Sakya Monastery information
The immense, grey, thick-walled southern monastery is one of Tibet’s most impressive constructed sights, and one of the largest monasteries. Established in 1268, it was designed defensively, with watchtowers on each corner of its high walls. Inside, the dimly lit hall exudes a sanctity and is on a scale that few others can rival. As usual, morning is the best time to visit as more chapels are open.
Directly ahead from the east-wall main entrance is the entry to the inner courtyard and then the main assembly hall (Lhakhang Chenmo or Tsokchen Dukhang), a huge structure with walls 16m high and 3.5m thick.
At first glance the assembly hall may strike you as being like most others in Tibet: a dark interior illuminated with shafts of sunlight and the warm glow of butter lamps; an omnipresent smell of burning butter; and an array of gilded statues representing buddhas, bodhisattvas, Tibetan kings and lamas. But even weary tour groups seem to quickly recognise the age, beauty and sanctity of Sakya. Plan to spend time just soaking up the sacred, medieval atmosphere. You’ll find few that are its equal.
A few things to look specifically for in the hall are the huge drum in the far left corner and the massive sacred pillars, some which are made of entire tree trunks and are famous throughout Tibet. One reputedly was a gift from Kublai Khan.
Another gift from Kublai to the monastery is Sakya’s famous white conch shell, which currently sits in a gilded mandala. The shell is supposedly all that remains of the Buddha when in a previous incarnation he lived his life as a modest shellfish. Pilgrims queue to hear the soft, low sound of the sacred conch being blown by an attendant monk.
The walls of the assembly hall are lined with towering gilded buddhas, which are unusual in that many also serve as reliquaries for former Sakya abbots. The buddha in the far left corner holds the tooth of the past Buddha inside it. The large nearby chörten is the funeral stupa of the monastery's 40th abbot; the statue to the right of this houses the clothes and ashes of the monastery founder. The central Sakyamuni statue enshrines the clothes and relics of Sakya Pandita. To the right of the central buddha are statues of Jampelyang (Manjushri), a seated Jampa (Maitreya) and a Dorje Chang (Vajradhara).
Look for the huge animal horns, elephant tusks and tiger skin adorning the pillars alongside some lovely bodhisattva statues. Sakya’s famous library (admission ¥10), long considered the greatest in Tibet, is also accessible from this hall and worth a visit for its floor-to-ceiling collection of texts.
As you exit the assembly hall the chapel to the right (south) is the Purba Lhakhang . Central images are of Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa) and of Jampelyang (Manjushri), while wall paintings behind depict Tsepame (Amitayus) to the left, Drölma (Tara) and white, multi-armed Namgyelma (Vijaya) to the far left, as well as a medicine buddha, two Sakyamunis and Jampa (Maitreya).
To the north of the inner courtyard is the Nguldung Lhakhang containing 11 gorgeous silver chörtens, which are also reliquaries for former Sakya abbots. Look to the left corner for the sand mandala inside a dirty glass case. A sometimes-locked door leads into another chapel with additional amazing chörtens and murals. Bring a torch as the room is even dimmer than others.
Next door is a new Relic Exhibition (admission ¥20), which contains several of the monastery's prize statues and thangkas.
As you exit the inner courtyard take the entry way left to the Tsechu Lhakhang , which houses a speaking statue of Guru Rinpoche and funeral chörtens from the lineage holders of Drölma Phodrang (Sakya had two ruling houses, the Drölma Phodrang and the Phutsok Phodrang).
There are a couple of chapels open outside of this central complex (but still within the walled compound), the most interesting of which is the very spooky protector chapel of the Phakpa Lhakhang . If the thick incense doesn’t get you, the terrifying monsters, huge cham masks and demonic yaks that wait in the dark recesses just might.
There are several other gönkhangs on the top floor of the monastery, accessed by a long ladder to the side of the main entrance.
It is possible to climb up onto the outer walls of the monastery for a final kora of the monastery that takes in fine views of the surrounding valley.