I love visiting Buddhist monasteries and exploring their varied shapes, the beautiful paintings with bursts of vibrant colors and the calming silence surrounding it (no matter how crowded it is). Hence my trip to Shangri-La would have been incomplete without a visit to the ancient Songzanlin Monastery or the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. This famous monastery, also known as ‘Little Potala Palace’ or Guihua Monastery, is located 5 km away from the city of Zhongdian on top of Fopinshan Mountain. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Yunnan province and is one of the most famous and important monasteries in southwest China.
In terms of its history, this monastery was built by the Great 5th Dalai Lama in the year 1679 AD, during the reign of the famous Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi, and was completed in 1681AD. The main monastery structure built-in Tibetan style has a gilded copper roof similar to the one at the Potala Monastery in Lhasa. The other buildings in the complex are built-in Han Chinese style.
For our visit, we rented a car from Shangri La and post a quick drive reached this huge monastery complex. This is not just a standalone monastery, but a huge complex with the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, villages of Conggulong and Xiaojiezi (important posts and cargo distribution centers in the old tea-horse trade route), Milk River wetland, the Lamuyangcuo lake and there is an internal bus that ferries you from the entrance to the main monasteryaround. Upon arrival, we bought our tickets and then took the internal bus for the monastery. We first generally walked around a bit soaking in the peace of the place, watching the beautiful landscape all around, reading about the history of the place and generally speaking with the local monks. Speaking with monks here is super fun as they all love India and many of them have been to India too.
The Lamuyangcuo Lake, meaning the Soul of Heaven Fairy Lake, is a holy lake dwelled by the soul of Goddess Bandanlamu. In every important Buddhist ritual, the monks and believers led by the Rinpoche chant sutras and pray around the lake.
We then walked up the 146 steps to the main entrance and explored the six main structures, which included eight monastic colleges. There are also numerous boards around that explain the basics of Buddhism, the history of the monastery and the significance of symbols used in Buddhism. The main gompa (prayer hall) is a five storey Tibetan-style building with the capacity to house more than 1500 monks and a golden eight-meter tall Shakyamuni Buddha statue. On the main altar, butter lamp offerings are lit all year round and funnily there are cold drink bottles placed along with the local currency. There is also a small shop here selling religious stuff blessed by his Holiness the Dalai Lama himself.
This complex also has two main lamaseries, Jikang and Zhacang, both appear as Tibetan-style watch towers and are surrounded by eight sub-lamaseries and dormitories for resident lamas and monks. Photography is not permitted inside the halls and hence I don’t have any pics of the beautiful interiors and the huge idols at the alters. But walking around these halls is like entering an art gallery full of vibrant paintings and intricate designs. Though I really wished that I knew more about Buddhism to be able to understand their mythology and these paintings.
I also understand that there are many Buddhist treasures that are stored in this monastery. Many rare Buddhist scriptures written on palm leaves and also scriptures that were used by the great Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas of the past are still preserved in this monastery.
We walked from hall to hall exploring the complex and chatting with the local monks who happened to be around. There is still some restoration work in progress and hence we not able to access a few halls. We then generally walked around for a long time, spun the prayer wheels, and photographed the fabulous views of Shika Snow Mountain. On the way down the long stairs leading to the main entrance/ exit of the Monastery there were several smaller temples but they are not as magnificent as the main temple halls. Still they are quite interesting and as very few tourists visit them and you can enjoy the surroundings in solitude.
I haven’t been able to write a lot about this place as there is not much to see here but everything to experience. And you just have to visit this place to understand what I mean.
Overall a beautiful trip and a must visit if you plan to visit Shangri-La.
Tips for the trip
- Visit close to sunset for some magnificent photography shots of the sun setting against the hills and the temple complex
- This monastery is at quite a height and hence even slight exertion can leave you short of breath.
- To reach by foot, it’s a 1 hour walk. However, it’s not advisable as the road is narrow, winding and without sidewalks.
- By bus: Take Bus No. 3 heading north and it will bring you to the entrance of Sumtseling Monastery. Fee is RMB 1
- By taxi: A taxi ride from Shangri-La to Sumtseling Monastery typically costs around RMB 20.
- The entrance fee is a donation of RMB 125
- Visiting Hours are – 8.30am – 17.30pm
- Please dress conservatively as it’s a place of worship.