Ganden in Tibetan means the Pure Land of Tushita. Tushita is the heavenly land where Maitreya (Future Buddha) resides. In the monastery, there is Jampa Lakhang, the chapel dedicated to Maitreya. It is one of the six main monasteries of Gelug order, along with Sera monastery, Drepung, Tashi Lhunpo, Labrang and Kumbum (the latter two are in Eastern Tibet).
Ganden monastery is located about 45km to the East from Lhasa on the Gokpo Ri mountain. The altitude on the top of the mountain is 4,300 meters. At this elevation, it is best to visit Ganden on your third or fourth day in Tibet, after you spent some time in Lhasa and acclimated to high altitude. The monastery location is closely related with 7th-century king Songtsen Gampo. At the time of King’s birth, the consecration ceremony was on the Wangku Ri mountain adjacent to the Gonkpo Ri. Tsunmo Dingri, another mountain nearby was a picnic ground for the queens.
Ganden was established in 1409 on a place where its founder Lama Tsongkhapa meditated to choose the place for a new monastery. About seventy buildings of the complex were built in the first few years. The main Assembly Hall was erected in 1417, and only two years later Lama Tsongkhapa died in his humble chamber in Ganden.
Tsongkhapa was the first abbot of the monastery called Ganden Tripa. His disciple Gyeltsab Jen became an abbot after him, and after his death, another major disciple of Tsongkhapa Khedrup Je was an abbot in Ganden.
Ganden is the first monastery of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Gelug quickly became the dominant school in Tibet. Its leader the Dalai Lama was both religious and political leader of the entire Tibet.
The monastery was destroyed in 1959. All the major chapels were rebuilt in the following years.
Ganden Monastery visiting hours are from 9 am till 4 pm.
As with most of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, it is best to visit chapels in the morning. Many small chapels start closing for visitors after 12 pm.
Near the parking lot, there is a teahouse where you can have lunch or take a short break.
SURROUNDING NOMADIC SETTLEMENTS
Although Ganden monastery is close to Lhasa, the lifestyle there is very different from city life. There is a small village at the foot of the monastery. Further, in the surrounding valleys, you can see many nomadic settlements. Life here didn’t change for many years. Nomads still live in yak wool tents. They rely on their yaks and cows to produce all the necessary basics: food, clothing, fuel, transportation. Nomads travel with their animals covering huge distances to bring yaks to the best pasture lands.
There are no roads to nomadic villages. The only two ways to get there is to hike or to ride a horse. If nomads are in the tent, they sometimes invite visitors for a cup of Tibetan tea. It is a great way to learn about traditional culture.
THE MAIN STRUCTURES IN GANDEN
A small building right at the entrance to the Ganden complex. Tsongkhapa gave teachings in this chapel. At the entrance, you will see images of Tsongkhapa and his two main disciples. There are many statues of protectors, including Shridevi, Mahakala, Panden Lhamo, and Yamantaka. On the second floor, there are Dalai Lama’s throne and private room.
TSOKCHEN ASSEMBLY HALL
The main chapel Tsokchen was established in 1417.
The large Assembly hall is truly impressive. Ganden monastery had up to 5,000 monks living there at its heyday. They could all fit in the Assembly hall.
Inside you will see large images of Tsongkhapa accompanied by his two main disciples on both sides, The Sixteen Arhats, and many other statues and murals.
The inner chapel Sertrikhang has the gold throne of Tsongkhapa on the center. Nepalese artisans crafted the original 15th-century throne. Nowadays you can see its replica.
Here is also a collection of Kagyur scripts.
The red-colored building is in the heart of the complex with a large white stupa in front of it. Serdung Lhakhang has an architecture of a fortress with high walls and windows high up. First, you will enter a courtyard. On the second floor, you will find Yangpachen Chapel, the new golden chapel of Tsongkhapa.
The chapel takes its name from the stone that you can see in the back of the chapel. People believe that this stone has miraculously flown from Shravasti (Yangpachen) in India.
The original chorten Tongwa Donden or a “ Meaningful to Behold” contained the body of Je Tsongkhapa. Chorten was made of silver and gilded from the outside. During the Cultural Revolution, it was destroyed and the body of the lama burnt. Monk saved only a skull and some ashes from the fire. These relics are currently enshrined in a new tomb. There are more relics from master Tsongkhapa in a cabinet next to the chorten. You can see his begging bowl, teacup, and Dorje.
ZIMCHUNG TRI THOK KHANG
This is the chapel of Ganden Tripa, an abbot of the monastery. It has four large chapels on the first floor. You can see several protectors chapels and a small simple chamber Nyangde Lhakhang where Tsongkhapa passed away. It only had a small bed and a seat. One of the chapels is for the Dalai Lamas. In the chapel, you can see 35 Buddhas of Confession.
Tsongkhapa’s disciples established Jangtse and Shartse colleges and the tantric college Nagyu Tratsang.
