The high red-walled compound in the far north of town houses Pelkor Chöde Monastery, founded in 1418. The main assembly hall is the main attraction but there are several other chapels to see. There’s a small but visible population of 80 monks and a steady stream of prostrating, praying, donation-offering pilgrims doing the rounds almost any time of the day.
The red-walled Pelkor Chöde was once a compound of 15 monasteries that brought together three different orders of Tibetan Buddhism – a rare instance of multidenominational tolerance. Nine of the monasteries were Gelugpa, three were Sakyapa and three belonged to the obscure Büton suborder whose head monastery was Shalu near Shigatse. A climb up the nearby Gyantse Dzong will give you a clear bird's-eye view of the original extent of the complex.
The assembly hall is straight ahead as you walk into the compound, and is where most people begin their explorations. The entrance is decorated with statues of the Four Guardian Kings, instead of the usual paintings, and a large Wheel of Life mural. Just by the entrance on the left is a particularly spooky protector chapel, with masks, armour and murals depicting sky burial in fairly graphic detail. Look for the huge torma (sculptures made out of tsampa) in a case outside the entrance.
The hall is quite dark inside and if you want a good look at the various murals and thangkas, it is a good idea to bring a torch (flashlight). The impressive main chapel is located to the rear. There is an inner route around the chapel, which is lined with fine but dusty murals. The towering central image is of Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa), who is flanked by the Past and Future Buddhas.
To the left of the main chapel is the Dorjeling Lhakhang, with a four-headed Nampa Namse (Vairocana) and the other four Dhyani (or Wisdom) Buddhas in dark, ornate wooden frames. The big thangka wrapped in the yak leather bag is displayed during the Saga Dawa festival on the 18th day of the fourth Tibetan month. Pilgrims put their heads in a hole underneath a set of ancient scriptures that is older than the monastery itself.
To the right of the main chapel is a lovely Jampa statue. A chapel to the right features the Rigsum Gonpo trinity, along with the three kings of Tibet. The inner chörten was built by Prince Rabten Kunzang Phok. Outside the door is a large tent used during cham festivals.
Moving to the upper floor, the first chapel to the left is noted for a three-dimensional mandala, wall paintings of the Indian-looking mahasiddhas (highly accomplished Tantric practitioners) and lacquered images of key figures in the Sakyapa lineage. Each of the 84 mahasiddhas is unique and shown contorted in a yogic posture. Unfortunately, the room is often closed.
Other chapels, which are open in the mornings, are dedicated to Jampa (Maitreya), Tsongkhapa and the 16 arhats (worthy ones). The far right (northeastern) chapel has a speaking statue of green Tara in an ornate case. Don't miss the inner kora path on the top floor. Photos cost ¥10 to ¥20 per chapel.
A new and easily overlooked Ganden Lhakhang chapel to the left of the kumbum is worth a quick peek for the largest Tsongkhapa statue in Tibet. The Sakya-school Kurba Tratsang next to the assembly hall is also worth a visit.