The ‘Little Potala’ of Tsongkhapa
Architectural wonder of Yunnan, the monastery of Ganden Sumtseling is the main tourist attraction near Zhongdian / Shangri-la. If James Hilton had traveled to north Yunnan, the sight of Ganden Sumtseling would certainly have inspired his novel ‘Lost Horizon‘.
Established in 1679 by the 5th Dalai Lama, Sumtseling was built during the reign of emperor Kangxi 康熙 of the Qing dynasty. The monastery was given the name of ‘Ganden’ in reference to the Ganden monastery near Lhasa which was founded in 1409 by Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelupa order or Yellow Hat Sect.
The layout of Sumtseling was designed to look like the Potala palace in Lhasa, but without any original blue prints, the architects were not able to make a faithful replica. After Zhongdian changed its name into Shangri-la, the local government marketed Sumtseling as the ‘Little Potala’ and became known to tourists as ‘Songzanlin Temple’ (松赞林寺) in Chinese.
Tea and Horse Road
Since the Song dynasty, the Himalayan Kingdom had become addicted to tea and the ancient Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道) was a lifeline for the Tibetan people. Tea had become a staple and a necessity. Monasteries like Ganden Sumtseling had to offer tea to the monks (there were up to 2000 of the them in Songzanlin) after their daily session of meditation as well as ritual offering of tea to the images and statues of Buddha. High-ranked lamas and local Tibetan aristocracy controlled the commerce of tea. Monasteries acted as warehouses and logistic centers for the distribution of tea throughout the region and into the Tibetan Plateau.
Songzanlin was not just a place of worship but an important nod on the Tea and Horse Road.
Entangled in history and chaos
Sumtesling had to deal with the communist armies twice in its history.
First, in 1934, the Chinese Red army had set out on the Long March (长征) and in 1935, the Second Red Army lead by the He Long (贺龙), a man from the Tujia ethnic minority native of Hunan province, was compelled to pass from Lijiang to the western Sichuan. The authorities of Sumtseling monastery granted the communist army led by He Long the permission to pass through their land.
Twenty years later, in 1959, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was undertaking the ‘invasion / liberation ‘ of Tibet, the Chinese armies shelled and destroyed the monasteries.
Whatever was left of the ‘Little Potala’ had to suffer through the chaos and madness of the Mao era.
The 1980s : reconstruction
In the early 1980s, the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping were coupled with relative religious freedom. After its destruction by the Chinese army and by the Cultural Revolution, the monastery was able to re-built itself slowly.
It has been a long process and I have been able to witness re-birth of Ganden Sumtseling. When I first visited the monastery in 2001, Sumtseling was a quiet place, far from town. There were absolutely no tourists around and for the young monks, foreigners were a curiosity. It was an impressive place.
In 2007, when I went back to conduct research in Shangrila area, I would sometimes bike to the monastery. The massive entrance gate, a wall around the monastery and a parking lot were under construction. On the esplanade, the three main halls of Tsongkhapa, Dratsang and Sakyamuni were tall, massive buildings topped with gilded roofs that one could see from far away.
In 2015, when I went back again with clients, I was deeply impressed by the opulence of the place : the detailed paintings of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, the impressive number and the sheer size of the statues of Buddhas, Tsongkhapa and other Buddhist figures inside the halls were mind-bugling.
Han Chinese people say that ‘Tibetan spend most of their money on two things : their house, their temples and monasteries.’
How to visit
The area around Sumtseling / Songzanlin monastery is closed to car traffic. Only locals from the nearby village of Conggulong and guests of the Songtsam lodge are allowed in in their private car. If you arrive with a private car / driver, you will have to park your car at the tourist center, down the road, and pay a 40 RMB fee for the buses (operated by the tourist center of Sumtseling) or wait for the number #3 bus.
The bus #3, which you can take from downtown Zhongdian / Shangri-la, will bring you to the parking lot, right in front of the entrance to the monastery.
At the main entrance of the monastery, you will be charge a hefty 75 RMB to go and visit. However, if you walk on the outer circumambulation path to the big stupa (the one on the left corner of the pictures above), you’ll find a gate with no entrance fee. From there, just follow the inner circumambulation path to the main square, where the three main halls are located.