Regarding the sheer grandness and significance, any Tibet
an Buddhist monastery in Yunnan
will pale in comparison with Songzanlin Monastery
(brief for Gedan Songzanlin Monastery), an iconic establishment defining the skyline of Shangri-La
in Zhongdian County. During the past centuries, this incense-wreathed lamasery has drawn an unending flow of followers. By far, it stands out as the biggest Tibetan Buddhism monastery in Yunnan
and one of the most influential spiritual anchors in China
. Spreading out along the undulating terrain rhythmically, this astounding building complex evokes Potala Palace
and reveals a harmonious infusion of Tibetan and Han styles.
A long and steep stone path winds up to Songzanlin Monastery. Paved with over 200 steps, it is more energy-sapping than you can imagine. Overhead, flocks of black-headed gulls, the pious guardians of Songzanlin Monastery, hover and glide gracefully. If lucky, you can also see a giant bird with wings spanning from 2 to 3 meters wide. Locals call it the Divine Bird, bird of paradise, which will lead the soul of the deceased into the celestial realm of heaven. What is more interesting is that if the more virtuous the deceased is, the more Divine Birds will show up during the Sky Burial Ritual. They come and go mysteriously, just like under summon of some mysterious power.
Songzanlin Monastery is a typical Tibetan fortress-style architecture complex. It faces south and consists of five tiers. Zhacang and Jikang, the monastic colleges where monks study and debate, serve as the centerpiece. They dwarf the rest and are encircled by other complexes such as worship halls, meditation rooms and living quarters. Inside of Songzanlin Monastery hides a constellation of carvings, sculptures, frescos and precious artifacts from various dynasties. From this sense, it is a repository of Tibetan architecture, culture and art. Today, around 700 monks in their ruby red gowns still chant the millennia-old sutras within magnificent cloisters illuminated by yak butter lamps and bestow this holy site with indescribable sacredness.
From layout to interior decoration, this atmospheric retreat is a classic with timeless splendor. On the 29th day of the 11th lunar month, Tibetans will congregate here to stage the alluring Buddha Dance Festival (Gedong Festival), which promises an enlightening experience for those ready to embrace Tibetan art and Buddhism.
To soak up the esoteric mystique and glamour of this sanctuary, you need to circle it clockwise. Housing the bronze stature of the fifth Dalai Lama, the main hall features a gilded roof, upturned eaves and delicate carvings, which is a perfect blend of Tibetan and Han influences. The lower hall is refurbished with 108 columns, which is the most auspicious and mysterious number in Buddhism. (Potala Palace has 108 sculptures above the eaves; Temple of Heave has 108 stone railings. Any niches and pagodas in Tibet are closely relatively with the number 108. According to Buddhism, there are 108 Buddha in heaven and 108 kinds of torments on earth. No matter you are striking a bell, enchanting a sutra or spinning the prayer beads, you need to do it 108 times to gain peace, blessing, enlightenment and even Nirvana.)
The grand hall can contain 1600 monks comfortably. In the rear hall, you can see the imposing statures of Tsongkhapa (1357–1419, the founder of Geluk school of Tibetan Buddism), Maitreya (the Future Buddha) and the seventh Dalai Lama. The middle layer has 8 rooms, which are used as dining room and meditation room, etc. In the front hall there is also a guestroom where Tibetan Opera and Buddha Dance are performed. The bewildering and highly symbolic religious dance is very arresting. In the early morning, at noon and dusk, you can hear the euphonious and infectious voice escaping from the soaring Bell Drum Pavilion bordering the Buddhism Hall to the south. The voice can be carried miles away.
When you reach the upper main hall, you can see the off-the-scale large incarnations of the fifth and sevenths Dalai Lama, delicate thangka, golden lamps, sutras, antiques, relics and remnants. Among which, the handscript sutras named Danzhuer, oven incense burners and yak butter lamps are the most striking.
With mani stones dispersed here and there, wind horse flags fluttering in the crispy air of high plateau and pray wheels squeaking incessantly, you sure will be left spellbound and sink into reverie or meditation in this holy land instantly.
This is Songzanlin Monastery, a piece of heaven on earth, a land imbued with divine property and the last untouched sanctuary closest to gods.
Opposite to Songzanlin Monastery is Lamuyangcuo Lake, one of the Top Three Holy Lakes of the Tibetans. During sunny days, clouds will cast reflections on its mirror-like smooth surface, while in stormy days, the lake will produce bizarre voices and illusions. Dalai Lamas used to preside over the divination along its banks while monks will stare into its impenetrable water, trying to see their last life and future here.
Opening time: Songzanlin Monastery won’t close, but you had better visit it after 7:30am
Get in: Once you make it to Shangri-La county (Zhongdian County), you can take a taxi, bus or bike or even hike to there. (Cycling demands 20 minutes while hiking will cost 1 hour). The most convenient way is to join a tour. Heading north, you will see Meili Snow Mountain.
What to pack: elevated at over 3300m, Songzanlin Monastery will see occasional snow even in August. Hence, jacket, down clothes, gloves and anti-slippery boots, sunscreen, hats, sun glasses are necessities after October.
Best Travel Season: spring and summer
Where to stay: hotels and guesthouses in Shangri-La
Photo tips: the best place to take a panoramic view of Songzanlin Monastery is from the sightseeing platform of Gulong village nearby. Tibetan costumes and goats are available for rent, you are advised to negotiate the price
You had better tour this monastery clockwise. Taking photos inside is forbidden.
Do not point at Buddha statues with fingers (if you have to, use the left palm)
Do not enter the living quarters especially that of the Living Buddha without permission
Author: Sophia Posted on June 13, 2013