Ganden Sumtseling or Songzanlin or Guihua Monastery is also known as “Little Potala Palace”. Sumtseling Monastery is located just outside the city of Zhongdian (later renamed Shangri-la in 2001). It sits on top of Fopinshan Mountain, approximately 3,400 feet above sea level, making its temperature relatively low all-year round.
Because of the high altitude, many visitors are advised to rest for a day in town to get acclimatised. The local authorities are promoting Shangri-la as a tourist destination so there are many lodging facilities in the city for visitors. Today, although the monastery is still an extremely holy place, it is also packed with tourists especially in spring and summer.
Ganden Sumtseling is the largest Buddhist monastery in Yunnan province. The site of this monastery was chosen by His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama through divination and His Holiness named the monastery Ganden Sumtseling. “Ganden” signified that the monastery would inherit the same pure and complete doctrine of Gaden Monastery, established by Lama Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug tradition.
The monastery was built during the rule of Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi. It is said that Emperor Kangxi was a huge supporter of this monastery when the 5th Dalai Lama established it in 1679. This famous and benevolent Emperor frequently visited to oversee the construction of the monastery.
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery is famed for its apolitical stance, and one of the most well known accounts of such a stance was when the monastery allowed the communist general He Long to pass through this area in one of his campaigns. However in 1959, like many other monasteries, Ganden Sumtseling was destroyed during the invasion of Tibet. Since 1981, the situation of the monastery has changed and many of its structures and buildings have been restored to their previous glory.
At the peak of its past spiritual influence, Ganden Sumtseling Monastery was known to have been home to more than 2,000 monks. Today, it houses 700 monks in 200 associated houses.
Marrying Tibetan and Chinese-style architecture, Ganden Sumtseling Monastery houses eight monastic colleges within its six main buildings. The entrance gate at the foot of the hill is impressively ornate with a tasteful blend of traditional Tibetan and Chinese carvings and murals of auspicious symbols.
Built to resemble the original Potala Palace in Lhasa save for a few sections due to missing blueprints, the roof of the main building is gilded in copper and it is for this reason that Ganden Sumtseling Monastery was given the name “Little Potala Palace”. Surrounding the main monastery building are structures with Han Chinese-style architecture.
Its main prayer hall or gompa is a five-storey Tibetan-style building, accessible via a 146-step staircase connected to the entrance gate. With a capacity of 1,500 monks, the main shrine hall features a stunning eight-metre Buddha Shakyamuni statue. On the main altar are butterlamp offerings that are kept lit all-year round.
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery’s rich history is illustrated through many of the Buddhist treasures that it preserves. Many rare and precious Buddhist scriptures traditionally written on palm leaves and scriptural texts used by previous Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas are stored for posterity in this monastery.
Among the other priceless Buddhist treasures housed in Ganden Sumtseling are eight gold-covered sculptures made during the time of the 5th and 7th Dalai Lamas. The walls of the main hall are covered with beautiful murals hand painted by Lamas depicting stories of the life and deeds of Buddha Shakyamuni and other Buddhas.
Ganden Sumtseling Monastery has two main lamaseries. These two lamaseries, Jikang and Zhacang, both resemble Tibetan-style watch towers surrounded by eight sub-lamaseries and dormitories for resident lamas and monks. The monastery is made up of several Khangtsens. Khangtsens are similar to fraternity houses, and monks that come to live in the monastery are placed in Khangtsens based on the region they originate from in Tibet.
The existence of these Khangtsens is purely for convenience as people from different parts of Tibet speak different dialects and have different cultures. This is also why many Khangtsens have their own prayer halls and protector chapels, as the monks rely on different Dharma Protectors based on cultural differences.
Dorje Shugden, the Protector who arose to protect Lama Tsongkhapa’s sacred teachings has been propitiated in Ganden Sumtseling since the time of the 5th Dalai Lama. Several Khangtsens rely on Dorje Shugden as their main Dharma Protector, the two largest being Yang Tang and Chatreng Khangtsen.
Built by the 5th Dalai Lama, Za Lu Ju Protector Chapel dates back to the 17th Century during the time of the monastery’s patron, Emperor Kangxi. As one of the first structures built in the monastery complex, it was built just a few years after the completion of Trode Khangsar, making Ganden Sumtseling one of the earliest monasteries where Dorje Shugden practice began.
Dorje Shugden’s practice is still very much alive here today and many lineage lamas such as His Eminence Gangchen Rinpoche and Geshe Wangchuk have visited this monastery. The Dorje Shugden oracle also takes trance in this monastery, blessing everyone present including those on pilgrimage.
Za Lu Ju’s main chapel houses a famous sword that was bent by a visiting Dorje Shugden oracle. Considered a highly treasured and precious item, the sword bent by Dorje Shugden in trance is a very significant and powerful blessing.
The bent sword in this Protector chapel is not the only one in history. During the 14th Dalai Lama’s escape to India due to the Tibetan Uprising, the 6th Panglung Oracle took trance and bent a sword very much like the one in this chapel. Carried by the head of the Chushi Gangdruk group, it was reported that whenever there were enemy planes flying above, he would hold the bent sword up to the sky. Clouds would then appear to conceal the escape party, keeping them safe to continue their journey. Such was the powerful blessings of Dorje Shugden that the Dalai Lama and his entire group managed to escape to India safely.
Another highlight of the Za Lu Ju Protector Chapel are the oracular costumes of Kache Marpo and Namkar Barzin.
There are many other Protector chapels in the various lamaseries and khangtsens around Ganden Sumtseling. Another notable Protector chapel within the monastery complex is Yang Tang Khangtsen. Well-known for having two of the most stunning Protector chapels in the monastery, the first Protector chapel built in this khangtsen has hundreds of Dorje Shugden statues adorning the walls of the chapel.
The second chapel in Yang Tang Khangtsen is well-known for its beautiful Ganze murals. Ganze murals are hand-painted offerings of weapons and implements to Dorje Shugden. These offerings represent the clearing of our negative karma and obstacles that may impede our spiritual path. As such offerings are rare, the mere existence of these Ganze murals speaks volumes of the faith, reliance and devotion the Sumtseling monks have for Dorje Shugden.
The annual Gedong Festival is held in Ganden Sumtseling Monastery on 29 November. Devotees gather to engage in a day of prayer and also to witness the religious mask dances known as Cham Dance, performed by the monks of the monastery. During this yearly event, the performing monks wear colourful costumes depicting deities, ghosts and animals.
Today, Ganden Sumtseling Monastery plays an important role not only in keeping the pure Gelug lineage alive but also the preservation of the 300-year old practice of Dorje Shugden. It is within the walls of this monastery that the pure lineage of Lama Tsongkhapa’s legacy will live on through the body, speech and mind of the younger generation of monks and lamas who will pass through its hallways and corridors.
More Images of Ganden Sumtseling Monastery
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