is at the Guru Rimpoche cave several hours'
walk to the north. These two power-places are linked by the Nangkor, the inner
circumambulatory path, that may be compared to the outer circumambulation of Kailash in
terms of duration, difficulty and sensory and supersensory impact.
TERDROM NANGKOR (gTer sgrom nang 'khor): The Inner Circumambulation
The starting point of the Terdrom Nangkor is the rest
house by the hot springs. The two 50 cm deep pools of hot mineral water arise from sacred
springs where once only the Drigung Kyapgon could bathe. Residences of the Guardian
Goddess Apchi attend both pools. Just below the springs is a ridge of limestone running
across the valley through which the river runs in a tunnel 15 m long. Legend has it
that a poisonous lake was once contained behind this ridge, its waters so noxious that
birds flying over it would succumb to its fumes, and in the lake lived malignant water
spirits and other elementals. On Guru Rimpoche's first visit to Terdrom he stayed in a
cave at the bottom of the scarp behind the triangular plateau bounded by the rivers that
now converge at the springs. Throwing his dorje at the ridge the tunnel was formed
that drained the lake. The shape of his dorje can be seen protruding from the rock
within the cavern-like opening of the tunnel. Subjecting the elemental spirits of the lake
he bound them to serve the dharma and its practitioners, and as a residence he gave
them the red-coloured rock that now stands on the right bank of the river just north of
the tunnel (more recently a Drigung Lama poked a hole in this rock with his stick). As a
further gift to the yogins and yoginis who would later meditate at Terdrom, he caused the
hot springs to emerge, promising that their waters would cure every ailment of the body.
From the hot springs the Nangkor path leads to the Ani
Gompa close by to the north. Crudely rebuilt on the old pattern, half of the square
compound is courtyard and half dukang and lhakang combined. On the altar built of rock and
clay, the central image is of Guru Rimpoche. Terdrom's renowned Drigungpa nunnery is the
only monastic establishment in Terdrom and it serves now both men and women, monks and
nuns, yogins and yoginis. The Drigung Kagyupas place little emphasis on celibacy, and
their married ngakpa yogins wear the red and white sash of the Nyingmapas and wear
their hair tied up on top of their heads. Their hermitages have been rebuilt around the
gompa, along the river valleys and on the low plateau above the gompa. The site of the Ani
Gompa is associated with Guru Rimpoche and a rock nearby is called Guru Shuktri, Guru
Crossing the bridge to the north of the gompa, the path
climbs the ridge to the west, passing a chorten on its crest. From this vantage point the
shape of the plateau above the Ani Gompa and the mountain behind it can be seen as the
form of the elephant's head and trunk that gives it its name. Further on is a spring said
to flow from Guru Rimpoche's cave, and beyond the spring is the ruined gompa of *Tinkye.
The path then ascends steeply to the Norbu(?) La, Jewel Pass, and then negotiates a sharp
ridge and steep scarp around a large cirque. In the rock-face close to the chorten that
marks the point of descent down an ice-covered scree slope into a valley to the north, is
a hole in which Guru Rimpoche hid a treasure. Some way down the valley on the north side
is an important cave and a ruined circular hermitage called *Bugung Sumdo.
Further down, the path ascends the south side of the valley to a place where the bodies of
Terdrom anchorites are disposed of through exposure to jackals. A yogin's nest underneath
an overhanging boulder close to this power-place is used by practitioners of chod,
invoking the demons and spirits of the place to feed on their bodies. The path continues
along and up the valley-side over scree slopes, until a pass crosses the ridge. From this
point until Kandro Tsokchen Kiri Yongdzong is reached, the path vanishes on a limestone
rock face which is traversed following natural hand and foot holds. The cave is located at
about 5,400 m in one of the tall limestone pinnacles that form this massif.
The size of the vast cavern at the base of a limestone
tower gives this power-place the name Kandro Tsokchen Kiri Yongdzong, The Assembly Hall of
the Dakinis. Within this 50 m high cavern are two hermitages of nuns in retreat there
and the ruins of a former lhakang. A ladder leads to an ascending passage 8 m above
in the side of the cavern roof, and this passage reaches a cell enclosed high in the
limestone tower. Ice fills the chimney into which the ceiling vanishes. A small shrine
indicates that this is the cell called the Tsogyel Sangpuk, Tsogyel's Secret Cave, in
which both Guru Rimpoche and his Tibetan consort, Yeshe Tsogyel, spent periods of retreat.
