The narrow streets of Labrang
If you can’t get to the great Buddhist lamaseries of Tibet, or if you pale at the thought of extreme high-altitude meditation, the Labrang Lamasery is probably the next best thing. With ancient temples, stupas and prayer halls nestled in among towering peaks and some 800 Buddhist monks robed in red roaming the streets, Labrang has all of the grandeur for which Tibet is famous, without the difficulty of access.
Located in Xiahe (near the Sangke Grasslands) at an altitude just under 3000 metres, Labrang is the most important monastery for Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet proper. It was founded in 1709 by the First Jamyang Zhaypa, Ngawang Tsondru, a disciple of the Fifth Dalai Lama, and is one of the few monasteries for the Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) school.
A member of the Yellow Hat Sect at prayer
A monk looking on from the roof of a hall
A Tibetan woman heading home after praying
The monastery complex is huge, with 18 halls and six colleges spread over seven square kilometres. It is surrounded by prayer wheels, which pilgrims spin clockwise on their way into a temple or as they walk around the sacred buildings of the monastery.
Prayer wheels at rest
A monk spinning the prayer wheels
At its height in the 1950s, the monastery housed 4000 Tibetan, Han Chinese and Mongolian monks. However, the whole place was shut down by the Communist Government in 1958. The monastery’s fortunes declined further during the Cultural Revolution, and many of the buildings were vandalised. Labrang only reopened as a functioning monastery in 1980, and rebuilding from the destruction of the Cultural Revolution continues today.
One of the two main stupas in the monastery
Young monks rearranging their robes in the wind
Monks join the monastery as young as 10 years of age
Many of the temples are closed to independent visitors, so we joined one of the group tours guided by English-speaking monks. Our visit happened to coincide with the arrival of a highly respected Tibetan lama and teacher, so we felt bad that our poor guide, who was extremely patient and calm, was stuck with us while all the other monks got to pay their respects to the visiting teacher.
Monks making their way to see the arrival of the lama
Waiting for a glimpse of the great teacher
Bowing as the lama drove out
We insisted our guide go over, but he just stared from a distance
Our guide took us through the main prayer hall, a huge room with row after row of prayer mats for the monks, colourful ribbons cascading from the roof, walls dotted with rolls of sutras and numerous rooms with statues of the Buddha. The monks in their yellow hats kneeling in that smoky, dimly lit hall, would have made for some great pictures, but (fortunately for the monks wanting to pray in peace) photography was not allowed.
The hall was filled with the scent of melted yaks’ butter from the hundreds of candles and urns placed around the hall (imagine the world’s biggest bucket of hot-buttered popcorn and you’ll get the idea). Yaks’ butter seems a versatile product – not only is it good for tea, candles and urns, but festival sculptures are also made from the stuff. And in a pretty impressive way, too.
A sculpture like this takes hundreds of hours to make but will only last a few months
I can’t believe it’s butter!