Lithang Monastery is formally known as Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling. The original Tibetan is བྱམས་ཆེན་ཆོས་སྐོར་གླིང་།which is “ga’ ldan thub chen chos ‘khor gling” in Wylie transcription and 长青春科尔寺 (Changqingchun Ke’er Si) in simplified Chinese. It is also sometimes called Lithang Chode.
Set at about 4,050 meters above sea level, it is one of the highest large monasteries in Kham. The complex rests on a hillside next to a stream, the Li Chu, that flows down from high pasture into a town that is now the Lithang County seat.
Below the monastery is a large flat plain that has for centuries been used to pasture yaks and sheep. Crops cannot grow at this elevation; therefore, the inhabitants have historically relied on animal husbandry for their sustenance, supplemented by trade. At times, Lithang felt the long arm of the Chinese emperor, especially in the 14th century, during the Yuan Dynasty when Tibet was under Mongol rule. Nevertheless, its climate was not conducive to Han and other lowlanders; before 1950, few outsiders chose to settle there.
Early history and conversion to the Gelug Order
Lithang Monastery was originally a temple for the worship of Bön, Tibet’s indigenous animist faith, and the date of its founding is lost to time. Bön is how Lithang Monastery started; but Bön it would not forever remain. In the year 1571 AD, an accomplished teacher of Buddhism in the Lhasa region–a man named Sonam Gyatso–was invited to Mongolia to transmit the tenets of the Gelug Buddhist tradition, which was then ascendant in central Tibet. Arriving in the court of Altan Khan, Sonam Gyatso’s teachings were persuasive; he won many Mongolian converts. The Khan awarded him the title “Dalai Lama.” The same title was posthumously given to two predecessors, making Sonam Gyatso the third of the line.
After his triumphal visit to Mongolia, in 1580 Sonam Gyatso set out to return home to Tibet. As historian Charles Bell tells it, on the way Sonam Gyatso stopped in Lithang and pitched his tent close to the Bön temple, revealing his intention to convert Lithang’s Bön priests to the Gelug tradition. The stubborn priests sent a hailstorm to assail him, signifying their unwillingness to be converted, but Sonam Gyatso counterattacked with an even bigger storm. Gelug magic was judged more powerful than that of the Bönpo, and Sonam Gyatso was declared the winner.
The Bön temple in Lithang thus became a Gelug monastery, the first in Kham. It was a distant outpost of the Gelug order, and it was surrounded by powerhouse monasteries of rival traditions. Yet the Gelug school was growing rapidly in central Tibet, and this no doubt helped Lithang Gonpa not only survive but acquire considerable influence in Kham, not just in the religious realm, but in political and economic matters, too.
17th Century: conflict with Beri
Sometime around 1620, Litang Monastery acquired a valuable set of woodblocks for printing the Kangyur, or Buddhist canon. Carved in Jang Satam, a Naxi kingdom in today’s northwest Yunnan province, the set came to be known as the Lithang Kangyur and is said to be the first woodblock edition of the words of Buddha. Based on a highly-regarded handwritten edition, the Lithang version of the text itself formed the basis of the Dege Kangyur. From this auspicious beginning, the printworks at Lithang Monastery would operate for nearly three hundred years.
The earliest mentions of Lithang Monastery’s physical infrastructure (that I’ve found) are in the works of Yudru Tsomo and Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa. Yudru Tsomo writes that Lithang monastery was destroyed during the first half of the 17thcentury in a conflict with Beri, a chiefdom to the north of Lithang. The Beri chief, Donyo Dorje, was a believer in Bön, and he sought to defend it from the growing power of the Gelugpa. Beri’s attack on Lithang Monastery was part of a broader conflict between the 5th Dalai Lama, who was supported by the Khoshut Mongols, and his political and religious rivals in Tsang (Shigatse), which were supported by Chogthu Mongols.
During this period, the Lhasa government exercised authority in Lithang and until 1700 it was appointing the chief of the Lithang region. It therefore had a stake in the continued vitality of Lithang Monastery. Although the Beri forces succeeded in destroying Lithang Monastery, Lhasa’s allies the Khoshut Mongols subsequently defeated Beri, executed the Beri chieftain, and restored Gelug authority in Lithang. In the 1650s, Lhasa sent money to Lithang to restore the damaged buildings. This was the first recorded instance of Lithang Monastery’s destruction and rebirth.