In the 8th century, after Guru Rimpoche had answered the
Emperor Trisong Detsen's invitation to visit Tibet, during an interim of pro-Bonpo
sentiment the Guru and his consort were banished from the kingdom. But escaping from their
retreat at Yamalung they found refuge in the Kiri Yongdzong cave in Terdrom until the
political climate at Samye had improved. Tsogyel received her three Kandro Nyingtik
initiations and precepts here, and during the Guru's absence she visited Nepal, returning
with her consort, Atsara Sale, to spend seven months in retreat in the Tsogyel Sangpuk.
Again, returning from Samye after the initiation of the Twenty-four Disciples, Tsogyel
practised her Guru-yoga in Terdrom and afterwards spent three years on the snowline
performing austerities as The White-cotton-clad Yogini. Towards the end of her life, after
Guru Rimpoche had left Tibet, she performed her final Dzogchen retreat here, and after her
ultimate accomplishment she remained to teach in whatever way was required of her. Tsogyel
hid part of the Kandro Nyingtik in Terdrom.
To complete the circumambulation, returning across the
limestone rock-face, the way of descent is 500 m down one of the steep scree slopes
that flank the ridge. In the valley the path leads to the ruins of the *Drang
gompa, located on the left bank of the river where a side-valley converges. In the centre
of the gompa's ruins is a small hut containing a sleeping-box and altar. This was the
hermitage of Rinchen Puntsok, a Drigungpa terton who discovered some of Guru
Rimpoche's treasures in Kiri Yongdzong. The rebuilding of the lhakang has begun at this
gompa, and a rough track leads down the gorge that descends to the hot springs and the Ani
At the end of this circumambulation the path skirts the
"elephant trunk" plateau and gives access to the meditation caves at the base of
the scarp. The principal cave, associated with both Guru Rimpoche and Yeshe Tsogyel, is
only a meditation cave in name, but the hermitage rebuilt in front of it is the residence
of the Drigung Kandroma, presently a young yogini considered to be an incarnation of
Kandro Yeshe Tsogyel. In her final testament, Tsogyel promised to project an emanation who
would always live at Terdrom. Below the cave are the ruins of hermitages, many of which
are in process of rebuilding.
A longer circumambulation, the chikor, encompasses
the entire Terdrom area and Drigung Til itself. This can take as long as a week to
perform. Further, in the limestone folds of the area there are many other meditation
caves, some of them associated with Guru Rimpoche.
Two important Dzokchempas are associated with Terdrom. In
the 11th century Dzeng Dharmabodhi, a disciple of Padampa and Bagom, meditated here and
received a vision of the Deity Dutsi Kyilwa in a cave of rock crystal. Dzeng was a vital
link in the Dzogchen Space Precept (klong sde) lineage. The second of the two
Dzokchempas who meditated in Terdrom was the Second Royal Terton Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405).
He discovered a variety of treasure-texts here. Many of the Drigung Rimpoches were
A footnote to the Drigung Mandala: just before the only
right-angle bend halfway up the Shoto Valley, below Terdrom, on the north side of the
road, are to be found a number of saucer-sized concavities in the rock-face. It was
explained by a local informant that these hollows were formed by laymen who would rub the
top of their heads in the hollows in prayerful appeal to the Drigung treasure-finders to
reveal Guru Rimpoche's teaching, to provide instruction for these difficult times, and to
replace the losses of the Cultural Revolution.
Chapter Six: TOLUNG: THE KARMAPA'S DOMAIN
Upper Tolung is the stronghold of the Karma Kagyu school.
The principal gompa of the Karmapas, the Black-Crown Karma Kagyu Lamas, is at Tsurpu. To
the north of Tsurpu is Yangpachen, the seat of the later Shamarpas, the Red-Crown Karma
Kagyu Lamas. Below Tsurpu is Nenang Gompa, the seat of the Pawo Rimpoches, belonging to
the Shamar school. From the time of the foundation of the Karma Kagyu school in the 12th
century until the final suppression of their political power in the 17th century, this
school played a notable part in the history of Central Tibet, particularly as Lamas of the
Mongol Emperors of China and in opposition to the rise of the Gelukpas. Further, the Karma
Kagyupas are the principal holders of the spiritual tradition of Milarepa. Masters of the
lineage have immeasurably enriched the spiritual life of Tibet, and also, since the
diaspora of the 1970s, of many western countries.
The *Tobing Chu, the chief river of the Tolung
valley system, joins the Kyichu 12 km to the west of Lhasa. Before the Donkar Bridge the
highway forks, the right-hand road turning north, ascending the Tolung valley on the left
bank of the river. Some 30 km up this wide, fertile valley (at km 1897) a jeep-road
crosses the Lungpa Sampa bridge and ascends Dowo Lung to Tsurpu. The principal Tolung
valley continues to the north, providing a corridor to Yangpachen where the highway
divides. The eastern route leads to Damsung, Namtso and Golmud. This is the main route
from Lhasa to Qinghai Province and northern China. The highway to the west of Yangpachen
forms the so-called northern route to Shigatse from Lhasa.
