After lunch at 999 Shan Noodle House, we walked over to the City Hall. Across the street from the City Hall stood Sule Pagoda, the iconic octagonal stupa that marked the heart of Yangon. We decided to pay a quick visit to this wonderful monument before venturing further south.
Built in the 5th century BC, the 2600 year old was said to even predate the famous Shwedagon. The stupa was built in the style of Mon pagoda architecture, back in the era when the Mon people was a dominant ethnic group in the region. The Mon people was also responsible for spreading Theravada Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia. The Mon name of Sule Pagoda is “kyaik athok ceti”, meaning “stupa with a sacred hair enshrined”. Legend has it that the Sule Pagoda contains one of Buddha’s hairs given to merchant Tapussa and Bhallika. The rest of the same strand of Buddha’s hairs were said to be kept at the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Before the British set out to develop Yangon and its port area, Sule Pagoda was situated on an island surrounded by a swamp at the banks of Yangon River. The British drained the area, constructed a prominent roundabout centred at the Pagoda and defined Sule as the heart of Downtown Rangoon (now Yangon). Today, Sule pagoda remains as an iconic spot of the city, and has served as the centre stage of civilian rallies and demonstrations throughout the years.
We crossed the street from the City Hall to the east entrance of the Sule Pagoda.
At the entrance, we followed the rules and took off our shoes and socks, left them with one of the staff, purchased admission tickets and then climbed up the stairs to the main worshiping area. This was our first experience of walking barefoot in Myanmar.
The first thing we saw beyond the stair was a cosy and golden altar with many pilgrims.
Outside of the covered altar was a series of small golden shrine surrounding the base of the octagonal pagoda. It’s important for the Burmese to know which day of the week they were born in order to find the right shrine to worship. There are eight planetary shrines around the pagoda, each represents a planet as well as a particular day of the week, with Wednesday split into two (am and pm).
Water and food can be found at the pagoda complex, usually donated by Buddhist worshipers, who believe good deeds are one of the basis for path of enlightenment.
Soon we reached another entrance of the Sule Pagoda. Entrances of the pagoda are arranged at the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west.
The corresponded altar of this entrance looked somewhat different than the one we first arrived at.
Like all shrines in Myanmar, gold is the single dominant colour of the octagonal Sule Pagoda.
At the Saturday shrine, another two worshipers were busy performing rituals and cleaning the altar with water.
Under the scorching sun, many worshipers stayed at the shaded area to mediate. It was interesting to see many young people were among the devoted worshipers.
When looking closely, the fine details and craftsmanship of the golden ornaments were overwhelmingly impressive.
At another entrance altar, colourful fresco depicted a number of Buddhist stories high up near the ceiling.
Each of the four altars has a distinct set of ornaments.
Other than the devoted worshippers, some locals were just hanging around in the pagoda area as if the space was a public park. In fact, Buddhist shrines in Myanmar do serve as community spaces that welcome everyone.
It was relaxing to walk on bare feet around the Sule Pagoda. Surprising we didn’t feel uncomfortable without our shoes and socks.
Near the entrance where we arrived, there was a group of people gathered at a pulley wire, waiting for the staff to send their prayer cards up to the pagoda by the golden prayer boat.
Via a wire pulley system, the golden prayer boat sends prayer cards of worshippers up to the pagoda.
A staff at the base worked the pulley to send up the prayer boat while a group of worshipers gathered to witness the process.
After one loop, we repeated the clockwise stroll around the Sule Pagoda for a second time.
After two loops around the pagoda, we walked down the stair where we first arrived, put on our shoes, and moved on to further explore Downtown Yangon.
Other than the spiritual monasteries, wonderful mountainous scenery and marvelous night sky, one thing we miss from our Tibetan trip is undoubtedly the faces of the Tibetan people. Their devotion to Buddhism, friendliness to foreigners, connection to their Himalayan homeland, and colourful clothing contribute to a unique and beautiful culture that we would always remember.
One face we would certain miss is the cute dog that always lingers at the entrance of Trichang Labrang Hotel (赤江拉讓藏式賓館).
Despite the presence of tourism, there is still a community atmosphere in Barkhor Old Town near our hotel, especially in the morning when locals comes out to get breakfast and grocery.