18th Century: appearance of the 7th Dalai Lama
In 1708, a significant individual appeared in Lithang: a child named Kelzang Gyatso. His birthplace in Lithang town is today a magnet for pilgrims, for the little boy would be identified as the 7th Dalai Lama. After residing in Lithang Monastery for a time, the holy child was taken to Kumbum Monastery, and from there to Lhasa where he was enthroned.
During this period, the power of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty was expanding into the Tibetan frontier. A Manchu general, Fala, requested permission from the emperor to take Lithang and Bathang and, receiving it, sent forces to capture the two towns. Several thousand Tibetan defenders allegedly fell in the battle to take Lithang; afterwards, Fala ordered the execution of seven Lithang officials. By 1719, the Qing had secured a large part of Kham. They set up a depot for provisions in Lithang to support Manchu occupation of the region.
At the end of 1728, Qing forces were withdrawing from central Tibet, but they were unwilling to give up control of the young 7th Dalai Lama, now about 20 years old. They brought him to Lithang where he lived for several years under the watchful eyes of two thousand soldiers sent from Sichuan . Reportedly, the expenses of the rituals he was required to perform strained the resources of the Sichuan provincial government, but they also almost certainly enhanced Lithang Monastery’s prestige and wealth. He stayed in Lithang until 1731, when he was again moved, this time to a newly constructed monastery near the present-day town of Bamé.
19th century: invasion from Nyarong
In 1816, another boy was born in Lithang who was recognized as Tibet’s supreme religious leader, the 10th Dalai Lama. Although the house where the 7th Dalai Lama was born (or perhaps a replica of it) has been preserved and is well known in the town, I did not learn that the 10th Dalai Lama was also born there until I was researching this blogpost. In any event, he, too, was transported to Lhasa while still a child, but unlike his predecessor, the 10th Dalai Lama never returned to Lithang and died at age 20 or 21. His name was Tsultrim Gyatso.
Qing occupation of Lithang and surrounding towns opened the way for foreigners to travel there. One was a French Catholic priest Évariste Régis Huc, who passed through Lithang in 1846. A drawing in Huc’s book is the earliest (that I know of) representation of Lithang Monastery. In the drawing, a building that appears to be the Tse Phodrang, or Summit Palace, stands at the highest point of the complex, the same place it stands today. Below the Tse Phodrang is a maze of lower buildings around what appears to be one or two large temples looking onto a plaza, similar to today’s arrangement.
Huc wrote: “The town of Lithang is built on the sides of a hill which rises in the middle of a plain. . . Two large Lamaseries, richly painted and gilt, which are built quite on the top of the hill, especially contribute to give it an imposing aspect. . . The most important of the Lamaseries of Lithang possesses a great printing press for Buddhic [sic] books.”
Huc’s description suggests that the town of Lithang, including structures used by the chieftain and his court, was directly below the monastery, a space that today is taken up by a district of traditional Tibetan-style homes. One can surmise that, over the centuries, the built area has expanded from the lower (southwestern) edge of the monastery, flowing down the hill and spreading across the plain. By contrast, the highest part of the monastery, the Tse Phodrang, has remained sacrosanct, with nothing built above it.
Knowing that an attack was likely, the Lithang chieftain strengthened his fortress with watchtowers, moats, and trenches. However, some say that Lithang’s engineering works were not what saved the town; instead it was snuff or tsampa deliberately contaminated with smallpox that the Lithang chief had delivered to Gonpo Namgyel’s forces. (An alternate version of the story has the Lithangpa smearing arrows with smallpox-infected materials to shoot at the enemy). The Nyarong soldiers fell ill and blamed their sickness on magic performed by Lithang’s powerful tulku.
Whether it was the engineering or the smallpox, Gonpo Namgyel failed to capture the Lithang stronghold. His forces retreated to Nyarong–but not for long. The next year, Gonpo Namgyel returned, vowing to transform the Lithang plain into a “desert without water or grass.” This time, he brought soldiers who had already survived smallpox and were therefore immune. They burned and looted Lithang town, and the chieftain was forced to flee along with many others, allowing the Nyarong army to occupy the town. However, before carrying out his threat to exterminate the population, Gonpo Namgyel had a change of heart, sparing the lives of those who surrendered. To show his piety, he announced that the monastery, too, would be protected. Lithang Gonpa narrowly escaped harm.