NENANG GOMPA (gNas nang dgon pa): Residence of
the Pawo Rimpoches
Nenang is located thirty minutes' walk over the ridge to
the north of the village of *Kado, which is on the north side of the river some
10 km up the Dowo Valley. The gompa was completely destroyed during the Cultural
Revolution, but restoration has begun. The chief buildings were the Jampa Lhakang and the
Lhakang Chempo, both of which will be rebuilt. The relics remaining to the gompa consist
of a number of bronze portraits of Lamas of the Shamar lineage. In 1959 110 gelongs
studied here; at present eight trapas are attached to the monastery.
The practices of the yogins of this Shamar (Red-Crown)
Kagyu gompa, like those of the Shanak (Black-Crown) gompa of Tsurpu, are derived from the
teaching of Milarepa, which stresses control of the breath and energies of the subtle
body, with the final goal of the Buddha's enlightenment and the relative powers of the siddha.
Nenang was founded in 1333 by the first Shamarpa, Tokden
Drakpa Senge (1283-1349), whose relics were preserved here. With the foundation of Nenang
the Karma Kagyu school split into two complementary but often rival parts, the Shanak
(Black-Crown) and Shamar (Red-Crown). The hierarchs of each school acted as Regents and
tutors to the other during the minorities of their respective incarnations. The Shamarpas
became engaged in the anti-Geluk movement of the 16th and early 17th centuries. From 1499
to 1523 the fourth Shamarpa, Chokyi Drakpa, was the Supreme Ruler of Tibet, and Yangpachen
(see below) was built under his auspices. This was the period in which the Karmapas
usurped the authority of Sera and Drepung and built Red Hat gompas in Lhasa to support the
Shamarpa's power. After Yangpachen became the chief seat of the Shamarpa, Nenang was
guided by the Pawo Rimpoches. The first incarnation was the siddha Pawo Chowang
Lhundrub (1440-1503). The second Pawo Rimpoche, the historian Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa
(1504-66), is probably the best known incarnation in the Pawo lineage.
TOLUNG TSURPU (sTod lung mTshur phu): Seat of
The Tolung Tsurpu gompa1 is located some 28 km
up the Dowo Lung Valley. It is built on the north side of the river and climbs up the
valley side. In 1985 the first impression was of a ruined biblical city preserved for
millennia by a desert climate, a city that Ozymandias, king of kings, would have been
proud to rule. The truncated walls of the 300 m square complex are as much as
4 m thick, bastions standing at the corners. The ruined walls and chimneys of
masonry, indicating the former strength of the principal buildings, dwarf the maze of
monks' residences on the eastern side. To realize that the destruction of this
extraordinary gompa occurred less than a generation ago is to be stunned by the historical
forces and human emotions that were engaged. It may be supposed that a gompa with such
strong historical connections with China would have been in part preserved; but it is said
that the Karmapa's prescience in leaving Tibet with the bulk of Tsurpu's treasure in
advance of the Communist invasion, and the later use of the gompa as a haven by Tibetan
freedom-fighters, angered the authorities, who vented their wrath on the gompa itself. The
sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rikpai Dorje (1924-81), re-established his monastery and his
lineage at Rumtek in Sikkim, where many of the portable treasures of Tsurpu are stored.
But the late Karmapa's disciple Drupon Dechen Rimpoche is now in residence at Tsurpu,
overseeing the work of reconstruction and teaching more than seventy monks.
Restoration of Tsurpu was not far advanced in 1986. In the
north-west corner a labrang, now called Dratsang, had been rebuilt. The lhakang on
the ground floor is the repository of Tsurpu's surviving relics. The upper storey
comprises a gomkang with fine new murals, and the lamas' quarters. Below and to the east
of Dratsang are the red-painted ruins of the Lhakang Chempo which contained the most
revered relic of Tsurpu, the Dzamling Gyen, the Ornament of the World, an image of
Sakyamuni created by the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, in which relics of Sakyamuni were
enshrined. This was the largest cast bronze statue in Tibet. During the Cultural
Revolution it was packed with dynamite and blown to smithereens, and fragments of its
metal are to be found throughout the ruins. Below and to the east of the Lhakang Chempo
the immense Tsokang that was the Karmapas' residence was being reconstructed in 1986. East
of the Tsokang are the ruins of another monastic college, called *Suri
Dratsang. The fine workmanship of these great buildings is evidence of the wealth and
eminence of the early Karmapas.
