Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tibet. Ganden Monastery.


It's the morning of October 10th and I'm feeling much better after having spent yesterday afternoon in bed fending off the flu. I missed the tour to Sera Monastery so I'm excited about this morning's trip to Ganden Monastery. The trip to Ganden is not included in our itinerary but everyone elected to go so Baikuntha arranged for a car and driver to take us there and back.

Ganden is located about 40km outside Lhasa and is tucked into mountain hillside at an elevation of around 4500m.

The hour long drive to Ganden would take us through some very spectacular scenery. Our drive started on the plateau - pristine lakes and rivers surround by moutains.



We soon veered off the main road and passed by a small village along the way. Mud bricks were laid out in the field to dry.


The road soon turned from straight to switchback as we began to ascend up the mountain.



Green railguards marked the edge of the road.
Soon, the buildings of the monastery came into view - perched high atop the mountain.



We bought our entry tickets....

....and started our hike up to the "front door". By now, we had all grown accustomed to the fact that getting inside any monastery always required a short hike first. The monks sure don't make it easy on you :-)
To my untrained eye, the architecture of Ganden looked like the other Gelugpa monasteries (Jokhang, Drepung) that we had visited.



I discovered, much to my surprise, that the rust colored walls are actually made of mud packed with straw. Wood beams hold up the roof.
A simple piece of white canvas, appliquéd with blue designs (auspicious symbols from Buddhism) typically adorn entrances.



Each monastery is comprised of numerous chapels. Sometimes, entering some of the smaller chapels required us to climb either ladders or narrow stone steps. Either way, there was always someone to lend a hand if we needed one.



Like the other monasteries that we had visited, Ganden is composed of several chapels. We toured a few. While each monastery focuses on worship of different deities, the look and and feel of the interior is pretty much the same from one monastery to another. It may sound like a cliché but you've seen one Gelugpa monastery and you've pretty much seen them all. I guess you could say the same about Catholic cathedrals in Europe.

Though full of color and artwork, the interior of a chapel is cold and dark - most often just lit by the light from butter lamps.
Yak butter lamps are a common fixture in all Tibetan monasteries. The lamps come in all shapes and sizes.


Devotees replenish the butter in the lamps - either by scooping out butter, in solid form, from small plastic bags or else pouring liquid butter from thermoses.

The gamey smell of the burning butter can get overwhelming very quickly - especially since most chapels that do not have any windows to vent the smoke out.

The stone floors are slick from years of burning butter evaporating onto the floors. Even pillars are coated with the stuff. On one of our visits, our Tibetan guide handed me a small coin and instructed me to push it into the pillar where it immediately sunk into the layer of butter that was coating the pillar. Unbelievable.

In addition to make offerings of yak butter, devotees also leave behind money - most commonly 1 jiao bills. Money is strewn and stuffed wherever possible.


Housed behind glass cases are varying sizes of gold statues of Buddha (past, present and future) and other important deities and figures (e.g., Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama, founder of monastery). Commonly, multiple statues occupy each chapel and in some, 108 (auspicious number) statues are on show. Devotees know which chapel holds the figure they are there to worship. To me, it very quickly became a dizzying array of gold statues - all of which started to look the same to me.

It was common to also see display cases, housing the scriptures, that guided the studies of the monks. Each set of scriptures, written by hand on paper, are simply bound together along the narrow edge. An overlapping flag identifies the contents. Sometimes, the display cases were mounted with a crawl space underneath. Devotees would walk, bent over, along the crawl space. They believe that by doing this they will impart knowledge from the scriptures.
Ganden is a working monastery. I was hoping that we would see monks chanting when we went to the chanting hall but no luck. Unlike the chanting at Drepung, the one at Ganden saw a bit of sunlight from a small window above.

Pillars are wrapped with red canvas cloth.


Horns used by the monks stood against one pillar.


Ornately decorated benches, topped with red cloth covered pillows, provide the surface for monks to sit and recline on as they work through their daily studies.
The crimson robe and yellow hat of a Gelugpa sect monk. I wonder who these belong to and what he's wearing now :-)


After touring the interior of several chapels, we left the monastery. The girls opted to walk the 2km kora around the monastery; Barry (who is very fit and has tons of energy) chose to scale a nearby mountain. Bec lead the way; Baikuntha took up the rear.

We were at 4500m in elevation so the vistas of the Kyi Chy Valley below were spectacular.




Every now and again, we would pass under a collection of prayer flags.



....and kilns burning juniper incense.
Sometimes, prayer flags would just be left to drape over a branch with bits of yak hair stuck into the shrubbery as well.


The odd set of yak horns could be seen left behind as an offering.


There were flat stretches on the footpath but there were also parts that were quite rocky and/or steep. You had to concentrating on where to put your feet because the drop over the ravine was a very long one!


By now, we were beginning to acclimate to the high altitude. Even so, at 4500m above sea level, you need to take frequent breathers.



We also used those moments to appreciate the spectacular view.
Soon, we were back where we started.



Barry was already waiting for us - having made it safely made to the top of the mountain and back. He saw the world below from 5000m high so his vistas of the Kyi Chu Valley were as magnificent as ours.

We all piled back into the van and headed back to Lhasa.

Although I was excited about going to Ganden, there was a part of me that was dreading a visit to yet another Tibetan monastery but as I discovered, the best part of this trip was not inside the monastery but outside. If you ever make it to Ganden, you have to do the kora - the stunning scenery. Make sure you're well acclimated to the altitude before you attempt the walk and take plenty of breathers to catch your breath and appreciate the view!