20th century, first half: intensifying Sino-Tibetan conflict
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the power of the Qing imperial throne declined, more Western missionaries arrived in Kham, many passing through Lithang on their way to neighboring Bathang, which had a more congenial climate. Fed up with the foreign preachers and the Qing garrisons protecting them, in 1905 residents of Lithang and Bathang revolted, burning churches and killing Chinese as well as anyone connected with the foreign priests. This was the beginning of a long period of bloody Sino-Tibetan conflict, during which the boundary that separated Lhasa’s territory from Beijing’s shifted several times.
The Qing Emperor sent troops led by the Zhao Erfeng–or “Zhao the Butcher,” as he was known to Tibetans–to stamp out the rebels and restore order. A British missionary, Edward Amundsen, wrote that Zhao’s soldiers executed many Lithang monks, beheaded the Lithang chieftain, and imprisoned the chieftain’s brother, thereby extinguishing the entire family of Lithang’s hereditary leaders. They also set fire to Lithang Monastery. By my count, this is the second time that the monastery was destroyed.
Zhao Erfeng was so effective in quelling what later became known as the (first) Khampa Rebellion that the Qing emperor placed him in charge of the entire region. Zhao began a series of military actions to eliminate the power of indigenous chieftains and monasteries, to “civilize” the Tibetans, and to forcefully assimilate Lithang and other Kham chiefdoms into China. Zhao tortured and killed those who resisted his authority, starting with Bathang and Lithang in 1906. Two years later, American missionary Albert Shelton observed that Zhao’s depredations “had reduced the populations of monks considerably, and the once-proud monastery was now tumbledown and derelict.”
After eliminating the Lithang royal family, Zhao Erfeng abolished the position of chieftain (Tibetan: depa) and installed Chinese (or Manchu) officials in the family’s two palaces. But in the eyes of the people, the outsiders did not have the same authority, and the nomads often refused to obey their orders. The power vacuum was filled by Lithang Monastery, which would come to wield considerable influence over secular affairs in the region and would later play a leading role in organizing Lithang Tibetans to rise up against Communist rule.
The Chinese Revolution arrived in 1911 to overthrow the Qing Emperor and bring the Guomindang (Nationalists) to power. Zhao Erfeng was executed. Relieved of their hated overlord, Tibetans again rose up, and chaos broke out across the region. Douglas Wissing, in his book about the missionary Shelton, states that the Chinese garrison in Lithang mutinied and looted the town and monastery.
Dorje Zodba (whose life story was recorded by G.A. Combe) reported that Lithang Monastery’s printworks were wrecked. Goodman writes that the losses included a priceless copy of the Tengyur, or Buddhist commentaries, written by hand on lacquered parchment with gold and silver ink.
Travel on the Bathang-Lithang road became very dangerous due to roving bands of robbers, many of them from Chaktreng, a chiefdom adjoining Lithang on the south that until this time had been under Lithang’s nominal jurisdiction.
Sir Eric Teichman, a dashing and flamboyant British consular official who traveled widely in the region in 1918, reflected the political instability in his account of events in Chaktreng: “In 1906, Zhao Erfeng spent the better part of a year besieging and destroying [Chaktreng’s] principal monastery; in 1910 the local Chinese garrison made common cause with the natives in a bloody revolt against Chinese rule; in 1912, at the time of the revolution in China, the lamas and people rose again and expelled the Chinese; in 1913 the Chinese spent most of the year in re-subjugating the country; in 1914 the natives joined some revolted Chinese troops, and drove [Zhao’s] forces back to Dartsendo and beyond.”
According to Teichman, in January 1918, fighters from Chaktreng attacked the Chinese garrison at Lithang, killing all but one soldier.
Foreign missionaries fled the chaos, but some later returned. During 1929-32, an American named Marion Duncan passed through Lithang several times on his way to and from his mission in Bathang. He stated that the monastery complex included two main temple buildings and smaller temples for each tribe, plus two hermitages on the hillside above the main monastery. Another building, about 60×100 feet in area with a 15-foot ceiling, housed the printworks. One hundred and twenty smaller structures were used as monk residences, smaller shrines, and storage. He does not mention the Tse Phodrang.
The American visited Lithang Monastery’s printing house and observed that, despite having thousands of hand-carved wooden blocks for printing the Kangyur and other works, the printing activity had ceased. He attributed this to the expense of obtaining wood and paper in Lithang. The prices of Lithang books were so high that the monastery’s press was being undercut by the Dege Parkhang, fifteen days’ trek to the north, despite the added cost of transport.
