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Palpung Gonpa (Ch: Babang Si 八邦寺) is located in a township of the same name, in Dege County in western Sichuan Province. The monastery complex is dominated by a four-story main temple, or chölhakhang set on a rocky promontory jutting out from the mountains overlooking Palpung Village.1 Located at 3,785 meters above sea level, the temple has around 118 rooms and a footprint of about 4100 square meters, making it the second-largest traditional Tibetan structure in the world and earning it the name “Little Potala Palace.” Many regard it as the finest example of classical Tibetan architecture in Sichuan.
(Except where noted, all photos are by the author).
Like other large temples in Dege, Palpung’s chölhakhang has external walls of compacted earth set on a stone plinth. The walls are 120 cm thick at the base, tapering to 90 cm at the third floor level. The multi-tiered roofs are flat and covered with clay (the golden hipped roof on the temple’s summit was added later). A dark band on the highest part of the exterior walls is made from tamarisk branches piled with their cut ends facing outward, a traditional feature that reportedly helps with interior ventilation as well as contributing to the temple’s handsome appearance.
Chölhakhang photos from the 1990s.
As shown in several of the above photos, vertical loads exerted by the roof, internal walls, and ceilings are carried by a grid of interior posts set at 2.8-meter intervals; these support heavy brackets carrying beams spanning the interior spaces. Interior walls are made from half-logs sometimes surfaced with clay, for a total wall thickness of about 20 cm. Interior flooring is made of wooden planks.
There is one large assembly and chanting hall within the building and two courtyards. Four suites of rooms are residences for the four tulkus who traditionally live at Palpung (only two are currently in residence). A three-story annex (rooms identified as BX-X in the drawings) seems to be a later addition; its lowest story is one level below the ground floor of the main building.
The temple is equipped with several ‘long-drop’ toilets, the largest of which is visible at upper left of the photos as a white structure projecting from the main building.
In 1991 Palpung had no electricity or running water, and it was not connected to a motorable road until 1998. Prior to that time, it was reached via footpaths crossing high mountains or following the Pal Chu River, which connects Palpung Township to the valley of the mighty Dri Chu, a river better known by its downstream name: the Yangtze.
Plan drawings of Palpung Monastery Chölhakhang by Patrick Troch; research by China Exploration & Research Society. Upper monastery drawings not to scale2
History and significance
Palpung does not lie on major trade routes, so before 1949 it was seldom visited by non-Tibetans. Nevertheless, it is deeply woven into the history of the Dege chiefdom and has long been influential in Tibet’s religious affairs.
The history I’ve been able to uncover begins in the years 1181 to 1189, when a Drikung Kagyu disciple named Palden Shangchub Lingpa brought learning from Drikung Til in central Tibet to this part of the Dege chiefdom and built a chanting hall at the site where Palpung is located today.3. The site became known as Jangchub Ling (Ch: Xiongli) Monastery. An alternate origin story was provided to CERS during 1991 interviews of Palpung monks.4 This version states that Palden Shangchub Lingpa was from Dengkhok in Kham and he created Jangchub Ling by merging several smaller monasteries: Trangag, Yanong, Langrog, and Uchenri.
Roughly a century later, during the Yuan dynasty, the Mongol emperor bestowed the title “nation teacher” to the abbot of Jangchub Ling, (Ch) Gama Baxi, and the monastery became known as “nation teacher temple” (guoshimiao).5 These honors were likely awarded because of the monastery’s submission to the Mongol imperial throne.
Xiongli monastery burned down in the mid-16th century. Then, in the early Qing Dynasty (17th century), a wandering Sakya lama came from Ngari in western Tibet to Dege.6 His name was Rabjam Tsultrim.7 He liked Palpung’s beautiful landscape, which resembled “three elephants playing in water” (alluding to a story from the sutras?), so he built a Sakya temple in the place where Jangchub Ling Monastery had been. The new monastery was small and never exerted much influence.
Conflict between the ascendant Gelugpa order led by the 5th Dalai Lama and their Karma Kagyu rivals pushed the latter out of central Tibet and into Kham, which became their new stronghold. Construction of the giant Karma Kagyu temple that we know today began in the second month of the fire-sheep year (1727) after Tenba Tsering, the powerful Dege chieftain, granted the site to the eighth Tai Situpa Chökyi Jungné (1700-1774), also known as Situ Panchen. This charismatic gentleman was an accomplished scholar who many penned original works as well as translations, and was also known for his painting–“one of the most preeminent intellectual figures of eighteenth-century Tibet” 8
Although only 27 or 28 years old at the start of Palpung’s construction, Situ Panchen had already traveled widely across the Himalayas and Tibet, and he had received numerous transmissions and empowerments from famous masters. He had a patron-chaplain relationship with the Dege chieftain Tenba Tsering, who bestowed “numerous gifts” toward construction of the temple and granted corvée labor to build its walls. 9 Situ Panchen raised additional funds himself by circulating among various communities where he gave blessings and empowerments. The new monastery was consecrated in the eighth month of the earth-bird year (1729) with rituals attended by many dignitaries from the surrounding region.