Near our hotel, delightful kids often run around the narrow alleyways.
And so as Buddhist monks who found their way towards Jokhang Monastery.
Vivid colours is everywhere to represent the unique Tibetan culture.
Large flag poles are pilgrim magnets along the kora route around the Jokhang Monastery.
The forecourt of Jokhang Monastery is always a great place for people watching.
Pilgrims on the kora route of Jokhang Monastery in traditional clothing and accessories.
Prostrating pilgrims express their devotion to Buddhism through their physical actions.
Pilgrim and prayer wheels along the kora of Jokhang Monastery.
Pilgrim and prayer wheels at Sera Monastery.
Pilgrim at the kora route of the Potala Palace.
And that concludes the posts on our Tibetan trip 2017.
Our driver Sangzhu dropped us near our hotel Trichang Labrang (赤江拉讓藏式賓館) in Barkhor Old Town. After dropping off our bags, we stopped by the eatery beside the hotel for a quick bite. The friendly eatery owners, a talkative young couple, were excited to welcome us and chatted with us. We ordered a Nepali platter, fried momo and two cans of local beer to celebrate the completion of our road trip. The momos were quite delicious, and went well with the beer made with Highland Barley. It was the last full day of the trip. After filling our stomach, we didn’t want to visit any attractions, but spent time wandering in Barkhor Old Town, checking out souvenirs, watching people, and photographing anything that interested us, until the dinner time. For dinner, we decided to try the Tibetan hotpot at “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆).
After returning to Lhasa, we stopped by the small local eatery next door from Trichang Labrang Hotel. The young owners were friendly and talkative.
To celebrate the completion of our 6-day road trip, we ordered some local beer and highland barley wine.
The most delicious snack we ordered was the fried momo (Tibetan dumplings).
For dinner, we revisited the “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆), the atmospheric courtyard restaurant nearby.
Again we ordered the highland barley wine (青稞酒). The wine came in an interesting bird-like pottery jar.
The main dish of the meal was the Tibetan hotpot. It came with vegetables, melons, beef, ham and yak meat.
We wanted to linger around Barkhor Old Town for a little longer after dinner.
In front of Jokhang Monastery (གཙུག་ལག་ཁང༌། 大昭寺), pilgrims, worshiped on the stone pavers as usual.
Other than pilgrims, tourists also gathered at the Jokhang forecourt.
In front of Jokhang main entrance, more pilgrims gathered to worship, including some Buddhist monks.
The sky was getting dark but the Jokhang forecourt was getting even more crowded.
Some pilgrims preferred to stay near the large flag pole in front of the Jokhang.
Around Jokhang, groups after groups of pilgrims and tourists walked the kora in clockwise direction around Lhasa’s most sacred site.
The kora route was flanked one side by souvenir shops and the other by the majestic facade of the Jokhang.
Along the kora route, many pilgrims were performing prostration the entire way.
Some tourists treated the pilgrimage forecourt as a public plaza and sat on the pavers to chill out among the pilgrims.
Among pilgrims and tourists, chilling out in the Jokhang forecourt included this large and gorgeous husky.
We would certainly miss the spiritual atmosphere of the Jokhang forecourt.
On our way back to Trichang Labrang Hotel, we passed by one last time the store where we bought our bottled water everyday of our Lhasa stay. The next morning, we would take the airport shuttle bus near the Potala and fly back to Hong Kong via Chengdu. Although short, it was a delightful experience for the three of us on the unique Tibetan culture and magnificent Himalayan landscape. Hopefully next time we could have more time and travel further to the western corner of Tibet.
Before leaving Shigatse for Namtso Lake, we spent the morning at Tashi Lhunpo Monastery (བཀྲ་ཤིས་ལྷུན་པོ་ 扎什倫布寺). Probably the most influential monastery in the Shigatse area, Tashi Lhunpo Monastery is very popular with local pilgrims. Founded by the 1st Dalai Lama in 1447, the 70,000 sq.m monastery remains as the largest functioning monastery in Tibet. In the past five centuries, Tashi Lhunpo has been the traditional seat of Panchen Lama (པན་ཆེན་བླ་མ 班禪喇嘛), the second highest tulku (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ 活佛) in the Gelug school, just after the Dalai Lama. During the turbulence years of the Cultural Revolution, buildings and relics of the monastery had been damaged. Fortunately, damages of the Tashi Lhunpo was relatively small compared to most other monasteries in Tibet.
