Drepung monastery, Lhasa, Tibet, China

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Main Assembly Hall

Top choice in Lhasa

The main assembly hall, or Tsogchen, is the principal structure in the Drepung complex and is the one chapel you must not miss. The hall is reached through an entrance on the western side, just past a wonderful medieval-looking kitchen, whose hot-tub-sized cauldrons and giant ladles look like props from the film The Name of the Rose. The butter-tea churner alone is 6ft tall.

The assembly hall's huge interior is very atmospheric, draped with thangkas, covered in monks' robes and yellow hats, and supported by over 180 columns – the ones near the western protector chapel dedicated to goddess Palden Lhamo (no women allowed) are decorated with ancient chain mail and bows.

The back-room chapel features the protector deities Chana Dorje (Vajrapani, blue) and Tamdrin (Hayagriva, red) on either side of the door, and contains statues of Sakyamuni with his two disciples, the Buddhas of the Three Ages, and nine chörtens above. The walls and pillars are lined with statues of eight standing bodhisattvas. To the front centre there is also a youthful-looking statue of Lamrin Ngawang Phuntsok (a former abbot of Drepung, recognisable by his black-rimmed glasses); next to it is his funeral chörten. To the east is Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa sect.

Sculptures of interest in the main hall include a two-storey Jampelyang (Manjushri); a small Sakyamuni; a statue of Tsongkhapa that is said to have spoken; the moustached 13th Dalai Lama to the right; the monastery's founder, Jamyang Chöje, in a cabinet to the right; the seventh Dalai Lama; and to the right Sakyamuni, flanked by five of the Dalai Lamas. At the end of the altar you will find a group of eight arhats (literally ‘worthy ones’). In the back room to the right look for the two-storey statue of Jampa and the tombs of monastery founder Jamyang Chöje and Lama Yeshe Ö, the lama from western Tibet who invited Atisha to Tibet in the 11th century. Back in the main hall the long cabinet on the eastern wall holds a huge building-sized thangka that is unveiled during the Shötun festival (there's a photo of it at one end).

Back by the main entrance, past a great fire-safety mural, steps lead up to the 1st and 2nd floors. At the top of the stairs is the Hall of the Kings of Tibet, featuring statues of Tibet’s early kings and early Dalai Lamas, including Lobsang Gyatso (the fifth Dalai Lama), and a chapel containing the head of a two-storey Jampa statue. Pilgrims prostrate themselves here, throw kathak (silk scarves) and drink from a sacred conch shell.

Continue moving clockwise through the Sakyamuni Chapel, stuffed with chörtens, and then descend to the Miwang Lhakhang. This chapel contains the assembly hall’s most revered image, a massive statue of Jampa, the Future Buddha, at the age of 12. The statue rises through three floors of the building from the ground-floor chapel you saw earlier, and it is flanked by Tsongkhapa to the left and Jamyang Chöje to the right.

Next is the Drölma Lhakhang. Drölma is a protective deity, and in this case the three Drölma images in the chapel are responsible for protecting Drepung’s drinking water, wealth and authority respectively. There are also some fine examples of gold-inked Tibetan Kangyur scriptures here. The central statue is a form of Sakyamuni, whose amulet encases one of Tsongkhapa’s teeth.

Exit the building from the western side of the 2nd floor.

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