Whereas previous Tai Situpas had been based at Karma Gon monastery near Chamdo, Situ Panchen established his seat at Palpung. There he taught “the five sciences” of language, medicine, art, logic and astrology. Some of his most famous students were the Thirteenth Karmapa Dundul Dorje, Khamtrul Rinpoche, and various others from the Nyingma, Sakya, and Gelukpa lineages. As the Tai Situpa’s seat of power, Palpung “quickly became one of the greatest centers of learning and contemplation in all of Kham and retained that distinction through the early twentieth century.”10
According to Annals of Dege County, the book Overview of Xikang Province records an honorary title bestowed to Situ Panchen by the Qing (Manchu) imperial throne: “Four Treasure Law-King.” Also, Palpung was purportedly awarded half of the land and people in the Dege chiefdom–a claim that seems incredible to me. Emperor Qianlong twice summoned Situ Panchen to the capital to teach and penned words of praise on a plaque given to him: “Qi dao xiang gen dayi Situ” (pray incense great benefit for Situ).11
Today, Palpung has 138 subordinate monasteries and is second in importance only to Tsurphu Monastery, the order’s principal monastery in Tibet. Palpung’s connection to Tsurphu is memorialized as an informal painting of Tsurphu that is found on one of the interior walls of Palpung.
Four tulkus (incarnate lamas) are traditionally identified with Palpung:
- Tai Situpa Choekyi Jungne, considered the reincarnation of the monastery founder and member of a line of tulkus who remain very influential within the Karma Kagyu order globally. The 12th (current) incarnation was born to a family in Pelyul (Ch: Baiyu), was enthroned at Palpung in 1955, but has lived in exile since the age of five. He has visited Palpung at least once and has donated funds for repair and construction.
- Jamgön Kongtrul, another influential tulku. The 3rd incarnation visited Palpung in 1984 and 1991.
- Khyentse. The 3rd incarnation reportedly resides at Palpung at the time of this writing.
- Urgyen. Born in about 1989, he has resided at Palpung since his enthronement.
According to Annals of Dege County, in 1949 the monastery had a total of 725 members, including four tulkus, two of whom had studied abroad, five khenpos, 18 titled lamas, 83 ordinary lamas, and 613 traba (student monks). The monastery owned forest, 4,000 square km of pasture, 2,000 mu of agricultural land, 43,000 head of livestock, more than 1,000 households of farmers and herdsmen, also some businessmen and money-lenders. The monstery’s cultural treasures included seven gold-plated images, 9,835 images in red, yellow, and copper, 10,150 thanka (scroll paintings) from different periods, 32,400 volumes of books, a library of 129,845 printing plates, a set of Kangyur (books of Buddhist canon) printed in pure gold ink, various “Buddhist implements” from different periods, chops, and 5,000 imperial letters. If accurate, this accounting suggests that Palpung was not only very important in the world of Buddhism and Buddhist scholarship, but also wielded considerable political and economic power, which was not unusual for large monasteries in pre-Communist times.12
Besides the main temple, Palpung’s monastic complex includes several retreat centers established by the 9th Tai Situ Rinpoche and 1st Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and improved by their successors and others. These centers are said to be the first in Tibet specifically built for three-year, three-fortnight mediation retreats, a practice that Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche popularized.
Palpung was also an important center of Tibetan painting tradition and evolved its own Palpung style. Famous artist Thangla Tshewang (1902-1989) was a monk there. The monastery’s printing press, established in 1927 by the 11th Tai Situ Rinpoche, was known for production of literary works, especially those of Situ Panchen, and woodblock prints in the Karma Gadri or Encampment style, which was also promulgated at Palpung.
During the political movements of 1958, when most monasteries were being closed, Palpung was kept as a “protected” monastery, and ten monks were allowed to live there as caretakers. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, the temple was repurposed as an administrative office for the township government; it was also used as a clinic and grain storehouse13. Tai Situ Rinpoche told me that the temple’s shrine room was turned into a piggery.14 Religious activities at Palpung resumed in 1982.
Social and political turmoil from 1956 to 1976 led maintenance of the chölhakhang to be neglected, leading to water penetration, dry rot, termite infestation, and general distortion in the building. After 1981, the monastery set up a 16-member management committee, which collected money and resources toward restoration. Initial repairs performed during the 1980s and 90s were funded by two government grants totalling rmb206,000 (US$43,800), plus another grant of rmb10,000 following a 1993 earthquake. The local community contributed labor, materials, and cash. Traditional methods and materials were used throughout. The highest priority was given to work necessary to resume religious activities. CERS compiled a list of completed work as of 1991:15.
