Drölma Lhakhang

Buddhist Monastery in Lhasa

This significant but small monastery is jam-packed with ancient relics and hidden treasures. It’s only 30 minutes' drive southwest of Lhasa and is worth a stop en route to or from the airport for those interested in Tibetan Buddhism.

Drölma Lhakhang is associated with the Bengali scholar Atisha (982–1054). Atisha came to Tibet at the age of 53 at the invitation of the king of the Guge kingdom in western Tibet and his teachings were instrumental in the so-called second diffusion of Buddhism in the 11th century. Drölma Lhakhang was established at this time by one of Atisha’s foremost disciples, Drömtonpa, who also founded the Kadampa order, to which the monastery belongs. It was here at Netang that Atisha died, aged 72.

The 11th-century monastery was spared desecration by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution after a direct request from Bangladesh (which now encompasses Atisha’s homeland). Apparently, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai intervened on its behalf.

The first chapel to the left is a gönkhang (protector chapel), decorated with severed stags’ heads and arrow holders. As you enter and exit the main monastery building, look for the two ancient guardian deities, which may even date back to the 11th-century founding of the monastery. An inner kora (pilgrim circuit) surrounds the main chapels.

From the entry, pass into the first chapel, the renovated Namgyel Lhakhang, which contains a number of chörtens (Buddhist stupas). The black-metal Kadampa-style chörten to the right reputedly holds the staff of Atisha and the skull of Naropa, Atisha’s teacher. Statuary includes Atisha and the eight medicine buddhas.

The eponymous middle Drölma Lhakhang houses a number of relics associated with Atisha. The statues include an 11th-century statue of Jowo Sakyamuni and at the top, behind a grill, are statues of the 13th Dalai Lama, Green Tara, and Serlingpa (right, with a red hat), another teacher of Atisha. The lower statue to the right behind the grill is an image of Jampa that was reputedly saved from Mongol destruction when it shouted ‘Ouch!’. There are also 21 statues of Drölma.

The final Tsepame Lhakhang has original statues of Tsepame, cast with the ashes of Atisha, flanked by Marmedze (Dipamkara), the Past Buddha, Jampa (the Future Buddha) and the eight bodhisattvas. The small central statue of Atisha in a glass case is backed by his original clay throne. As you leave the chapel, look out for the great old leather prayer wheel and two sunken white chörtens, which respectively hold the robes of Atisha and his main disciple Dromtonpa. Upstairs are the throne room and, at the far end, the living room of the Dalai Lamas, and to the right is a library.

Just down a side road opposite the monastery is the Kumbum Lhakhang, whose two white chörtens enshrine the ashes of Atisha and Lama Dampa Sonam Gyeltsen, a teacher of Gelugpa founder Tsongkhapa.

Drölma Lhakhang is 16km southwest of Lhasa on the old road to Shigatse, but it's bypassed by the main airport expressway that connects the capital to the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley. En route you’ll pass a blue rock carving of Sakyamuni at the base of a cliff about 11km southwest of Lhasa, or 6km north of Drölma Lhakhang (it’s easily missed coming from the south). Nyetang village and the monastery are between kilometre markers 4662 and 4663.