Tsaparang is located about 20 km to the West from Zanda. It served as the capital of the Guge Kingdom. The monastery complex is located in the valley, while the king’s fortress stands on top of the hill. There are four surviving buildings of the monastery complex with wonderful ancient murals inside. Glorious citadel overlooking the Sutlej River Valley stands on top of the hill with many caves perching the hill slopes. The site surrounded by moon-like landscape with eroded mountains е muddy caves creates a surreal landscape scene. It is great for photography. Tsaparang is a great place to explore, following winding pathways, secret tunnels, visiting abandoned citadel with grottoes, and inspecting ancient murals. Sutlej River flows to the North from Tsaparang. Murals here are superior to Tholing monastery and Tsaparang is a very important site for people interested in Buddhist art.
HISTORY OF TSAPARANG
King Puntsokde (1409 – 1480) established Tsaparang.
Tsaparang became the capital of the Guge Kingdom in the 15th century. The city was quite large with several thousand people living there and many traders stopping there on the way between Central Tibet and India.
Unfortunately, there were continuous conflicts between Guge kings and kings of neighboring Ladakh. After the tragic seige when Ladakhi king together with Muslim army assassinated the young King of Guge with his family and kids, Tsaparang was abandoned. One of the chambers of the citadel still holds the beheaded bodies of the ministers murdered on that day.
Tsaparang was never populated again after that. People left Tsaparang in the 17th century and the complex gradually deteriorated since then. Even though Tsaparang was already inhabited, many statues were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Fortunately, some of the murals are still intact. You can still see some of the great examples of unusual Tantric murals.
It is best to reserve the full day to explore Tsaparang. First, you will see the Tsaparang complex enclosed with a red wall. Higher up on the mountain is a fort and king’s citadel.
TSAPARANG AND GUGE KINGDOM SITE
There are four main temples and the ruins of the king’s citadel. On the lower levels of the hill are staircases and caves. Some are meditation caves, others have small shrines. Many still have Buddha paintings and small 3-dimensional figures called tsa-tsa. In the middle is the defense wall with watchtowers protecting during sieges. On top of the natural hill is the fortress of king Phuntsokde and the small temple Demchok Mandala, the only one in the citadel still intact. Inside are beautiful Tantric murals.
DOLMA LHAKHANG – WHITE TARA CHAPEL/ CHAPEL OF THE PERFECT
You will find the small chapel right upon entering the Tsaparang site. It was built in the late 16th century. The chapel served as a private chapel of the Regent of Guge Kingdom. Inside, walls are painted in black and red colors. Despite the soot in some areas, you can see beautiful areas. Find the murals of the Avalokiteshvara (Compassion Buddha) on the side wall. The main statue is of White Tara, it is new. Behind you can see paintings of Shakyamuni Buddha, Tsongkhapa and Atisha.
LHAKHANG KARPO/ WHITE TEMPLE
Lhakhang Karpo or the White temple stands on the right side of the complex. Tibetan King Jikten Wangchuk built it in the 16th century. The large temple has an impressive collection of ancient murals and it is possibly the most prominent chapel in Western Tibet. The murals are from the 16th century with earlier style elements. The pillars and ceiling are also painted. At the top of each column is an image of Shakyamuni Buddha.
The main statue was 3-meters high Maitreya – Future Buddhs surrounded by eight Bodhisattvas. Unfortunately, the original statues were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and nowadays they are gradually replaced by replicas.
The wall painting style is truly impressive and unique in Tibet. You will see large panels with painted Buddhas, murals with Tsongkhapa and Atisha with their disciples.
The ceiling is also painted with various scenes. There is a skylight above the altar where the center statue was standing before. The skylight illuminates the main altar.
LHAKHANG MARPO/ RED TEMPLE
Walk above the White Temple following steep stairs to reach the Red Temple. Queen Dondrubma founded the temple in the 15th century. Although the Red Temple was built around 30 years before the White Temple, the murals inside are newer as they were repainted in the late 16th century.
Carved wooden doors are original. The Indian-style carvings depict different figures and mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. You can see similar doors only in Jokhang temple.
The central figure was Shakyamuni Buddha flanked by 35 figures of Buddhas of Confession seated on the lotus flowers. On the right side of the temple is Kadam-style stupa.
In the Red Temple, you will see exquisite murals stretching from floor to the ceiling. The impressive painted figures of deities are about 4 meters high. Some of the most famous are paintings of Five Dhyani Buddhas, Medicine Buddhas, Padmasambhava, Avaokiteshvara and Tara. Paintings to the sides from the doorway depict various protectors. To the right from the main shrine murals depict the life story of Shakyamuni Buddha. Another interesting mural near the entrance door shows the process of construction of the Red Temple.
In the back of the temple there are eight stupas.
KING’S FORTRESS/ CITADEL
The fortress overlooking the valley stands on top of the natural hill 170 meters above the monastery. It was the residence of the king Phuntsokde.
There are once secret tunnels that you can take to reach the top of the king’s citadel. Beautiful tantric murals decorate the walls. There are summer and winter palaces on top of the hill. The lower section of the hill had stables, kitchen, jail and many caves dug in the muddy hill slope.
The summer palace is on the North side of the citadel. It is empty inside. However, the large balcony offers a great spot to enjoy the surrounding view and take photos.
Steep staircase leads to the Winter Palace. Living quarters were about 12 meters below the ground helping preserve the temperature. One of the tunnels leads to a chamber with a water well that was used during sieges.
This small square chapel once housed a 3-dimensional mandala at its center, hence the name – mandala chapel. The main shrine was dedicated to Mahakala – the powerful protector. Murals decorate all walls of the chapel. Many of them depict meditating yogis. Among various painted Tantric deities you will also find paintings of the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism. The temple is dedicated to Cakrasamvara/ Buddha Demchok that resides on top of Mount Kailash.
PLACES TO VISIT IN WESTERN TIBET
The sacred Mountain for 4 religions is undoubtedly the most important site in Western Tibet. Thousands of pilgrims travel to it every year to walk 52 km trek around it and see all four faces of the holy peak. While trekking around it, you will see many legendary places and enjoy a stunning scenery.
The first capital of Guge Kingdom was in Zanda, where Tholing Monastery stands. Only later, Tibetan king transferred the capital to Tsaparang. Some of the Tholing chapels are still intact. Unlike Tsaparang, Tholing is an active monastery. You can see many early murals inside.
KAILASH AND MANASAROVAR SOURCES OF 4 RIVERS
Four major Asian rivers have their sources on four sides of Kailash. These four rivers flow across Asia and huge population of the neighboring countries depends on the water from these rivers.
RECOMMENDED TOURS VISITING TSAPARANG
17 DAYS MOUNT KAILASH AND GUGE KINGDOM FROM LHASA
A private tour taking you from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet to the most Western part of the country. The tour includes three days trekking around Mount Kailash and visiting the ruins of the Guge Kingdom on the West, in addition to Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse, and Everest Base Camp.
21 DAYS ULTIMATE TIBET TOUR
We will visit all the highlights of Lhasa and Central Tibet, spend a night by the Everest, complete three days trekking around Mount Kailash. After that we will head towards Ngari, the Western part of Tibet to visit the ancient Guge Kingdom. We will return to Lhasa via the scenic Northern route, traveling through vast grasslands, dozens of lakes, including the Namtso lake and nomad’s settlements.