1. Two meditation halls on the site were rebuilt.
2. The main assembly halls Lakong and Xiangkong within the chölhakhang were repaired. some of the deteriorated pillars were replaced. Collapsed roofs were repaired. A new 20-meter statue of Maitreya was commissioned. A chorten for Tai Situ Rinpoche was constructed.
3. The walls of the main assembly hall were painted with new murals, a project that was organized and directed by the famous artist Thangla Tshewang. Forty-four artists needed three years to complete the murals. The beams and pillars in the assembly hall were also carved and painted or re-painted.
4. Missing printing blocks were re-carved and replaced into the collection.
5. Additional religious objects were bought as well as communal-use items such as cooking wares and serving utensils.
6. Windows and doors were repaired.
7. New sutras and books were purchased.
8. Eighteen new stupas were constructed.
Despite these efforts, in 1991 when CERS performed its initial assessment, much work remained to be done. CERS observed that the temple still showed a clear lack of maintenance.16 In particular the northeast corner of the building was in very bad structural condition from ground level to the roof. Many of the pillars had collapsed or showed evidence of wet rot. The CERS consultant recommended that the entire northeast corner be urgently repaired to prevent further deterioration of the building. Due to slow subsidence on the eastern slope below the monastery, the building was moving, opening cracks in the external walls. Also the joists were not properly fixed onto the beams causing structural instability with every movement of the building, especially earthquakes (one occurred two years later, in 1993). The joists needed to be properly fixed with wooden pegs on either side of the beams.
Also in 1991, the temple’s clay roof was overloaded, probably because, over the years, the monastery kept adding more clay in an effort to plug leaks. The roof was poorly laid and tilted too much toward the east, so that excessive rainwater flowed toward the toilet unit on that side. The wooden gutters did not work properly and spilled rainwater onto lower roofs, causing more damage. The steep slope below and east of the temple was eroding, perhaps due to drainage issues as well as deforestation.
I have seen most of these same problems on many other traditional Tibetan structures. For example, my book Compassion Mandala describes structural and drainage issues in the rebuilt main temple of Sengge Monastery. They will come up repeatedly in my blogposts about other sites.
Outline of CERS/KhamAid conservation work
The China Exploration & Research Society assessed the chölhakhang for significance and need for conservation. The team compiled an inventory of the major buildings on the site and their condition. They documented the monastery’s environment, history, income sources, and calendar of religious festivals, all as of 1991.
I was not part of the CERS field team, but I visited the monastery soon after, and helped write the report that was submitted to the funder, Getty Conservation Institute.17 Later, when CERS decided to undertake a major program at Palpung and nearby Pewar Monastery (to be discussed in a separate post), I was placed in charge of the effort. My book Tibetan Rescue gives details on both projects.
As it turned out, the work needed at Palpung was far more costly than the resources available to CERS; even Pewar Monastery, a much smaller project, was challenging from a funding perspective. However, Tai Situ Rinpoche brought significant resources to Palpung, tapping into the international community of Karma Kagyu students. The local community, many of whom were herders living outside the cash economy, donated labor, foodstuffs, and cash. CERS, and later Kham Aid Foundation, was part of this broad coalition of project supporters.
As a representative of CERS and KhamAid, I closely monitored the repairs at Palpung from 1994 to 1998 and brought various foreign conservators there to assist. The focus was Palpung’s main temple. CERS and KhamAid paid the wages of the foreman (who also led the repairs at Pewar) and bought some timber. We did some work to detach some wall paintings in the upper part of the monastery that was about to be demolished, an effort that is detailed in Tibetan Rescue.
In common with virtually every other neglected traditional structure in Kham, Palpung’s temple needed replacement of the roof and underlying supports that were worst affected by rain and dry rot. Workers replaced timber columns and beams, portions of the rammed-earth walls, and the clay roof, including the dark tamarisk band that encircled the upper walls. They re-surfaced the exterior with fresh clay. They refreshed timber window frames and room interiors. Because of the size of the building, this work represented a monumental effort. By 1999, the exterior was largely complete, although it still lacked some decorative elements such as a golden roof.
Social, economic, and political factors affecting the project
When CERS began planning a needs assessment for Tibetan monasteries in about 1990, the organization had already been working in southwest China for four years, mainly documenting the natural environment and lifeways of ethnic minorities. The organization’s founder, a native of Hong Kong, had been working in China for more than ten years and had cultivated a very effective network that included Tibetans holding positions of influence in the Sichuan government. CERS and its staff had no history of political activism that might posed a security concern, and it successfully obtained permission for foreign nationals to enter Kandze Prefecture to conduct the survey and later to do significant interventions at Pewar. At the time, such access was unprecedented for foreign nationals.