He described the exterior of the buildings as being white-washed walls with red and black painted timbers, in contrast to the one-story flat-roofed mud huts lived in by townspeople. One of the two main temples was dedicated Maitreya, the other to Tsongkhapa. In front of each statue stood seven “huge cauldrons” used as butter lamps. Duncan wrote that prostrators had worn human-shaped depressions as much as four inches deep in the wooden floor.
Duncan recorded that the monk population was 3,700 and represented eight different tribes, although the entire population was present only during the annual Losar festival. The rest of the year, he said, there seemed to be fewer than five hundred monks in residence. He noted that the town held 125 Tibetan families who kept flocks and served the monastery and Chinese officials. The town also had 70 Chinese merchant families dealing in tea, cotton, and small articles brought up from the lowlands
Lying south of the town, Duncan saw “traces of an ancient city said by the Tibetans to have been built by the Jyong.” I have not been able to identify a people known as “Jyong,” although he may have been referring to the historical Qiang. He wrote that these remains were 500 feet by 1500 feet in area, with the long axis deviating only 2 degrees from true north.
A couple of years later, Chinese Communist revolutionaries led by Mao Zedong had entered southwest China as they sought to outmaneuver and destroy Chiang Kai-Shek’s army. In 1936, a column of Second and Sixth Red Army divisions marched from Gyelthang, in present-day Yunnan province, heading toward Kandze to meet the Fourth Army, a route that would have taken them through Lithang. The Red Army troops numbered 18,000 when they left Gyelthang; by the time they reached Kandze, the number was reduced to about 5,000 by sickness, starvation, and attacks by Tibetans.
It appears that Communist forces did not stay in Lithang for long, for their goal at this time was not territorial conquest but to rejoin their comrades further north. Shakabpa has written that Communist troops entered Lithang, then left because Lhasa sent Tibetan forces to push them out. Lithang held little strategic value and would not have had enough food to support an army for any length of time. Still, the arrival of Communist troops in Kham was worrying to the foreign missionaries, and they began to leave.
On May 28, 1948, an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 struck Lithang, with the epicenter located about 60 km south of the monastery – the third time by my count that the monastery was destroyed, although only the older buildings in the rear part seem to have been damaged beyond repair.
A Scottish traveler passing through a year later witnessed the rebuilding effort. The speed of reconstruction suggests that Lithang Gonpa in the 1940s had ample sufficient resources to recover from disaster. It would need those resources, for even bigger cataclysms were coming.
 Sershul Monastery is about the same elevation and somewhat larger in monk population.
Edward Amundsen, In the land of the Lamas: The Story of Trashilhamo, Marshall Brothers, Ltd., 1910, p. 71.
Sir Charles Bell, Religion of Tibet, First Indian Edition, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 192, p. 164.
Yingcong Dai, The Sichuan Frontier and Tibet: Imperial Strategy in the Early Qing, University of Seattle Press, 2009; p. 86, 99-100, 110-111.
Marion Duncan, The Yangtze and the Yak, Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1952; p 93-96, 108-109, 221.
Évariste Régis Huc. “Travels in Tartary, Thibet, and China During the years 1844-5-6 / Volume 2,” Open Court Publishing Company, 1900. Pp 819, 821.
Dean King, Unbound: A True Story of War, Love, and Survival, p. 283
Dasa Pejchar Mortensen, “Harnessing the Power of the Khampa Elites: Political Persuasion and the Consolidation of Community Party Rule in Gyalthang,” from Patterns of Change in the Sino-Tibetan Norderlands, Stephane Gros. Ed., Amsterdam University Press, 2019. p. 416 n 12.
George N Patterson, God’s Fool, Doubleday & Co., 1956, pp. 210-213
Hugh Richardson, Tibet & Its History, Shambhala Publications, 1984, p 52
Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History, Potala Publications, New York 1967, pp.96, 103, 278.
Eric Teichman, Travels of a consular officer in Eastern Tibet; together with a history of the relations between China, Tibet and India, with original maps of Eastern Tibet and photographs, Cambridge University Press, 1922; p. 196, 203.
Douglas Wissing, Pioneer in Tibet: The Life and Perils of Dr. Albert Shelton, pp 96-97, 122.
Yudru Tsomo, The Rise of Gönpo Namgyel in Kham, The Blind Warrior of Nyarong, Lexington Books, p 44, 57-58, 166-168.