On the higher ground at the top of the compound are the
ruined walls of the vast 17th-century, five-storey residence and college of the Gyeltseb
Rimpoches called Chogar Gong. Gyeltseb means "regent", and the Regents of Tsurpu
governed their own independent monastic establishment contiguous to that of the Karmapas
after the tenth Karmapa had given the college to the sixth Gyeltseb. The first Gyeltseb,
Goshi Peljor Dodrub (c.1427-89), installed the seventh Karmapa.
Outside the walls of Tsurpu are several important remnants
of the past. About 150 m above the gompa, perched on a spur, is a reconstructed drubkang,
a retreat building, and behind this is the drupuk where Karma Pakshi and also the
third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, performed their retreat. It is called Pema Kyungdzong, the
Lotus Eagle Citadel. A footprint of Karma Pakshi is found in the lhakang. This reminds the
pilgrim that, despite the evidence of his eyes, of all Tibetan schools the Karma Kagyupa
were concerned with emulation of the arch-ascetic Milarepa, and particularly with control
of the subtle energies within the body. Perched on crags to the west of Pema Kyungdzong
are the ruins of several other tsamkangs - two for anis and one for monks -
in which only one of the four rooms in each building had windows. On the south bank of the
river are steeply inclined steps upon which gigantic tankas were exhibited on
The korra of the entire site can be entered upon by
way of the southern gate of the monastery. The path leads west to the confluence of two
valleys dominated by Jampa Ri, and here is the site of a garden where the Gyelwa Karmapas
had a wooden summer residence. A short distance to the north, at the dundro site,
the path climbs the mountainside to connect several places of importance as it weaves its
way back to the Pema Kyungdzong. On the spur to the east of this retreat is the rebuilt sungkang
residence of Pelden Lhamo, and above it are the ruins of the lhakang of the Protector
Tamdrin. Then descending, by the road is a painted engraving of the principal Karma Kagyu
Protector Bernakchen. This korra takes about three hours to complete.
The founder of the Karma Kagyu school and Tolung Tsurpu
was Dusum Kyempa (1110-93), who, like Drigung Rimpoche and Pakmodrupa Dorje Gyelpo, was
born in Kham. His principal Lama was Je Gampopa, but he received instruction also from
Milarepa's disciple Rechungpa and various Kadampa sages. He was considered to be an
incarnation of the Indian siddha Saraha. He was known as the Black-Crown Lama
(Shanakpa) after he had been presented with the crown of Indrabodhi, a hat made of the
hairs of Dakinis. After travelling widely throughout Tibet, meditating at many
power-places, towards the end of his life, in 1187, he settled at Tsurpu. The institution
of a series of incarnate lamas or tulkus attached to a particular gompa and office
was established by Dusum Kyempa when he prophesied his immediate rebirth as the second
Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1202?-83). Karma Pakshi spent most of his life propagating the
Kagyu dharma while travelling in Tibet and at the Mongol court of Kublai Khan in
China. Particularly, his feats of magic, for which he is renowned, impressed the Mongol
Emperor - they were remarked upon by Marco Polo. The enormous wealth he received as gifts
in China allowed him to rebuild Tsurpu which had been destroyed earlier. The Lhakang
Chempo (1287) and the Tsokang date from this period. The political power of the Karma
Kagyupas vis-à-vis the Sakya school was rooted in this wealth. The third Karmapa
was Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339), who repeated his predecessor's visit to the Chinese court.
He installed the Emperor Toghon Temur (r.1333-68) in office during his first visit
(1332-4). He died in the third year of his second visit (1339). This third Karmapa, like
the first two, spent much of his life meditating in caves, notably at Samye Chimpu and in
Pema Kyungdzong. He was an initiate of the Dzogchen Nyingtik of Vimalamitra. Both the
fourth and fifth Karmapas also visited China, the fourth at the end of the Yuan dynasty,
and the fifth at the beginning of the Ming.
During the decline of the Pakmodrupa hegemony in Central
Tibet, the Karmapas were associated with the Princes of Rinpung in eastern Tsang in their
stance against the Gelukpas. In the 17th century when the King of Tsang made a strong
stand against the unifying policies of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama and the rising Geluk
power, as the King's Lama the tenth Karmapa was aligned with the anti-Geluk forces. After
the Gelukpas' Mongol general Gusri Khan had subjected eastern and central Tibet he marched
on Shigatse, and in the subsequent battle defeated the King of Tsang and captured and
executed him. Gusri Khan then marched on Tsurpu and the Karmapa fled to Bhutan. With the
sacking of Tsurpu by the Mongols in 1642 the political influence of the Karmapas ended.