At the time of the project, the region was emerging from deep poverty. An influx of funds and attention was viewed favorably by officials at the county and prefecture levels, many of whom were themselves Buddhist. The government’s main concern seemed to be the security risk posed by foreigners on my team, but our continued good behavior allayed their fears.
It should also be mentioned that for many years the Karma Kagyu lineage enjoyed a relatively secure position in China. The order’s favored status culminated in the 1992 enthronement of the 17th Karmapa, an incarnate lama whose selection was officially sanctioned by the PRC State Council. This no doubt helped Tai Situ Rinpoche and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche visit Palpung and maintain ties to it, and may have also contributed to a favorable climate for CERS and KhamAid to bring foreign consultants there.
Of course, our involvement with Palpung could not have happened without permission and support from the monastery’s leaders. To get their buy-in, I sought and received an endorsement from Tai Situ Rinpoche during the project startup phase. Tai Situ Rinpoche, as a reincarnation of Palpung’s founder, had deep and strong personal ties to the monastery, and was a significant benefactor during this period. According to my limited knowledge, in the 1990s, Tai Situ Rinpoche gave rmb125,000 to the monastery. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche donated a golden sedong (roof decoration) to the main temple.
As KhamAid’s participation wound up in 1998, the monastery was completing a new shedra, or Buddhist teaching academy, a project that also received support from Tai Situ Rinpoche. When I visited in 2007, golden disks had been added to the tamarisk band encircling the main temple just beneath the roof line, many interior rooms had been renovated, and some space in the temple’s southern annex had been repurposed as a guest house. I have not personally visited Palpung since then, however from studying materials available on line (such as this spectacular drone footage), one can see the following additions and improvements:
- Three golden roofs now surmount the main temple, and it is decorated with many more sedong.
- The Maitreya statue in the rear chamber behind the main assembly hall is more lavishly decorated, and the details of the face have changed, suggesting that the older statue was entirely replaced.
- On the mountain below and south of the main temple, there is a new three-story building with a covered courtyard.
- Just north of the main temple, the one-story building that once housed the printworks has been replaced with a new, much larger, three-story building.
- Continuing further north from the site of the former printworks one finds a large, covered open air structure that appears to be a gathering space for large events.
- The shedra has been massively expanded and upgraded, and a new temple built above it.
- To the northeast of the Chölhakhang, about a kilometer distant and over a ridge, is a retreat center established by Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and rebuilt in 2006.
- The monk houses that were once sprinkled over the hillside around the main temple have become larger and more numerous.
- Power lines are visible running from the lower complex to the shedra. Also, the roof of the main temple has solar panels.
Regarding the durability of repairs performed in the 1990s, this 2022 video shows that some of the clay used to resurface the main temple’s external walls has already fallen off, exposing the older clay beneath.
See mistakes here? Got information to share? Please reach out.
- I have written about my work at Palpung and nearby Pewar Gonpa in Tibetan Rescue.
- Wong, How Man, Patrick Troch, Yang Jiaming, Pamela Logan, and Ildiko Choy. 1992. ‘Buddhist Monasteries of Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Western Sichuan, China: A Project for Architectural Conservation Funded by the Getty Grant Program.’ pp 58-68 and following illustrations. China Exploration and Research Society. Los Angeles: collection of the Getty Conservation Institute.
- Palpung Yeshe Chokhor, https://www.palpungtoronto.com/page3, accessed 20 July 2023
- Wong et al.
- De ge xian zhi (Annals of Dege County). 1995. Sichuan People’s Publishing House, pp. 498-9.
- De ge xian zhi
- Palpung Yeshe Chokhor states that this occurred in 1290.
- Chaix, Rémi. 2013. “Situ Penchen and the House of Sde dge: A Demanding but Beneficial Relationship,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 7 (August 2013):27-48. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5747
- Ibid. p 27.
- Karma Gyaltsen, quoted in “Celibacy, Revelations, and Reincarnated Lamas: Contestation and Synthesis in the Growth of Monasticism at Katok Monastery from the 11th through 19th Centuries” PhD dissertation of Jann Michael Ronis, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia May, 2009.
- De ge xian zhi.
- See my blogpost about Lithang Monastery. Also, Melvyn Goldstein has published a socio-economic case study of a major monastery in TAR; see “The Revival of Monastic Life in Drepung Monastery,” found in Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity. University of California Press. 1998. pp 15-52.
- Wong et al.
- Tibetan Rescue, p. 36.
- Wong et al.