Walking in the labyrinth of cobblestone lanes of the enormous monastery ground, visitors can absorb the spiritual air and wander through prayer halls, chapels, chortens and courtyards, admire beautiful Buddhist artworks including the 26m statue of Jampa (Maitreya) Future Buddha, and pay respect to the tombs of the past Panchen Lamas. Other than the gold gilded statues and architectural features, what interested us during our visit of Tashi Lhunpo were the pilgrims who came from all over Tibet and China. From teenagers to elderly, the pilgrims’ gratifying expression and devoted prayers demonstrated to us how Buddhist traditions still remained strong in today’s Tibet.
All visitors to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery would pass through the lingkhor (sacred path) along the external enclosure wall.
The 70,000 sq.m Tashi Lhunpo Monastery sits on the mountain slope west of Shigatse city.
Inside the monastery ground, a network of flagstone paths led us to a village of chapels, chortens and prayer wheels.
The first objects captured our eyes as we entered to the core area of the monastery were the three large chortens.
At 9:30am the sun of the highland was already scorching hot.
Pilgrims and monks in the vivid setting of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery provided us the best subject for photos.
Many lamas we saw at Tashi Lhunpo were actually visitors from other areas of Tibet.
Jamba Chyenmu or Maitreya Temple (强巴佛殿) is the tallest building in Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. Erected in 1914 by the ninth Panchen Lama, it houses the 26.2m statue of Maitreya Buddha. The enormous statue contains 279kg of gold and 150,000kg of copper and brass.
The chorten of the Tenth Panchen Lama is one of the most popular pilgrimage spot in the monastery. The three-tiered chorten is decorated with large amount of gold, silver and gemstones.
Semi-precious stones were used to decorated the entrance vestibule of chapels (in this case the Buddhist swastika was created on the floor). Many pilgrims would knee down and touch the decoration before entering the building.
Other than statues and chortens, a number of architectural features such as a building column could also become a subject of worship for worshipers.
Outside of the monastery, we could see the beautiful mountains across the city of Shigatse.
After visiting a number of the chorten halls (chapels housing the tombs of Panchen Lamas), we arrived at the upper court of the Gyeni Chanting Hall. The gilded roofs and turrets of the Gyeni Chanting Hall can be seen from far away.
As we walked down the ramp near the Gyeni Chanting Hall, we could see right behind us the Thangka Wall used for unfolding the gigantic thangka during festivals.
Below the Gyeni Chanting Hall, we arrived at the Chuajing Duogang, the great courtyard paved with flagstones.
The Chuajing Duogang was another popular spot for pilgrims.
Surrounding the cloister of Chuajing Duogang, we could admire the fresco depicting over 1000 images of Sakyamuni (Buddha).
The Sakyamuni were drawn with hands gesturing the five symbolic poses (mudras).
Looking up from the colonnade of Chuajing Duogang, the splendid Gyeni Chanting Hall looked grand and magnificent.
Beautiful fresco could be seen all over Tashi Lhunpo, including the wall at the lower exit of Chuajing Duogang.
After a 2.5 hour visit of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, it was time for us to find our way to the exit and departed from Shigatse.
Founded by Konchok Gyelpo in 1073, Sakya Monastery is the seat of Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. During its heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries, Sakya abbots were the actual governors of Tibet under the Mongol’s rule. There are actually two monasteries in Sakya at either side of Trum-Chu River. While the older north monastery (1073) with its 108 structures has been reduced to ruins over the years, the fortress like south monastery (1268) survives and remains as one of the largest in Tibet. The impressive fortress like monastery washed with ash grey and white and red vertical stripes symbolizes the trinity of Bodhisattva, and had became the symbol of Sakya. Everything at Sakya is large in size, from its 16m high main assembly hall to the extensive defensive walls.