DORJELING (rDo rje gling)
This Kagyu Ani Gompa is located two days' walk to the
north of Tsurpu. Taking the path up the north-western branch of the valley just beyond
Tsurpu, after half a day's walk the village of Lagen is reached. Above this village the
valley divides and the northern branch crosses *Tang La (approx. 5,300 m) and
descends into the valley of an affluent of the Lhorong Chu. Beyond the pass the landscape
is more reminiscent of the Changtang than of Central Tibet, with the high Nyenchen Tanglha
range forming a backdrop to the north. Dorjeling is also accessible from Yangpachen in a
Magnificently situated at the bottom of the eastern side
of a long ridge, the lhakang and domestic quarters of Dorjeling Ani Gompa have been
rebuilt and some thirty anis are in residence. In 1986 the lhakang had yet to be
TUBTEN YANGPACHEN (Thub bstan yangs pa can): Seat
of the Shamarpas
The Shamarpa's Kagyu gompa of Yangpachen2 is
located on the northern side of the Lhorong Chu valley just above the Lhasa-Shigatse
highway. It is accessible from Dorjeling Ani Gompa after a half-day trek. The road from
Lhasa follows the *Tobing Chu for some 75 km to Yangpachen Qu passing through
Dechen Dzong. To the west of Yangpachen Qu are the hot springs that were once a place of
pilgrimage but which now are engulfed by a geothermal plant that irrigates the hot-houses
that provide vegetables for Lhasa. 10 km further west is the village of *Shungtse.
The gompa is located above it.
Tubten Yangpachen was totally destroyed, but it is now in
process of rebuilding. The principal lhakang contains some new images; the Pelkor Gomkang
contains an original image of Chakdrukpa (Mahakala) that resisted attempts to destroy it;
but the image of Chakdrukpa in the Sinon Gomkang has vanished, along with the glory of
Yangpachen Gompa was founded by Murab Jampa Tujepel in
1490 under the auspices of the fourth Shamarpa and financed by the Prince of Rinpung. It
was the residence of the Shamarpas for only 300 years. The Shamarpas' ties with Nepal were
their downfall. When the Gorkhalis under Pritvi Narayan Shah, king of the newly unified
Kingdom of Nepal, invaded Tibet in 1792 to be defeated by a Chinese army, the tenth
Shamarpa was accused of traitorous support of the Nepalis. Yangpachen was confiscated by
the Gelukpas, the Shamarpa's hat was buried and recognition of future incarnations was
prohibited. In Nepal the present thirteenth Shamarpa has resumed his full status amongst
the Karma Kagyupas.
WEST OF TOLUNG
Just beyond Tsurpu the Dowo Lung Valley divides. Ascending
the north-western branch for half a day, just beyond the village of Lagen the valley again
divides. Here the western branch ascends to the Tsurpu Lagan La and passes into the upper
reaches of the Lhorong Chu. Another pass takes the pilgrim into upper Nyemo Lung, called
Nyemo Shu. This valley descends to the larger Nyemo Valley and thence to the Tsangpo to
the east of Rinpung and west of Chushul (see map p.000). A power-place of Guru Rimpoche is
located in Nyemo Shu, and Nyemo Gyeje is the Nyemo Jeke that was the birthplace of
Bairotsana. Kyungpo Neljorpa (990-1138?) was born in Nyemo Ramang; this was the Bonpo
yogin and Dzokchempa, and disciple of Niguma (Naropa's wife) at Nalanda, who founded the
Shangpa Kagyu school at Shang Shong.
NORTH OF THE LHORONG CHU VALLEY
To the north of Yangpachen is the Nyenchen Tanglha range.
Its highest peak at 7,088 m is "a peak resembling a chorten of pure
crystal". This is the residence of the very important Mountain God of the West,
Nyenchen Tanglha. This Protector was an ancient Bonpo deity, and by the Buddhists he is
considered to be the god-king of all the oath-bound Protectors and as such he is one of
the most powerful Guardians of the Buddha-dharma. His retinue consists of the
mountain gods of the 360 lesser peaks of the range. Nyenchen Tanglha, or simply Tanglha,
is also a Protector of the Potala's Marpo Ri.
Beyond this range of mountains to the northwest is the
holy lake called Namtso, better known to Europeans by its Mongolian name, Tengri Nor,
Heaven Lake. Access to this lake is gained via Damsung over the *Large La.