Abbot, the highest lama of Ganden monastery, is traditionally chosen from the high lamas of one of the colleges. To become an abbot, the monk first had to obtain a Geshe degree, a modern-day equivalent of a Ph.D. degree in religious studies. Then, he would become an abbot of one of the tantric colleges in the Lhasa region. Finally, he can be appointed by one of the Dharma masters of Jangtse or Shartse college.
KORA/ PILGRIMAGE CIRCUIT AROUND THE MONASTERY
There are two koras or pilgrimage routes around the monastery: the low kora and the high. The low kora goes around the mountain along the foot of the mountain. The high kora goes around the monastery at the top of the mountain.
The pilgrimage walk around the monastery along the high kora route is a highlight of the site. It takes about 1 hr not accounting for many of the photography stops. Along the trail, you will see many small shrines and religious objects.
The path starts approximately at the parking lot area and goes around Ganden in a clockwise direction. The spectacular view on the Kyichu or Lhasa River valley below is waiting for you!
THE BEST TIME TO VISIT GANDEN MONASTERY
You can visit Ganden monastery year round. There is a beauty in each season. During summer, you will see vast green valleys along Kyichu or Lhasa River. In winter, snow overs the mountain slopes and often lays on the valleys. It makes the landscape look bright and almost magical.
Another popular time to visit Ganden is during the Thangka unveiling festival. It usually falls on December.
THE GIANT THANGKA UNVEILING FESTIVAL
Every year on October 25 the of Tibetan Lunar Calendar, monks of Ganden commemorate the day of parinirvana of Tsongkhapa. On that day the monastery monks unveil the large Thangka, similar to the Shoton Festival tradition.
Tibetan pilgrims start arriving at Ganden early in the morning, well before sunrise. With the first rays of the sun, monks start unrolling the giant Thangka with an image of Tsongkhapa. Visitors walk close to the Thangka to get the blessings from it and try to touch it with their foreheads.
In the evening, monks light up thousands of butter lamps and the entire monastery is lit up by their light. In Lhasa, Tibetans gather around Jokhang temple to light their butter lamps. It is one of the most magical sites in Lhasa. All Tibetans keep butter lamps burning all evening.
GANDEN MONASTERY IN INDIA
There is also Ganden Monastery in India. Current Ganden Tripa lives in this monastery. He is the head of the Gelug order and the most influential Lama of Gelug after the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama.
Je Tsongkhapa was born in 1357 in Amdo, the north-eastern province of Tibet. Later, Kumbum Jampa Ling Monastery was built in his birthplace. From his early ages, he showed signs of spirituality. He went to study Buddhism to Drigung Til monastery belonging to Kagyu lineage. Later, he traveled to other important monastic centers and studied in Samye, Shalu, Sakya and Tsechen monasteries. Tsongkhapa studied different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, including Tantric school, the most esoteric. After that, he spent four years in meditation.
He became a profound master and started giving teachings. While he was staying in Reting monastery, he wrote “Lamrim Chenmo. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment”. The book based on Atisha’s teachings, with direct citations from Buddhist scholars and early Kadampa masters, explains the philosophy and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. It is one of the greatest books on Tibetan Buddhism.
Although Tsongkhapa didn’t directly create a new order, his teachings became a foundation of the new tradition – Gelug. That’s why we often call him a founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.
TOURS TO GANDEN MONASTERY
Visit Drak Yerpa and Ganden on the same day! Both great places near Lhasa combined in a day tour. In the morning we visit the meditation caves Hermitage, where many revered Buddhist practitioners spent years in meditation retreats.
This tour takes you to Ganden monastery first. We will visit the most important chapels of the monastery and walk the high kora around the complex. You will enjoy an incredible view of the Kyi Chu River valley.
After that, we will meet horseman with your horse for today. You will ride the horse to traditional nomad settlement.
In the valley nearby you can see traditional nomad’s tents made of yak wool. Nomads keep Tibetan mastiff dogs to protect them. Some nomads might offer you to visit the tent for a cup of tea.
The five days trekking route links Ganden to Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. It is also one of the most scenic trekking tours in the Himalayas. During the trek, you will walk through various landscapes, including the rocky mountains, alpine lakes, mountain streams and rivers, and forest. On the trek, you will walk over two passes over 5,200 meters high. The trek requires acclimatizing to high altitude. That’s why the typical duration of tour including trekking is 10 days.
On this tour, you will visit two most famous sites in Lhasa included in UNESCO World Heritage list and the three most important monasteries of Gelug Sect. After arriving in Lhasa and acclimatizing on the first day, you will visit Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lamas and the 7th century Jokhang Temple. On the next day, you will visit Sera and Drepung monasteries in Lhasa. On the following day, we will drive outside of Lhasa to visit Ganden monastery and walk the high kora around it to enjoy the views.