Many refers Sakya Monastery as Dunhuang (敦煌) of Tibet because of its remarkable murals, artefacts, and medieval scriptures. Sealed behind a wall and rediscovered in 2003, the 60m long by 10m tall library wall (拉康欽莫大經堂) behind the altar in the main assembly hall is particularly impressive. It contains a huge variety of text, 84000 in total, made of different materials and about different subjects from the Yuan Dynasty when Tibet was under Mongol rule. The equally important murals made in the Mongolian style are also a rarity in China nowadays. In the main assembly hall, the most valuable object is probably the white conch shell (海螺). Legends has it that the conch shell originally belonged to the Buddha. Then it went into the hands of an Indian king, and later became an offering to Kublai Khan (忽必列). Kublai Khan gave the sacred object to Sakya and it remained in the monastery until present day. Still capable to make a soft low sound, the conch is still blown by the monk to give blessing to pilgrims. While we were visiting the main assembly hall, we did see a monk took out the conch to offer blessing to the pilgrims, who were so excited and eager to get as close as possible to the sacred object. Also from Kublai Khan was one of the huge wood columns in the assembly hall. With a diameter ranging from 1m to 1.5m, these wood columns are quite impressive disregard who its donor might be.
As soon as we arrived in Sakya, our driver Sangzhu took us to the large dining hall of Manasarovar Sakya Hotel Restaurant for lunch.
Unlike most other Tibetan monasteries, Sakya’s grey walls with red and white stripes offer a unique visual symbol for Sakya in the past 900+ years.
We headed into the entrance courtyard of Sakya and soon found out that almost all buildings were locked. Apparently the monks were having lunch somewhere else and we had no choice but to wait for their.
In front of the main assembly hall, we stood by the stone lion and wait for the monk’s return.
Soon more local visitors arrived and waited for the monk’s return. We decided to take a walk in the enormous compound.
We followed the long and narrow kora route around the central complex. There were prayer wheels on one side and the defensive high walls on the opposite.
The buildings in Sakya Monastery all seemed really large to us.
The Western style lamppost and the ash grey wall with red and white stripes somehow didn’t seem too coherent visually.
At last the monk with the keys showed up and led us into the inner monastery.
Beyond the gate, a dark hallway with beautiful murals and old prayer wheels led us into the inner courtyard.
Going through the dark hallway with religious murals on both sides felt like going back in time.
Without extensive renovations, many murals in Sakya were gradually fading.
From the inner courtyard, we walked into the main assembly hall. In the main hall, we saw the famous white conch shell, wood columns, historical murals and most impressive of all, the 10m high library wall behind the altar. Just like most other monasteries in Tibet, photography of the interior is prohibited.
After seeing the interior of the main assembly hall, we climbed the adjacent stair up to the flat roof of the complex.
The flat roof offers another unique angle to admire the robust architecture of Sakya.
Via the flat roof, we could walk to a variety of side chapels.
The small chapels are accessible via doorways in the otherwise fortress like walls.
Layers of eaves form a series of interesting lines on the flat roof.
As we departed from Sakya Monastery, more pilgrims arrived to pay respect to this once most powerful monastery in Tibet.
After lunch, Sangzhu drove us to Samye village where we would visit the famous Samye Monastery and stay the night. We took a short break at Samye Monastery Hotel before heading over to the monastery. We followed its enclosure wall to reach the main entrance of the monastery complex. Beyond the enclosure, we arrived at a large open space with buildings spread out here and there. At first glance, we couldn’t comprehend the building arrangement within the enormous monastery ground. Not until we reached the higher levels of the main building and looked down, then we came to realize the concentric layout of this famous monastery. First constructed in the 8th century, Samye Monastery is known as the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.
We walked over to the main building’s forecourt, which was dominated by three tall prayer flag poles and incense burners, and started our monastery tour at the main building. The monastery is laid out in shape of a giant mandala with buildings positioned according to the Buddhist cosmology.
Situated at the very centre of the site, the main building is the tallest building in the complex, representing the mythical Mount Meru, the sacred cosmological mountain at the centre of the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain universe.
Before entering the main building, there was an interesting sign about the risk of fire.
We entered the inner courtyard of the main building through a beautifully decorated gateway.
At the gateway, we bought our admission tickets from an old man.
The inner courtyard was actually a cloister surrounded by colonnades and prayer wheels.
Behind the row of prayer wheels, there were Buddhist murals on the walls.
Unfortunately many murals were vandalized during the Cultural Revolution.
At the far corner of the cloister, we found the famous white rooster. According to legends, once upon a time there was a fire broke out during midnight. Luckily all monks escaped unharmed because a white rooster woke them up just in time.
We headed up to the upper level via a steep wooden stair.
We reached the highest level of the main building after climbing several flights of steps. On the highest levels, we could admire the scenery at all four directions.
Many pilgrims left behind offerings at different parts of building, such as leaving money at the joint of wall panels.
Looking out from the top level of the main building, we could see the distant mountains and the spectacular chortens at the four directions. The scattered buildings in the monastery ground actually symbolize the four continents at the cardinal directions, and also the sun and moon.
Walking down the main building, we reached the lower roof terrace, which offered us another look at the magnificent main building of Samye Monastery.
At the monastery ground, there were minor restoration work going on here and there.
We spent the second half of the visit wandering in the open spaces, and climbed up one of the four chortens.
On the red chorten, we enjoyed a beautiful view of the main building under the late afternoon sun.
Before sunset, we walked to the enclosure wall of Samye Monastery.
We walked part of the kora route, following pilgrims who turned every single prayer wheel in the clockwise direction.
After Drepung and Sera, Ganden was the last of Tibet’s three great Gelug university monasteries we visited. Ganden lies some 40km northeast of Lhasa atop Wangbur Mountain at an altitude of 4300m above the sea. Founded by famous Buddhist teacher Je Tsongkhapa in 1409, Ganden was once a powerful monastery with a few thousand monks until 1959 when much of the monastery was destroyed by the Chinese army. A further blow to the monastery occurred during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. As the ancestral monastery of Gelugpa (Gelug school), the abbots of Ganden Monastery are considered as the abbots of Gelugpa, and hence the most powerful figures in Tibetan Buddhism after Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. Despite its destruction in the 20th century, the monastery has been subjected to series of reconstructions which lasted from the 1980s until the present day. Today, Ganden is still very popular among the local pilgrims. The monastery is consisted of more than 50 buildings with prayer halls, monk quarters, colleges, etc. After the kora hike which passed around the back of the monastery, we had about 1.5 hour to wander around the religious compound.
Just like many Tibetan monasteries, Ganden is mainly finished with white and red paint.
Buildings are built on various levels on the mountain slope, connected by series of stairs and ramps.
We took our time to wander around the compound. Not many buildings were opened, but we were delighted to walk around and take pictures of the colourful environment.
We saw different groups of local pilgrims interacted with the monks. Some were visiting like tourists while others seek for blessing from senior monks in different buildings.
Despite most buildings were reconstructed, the atmospheric environment of the compound was spiritual and pleasant to walk around.
The traditional Tibetan motifs are present at entrance vestibules of many chapels and assembly halls.
Tsokchen Hall (措欽大殿), the main assembly hall, is an essential structure in the Ganden compound.
From the front terrace of the Tsokchen Hall (措欽大殿), we saw a large group of monks gathered outside the main parking lot engaged in some sort of rituals.
At the front terrace of the Tsokchen Hall (措欽大殿), two crows were attracted by the food offering on the balustrade.
With its golden roof, the Serdung (羊八犍) that houses the tomb of Tsongkhapa, is probably the most important building in Ganden Monastery.
The original tomb of Tsongkhapa was damaged by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The new red building was reconstructed to house the salvaged fragments of Tsongkhapa’s skull.
We started heading back to the main parking lot half an hour before our bus departure time.
We walked towards the parking lot under the strong midday sun.
The sky was clear and the air was warm. The view of Ganden Monastery from the parking lot was spectacular.
By the time we reached the parking lot, the group of monks were returning to the monastery after some sort of rituals outside the compound.
The incoming monks were in a delightful mood, chatting with each other with frequent laughter.
On the way back to Lhasa, our bus stopped by another small temple for a 15 minute visit. We didn’t go in with the local pilgrims. Instead we stayed with the friendly driver at the parking lot, thinking of where to visit back in Lhasa.